Thursday, October 24, 2013

The War on the Poor

What keeps Nigeria going in spite of her often manifestly dysfunctional government is not the savvy statecraft of her reigning politicians but the ingenuity of ordinary Nigerians. The state is remote from the people. A vast gulf separates policy architecture from the very citizens it is supposed to serve. Despite chronic mismanagement and graft, our informal sector’s dynamism and improvisation is why Nigeria lumbers on. She is powered by honest Nigerians who have refused to let the absence of infrastructure and the vagaries of life in an under-institutionalized environment become an excuse for sloth or crime. These are Nigeria’s real heroes and are the fulcrum of the country’s legendary resilience.

In the absence of a formal welfare apparatus, kinship and social networks serve as alternate social security mechanisms. Intrepid entrepreneurs virtually create their own infrastructure. In the absence of a social contract, Nigerians operate with a number of informal transactional and relational covenants most powerfully exemplified by the open air markets and roadside stores and workshops that are fixtures of urban life. The size of the informal sector indicates excessive government intervention and bureaucratic red tape with people generally preferring to carry on their socio-economic pursuits beneath the radar of an ineptly intrusive state.

This trading culture is an attribute shared by our diverse peoples. Nigeria is in every respect a nation of shopkeepers. The social ingenuity of our people and their impressive aptitude for exchanging goods and services is the last line of defence against hopelessness and anarchy; it is the solitary buffer separating dysfunctional governance from massive social unrest. Sadly, the government is enamoured with policies which degrade the informal sector. When government agents demolish a barber’s shop or a mechanic’s work shed, they are attacking the entrepreneurial genius which with proper support can lift millions out of poverty. When authorities outlaw commercial motorcycle operators without adequate public transport infrastructure in place or without establishing alternative structures to absorb the newly unemployed brigades, they alienate huge numbers of citizens and shrink the distance between official callousness and popular uprising.

Nigerians generally accept that their government will not necessarily work for them but demand that it at least gets out of their way. It is a different matter entirely when the government, so derelict in its other duties, aggressively invades and disrupts the havens that ordinary Nigerians have created for themselves. Often, the state is encountered as a hindrance rather than a help; an oppressive and coercive nuisance rather than a co-creator with the people of a shared prosperity.

The demolitions in our cities which target low income neighbourhoods, “illegal” settlements, unauthorized markets and business offices for destruction often for the purpose of “beautifying” the environment suggests an unhealthy obsession with the aesthetics of capitalist modernity rather than the nurture of its substance – the peoples’ entrepreneurial energies. There is little evidence of empathy for the urban poor, who are often viewed as collateral damage by policy planners,

Overwhelmed by the pressures of a fast growing population and the ravenous hunger for infrastructure that characterizes urban growth, governments have opted for economic Darwinism. The welfarist mantras and egalitarian clich├ęs of yore – Housing for all, education for all, health for all – have been dispensed with. Unwilling to honestly and frontally eliminate poverty, they are seeking to eliminate the poor.

The underlying philosophy is trickle down capitalism – empowering a few in the hope that their prosperity will cascade down to the less fortunate multitudes. Nigeria’s middle class is growing but nowhere near quickly enough to match the general population growth rate. In consequence, the well-heeled are increasingly a small fraction of our population. And it is this small minority that state authorities seem inclined to cater for by creating pristine locales where they can work, live and play without the spectacle of the poor to remind us of the scale of inequality in the land.

Urban renewal projects are often implemented at the expense of the informal sector. But rather than destroying it, we should be incorporating the sector and appropriating its raw creative energies and grafting it unto formal support structures and legal frameworks. Surely, we can conduct social policies and urban transformation in a more commonsensical and humane manner.

Gentrification is now creating problematic geographies. In Lagos, Victoria Island, arguably the fastest growing artery of commerce in Africa is being gradually hived off from the more chaotic and “less cool” mainland which is home to the millions of people who still earn their living on the island every day. Abuja is essentially a sprawling upper middle class enclave ensconced in a real estate bubble sustained significantly by the proceeds of official theft and ringed by slums and ghettoes. The spectacle of a few prosperous people encircled by millions of the dispossessed is an unhappy augury of things to come.

We need to move away from trickle down capitalism and focus on empowering the broad generality rather than the chosen few. This goes beyond installing physical infrastructure such as roads to achieving greater access to education, energy and healthcare and enabling citizens with the tools to live productive lives. However much we may seek to make Nigeria attractive to foreign investors, without domestic investments in education, developing human capital, and security – which comes from a population substantially empowered enough to resist the allure of crime – the sort of investments that will flow into Nigeria will be of the extractive and non-value adding variety. A political movement must emerge to speak to these issues and restore the egalitarian language of social and economic rights to the arena of public debate.  

