So, Why Should the People Vote?


THE HORIZON   by Kayode Komolafe       kayode.komolafe@thisdathie

Despite the fact that the constitution clearly defines the duty of government, the rhetoric of some politicians and their publicists suggests that there is a problem of definition in the polity.
Ordinarily, the seeming lack of clarity of purpose should not arise at all.
For in Chapter II, Section 13, of the constitution the “primary purpose of government” is defined as the “security and welfare of the people.”

Constitutionally, therefore, whatever programmes or plan political parties and their candidates present to the electorate to choose during elections should derive from this unambiguous definition of the “fundamental obligations of the government.” Any plan or programme that fails to ensure the fulfilment of this fundamental responsibility could therefore be regarded as a subversion of the constitution.

In fact, since 1999, some politicians have breached this constitutional provision while in power in a manner that borders on treason!
The corollary to this is that the basic reason people should vote is to choose a government they are persuaded would ensure their “security and welfare.”

This is worth stressing because “welfare” has almost become a dirty word in the dictionary of some experts and technocrats who glibly dismiss social protection ideas as not being “economically efficient” because market forces do not come into play in putting those people-centred ideas into practice.

Indications of this constitutional subversion are quite noticeable as the campaigns for the forthcoming elections gather momentum.
In fact, it is far from being hyperbolic to say that if some of our technocrats who design strategies for politicians have their way there would be no need to elect a government in the first place. Going by their logic, instead of devoting so much resource, time and energy into organising elections, the nation should just hire a board of experts to coordinate market forces in running the country.

Pray, why should the people take the trouble to vote a government into office when virtually every programme is to be ultimately executed by the omniscient private sector? It is often forgotten that in a capitalist system the private sector itself should be assisted by government to fulfil its mission. Some of those currently on the hustings draw false equivalences between the mandate of a corporate chief executive and the chief executive of the state. Yet, the mandates are different because the corporate objectives of any company are not the same as the “fundamental objectives and the directive principles of state policy” embodied in the constitution.

Therefore, the measurement of success in the two important, but markedly different jobs, cannot be coterminous in any circumstance. The ultimate success of a corporate chief executive is assessed by some shareholders; but it is the people in their millions who assess a president or a governor. This obvious point is often lost on those who wish to run government like a private company. The job of a corporate chief executive is to run the business efficiently and generate profits for the shareholders. In contrast, the ultimate measure of the success of a government in the management of the political economy is in the evident improvement in the welfare of the people who are citizens and residents (and not shareholders) in Nigeria.

For our neo-liberal intellectuals who are wont to be more catholic than the pope in matters of people’s welfare in a capitalist society, the recent protest in France against fuel tax raised by the government of Emmanuel Macron should be instructive. France is a developed liberal democracy with an advanced capitalist economy. Yet the protesters directed their anger at the Macron government (and not any phantom private sector), which they expect to bear responsibility for their welfare. For instance, an unemployed computer technician was reported on the street of Paris as summing up the issues in the protest like this: “We are here to protest against the government because of the rise in taxes (in general), not just petrol taxes, which is the straw that broke the camel’s back. We’ve had enough. We have low salaries and pay too much tax and the combination is creating more and more poverty.

“On the other side, there are government ministers and the president with their fabulous salaries. I’m not against the rich, I just want a fairer distribution of wealth in France. This is the first time I’ve been on a protest. I’m unemployed; it’s harder and harder to find a job and, even when you find this famous job and you think your life will improve, the salaries are so low you find you’re in the same situation as before, if not worse
“At the last election, I left the ballot paper blank. I don’t have confidence in any of the political parties and I don’t see that changing until a party emerges that is more interested in the people than in those with huge fortunes. It’s unacceptable that people do not have decent salaries, that at the end of the month, they are in the red and can’t afford to eat.”
So it is the same expectation everywhere in the world.

People hold governments (and not the private sector) responsible for their welfare.
To be sure, this is not even a socialist argument. It is simply saying that capitalism should have a human face so that its inherent crisis is not compounded with the consequence of heightening revolutionary pressures.

However, here in Nigeria, some experts would lecture you that the government should not be held responsible for increase in fuel prices which, they say, should be strictly determined by market forces. If such an economic lecture does not make sense to the man on the street of Paris, you would wonder why our experts should expect that it should make sense to the man on the street of Lagos.

A bit of reminder of the recent economic history of Nigeria could be apposite in this respect. The Nigerian political economy took the turning point for the worse in 1986 with the launch of the infamous Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). Since then the singsong of policymakers has been to subject the people’s welfare to the logic of market forces. To be fair to the government of General Ibrahim Babangida that introduced SAP thereby recasting the political economy, the initial argument was that government should not be running businesses.

Like some experts legitimately asked in those days, “what is the business of government in running hotels or assembling cars?” The logic was that the public resources that got drained in the unprofitable enterprises should be channelled to funding healthcare, education, public security, roads, water schemes, power supply, environment protection and other basic areas of development. At least that was the proclaimed economic objective of the Babangida regime. And the beauty of things in those days was that even under a military regime, economic policies were freely debated even on the streets. This culture of policy debates has vanished in the public sphere, yielding place for a surfeit of hate speech and prejudice now in the civil dispensation.

And, unfortunately, successive ideologically fixated technocrats have almost imperceptibly amended the 1986 slogan of “government has no business in business” to that of government has no responsibility for development over the years.

This is because governments are failing to expand access to quality education at the basic level and healthcare at the primary level. The social sector is being turned into a huge market for private sector operators to make profits because governments at all levels have been abandoning their responsibilities for decades.

The paradigm of the official economic thinking has hardly shifted since the Babangida SAP. Fundamentally, no one seems to be saying anything new about what path to take to development. For instance, SAP destroyed the culture of economic management employing long-time national planning. In 34 years, no administration has restored planning in the way it was used to lay the foundation of national development in the years immediately after independence.

There is a streak that runs through the programmes, plans and manifestoes of virtually all the political parties contesting next month’s elections: it is the illusion that it is the private sector and not governments that would deliver on people’s welfare. There is no enough evidence that government should take responsibility for welfare in the programmes. At the root of the problem is that the smaller parties are hardly distinguishable ideologically from the bigger ones. Their policy language is all suffused with “growth rates”, “Fitch Ratings,” and how to make Nigeria “competitive as an emerging market.” There is little or no content of how to concretely expand the frontiers of people’s welfare in most of the programmes.

A few weeks ago, a retired federal permanent secretary, Ambassador Joe Keshi, stated on this page what should be emulated by other public intellectuals, technocrats and experts. He did a thoroughgoing analysis of the Atiku plan “to make Nigeria work again.” Such interventions would be helpful instead of heaps of hate speech polluting the public sphere.

It would be interesting to see such a dissection of Buhari’s movement to the “next level.”
Attempts would be made in the next few weeks on this page to locate the extent of government’s responsibility in the programmes of President Muhammadu Buhari, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and some of the other presidential candidates.

For instance, it is important to pinpoint how basic education would be funded in the programmes of the political parties in the country having over 10 million of children out of school while tertiary educational institutions are paralysed by strikes over poor funding. This should be established beyond the shibboleth of “providing enabling environment” for the private to play in that social sector like the commercial sectors.
In sum, the reason for people’s vote is to have a government in place to take responsibility for their welfare and tackle mass poverty.