Bridging the Trust Gap in Governance

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Femi-Falana

By Femi Falana

It is an undeniable fact that professionals have played a crucial role in the struggle of the Nigerian people for democracy, development and political stability in the last 100 years. The struggle for political independence was actually led by Mr. Herbert Macaulay, a civil engineer; Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti – teachers; Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe and Chief Tony Enahoro- journalists; Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a lawyer; and Comrade Michael Imoudu, a trade unionist and many other accomplished professionals. In the first and second republics, the central and regional governments were led by seasoned professionals.

It is on record that the Nigerian Bar Association under the leadership of the late Mr. Alao Aka-Bashorun and a group of professionals under the aegis of Concerned Professions teamed up with the human rights/pro-democracy movement to wage a titanic battle against a corrupt military dictatorship which culminated in the restoration of civil rule in May 1999. Incidentally, under the current democratic dispensation both chambers of the national assembly are headed by a medical doctor and a lawyer. The judiciary is headed by a lawyer while the Executive branch of the federal government is led by a retired military officer while his deputy is professor of law. Therefore, in examining the roles of professionals in sustainable democratic development in Nigeria we must interrogate why a country governed by accomplished professionals has become a failed state in many areas of human endeavour.

The basis of public trust in the government

It is indisputable that the government of Nigeria is required to be built on trust. To that extent, elected officers are public trustees who are expected to administer the government for the benefit of the people. Accordingly, a duty has been imposed on all public officers to observe and apply the provisions of the fundamental objectives and directive principles of State policy embodied in Chapter II of the Constitution.  Specifically, public officers are required to ensure that the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government. The government shall direct its policy towards the provision of education and health, shelter, food for all citizens, a national living minimum wage for workers, old age care and welfare of physically challenged persons.

In order to promote a sense of belonging and command loyalty among all the peoples, the composition of the federal, state and local governments shall recognize the diversity of the people while the economic system shall not be operated in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people or of a group. To prevent any person or group from engaging in the looting of the public treasury the State is duty bound to abolish all corrupt practices and abuse of power. To achieve the objective of promoting public accountability the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Offences Commission and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission have been established to enforce all anti graft laws.

The State shall ensure that the participation of the people in their government is guaranteed in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The right to political participation has also been reinforced by Article 13(1) of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Cap A10) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria which states that “every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law”. Even though political participation is constitutionally guaranteed the political system has been hijacked by a few people who have the economic wherewithal to fund the exorbitant fees required to seek nomination, campaign and win elections under the current political dispensation.

It is common knowledge that the right to political participation has become a mirage for majority of citizens. In spite of several promises the government has failed to address the crises of poverty, unemployment and infrastructural decay. Such failed promises have led to a trust gap between the government and the governed. As public officers have failed to respect the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy the people have lost confidence in the government. Since the people have been completely alienated from political power it is almost impossible to bridge the trust gap in the governance of the country. In fact, for ideological and political reasons, it is virtually impossible to bridge the trust gap or reconcile the neo colonial and neo liberal government with the people.   

Former President of the United States of America, Mr. Barrack Obama believes that Africa does not need strong individuals but strong institutions. A World Bank Group has also expressed the view that countries with capable, inclusive and accountable institutions create an environment that helps to reduce poverty, facilitates growth and earns the confidence of their citizens. The Group believes that a country cannot adhere to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals without peace, justice and strong institutions. There is no indication yet that Nigeria will adhere to the Sustainable Development Goals having failed to meet the Millennium Goals. The reasons are not far-fetched. The institutions of democracy have been made weak and fragile by the ruling. Because the institutions are weak their activities have continued to erode the confidence of the people in the government.  At this juncture, it is pertinent to review some of the recent activities of the government which have made it impossible to bridge the trust gap in government.

The Nigeria Police Force which is required to maintain law and order is ill-equipped and ill-trained. Owing to underfunding by the federal government the over 10,000 police stations in the country are run on donations from state governments, banks and rich individuals. The implication is that crime control is severely compromised. Owing to selective application of laws and regulations by the police and other law enforcement agencies, citizens have lost confidence in the ability of governments to maintain law and order in the society. The armed forces that have been assigned the responsibility to defend the territorial integrity of the nation have been allowed to usurp the powers of the police in the maintenance of internal security.

