As Nigeria marks its 60th anniversary, I just can’t help but ponder on the inherent complexities and contradictions in its system. Some things appear so contradictory in this country that oftentimes, one is forced to wonder until the person probably becomes “a wonder.” Now, let me start with this example. How do you explain a situation where government officials mount a roadblock on terribly bad roads that are sure to reduce the value of any motor vehicle, no matter its state of fitness, and ask you to present your own vehicle’s certificate of roadworthiness?
The other time Vehicle Inspection Officers stopped me along the old Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, which by the way, has become a shame of a nation going by its level of decay, asking for my vehicle’s certificate of roadworthiness. Here was I thinking of how much it would cost me to repair my car for plying on a bad road that should supposedly be maintained by the government and the same government officials were asking me to show them the certificate that my car was road-worthy. Suffice to say that I had my roadworthiness certificate. But, I don’t really know who should be punished between a government that can’t maintain its roads and a vehicle owner that does not have a certificate of roadworthiness. I mean, what right does a government that can’t fix its roads have to demand of someone a vehicle’s roadworthiness certificate? Shouldn’t the government fix the roads and make them worthy for vehicle owners before enforcing a law on certificates of roadworthiness? Anyway, till now, I am still wondering why I should be the one paying the government every year for using my worthy car to ply its unworthy roads.
Away from personal experience, the last few weeks have been tough for private school owners in the country as the government reopened schools after nearly six months of shutdown due to COVID-19 pandemic. In its bid to ensure that schools are safe for students, government officials visited schools to assess their levels of preparedness for resumption, especially as it related to abiding with the COVID-19 protocols. On the surface, it would appear the government was doing the right thing. However, when you see a government that expects the highest level of compliance from private operators providing the barest minimum in its own schools, you ask yourself the essence of government. Are we saying that governance only confers on the government the power of impunity and rascality, the kind my mum of blessed memory would describe as an attitude of “I can do what I like because nobody can arrest me.” Shouldn’t the government be showing the citizenry exemplary leadership? Why should a government in the name of maintaining quality assurance ask private schools to abide by all kinds of rules when they are not ready to do the same thing in their own schools?
There is a trending report on the social media of how officials of the Quality Assurance Department of a state ministry of education allegedly triggered the death of a school proprietor by their unnecessary highhandedness and exploitative tendencies. The proprietor, apparently suffering from high blood pressure, slumped and died, as different sets of officials of the state grilled him to no end over nothing. Imagine this man survived all the uncertainties associated with COVID-19, probably got half of his school population back, and still died in the hands of state officials.
When you have a government that does what it likes, it will embolden others in the society to act without caution. And that is exactly what happened at Afe Babalola University, a private university in Ado-Ekiti, which is charging accommodation fee for students schooling online. It is bad enough that some Nigerian private universities refused to refund the accommodation fee that students paid before lectures were moved online, but to ask students to pay for accommodation when the university explicitly stated that the semester would hold online is nothing but daylight robbery. In decent societies, universities refund unused accommodation fees. A parent of a student at the University at Buffalo, a public university in New York, told me his child got a $2,000 refund with a long letter displaying empathy from the university authorities. I must note that some universities in Nigeria also made some refunds. I am aware that Caleb and Ajayi Crowther University did and they also made this public. If any other university did, they probably didn’t make it public, and I know that personal enquiries on the issue were parried by many of them.
Afe Babalola University’s response to parents that wanted to know the criteria for charging for a service not provided, is most disgusting, to say the least. A response to a parent’s text messages by the university registrar, Christy Olubode, simply read, “Madam, I have nothing to say to you. Information on the website is purely university decisions and policy. Thank you.” Can you imagine such a level of impunity? You see, the registrar could say this because she doesn’t think the university owes the parents any explanation in spite of the huge tuition that the parents are paying. The school could treat the parents with disdain because it is probably taking its cue from Nigeria as a country. After all, that’s what our leaders do. They think it is beneath them to offer explanations for their actions. Although we claim to practise democracy, many people in political positions don’t really see the need to be accountable to the people. The reason being that they do not really think their power is derived from the electorate, never mind their campaign slogans. Now, that is the crux of the matter.
Of course, if we consider the electoral process that ushers these people to power, it’s obvious the system allows for a lot of compromise that reduces the influence that the electorate should have under normal democratic settings. Elections are supposed to be avenues whereby citizens participate in the selection of their leaders. Ideally, electoral procedures should give the government a sense of legitimacy. But in Nigeria, more often than not, elections are merely selections. Unfortunately, the process through which our leaders emerge has a lot to do with what we get from them. Countries that have credible electoral processes are likely to be better governed because their leaders owe their legitimacy to the people. That is not to say that these leaders get it right all the time, but at least they strive to be in their citizens’ good books, knowing that they will always need them.
I believe the manipulation of Nigeria’s electoral process is at the root of many of its problems. And the way out is for the entire electoral process to be transparent. If a politician knows that he doesn’t need the people to win in an election, why would he/she be bothered about pleasing people that have no electoral value? This is the dilemma we all have to deal with as Nigeria celebrates its 60 years independence. It is high time we improved on our electoral process so that we can get better people-centred governance. Why are we reluctant at embracing technology wholly in our electoral process? This will only enhance transparency and reduce cases of manipulation. Agreed, we have accepted the use of card readers, but we need to go beyond this. The use of incident forms during elections is still an avenue for manipulation. We need to review our laws to ensure that full biometrics is used for accreditation and that election results are electronically transmitted in the same way the current proposed bill on electoral law expects accreditation data to be transmitted. This amendment will curtail incidences of rigging of election results. Experience in this country has shown that rigging of election results takes place between the period of announcing the results at the polling unit and the point of announcing the results at the collation centres.
Besides what stops us from holding our general elections in one day? I think this is high time for us as a nation to support electoral reforms being championed by the Centre for Liberty with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). Let’s amend Section 25 of the Electoral Act 2010, such that rather than staggering our elections, all elections into the office of the Senate, House of Representatives, Presidency, State Assembly and Governorship could be done in a day. This will save cost and probably reduce violence and other forms of manipulation. In a situation where a disruption to one is a disruption to all the elections through the ballots, politicians may be more committed to avoiding violence knowing that such could lead to cancellation of votes or the entire exercise. They won’t want anything that can jeopardise their interest.
Until our leaders are convinced that they truly need us to be in power, they are not likely to be committed to serving us. That is why we must all push for the kind of electoral reforms that will serve our interests as Nigerian citizens. Maybe then, we can be talking of having a responsible government, a great country and a well-deserved celebration. Until then, our leaders will continue to hold us to ransom.
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the editor-in-chief, franktalknow.com