Nigerians don’t believe the government is fair. This is not sentiment but reality; a Pew Research Centre poll in 2016 revealed that most Nigerians don't consider the political and economic system to be fair. To most Nigerians, the government doesn’t exist for them, but for the privileged few. This psychological revolt against policies stems from a culture of mistrust built over decades. But how has this relationship with our leaders descended this low?
In 2011, the Jonathan Administration announced its plan to eliminate the expensive, but popular petrol subsidy program. The move stemmed from House of Representatives findings showing that about $6.8billion had been paid for petroleum products that were never imported. Coupled with the need to reduce fraudulent activities in the petroleum sector, the initiative was expected to reduce the cost of government, as ₦1.3 trillion was allegedly spent on petroleum subsidies in 2011 alone.
Despite the introduction of a palliative measure like the subsidy reinvestment and empowerment program backed by the explanations of government, civil society, labour unions and trade unions took to the streets to protest the insensitivity of government to the plight of its people. This was arguably the biggest example of citizen civil resistance in Nigeria since the Aba Women’s riot of 1929.
You would be forgiven for thinking this would change post-Jonathan, but in 2016 the National Electricity Regulatory Commission announced plans to increase electricity tariffs. Explaining the motive for the proposed price hike, Babatunde Fashola, the Minister of Power stated that Nigerians were experiencing poor power supply because the present tariff system discouraged investment in the sector due to the low economic returns in the industry. Electricity distribution companies backed this up by explaining that the intended price hike had become crucial in order to increase consumer utility by providing funds for them to invest in infrastructural development.
Yet again, despite Government’s pleas, especially through the popular Minister, it was met with resistance in the form of strike threats and various court litigations including a court judgement that described the action of the government as irrational.
A Disjointed Government
The inability of the government to secure the commitment of its citizens in policy implementation indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with government-citizen relations. While reflecting on the failure of the subsidy program, two-time Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala succinctly explained this in one phrase: "Nigerians don’t trust government”.
Yet, in many cases, the arms of government don’t trust each other. The budget process has been drawn-out and protracted, even though the same party that occupied the Villa has controlled the Senate since 1999.
On the other side of the divide, the government is quick to point accusing fingers to the opposition and to label those who do not agree with its policies as saboteurs.
The Leaders that cried wolf
The mistrust of government reinforces certain anti-social behaviours like tax evasion and political apathy. One of the reasons Nigerians evade taxes is because the money is not seen at work.
The response of the Senate Spokesman, Senator Aliyu Abdullahi and his House of Representatives counterpart, when asked to explain why an estimated N4.7 billion of public funds was budgeted for the purchase of exotic cars for its members betrays the insensitivity of elected public officials to public opinion. This, in itself, is down to the culture of irresponsibility and lack of consequence for ill actions within the polity. Why would legislators care about uncoordinated public opinion when factors like finance, zoning and electoral malpractices appear to be the real keys to re-election?
Recent policies have been introduced without a proper framework on ground to secure the engagement of its citizens. The National Orientation Agency, whose mandate is to re-orientate and encourage Nigerians to take part actively in policy implementation hasn’t been effectively utilised.
As noted by Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, it is often difficult to persuade people that change is desirable and will have a positive effect. Therefore, people need to be persuaded of the need for change before the change is made.
To earn the trust of its citizens, government must show itself worthy; a situation where initiatives fail to achieve desired results reduces the chances that subsequent initiatives would be accepted by citizens.
As an emerging economy with bright prospects and ample developmental challenges, policy implementation is vital to the realisation of a better society. The government should endeavour to secure citizens' engagement by taking steps to gain their trust. Tools like social media interaction, periodic town hall meetings, effective campaigns and opinion polls, can be used to develop citizenship engagement.
If this doesn’t happen, successive governments might find the cost of public doubt too much to handle.