In many democratic countries, writing of protest letters and staging of rallies influence the decisions of policy makers. In Nigeria, letters are ignored by the government while rallies are violently suppressed by the police. In recent time, the commissioners of police in Benue, Anambra, Ondo and Akwa Ibom states have, with the support of armed thugs, locked up parliamentary buildings at the instance of minority of legislators. Peaceful rallies and meetings convened by aggrieved citizens have also been violently suppressed by the police and the army in utter violation of the fundamental right of citizens to freedom of expression and assembly. The brazen partisan role of the police and the army in the current democratic dispensation has been condemned by the courts in several decisions.

By virtue of section 6 of the Constitution, courts have been established to hear and determine disputes concerning the civil rights and obligations of citizens and the government. To ensure that the courts perform their functions effectively, the independence of the judiciary has been guaranteed. But the financial autonomy of the judiciary enshrined in the Constitution has been subverted by state governments.  Even though the federal government proclaims loudly to operate under the rule of law its commitment to end impunity has been called to question. Judgments and orders of courts are disobeyed by governments in utter breach of the constitutional directive which requires all authorities and persons to comply with the decisions of all competent courts.

Suits filed in the various courts by concerned citizens to challenge actions of the government which are considered illegal are struck out by many judges for want of locus standi. In other cases, damages awarded by courts for the violation of the fundamental rights of citizens are not paid due to the refusal of the Attorney-General to grant leave to judgment creditors to garnish the accounts of the the departments of the government. Since the law cannot be invoked to hold government accountable, impunity is on the ascendancy in the country. However, it is doubtful if public officers are aware that one of the reasons why investors are asked to shun the country is due to lack of fidelity to the rule of law by the government.

The Constitution has created the independent National Electoral Commission and state independent electoral commissions are saddled with the responsibility to conduct national and local government elections in the country. While the national elections conducted by the INEC are often challenged in the election petition tribunals and the courts the elections conducted by the state independent electoral commissions are usually boycotted by the opposition in every state due to alleged manipulation by state governors. Many interest groups have recommended that the Constitution be amended to allow the national electoral body should conduct local government elections in addition to national elections.

Even though the was declared the winner of the controversial 2007 presidential election the late President the Umoru Yaradua instituted the Mohammed Uwais Electoral Reform Panel to clean up the electoral system. The Goodluck Jonathan regime also set up the Ahmed Lemu Presidential Panel of inquiry for the same purpose. But the recommendations of both panels for electoral reforms including the appointment of heads of the electoral bodies by advertisement and setting up of electoral offences tribunals etc have been ignored by both the PDP and the APC-led governments. Hence, the electoral system has not been able to reduce electoral fraud, violence and commercialization of the democratic process.

Insecurity of life and property.

In spite of the assurance of the federal government that the security of the life and property of every citizen is guaranteed kidnappers, armed robbers and bandits have continued to unleash mayhem on innocent citizens in several parts of the country. In view of the fact that criminal gangs have seemingly taken over the monopoly of violence, relations of victims of kidnap are forced to pay ransom for their freedom. In some cases, governments pay part of the ransom!

Although the federal government claims to have “technically degraded” the insurgents the nation has continued to witness the massacre of civilians and soldiers, abduction of people including children and bombing of  towns and villages in the north east region. Because of the regularity of such mindless attacks and the large scale atrocities unleashed on the civilian population by the criminal elements the assurance of the federal government to protect the life and property of every citizen is no longer enough. It is common knowledge that the federal and state governments have continued to pay lip service to the crisis of insecurity plaguing the country. It is high time that the Nigerian people were mobilized to demand for adequate protection. A situation whereby top public officers are protected by security personnel should stop if the State cannot guarantee the security of the Nigerian people.   

Owing to lack of funding of education by successive regimes the standard of education has fallen drastically in the country. Some of the leaders who refused to fund public education when they were in power have since established secondary schools and universities where exorbitant fees are charged. In a bid to provide funding for public schools the federal and state governments as well as the academic staff unions of tertiary institutions have entered into some collective agreements. But the refusal of the federal and state governments to implement the terms of such agreements has led to the ongoing industrial action by the academic staff unions in the federal universities and colleges of education.

It is germane to note that the crisis confronting the educational system is not limited to public tertiary institutions. According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, not less than 60 million citizens are illiterate. That frightening figure does not include the 13.2 million children of the poor who are out of school, the highest figure of out-of-school children in the world. In order to bridge the widening knowledge gap in the country the federal and state governments should urgently provide adequate fund for education.

