-Patrick O. Okigbo III
How can civil society organisations help the Nigerian government to seize the moment?
When the origin of a quote is unclear – especially if it is one on a crisis – it is typically attributed to Winston Churchill. But “You never let a serious crisis go to waste” was said by Rahm Emanuel, a former Chief of Staff to President Obama. For emphasis, he added, “it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”. Nigeria, anyone home?
Far-reaching macroeconomic, structural, institutional, and governance reforms are required in Nigeria. This is clear even to casual observers and has become quite urgent given the disruption inherent in the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on oil prices, and by extension, national revenues. Pick any of the economic sectors, and there is at least one reform that has been vigorously debated but is yet to be implemented. Many observers blame a lack of political will. Recall the 2011 Presidential Committee on Reform of Government Agencies? The report recommended the reduction of government agencies from 263 to 161. This reform did not happen because of a lack of political will conditioned by various threats and financial coercion from those whose agencies were to be trimmed off. The same can be said about Nigeria’s 20-year effort to pass a Petroleum industry Bill to unlock investments in the sector. Or the 47-year effort to repeal a subsidy on petroleum products. Or the failure to implement the various reforms in education, healthcare, agriculture, solid minerals, security, infrastructure, etc. You get the point. The list of failed efforts at reform is long.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for the government to do things it could not do in the past. It is now clear to both the Emperor and the plebs that they have all been “dangling their jewels”. The ensuing hardship resulting from the pandemic will be severe enough to hold people’s attention. Professor Nic Cheeseman, author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform, in a recent essay published in Foreign Affairs magazine, cautioned that the coronavirus pandemic “is likely to unleash political instability – and even regime change – in developing countries already suffering from an economic crisis”. However, an attentive government can leverage this heightened attention to get her people to support the implementation of economic reform programmes. The government of Nigeria can use this opportunity to drive for massive transformation: diversify the economy, plug the leakages, end the “feeding bottle” economics, implement campaign finance reforms, fix election processes, improve financial efficiencies, and on and on.
The reality, however, is that rams don’t vote for Ramadan. The political class can’t and probably won’t press the reset button. It is the people – the neck that turns the head – that must take their destiny in their hands and decide their fate. It is the people who must apply pressure on the governments – local, state, and federal – to do the needful. But it is also disingenuous to expect a people – who one out of every two live on less than N700 a day – to be able to speak with their mouths when the rumble in their bellies are louder. Nigerians are hunger; someone else must lead on the activism.
Nigeria’s civil society organisations should do the talking for the people. The organisations must step forward, with boldness and purpose, to effectively advocate for pragmatic solutions that are in the best interest of Nigerians. The organisations should caucus and raise an agenda that provides pragmatic answers to the difficult questions the government is grappling with. The organisations must realise that this is not the time for an adversarial relationship with the government; rather, all parties need to join hands (figuratively and in accordance with social distancing requirements) to craft Nigeria’s future. This is the time to focus on our common humanity to create a future that works for all.
This is easier said than done. Civil society organisations are plagued by the same ills that afflict the larger society: individualism, pecuniary considerations, identity politics, etc. However, the organisations have also shown in the past that, whenever Nigeria faces an existential challenge, they are able to close ranks and deliver. This was the case in the fight for independence in the 1950s and 60s. It happened again in the struggle for a return to democracy in the 1990s. The COVID-19 pandemic calls for a similar effort. The groups should pull together to search for pragmatic solutions.
It is at times like this that one goes searching for the right aphorism from Winston Churchill. These dark and perilous days call for those who are able to see the light at the end of this tunnel and are ready to stand and fight on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, and street, and never surrender until Nigeria is out of the fog. Churchill cautioned that this is not the age for the pessimist who sees the difficulty in every opportunity; rather, it is for the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. Nigeria needs optimists now; after all, “difficulties mastered are opportunities won”. Whatever happens, Nigeria must endeavour not to waste this crisis.
People, Pain And Purpose!
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