BEING TEXT OF A PAPER PRESENTED BY FORMER DEPUTY PRESIDENT OF THE SENATE, HIS EXCELLENCY, SENATOR IKE EKWEREMADU, PHD, CFR AT THE BRANDISH MEETING OF MINDS COLLOQUIUM HELD AT THE SHERATON HOTEL AND TOWERS ON WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2020.“
I feel honoured to be part of the Brandish Meeting of Minds Colloquium 2020. I have always maintained that dialogue is the oil with which democracy is eaten; and if there is any time Nigerians really need to converse robustly, it is now, given the many challenges facing the nation. I must, therefore, commend the Conveners for convoking this colloquium and for coming up with the team “Beyond Branding: Engineering a Citizen-Led Proposition for Nigeria’s National Cohesion and Global Positioning”. The theme is quite auspicious. The government has been doing a lot of the talking and it is high time it listened more and encouraged citizen-led initiatives to build a Nigeria of our dreams.
Democracy: Government of the People
No two nations are exactly the same. They differ in their histories and experiences. In the same manner, no two democracies are the same. Modern African nations evolved from colonialism under different colonial masters, which have equally influenced their histories, experiences, and the kind of government and democracy they operate today. However, as nations evolve, they search for the type of government that best suits their respective histories and experiences. Nigeria has moved from parliamentary system to a presidential system of government; and nothing stops the country from reverting to parliamentary system or a hybrid of both as I have severally proposed in the past.
However, whatever democratic system a nation chooses to practice, there are basic standards and ingredients that make democracy tasty and functional, among them people’s participation, for democracy must always revolve around the people. Perhaps, nobody has put it better and more succinctly than former US President and one of the most important figures in American democracy, Abraham Lincoln, who, during his historic Gettysburg Address in November 1863, exactly 157 years ago, referred to democracy as government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Over the years, the concept of democracy as a government of the people by the people and for the people, have transcended people electing their leaders at defined intervals in a free and fair process. It has moved to people actually playing more roles in governance and in shaping their fates. Therefore, terms like participatory democracy (in which citizens are directly involved in shaping policy direction whereas the political leaders have the responsibility to implement them), pluralist democracy (in which no particular group dominates politics and decision-making), deliberative governance (in which deliberation is key to decision-making), and inclusivity, etc. have become common terminologies in discussing good, democratic governance today.
That being the case, in addition to the fact that democracy, by its etymological roots (Greek demos and kratos, meaning that the people are in power), one should naturally expect that all democracies are participatory. But it is not always so. In Nigeria, while one may say that we have relatively moved away from the military era when the military hierarchy dumped whatever they liked on the people, we cannot say that the people are truly in the driver’s seat of policy direction, building national cohesion, and development. While we are no longer where we used to be, we are certainly far from where we ought to be.
In many instances, not only are the people not given the opportunity to shape policy directions or even consulted on policies such as electricity tariff increase, fuel pump price increase, tax increase, that have direct and severe multiplier effect on their lives, even policies roundly rejected by them or by their elected representatives in parliaments are shoved down their throats. Most government policies and programmes are still inspired by the top-bottom model rather than the bottom-top approach in which the people wield greater influence.
while one may say that we have relatively moved away from the military era when the military hierarchy dumped whatever they liked on the people, we cannot say that the people are truly in the driver’s seat of policy direction, building national cohesion, and development.
Avenues for Citizen-Led Democratic Governance
We will now consider avenues for enriching citizen engagement and participation in shaping governance in Nigeria.
i. Constant Visit/ Town hall meetings: One of the banes of our democracy is that many political leaders disappear from the scene and isolate themselves from the people, once they are elected or appointed into offices. They are ready to visit all nooks and crannies to mobilise votes during electioneering campaigns, but they disappear into the thin air once elected. It is noticeable in the legislature, but even worse among the elected executives. The result is the misplacement of projects and priorities, as the people become objects rather than subjects of governance.
Town hall meetings with the people and constant visit to communities will help a lot in gauging the people’s expectations and empowering them to lead development initiatives. In Enugu State, there is an initiative called Visit Every Community (VEC). Government teams visit each of the communities to interact with community leaders, which includes youth and women representatives, to hear from the people what their needs are, how they think government may assist, and how government projects affect them. Also, the Enugu State Government gives grants to communities to execute chosen medium scale development projects under the One Community One Project initiative.
ii. Peoples parliament: In Enugu Senatorial District, which I represent, we introduced what we call the Enugu West Peoples Parliament. It is our creative contribution to Political Science. For a long time, some of us have been opposed to the presidential system for the reason of its expensive nature and disconnect between the leaders and the led. So, we introduced something in the semblance of a parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and other government officials regularly field questions from the parliamentarians. Therefore, at given intervals in Enugu West Senatorial District, all elected and appointed political office holders from the District meet with the representatives of all the communities to get policy and programme suggestions. We give account of our stewardships, and get feedback on ongoing projects in our respective communities. What we want to do at our local level is to show Nigerians that parliamentary system can actually work. And we move the quasi parliamentary forum around the five local government areas of Enugu West.