(All Images sourced online) 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Weapon of Mass Distraction

President Jonathan’s decision to float a national dialogue taps into a number of currents in the Nigerian political subconscious. The first is our eternal quest for elixirs that can magically solve all our problems. Other miracle cures including military dictatorship and democracy have been tested in previous generations. The clamour in some quarters for a sovereign national conference is the latest iteration of this chimerical pursuit. The search for quick fixes to problems that require sustained, rigorous engagement with our institutions continues.

Closely anchored to this is the disillusionment with our fledgling democratic institutions. Nigerians generally approach democracy as intense spurts of quadrennial electoral activism demarcated by lengthy spells of hibernation. We vote for our favoured candidates and then promptly abandon them to their devices once they have doled out patronage as reward for our election season exertions. Civic engagement with our institutions is low. The duty of holding politicians accountable is left to a few civil society groups and activists whom ironically we are wont to condemn as “pesky busy bodies” and “trouble makers.” Politicians mostly relish the dissonance between the political and the public realms because it enables them to pursue priorities that are at variance with popular aspirations. This rift between the political and the public can only be bridged by more engagement with our institutions.

Extra-constitutional devices such as a national conference belong to the scrap heap of obsolete tropes. Expectations of a Marxist revolution, so fashionable in the 1980s, have long since expired with the added spectacle of erstwhile leftist academics taking up tenured positions in capitalist countries. Faith in the military’s potential as an enlightened autocracy was equally dashed. Our democracy, however dysfunctional, is all we have left. Improving it requires a sustained involvement in its processes and systems that transcends election year enthusiasms and extra-constitutional devices.

A sovereign national conference is superfluous. Sovereignty is already vested in the extant democratic institutions. Whatever outcomes pressure groups want must be pursued through conventional democratic channels. This means entering or forming a political party, promoting an agenda, gaining the numbers and the political heft required to translate those agendas into policy.

Those who want a conference of whatever description should use political instruments to achieve their goal instead of trying to create a parallel legislative organ. It is a sign of their own weakness that national conference advocates still wait on a government they malign so much to convene this dialogue rather than organizing it themselves. Too many national conference advocates have failed at the ballot and are aiming for relevance through the backdoor as ethno-nationalist representatives by fabricating political constituencies based on primordial solidarities. In so doing, they try to rhetorically undermine and delegitimize our democratic institutions by alleging that elected politicians do not represent the people. 

There is also a conceptual problem with a conference of ethnic nationalities based on the attempt to supplant the social contract defined in the constitution between the state and the citizen with one between the state and so-called ethnic nationalities. This effort to shepherd all of us into ethnic ghettoes to be represented by tribal oligarchs, on the puerile assumption that ethnicity is a predictor of political values, ideology and affinities, is especially reprehensible. It defines us as ethnic drones parroting sectarian shibboleths rather than the free-thinking men and women of good conscience envisaged by the constitution as citizens.

The idea that an expensively convened conclave of big shots can choreograph the destiny of 170 million people is an elitist conceit. The most important dialogues that we should be having right now should be citizen-led at the community and municipal levels. It at these levels that our ability to cooperate, and build social capital have been degraded.

Jonathan’s national dialogue coheres with a tradition of distractive political stagecraft. In ancient Rome, decadent elites plied the citizenry with gladiatorial contests to distract them from the debaucheries of their rulers. Nigerian politicians use committees, panels of inquiry, riveting probes, summits and white papers that are never released, as elaborate soap operas designed to capture public attention and exhaust us emotionally while changing nothing. We prefer the low drama of big budget elite histrionics to the subtle understated rigour of diligently working our institutions. Much spittle and ink will now be squandered on sterile debates at a time when the parlous state of our public finances, unemployment and the paralysis of public healthcare and education, among other serious issues, should command our attention.

In the mid 1980s, General Babangida held a national dialogue over International Monetary Fund conditionalities which were roundly rejected by the public. He made a great show of abiding by public opinion and rejecting the IMF prescriptions only to implement its key tenets under a supposedly “home-grown” structural adjustment programme. Subsequently, he set up a Political Bureau to design a national political blueprint by painstakingly collating memoranda from all over the country. The Bureau’s recommendations were ignored and Newswatch magazine was proscribed for publishing them. This has been the general pattern from Abacha’s constitutional conference and Obasanjo’s Oputa Panel to the Oronsaye Committee report on scaling down government and Obasanjo’s political reform conference – all of whose recommendations are in official limbo. The constitution review process initiated last year has similarly stalled.       

A national conference is an expensively contrived waste of time that reflects our penchant for talking ourselves to death when action is required. A more judicious enterprise would be to implement the recommendations of previous conferences and inquiries and even submit them to a plebiscitary process. Taking Nigeria forward requires the political will of those in authority not costly talk shops.

All Images sourced online