On the 4th of December, Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha made his sister Commissioner of Happiness and Purpose Fulfilment. The appointment was met with bemusement, with Nigerians seeing it as another avenue to misappropriate state funds.
Critics of the move have a clear case, but there could be some wisdom in Governor Okorocha's focus on happiness in the state.
A lot to be unhappy about
Your average Imolite has roughly one square meter of land to themselves – only Lagos and Anambra have denser populations. These citizens are governed by a government whose personnel costs are over four times its internally generated revenues, compared to two times in the neighbouring state of Enugu. Topping this, Imolites experience the 2nd highest amount of infant mortalities in Nigeria.
If comparison is the thief of joy, then there is not much to steal. Many Imolites depend on government salaries and pensions, yet some claim to have not been paid for years. It was not until the courts got involved that a plan to pay only 40% of outstanding dues was overturned. Meanwhile, security operatives demolished the Eke-Ukwu-Owerri market in August, a major source of income for residents of the state. Resisters were shot at, and at least two people were killed; traders lost their livelihoods as shops worths millions were destroyed. And as market stalls went down, a farcical statue of Jacob Zuma went up.
Imolites are unlikely to be happy about their standard of living, a matter made worse by the disconnect between the government and the people. But given Rochas' ambitions to change the entire face of the state, is the appointment of a commissioner of happiness simply another misstep or could it prove to be the bridge between government and the people?
For Nigerians, income drives happiness. And recently the World Bank president spoke on the widening gap in relative happiness which is driven by reference incomes – the income you believe you should have. Interestingly, one of the forces driving this difference is social media, where it's easy to see lavish lifestyles on popular blogs and Instagram accounts, a rising trend in Nigeria. Now, closing the gap between Imolites' reference income and actual income will not happen overnight. However, a Commissioner that seeks ways to reduce the importance placed on income in the pursuit of happiness might be a shorter route to a happier state.
But research suggests that happiness goes further than money; an LSE study concluded that good mental health could make people happier than doubling their income. At this point, however, cracks form in the Governor's strategy. Demolishing the market and erecting statues of African leaders are claimed to be part of a plan to make Imo state an attractive investment destination. But failure to recognise how these events have severe psychological effects could make improvements redundant. Would a commissioner of happiness have helped Rochas secure a better balance in policy execution to create a happier and richer Imo, not one or the other?
Any such efforts would be hampered by the difficulty in measuring happiness.
Countries like Bhutan – through Gross National Happiness Indices – have made strides here. They use a comprehensive questionnaire that is designed to discover the relationship between factors like the feeling of community and happiness. The government can use this information to better understand its constituent’s priorities, identify trends in welfare and adjust policies to maximise it. Moreover, Rochas would have data highlighting the gap between his vision and the realities of his constituent. Such information, used properly, could be used to reconnect the two.
Commissioner of Happiness
There is some merit in ensuring happiness is not forgotten when governing, but should it be a priority for Imo State?
A Commissioner of happiness would argue it should be. But when the appointee is the sister of the governor, it appears as though the appointment was made based on her needs, not that of Imolites. Mrs. Ololo's previous roles working with the Federal Government and Central Bank of Nigeria on behalf of Imolites suggests she is a capable government official, but the lack of disclosure of the new role means we can not properly assess her suitability or the suitability of the role in addressing the level of happiness in Imo State.
Governor Okorocha may have the backing of research which tells us not to focus only on money, but his previous decisions and chosen appointee must count as particularly discouraging for jaded members of the state. The new commissioner could break new ground in Nigerian polity, but she would need to work overtime to lift Imolites, some of whom would have been saddened by her arrival.