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Nigerians: Victims of a Hijacked Democracy

10 Jan 2013

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By Odilim Enwegbara

In a recent conversation with a close friend of mine, who happens to be a leading member of the People's Democratic Party, he wondered why his party is a party where members engage in an ''endless bickering and arguing!'' In response, I wondered if he would prefer the ruling party to be a mere place where members gather and just agree on every issue without some healthy debates! After the long conversation, we agreed that it's the same endless conflict and sensation that have provided the party the much needed political path to growth. And that because of the torrent of opinions in politics, some unsubstantiated and some ambiguously portrayed as facts, it should be counterproductive for the party should members cut through the torrent of opinions or illuminate them without arguing over them. In other words, since democratic politics is never a space of calm deliberations, PDP too shouldn't be different. Or, otherwise it will rob party democracy of its key source of revitalization and dynamism.

Of course, it's this freedom to dialogue, freedom from partisan loyalties, along with the obligation to judge impartially that defines a good political citizenship as well as grows party politics. So, by engaging the politically conscious minds, politicians are more likely to approach political situations afresh than otherwise. For this reason, a democratic society that wishes healthy public actions should, no doubt, encourage public deliberations otherwise it should be difficult for politicians to be able to exercise their emotions in their daily political activism. Emotion, even if momentarily, enables politicians to connect with the aspirations of the people who they're elected to serve. Or, how'd it be possible for democratic politics to create that public space for collective adjudication of competing visions of life without the politician being emotional, especially since it is through emotions that the politicians rightly engages in reason that sets aside his otherwise comfortable reliance on routines?

My friend's problem — a common problem with most of our politicians — is this simple belief in a neuroscientific approach to dealing with things as contextual and multifaceted as political judgments. It's impossible for men's opinions, so affecting multifarious issues of the society, sometimes governed by reason, sometimes by prejudices or by superstitions can just be reconciled without across-the-board deliberations. Especially in countries like ours where most citizens are unresistingly absorbers of manipulated opinions and propagandas. That's why James Kuklinski is right in arguing that democratic decision-making should always be made through reasoned deliberations rather than through visceral reactions, since it's the prerequisite for rational democratic outcomes. 

Because forming constructive economic and social policies devoted to the general well-being of the populace places a burden on political leadership beyond mere employment of reason, achieving acceptable results in the people's business will be too narrow a view if reason is held to simply mean seeking the right result without seeking the right process at the same time. That explains why in sharing concerns with the masses, the politician is more emotionally receptive to the plights of the people than the technocrat, who has no specific connection with them. Therefore, that the technocrat operates on the narrow basis of some set conventional rules without having to feel the suffering of the people is not in doubt. Problem comes when the politician, who not only sees and feels a connection, but also motivated by enthusiasm to release the energy needed to guide the resolution of the people problems, erroneously abdicates also the very emotional connection to the technocrats.

Since the return of democracy in 1999, this behavior has been going in Nigeria. Believing to be following the footsteps of western democracy by hiring technocrats to run the economic affairs of the state, our politicians did not bother to recognize that this is not good for emerging democracy where institutions are not strong enough to be self-enforcing. Of course, our current economic and social chaos shouldn't have been taking place did our politicians understand that during the early years of democratic experimentations in the west, the management of the economy was wholly in the hands of the politician since it was seen as the only to ensure it did not end up ambushed by foreign interests. Even with the presence of all the self-enforcing institutional checks and balances, in making it extremely difficult for abuses, most western democracies such as Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Japan, etc. seem not comfortable handing the running of their economic affairs to technocrats. In most cases, the economy is so shielded that it is placed in the hands of the vice president or deputy premier. China for example spends years grooming in-house some carefully chosen and monitored politicians before they are handed the national economy to manage. 

