Where are the citizens?

By Prof. Osita Ogbu

I have just finished reading a book, WHY NOT, with a subtitle: citizenship, state capture, creeping fascism and criminal hijack of politics in Nigeria by Prof. Pat Utomi. This book was written on behalf of all those who have tried to engage the system from inside, to work to correct what has derailed Nigeria with ideas but failed. Why Not is an answer to the question from family, concerned friends, haranguers, and cynics who are wondering what men of ideas, cognate experience and exposure are doing in politics – rather than quietly using their privileged positions to benefit themselves and their families or leave for lucrative foreign assignments. The book which chronicles the pervasive and predatory nature of state capture by both the political and the capitalist class left me deeply worried about the future of our country unless we are ready to restart the engine – hence, where are the citizens? A question raised to agitate citizens’ actions to reclaim the nation.

Prof. Pat Utomi is without a doubt a foremost public intellectual in Nigeria whose activities, especially public policy engagements, span over three decades. He is recognized at home and abroad as a courageous, engaging academic whose idealism is moderated by his pragmatic engagement in politics and entrepreneurship but who fearlessly speaks truth to power at great costs and danger. He has been associated with a lot of start-ups in Nigeria – from business to academia and then to political parties and non-partisan change movements. His love for this country is not in doubt but his pain, our pain and the pain of all patriotic Nigerians is in the promise of a great nation unrealized.

In this book, Prof. Utomi writes effortlessly and fearlessly with an effusion of passion and honesty on what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. This is an engaging book only a person so concerned and deeply involved with all strata of the Nigerian society with all that they portend can write with such details and lucidity. This book, coming at a time when all the indices of development for Nigeria are all heading south-ward, with Nigeria characterized as one of the worst places to be born presents us an opportunity for soul-searching and deep reflections. But where are the citizens to engage in these arduous tasks?

The intellectuals are palpably silent and have vacated the market place of ideas; the students have lost their verve and are instead concerned with butter and bread – when I read that some university students were selling their voters card, I quivered in despair; the political and money class are hand-in-gloves as each is financing the other in a calculated selfish game that would ultimately destroy what they think they are building; the labor unions, the civil society, the journalists and the church leaders are conflicted because their gravy train in fueled by the rentier economy ably captured in Pat Utomi’s latest book.

Rather than preach hard work and innovative thinking and organizing the citizens to assert their rights, the Church leaders are busy decreeing illusory prosperity with their eyes closed only to open them and find that more people have entered the poverty-bulge. Even the down-trodden are too pre-occupied with now that they fail to appreciate how now affects the future. In a bizarre way, we see the people cheering their oppressors as they engage in the game of intemperate hope. Hope that one day one of their own would garner enough muscle to mount the seat of power and the ill-fated gravy train will stop at their station. So where are the citizens? Those that would join hands to create a just and fair society for all.

The problem with Nigeria is that we have constructed a deep-rooted rentier political economy. Exploited by a rentier political class and a rentier “entrepreneurial” class. Fueled by oil money, without national ethos and any pretense of accountability, underpinned by a warped sense of patriotism, and the absence of leaders willing and capable to make the necessary sacrifices to moderate the exploitative class, the nation falls deeper and deeper into crisis. In a rentier economy, the mutuality and unanimity upon which citizenship are build are eroded as our ethnic identity takes preeminence over our national identity. Access thumps merit and unproductive activities, including thuggery and rascality are shamelessly rewarded. In a rentier economy, honesty is not the best policy; ability, treacherously, becomes a disability; whom you know is more important than what you know as productivity is not the acceptable measure of performance. In a rentier economy, democracy is undermined because elections, especially intra-party elections, are not just treated as transactions but as auctions to be delivered by the “god fathers” to the highest bidder or one whose antecedents suggests that citizens welfare and rights would be subverted in order to service the chieftains. If you read Why Not, you would understand the double-talk our so-called political leaders engage in; the sheer dishonesty, deceit, indecency, corruption, selfishness, short-sightedness, elite-jealousy and the absence of accountability that characterize the political and the leadership recruitment process; and the loss of values and the sham our democracy has become. And many see it as a game, played without rules, without order and without consequences. Where brawn wins over brain. No yellow cards and no red cards with an umpire that has pre-determined the outcome of primary election results.

Unfortunately, this game has huge consequences for the society: no Growth; no Jobs; insecurity; millions out of school children; ethical decadence; high maternal and infant mortality rates; stunted and malnourished children; increasing extreme poverty and low ranking in almost every measure of human progress, including sanitation and hygiene and innovation. As the world awaits the fruits of the fourth industrial revolution, we are stock in the second industrial revolution that ended in 1914, still searching for food, light and railways. It wrenches my heart to receive a phone call, a text message from a widow who is looking for assistance to secure a job for any of her many children, all university graduates without a job for upwards of seven years after graduation. For how long are we going to put a lid over this boiling pot? We must understand that politics is superior to economics. For as long as our politics is dirty, messy and mediocre, our economics would be one-handed, short-sighted and heading in the wrong direction. This game has to change. Enlightened self-interest demands this. But then again, where are the citizens?

The tragedy of our democracy is that we are not making incremental progress. We take one step forward and three steps backwards. What manner of democracy allows one person, a governor, to determine who can become a Councilor, a Local Government Chairman, a State Assembly member and even a National Assembly member? What manner of democracy allows the so-called leaders to waste scarce resources and assemble people for a purported election where their votes won’t count as results were predetermined? As citizens are emasculated and watch helplessly many are beginning a second round of voting with their feet and many of these are high-level professionals.

This situation should worry all Nigerians irrespective of political, religious or ethnic identity. As a matter of fact, it is the absence of elite consensus in pursuing enlightened politics that reinforces the rentier economy that undermines patriotism, hard work, productivity and impedes the creation of prosperity for all. And this is where strong, selfless and nationalistic leadership comes to play. In the absence of this, the citizens have to organize.

Nation building and constructive citizenship demands deliberate efforts from enlightened, value-laden, empathetic leadership. It doesn’t come from brutal force, excessive partisanship, indifference or prayer as history has taught us. In constructing a modern Malaysian nation through the prism of their vision 2020 developed in 1991, Dr. Mohammed Mahathir, the Prime Minister realized that his first other of business was to “first build a single unified nation”. He wanted citizens to feel “without reservation or limitation” part of a diverse but united Malaysia as one people. He realized that he had to lead from the front to resolve their diversity dilemma as the foundation for modernization and economic progress. He achieved this with great results. If our leaders are incapable of resolving our Nigerian dilemma, in converting our diversity into strength, in leading from the front to clean-up the political process, modernize and secure the nation and give every citizen a stake in it now and in its future, can the citizens regain their voice and reclaim the space for Nigeria’s renaissance? Where are the citizens who understand the urgency of now?

– Osita Ogbu, OON is a Professor of Economics and the Director, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

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