When Silence is not Golden

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The Horizon By Kayode Komolafe   kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

0805 500 1974

One of the passions for which the great nationalist Anthony Enahoro would be remembered was his unyielding advocacy or a return to parliamentary system of government. Clearly, he preferred the British system. Enahoro was acknowledged as one of the most brilliant debaters in the national parliament of the First Republic. Things changed with the promulgation of the 1979 Constitution; Nigeria adopted a presidential system, the American system.

Among the points that fascinated Enahoro in the parliamentary system was the way the system held the government accountable on a daily basis. During the Question Time in the British parliament, the prime minister and his cabinet are made to defend their policies and respond to questions from the opposition. So the prime minister or any other minister for that matter could not claim to be “talking as a technocrat” while addressing issues in parliament. In any case, every minister is first elected as a politician before getting a portfolio. As a result, the debate about policies and implementation is not only a matter of election but also a continuous affair.

It is the business of those in government to defend and explain policies. Accountability demands that it should be done all the time. It is, in fact, a democratic imperative. Continuous policy debate as part of a culture of governmental responsibility might not be one of the great things Enahoro would say distinguished the parliamentary system from the presidential system. But even in the presidential system, policies are not just handed down by “technocrats” in power as if their statements are creeds that the people must swallow as a matter of faith. Debates continue even as implementation proceeds.

That is what happened to the Healthcare programme of President Barracks Obama, which his opponents have dubbed “Obamacare.” The defence of the policy is not just technical; it has been fiercely political and ideological. Extreme right-wing elements have called him a “communist” for daring to articulate a policy that could secure health insurance for about 48 million socially unprotected Americans. At the foreign policy level, Obama continues to defend the nuclear deal with Iran while his opponents continue to assail the policy. So in both systems, government is constantly held accountable at the policy level.

Unfortunately, the trend in Nigeria since the restoration of civil rule in 1999 has been a departure from the foregoing. Accountability is perceived as only a matter of naira and kobo, a sort of bookkeeping. Policy accountability is not taken seriously by the government. The government does not feel compelled to justify policies (or explain lack of it) and apologise for failures when they occur. People feel the anguish as result of policy failure or lack of policy. Worse still, a credible explanation or defence is not forthcoming from those given responsibilities to manage the affairs of the nation. Silence cannot be said to be golden in such a circumstance.

Now, the nation faces enormous socio-economic and political challenges. It is within democratic culture to expect that a national conversation should be generated around these issues. What is taking place does not seem to fit the bill of the type of conversation being advocated here. If you question why things are not working, you are immediately pigeonholed as a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). And if you try to make a sense out of the efforts of the Buhari administration, the opponents would promptly label you as a staunch member of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Yet there should still be a huge space outside these political territories for citizens who are only prompted by their sense of civic responsibility to raise questions and caution politicians in power and outside power about the direction of the nation. The conversation that is required in the public sphere is too important to be left as a shouting match between APC and PDP. Instead of debating policies that should be implemented in the next three years, politicians are busy fast-tracking campaigns for the 2019 elections.

It is a most cynical way to treat the sensibilities of the electorate. Again, it is sad to note that the public sphere itself is too ideologically impoverished to offer imaginative ideas on the way forward. So the silence is not only on the part of the ministers; the public sphere too is not robust enough to debate policy alternatives. The sphere is rather polluted by hate speech, insults and abuse while people on the street cannot go beyond lamentation. This forebodes serious socio-political underdevelopment.

Take a sample. Last week, power generation reportedly crashed to zero megawatt for about three hours! However, the sort of conversation that should be taking place about the problematic power sector is sorely lacking. The people are only expected to have faith that the technocrats are working to solve the problem even when the results point to the otherwise. This has been the story since the making of the Power Sector Reform Act of 2005. The law has provided the basis for the privatisation in the sector. From the Obasanjo administration to the present one, the efficacy of the privatisation as a panacea to the problem of the sector has never been questioned. No one is even asking if the process could have been better managed.

So all we hear are the technical lectures by experts and technocrats years after the process of privatisation began. The voices of the technocrats are so loud that fundamental and critical questions about the privatisation process are easily drowned. The influence of the technocrats on the public opinion is akin to what the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, would call “ideological hegemony.”
Yet recent economic history around the world has recorded failed privatisation programmes. Yes! Privatisation has not always worked in all cases regardless of what our neo-liberal technocrats may say to the otherwise.

Meanwhile, here it is almost sacrilegious to tell our technocrats that the worsening situation in the sector should compel some fundamental questions about the process and how to make things work better. For instance, beyond the problem of supply of gas, can we honestly look at the capacity of the private operators in the sector? It is often concealed that the capacity of the putative private sector in Nigeria is often exaggerated.

The banks, for instance, were regarded as being among the strongest in the private sector even when they relied on funds from the much derided public sector to thrive. Could the situation in the power sector have been different if the privatisation had begun with a pilot project before embarking on a wholesale programme? With a pilot scheme some of the challenges being faced could have been studied and solutions mastered along the way. After all, there is sometimes a place for policy review. But our technocrats have no time for such as they present their technical arguments as the gospel truth.

In a famous essay entitled “Don’t Trust Technocrats”, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, admonishes governments and the people about the oracular pronouncements of technocrats like this: Look at the litany of technocratically inspired examples of privatisation and deregulation in the 1990s. Banking “reform”, for example, frequently required government bailouts, leaving a few people much richer, but the country much poorer. These failures suggest we should have less confidence in the supposed skills of technocrats – or at least less confidence than they have in themselves. Technocrats play the same role in other sectors as they do in in the power sector in Nigeria. What is offensive is that they do so without a due sense of accountability as required in a liberal democratic setting.

Politicians in power should be reminded that they sought the people’s mandate and so they owe them an explanation as policy implementation proceeds. Technocrats never sought votes and so could not have made promises that should now be fulfilled. Perhaps, if the ministers were busy with some engaging policy articulation and explanation on the situation the worries about the foreign trips of President Muhammadu Buhari would be less on the part of the public. For the politicians outside power, their job should include proffering policy alternatives and not merely carrying on as if the nation is in an election mood now. Citizens (outside the orbits of APC and PDP) who have workable ideas on how to make Nigeria work for the greatest good of the greatest number should also not keep silent. Let there be an informed and sincere national conversation about the problem at hand.