When will government be open to earn citizens’ trust?


President Muhammadu Buhari, left, and formwer Nigerian leader, Olusegun Obasano. As military Heads of State, the introduced War Against Indiscpline and Operation Feed the Nation respectively

By Olatunde Johnson

Nigeria is not hard to govern. All that is required is a focused leader with a sense of purpose. As Minister in charge of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), between 2003 and 2007, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai quite easily demonstrated this fact. He fought executive lawlessness to a complete standstill in the way he ran his office to achieve his mandate to restore Abuja to its pristine concept. What that says is that it is not difficult to get Nigerians to rally round a cause or a leader and take pride in the country the moment they see some measure of sincerity of purpose.Two past initiatives readily come to mind in this regard, namely Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) and the War Against Indiscipline (WAI), both of which were implemented by military governments in the late 70s and early 80s.

In 2003, when then President Olusegun Obasanjo wanted some semblance of order in the chaotic FCT, he tapped El-Rufai for a ministerial appointment. His nomination was helped by his reputation as a no-nonsense, go-to problem-solving technocrat. In just about four years, Abuja under El-Rufai was restored the way Obasanjo had wanted: there was order in transportation; the environment was green;there was sanity in the development of infrastructure and, broadly,Abuja became a metropolis that ran efficiently. Put simply, the Minister, who, today, is the Governor of Kaduna State, put method to the typical Nigerian madness of disorder.

A green part of Abuja city

Nasir El-Rufai: He restored order to Abuja

For all his achievements, the former Minister got called several names. He was the ‘bulldozer Minister.’ He was ‘Hell’ Rufai, which is a play on his surname El-Rufai (literally, son of Rufai). He was described as arrogant because of his rather blunt disposition. He was labelled ‘mad,’ even by Obasanjo, his principal.  Regardless of the name people called him, he got the work done. And his principal, President Olusegun Obasanjo, was very much happy with his performance.

El-Rufai comes to mind today because of the madness that has once more taken hold of the nation in virtually every facet of life, much of it deriving from the growing distrust of government by the citizens. Worldwide, governments are generally distrusted, but few as badly as Nigeria where incoming governments tended to outdo their predecessors in the opaqueness of governance. This, out of the belief that citizens, for their own good, deserve to know less about government, or more specifically about the issues that affect them.

Take, for example, the way former President Obasanjo foisted an ailing UmaruYar’Adua on an equally ailing nation in 2007. All through the electioneering period, valuable time was spent trying to bury questions on candidate Yar’Adua’s health than on issues that bordered on his programme of development for Nigeria. The health concern never went away all through Yar’Adua’s tenure in the Villa before he finally succumbed a few months away from the end of his first term in office. Yet, the ‘cabal’ around him never told Nigerians what happened owing to the overriding ambition to hold on to power. The same template was and still is being used to manage information on the health status of the incumbent President.

The management of security in the country is also one of the most opaque elements of state administration. The best that citizens know, perhaps, is that all Governors control ‘security vote’ that nobody seems to know the quantum nor the use to which these votes are deployed by State chief executives. What is, however, known is that the more monies government claims to spend on security, the worse the problem of insecurity becomes across Nigeria. Insurgency in the North East. Militancy in the South South. Kidnappings in the South East. Rampaging herdsmen in the South West. Religious upheavals and avoidable everywhere. The question on everyone’s lips is: ‘Wetindemdey do with dis security vote sef?’

In the health sector, when the Ebola disease knocked on our doors, citizens rallied round government in their determination to be rid of the virus. The joint efforts were hugely successful. Fast forward to the global Coronavirus pandemic that, as of 27 June, 2020, has recorded 24,077 confirmed cases, 8,625 recoveries and 558 deaths in Nigeria. From ‘scare,’ citizens migrated to ‘scam,’ no thanks to the belief that government was being less than truthful in the handling of the pandemic. But why was trust an issue? Citizens could not miss the obvious dissonance between what government says and what officials do, which, regrettably, often follows the selfish admonition to ‘do as I say, not do as I do.’

If citizens readily agreed to obey the stay at home instructions during the lockdown at the outset of COVID-19, it was on account of the scare that the disease was real. Scepticism began to set in from the moment different State Governments began to sing discordant tunes on how to deal with the pandemic. It grew worse when billions of Naira were announced by private and public sector organisation as donations to government’s efforts to combat the virus. It is common knowledge that few Nigerians trust government with money. We see fraud everywhere. And matters were not helped when a part of the office of the Accountant General of the Federation was engulfed by fire not long after these donations were made. Many were ready to swear that the office was set on fire by officials who had stolen over N20 billion cash stacked in the AGF’s office. But it was the consistent flouting of social distancing instructions by public officers, which made mockery of the willingness of citizens to continue to stay at home, that brought on the recourse to current recklessness in the management of COVID-19. For several citizens, defiance is embodied in the statement that justify a desperate search for economic survival: ‘we’ll go out; if we die, we die.’

But, then, things cannot continue this way. For Nigeria to make progress, it is imperative that government and citizens must sing from the same page of the hymnbook. Trust is engendered where citizens see government as ‘working’ in their best interest. Different issues require different approaches, but the principles of trust must never be in doubt. In other words, citizens must never misconstrue the intentions of the leadership. The leadership, too, must adequately communicate its objectives to citizens in a manner that does not encourage a needless search for the hand behind a smoking gun. That is called respect. It is reciprocal.

When President Obasanjo mandated El-Rufai to return Abuja to its original design, he meant it. When the former FCT Minister articulated his work plan, it was without a hidden agenda. When the President approved the plan, he backed it up with the might of his office. When the Minister began to execute his plans, he was blind to ‘power and might’; just as he was not unduly swayed by sentiments of ‘protecting the poor’. There was a job to do and it was done. After initial protests, the poor and the rich who were negatively impacted calmed down owing to the degree of honesty of purpose that went into ‘reclaiming’ Abuja. There was no need for citizens to second guess the government. They respected the hard choices that had to be made. This is the beauty of leadership and citizenship working in tandem.It is not always as straight forward as this. But we can get it right again if we try. And it will make life a whole lot better in Nigeria.

-Olatunde Johnson, a social critic, writes from Lagos