Although the fundamental rights of all persons living in Nigeria have been formally guaranteed by the Constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act the violations of human rights of the masses has continued unabated. In spite of the abolition of the vagrancy law in Nigeria in 1989, poor people are arrested daily by the police for wandering. Detention without trial of innocent people by the police and other law enforcement agencies is a routine affair. Majority of suspects are subjected to brutal treatment in police stations in defiance of the Anti Torture Act, 2017. In all states of the federation, the right of women to freedom from discrimination guaranteed by the Constitution and other international human rights is observed in breach.

Human rights abuse has been on the increase due to impunity and the militarization of the society. Instead of recruiting adequate number of police personnel to police the country the federal government has deployed armed soldiers in not less than 30 out of the 36 states of the federation to maintain law and order. Court orders for the release of citizens are treated with disdain by the government while damages awarded by the courts to compensate victims of human rights are never paid. Since the National Human Rights Commission has not been properly constituted by the Buhari regime it has not been able to discharge its statutory duty of investigating allegations of human rights violations and sanctioning the culprits. Hence, the assurance of the federal government to end human rights abuse is not taken seriously by the people.

From time to time, governments institute administrative or judicial commissions of inquiry to investigate the immediate and remote causes of communal clashes, illegal killing of citizens, destruction of property etc. But the recommendations of the commissions of enquiry are hardly implemented by governments. There have been instances where the reports of such commissions of inquiry were not released. For instance, the Kaduna state government has ignored the recommendation of a judicial commission of inquiry o the effect that the soldiers who massacred 347 Shiites in Zaria, Kaduna State in December 2015 be prosecuted. On its own part, the federal government has failed to release the report of the judicial commission of inquiry which investigated allegations of human rights by members of the armed forces in 2016.

However, notwithstanding the takeover of politics by money bags citizens are entitled to hold the government accountable with respect to the management of public affairs. Apart from Section 22 of the Constitution which requires the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media to uphold the fundamental objectives and the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people the Freedom of Information Act has guaranteed the right of citizens to access information and obtain records in the custody of the government. But in violation of the law many public institutions and officials have bluntly refused to make requested information available to citizens. A few months ago, the Nigerian National Corporation declined my request to provide information on the volume of litres of petroleum products imported into the country per day. The request was rejected on the ludicrous ground that the NNPC is not a public institution!

Out of the 36 state governments only the Ekiti state government has enacted the Freedom of Information Act. In order to run governments without accountability the other state governments insist that the Freedom of Information Act is not a law of general application. Hence, citizens have been denied access to public records in the custody of 35 state governments and the 774 local governments in the country.  Another agency of the government which has frustrated access to information is the Code of Conduct Bureau created by the Constitution to promote public accountability. In a deliberate move to cover up allegations of corrupt practices the Bureau has refused to allow access to the asset declaration forms submitted to it by public officers. Despite the illegality of such denial the federal government has refused to call the Bureau to order.  

In bridging the gap between the public service and the people it has been suggested by Honourable Phillip Pierre, the Deputy Minister of Saint Lucia that it is the duty of government to address legal gap, information gap, knowledge gap, process gap, time gap, confidence gap, consultative gap, communication gap and power gap. In an impressive manner, Mr. Pierre detailed the steps being taken by the government of Saint Lucia to address each of the listed gaps. In bridging the trust gap in governance in Nigeria the Buhari administration has introduced town hall meetings which are attended by the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo and Ministers.

However, we are not unaware that President Buhari attends such town hall meetings with Nigerians in the Diaspora during his foreign trips. There is no evidence that the suggestions and concerns expressed in such meetings by citizens have been addressed by the government. The ongoing political campaign has compelled the federal and state governments to render account to the people through public debates.  Some of the candidates who are contesting elections are being asked to justify some of the decisions taken by them when they were given the opportunity to serve the country under the previous administration.

The forthcoming general election provides an opportunity for the Nigerian people to participate in the electoral process. The democratic exercise will be a mere ritual if elected officials who have betrayed the public trust are not voted out of office. Therefore, the Nigerian people should reject the moves by some politicians to invoke ethnic sentiments to confuse the voters. Our professional bodies and other enlightened groups should be prepared to join issues with politicians who are out to deceive the people to win votes.

In order to address the trust gap in governance the political parties and their candidates must be compelled to address the issues of minimum wage and pension, funding of education, observance of rule of law and respect for human rights, public accountability, electoral reforms, unemployment and poverty, restructuring and redistribution of wealth. In particular, the media should be reminded that by virtue of section 100 of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, the candidates of all political parties are entitled to be given equal coverage and conspicuity in the public media to enable them to canvass for votes on the basis of their ideologies, manifestoes and programmes.