iii. Public hearings: Public hearings have become an intrinsic part of the legislative process in Nigeria. It is a vital avenue for getting the inputs of Nigerians into the lawmaking process. I think it is something we need to encourage even more. Given the lessons we have learned in this COVID-19 era, I believe that national and subnational parliaments need to now review and strengthen their rules and ICT infrastructure, respectively, so that more Nigerians can join public hearings virtually from any part the world.
iv. Initiative and referendum: Although referendum is provided for in the 1999 Constitution, its application is limited to state and local government creation and recall of parliamentarians. But in the United States, they equally operate the Citizens’ Initiative, which enables citizens to initiate a proposal for a new law during elections. If 50% + 1 of the electorate supports the enactment of such laws, then parliament will have to enact the proposed legislation. But if the proposed legislation is on some sensitive matters like taxation, such petition will need two-thirds majority approval of the electorates to succeed. Conversely, a given number of US citizens can also trigger a popular referendum by presenting a petition calling for a repeal or an amendment of an existing legislation.
In the 7th National Assembly, we tried to expand the scope of referendum in our constitution. We attempted to introduce a process for making a new constitution, which includes a referendum for ratification of such proposed constitution. We also tried to reorganise the process of state creation because it is currently so cumbersome that no state creation demand has reached a referendum stage. Unfortunately, both propositions did not succeed. But we really have to take another look at it to enlarge the scope of referendum in our democracy and even allow for an equivalent of Citizens Initiative in the US to give Nigerians more latitudes to lead governance of the country at all levels.
v. Public hearing on budgets: The Appropriation Act is the single most important legislation by any parliament. But what has happened over the years is that the government sits down to articulate what it believes the people need without relating with the people or their representatives. That is why Federal Government can go to a village to site a primary healthcare centre without bothering about equipping it or factoring in availability of power or human capital to run it. That is why government can afford to build a housing estate in the middle of nowhere without factoring in the communal ways of life of the people or the relationship between such projects and the people’s market, worship centres, etc. At the end of the day, such projects fail and rot away.
In one of my engagements with the UN in the 7th Senate, I was exposed to the concept of public hearing on budget. I shared the idea with the President of the 8th Senate, Senator Bukola Saraki, who bought into it. So, in addition to the usual process where heads of Ministries Departments and Agencies, MDAs, face only the lawmakers to defend budgets of their respective MDAs, we introduced an elaborate hearing where members of the public and the Civil Society Organisations can interrogate and make inputs into the budget proposals. Unfortunately, this could not continue this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
We need to do more on this to improve it so that the people can have more direct inputs and influence in the appropriation process. I suggest that we allocate more time to public hearing in the appropriation process because the money being appropriated belongs to the people and the expenditure is to their benefit.
Democracies and societies are always evolving and we must continue to develop better and more efficient ways of ensuring that Nigerians take charge of conversations and initiatives that culminate in government policies and programmes as well as the search for a better Nigeria. We must work to build consensus on the issues confronting our nation today.
Unfortunately, there are several areas, indeed burning issues, where successive governments have either not listened to the masses or shown interest in building consensus. The bad news is not just that the nation is paying dearly for such intransigence, but also that the country will sadly continue to pay heavier tolls for many years to come.
Today, Nigeria is in the full grips of widespread insecurity- insurgency, banditry, abductions, armed robbery, and all manner of violent crimes. Nigerians have been offering solutions towards taming the rising waves of criminality. This includes calls for decentralised policing, which I am also a proponent and have a Bill to that effect that is currently before the Senate. Unfortunately, it appears the government is bent on doing the same thing over and over, but ironically hoping to get a different result.
In the same manner, many Nigerians, including yours sincerely, have been shouting it on the rooftops long before the current economic downturn occasioned by drastic and protracted decline in oil revenues, that the days of high oil revenues were numbered. The West and other developed nations are setting targets to move away from oil. Yet we are not close to activating other abundant sources of income because our federalism is wired for wealth sharing rather than wealth creation. Even in the 7th National Assembly when we listened to the yearnings of Nigerians to amend the constitution to devolve aviation, power, railway, etc. from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List, it was never assented by the Presidency. Now that the chicken has come home to roost, will the Federal Government listen to the voices of reason and devolve powers or will it continue with the micro management (some will say mismanagement) of the nation’s resources?
Nigeria is now divided as never before. The chasms are increasing by the day. Elder statesmen and women, writers, and other well-meaning Nigerians have continued to raise the alarm that the nation is drifting apart. They have equally continued to proffer suggestions on how we can engender national cohesion, justice, and equity. We will continue to pray that the government heeds their patriotic calls and suggestions.
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, one can go on and on. However, this is a colloquium and I have to yield the floor to others to make their contributions as we rub minds on the theme. But before I conclude, let me commend the organisers, once again, for putting this event together. Let me also congratulate the Convener, Ikem Okuhu, on the public presentation of the book, PITCH: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myth.
Thank you for your kind audience.