But there was no leader who demonstrated that the success of every great leader begins with the assembling of a team of political patriots than Franklin Roosevelt, who by appointing Henry Morgenthau (a politician not even with an economics degree) as treasury secretary (finance minister), and Marriner Eccles (a politicians and provincial banker without even a university education) as chairman Federal Reserve System (central bank governor) in 1933, showed to the world that by surrounding himself with bizarre politicians, men and women, who besides having his kind of vision and passion, multifaceted mental rigor, patriotic toughness, and selflessness not only his government he shouldn't have difficulty stopping his country's bleeding economy within 100 days in office, but also have economy brought back on the path to growth. 

No doubt Mr. President did not surround himself with some of Nigeria's best men and women. But, then, given the kind of arrangement we have in place that places not in his hands the selection of his team, should he just be blamed for having these men and women around him? For this reason, inasmuch as it is okay to blame him for his government's slowness, it's also important to recognize how most of his appointees were imposed on him. While this trend of imposing appointees did not start with his government, the truth is that no presidency has had such imposition of cabinet like the president simply because the president, coming from a minority political region of the country, and having to depend on the country's three powerful political regions to emerge as president, became a victim of their overbearing political influence, particularly their imposition of some narrow interest-driven technocrats.

The consequences of this irony of handing some unelected technocrats the very power of deciding the direction of our economy particularly as it affects the very people who handed the power to politicians, have already been predicted by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, who in his book, Soft Power, confessed that with the kind of democracy handed to most developing economies by their western counterparts, it is obvious that when the political clouds become clear, the masses will come to the painful realization that rather than being beneficiaries of democracy, it's its victim they have become. 

Of course, there's no place this is truer than in Nigeria, where some unelected extraterrestrial technocrats, who lacking some emotional connection with the people, have been pursuing economic development purely on the basis of neuroscientific approach. This has since set in full motion a war of attrition between the people and the neuroscientific policymakers. But to learn how far the ambush the government by the technocrats could go, came the shocking revelation by one of the powerful technocrats running the country's economic affairs during the Obasanjo administrations, who confessed how they hijacked the government by always holding unofficial Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings, before the official ones that involved President Obasanjo. In other words, they met to formulate policies that would benefit them rather than the people.  

But following the drama that accompanied the 2013 budget, one could see light at the end of the tunnel. This means that the kind of economic policy mastery our lawmakers demonstrated before passing the appropriation bill showed their commitment to Nigeria's democratic growth. Here, the lawmakers not only took their responsibilities as the custodians of Nigerian's economic and political sovereignty so seriously, but did so without fear or favor. In fact, our lawmakers have demonstrated such uncommon patriotism in 2013 budget not only by insisting that the oil price benchmark be raised from $75 to $79 per barrel but also by passing the appropriation bill before the beginning of the fiscal year. With these, for the first time they sent the clear message that they're the legitimate representatives of the people, not some unelected technocrats appointed by the executive branch. In short, the recent actions of our lawmakers have since proven James Madison right for arguing that while the executive could be easily taken hostage by some foreign and local interests, it should be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a patriotic lawmaking arm of a government to be easily ambushed.

That the true representatives of the people are increasingly taking over the leadership of the country's economic affairs is something worth celebrating as it's a proof that Joseph Nye's thesis is fast crumbling in Nigeria. For this reason, it should be suggested that their next step should be to repeal the Sovereign Wealth Fund Act for it has become another conduit for diverting and dispersing scarce public finance. Also the Fiscal Responsibility Act needs amendment in 2013 so as ensure that all the current loopholes that allow the executive and its MDAs to spend money public without appropriation are fully blocked; meaning that both the country's oil revenues and internally generated revenues should henceforth be made difficult to be spent without appropriation.

Since democracy is all about doing what the people want, shouldn't it be suggested that a referendum be held every six months before every presidential election so as to determine the development priorities of the people, and by doing so to ensure that all the presidential candidates convincingly articulate how they would realize them during the four years in office? If we should accept this as the new way to go, starting from 2015, shouldn't the law also allow the president the free hand to appoint whoever and from whichever part of the country as he chooses, as far as he does so believing that those he is appointing are the Nigerians who should help him realize the people's mandate?

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