By Waziri Adio
It has been widely projected that the February 2015 presidential election will be one of the most competitive in Nigeria’s electoral history, a patchy history that dates back to 1923. This forecast may come to pass, and it may not. But we might have cause to worry, given the loud claims of entitlement and the not-so-subtle threats from the opposing sides, the presence of two almost-evenly-matched political parties seemingly desperate to throw everything into the fray, and the inescapable reality that the election will be fought along our natural and manufactured fault-lines.
Let’s be clear: we should worry not because of the likelihood of keen competition. Far from it. Competition is at the heart of the democratic enterprise, and should be vigorously encouraged. In fact, democracy’s promise of good governance is anchored on the presence of keen competition — that possibility that a ruling party might be thrown out at the next polls. It is this possibility, and not just the regularity of elections, that defines real democracy and provides a powerful incentive for performance which, ultimately, may translate to development.
This capacity to incentivize performance (and ultimately development) is what scholars like Amartya Sen describe as the instrumental value (as opposed to intrinsic worth) of democracy.
So, competition is good. But we need to be wary of and discourage pseudo-competition, that variant which pivots around who can coin the snazzier slogan or whip up the more affective sentiments or make the more outrageous accusation. If the present state of play is any guide, the approaching campaigns will be reduced to a negative competition of accusations and counter-accusations, attacks and counter-attacks, abuses and counter-abuses. To be sure, framing the opponent as the undesirable other is part of electioneering, even in very developed democracies. But there is a high likelihood that gratuitous assaults, rather than a clash of ideas, may be the only part of the approaching presidential campaigns.
If allowed, we will be short-changing a country burdened with major problems and in need of urgent and creative solutions. Tolerating accusations and counter-accusations as the main fare of political campaigns will rob us of the rare opportunity that the election period offers to focus intensely on important issues as well as the subsisting/proffered solutions. It will also deny us of the chance to critically appraise the competing parties and their candidates. Besides, a campaign based mainly on attacks and counter-attacks may ignite street-level reactions that could, finally, bump our fragile polity over the precipice.
While politicians will have all the incentives to stick to the well-trodden path, it is our duty as citizens, and the ultimate sovereigns, to rescue this election from a certain explosive path and save ourselves and our country from the politicians. It is our obligation to force the issue and make those seeking our mandate not only to sweat for it but also to force them to focus on what really matters to us and our country. It is also our responsibility to ensure that the conversation goes beyond the superficiality of “continuity” and “change.” We need to constantly ask them: “continuity of what?” and “change to what?”
We need to put those seeking to be our president to task on the specific things they plan to do to improve the lot of Nigerians in some key areas, how they will do those things and where they hope to get the resources from. I will highlight seven critical areas below. By no means exhaustive, these are the areas that, in my estimation, have serious implications for growth, shared prosperity and sustainable human development in our country.
The first area is security. While we should all welcome the reported ceasefire deal between the federal government and Boko Haram and pray that it holds, we shouldn’t be lulled into believing that insecurity is no longer the major challenge confronting us today. With three states still on the frontline, with our territorial integrity already breached, with many of our nationals still held captive and thousands turned to refugees within and outside our country, Boko Haram has tested our capacity to cope with asymmetrical warfare and exposed gaps that must be filled. Apart from the Boko Haram menace, kidnappers, oil thieves, ritual murderers and armed robbers hold sway in different parts of the country. In addition, communal clashes erupt now and then, leaving many displaced, injured and dead.
We need to put the candidates to test on how they will end this generalised state of insecurity. It is not enough for anyone to identify insecurity as a problem or attack his opponent or simply say ‘I will make you more secure.’ We should insist on the how. Unfortunately, we have made a fetish of security matters and made it off-limits for public discussion. But this fetishization has not delivered the desired results. No one is asking candidates to discuss war plans, which might be beyond them anyway. But we need to be convinced that whoever wants to be our commander-in-chief from 29 May 2015 has clear and workable ideas about how to solve our most urgent problem.
The second critical area is jobs. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), our unemployment rate is 23.9 per cent, with the youth unemployment rate far higher. These figures do not include the many who are either under-employed or in pseudo-employments. What we all witnessed across this country on March 15 during the ill-fated employment test of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) puts the jobless state in tragic relief. Without doubt, we have a major crisis on our hands, with negative impact not just on the welfare of the unemployed, but also on national productivity, growth and security. This is a problem that we cannot wish away or address with sexed-up figures and perfunctory, band-aid solutions. We need radical and urgent interventions. The candidates need to tell us how they will create jobs, what types of jobs they will create and how their interventions will be funded.
The candidates also need to tell us how they will manage and grow the economy as we approach a potentially turbulent period. At the moment, our economy looks strong. The recent rebasing exercise put our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at $510 billion, making us the largest economy on the continent and the 26th largest in the world. We have a healthy external reserve, a stable exchange rate, a single-digit inflation rate and a decent growth rate of about 7 per cent in the past decade.
Beyond the fact that we need a consistently higher growth rate, there are strong reasons to worry about the near future. The price of oil, the mainstay of our economy, is falling and is likely to tumble further with the on-going price wars; demand for our oil is shrinking, as America embraces shale oil and turns away from us; and our oil supply is constrained by unchecked theft estimated at $5 billion per annum. We know that whichever candidate gets elected will have finance ministers, but we need to know how our potential president plans to confront the looming economic crisis and how he plans to keep our economy in good health in general.
A related concern should be how the candidates plan to translate economic growth to shared prosperity. This naturally takes us to the twin challenge of poverty and inequality. According to the World Bank, the incidence of poverty in Nigeria (measured in terms of people who live on less than a dollar a day) has reduced from 62.2 per cent in 2009/2010 to 33.1 per cent in 2012/2013. This is remarkable progress and should be commended. But this also means that more than 53 million Nigerians still live on less than N62,000 per annum or less than N5,200 per month. This is another time-bomb. How to resolve this high incidence of poverty combined with our high rate of inequality (as indicated by a Gini-coefficient of 0.48) is the fourth critical area where we need more than sound bytes from the candidates.
We also need to know how our candidates plan to improve the stock of human capital in our country. On all major development indexes, we are still behind in health and education, two areas that are critical not only for individual well-being but also for national productivity in today’s knowledge economy. The sixth area is physical infrastructure, which also has tremendous impact not only on the quality of life of individuals but also on national productivity, competitiveness and growth. And the last but not the least is corruption, which also exerts practical and hefty strain on national competitiveness and individual and collective growth.
As stated above, we need the candidates to do more than define the problems or chant “continuity”/“change” or predictably lapse into ad hominems. The competition we need is not on those; nor is it about region/religion or whose turn it is to rule. The competition we need is on issues, outlooks, policies and interventions and how those will boost the welfare of Nigerians. What we need is real competition. This will show that our democracy has indeed come of age and will also steer us away from an avoidable danger. Politicians, however, won’t abandon the comfort of the low road and start talking about issues on their own. We need to demand it.