By Noel Ihebuzor
The convocation address by Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili at the 42nd convocation ceremony of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has caused quite some traffic on social media, especially Twitter. It also provoked a response from the Federal Government, a response which then further increased the flow and ferocity of exchanges. In all the ensuing furore and twitter fire fight, sight was almost lost of the fact that apart from two poorly concealed swipes at the government in two paragraphs, the rest of Dr. Ezekwesili’s speech was a well-researched and well-argued presentation on the reasons for our current developmental stasis. The inspiration from other development scholars, especially of Acemoglu and Robinson in their seminal new book titled “The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty – Why Nations fail” is evident as one reads the article. The debt to Paul Collier is also palpable.
Central to Dr Ezekwesili’s speech are the themes of restored dignity and a restoration of the dignity of labour and honestly earned wealth, two redemptive virtues we have all unfortunately strayed from so badly since the seventies. (The harp on dignity is not fortuitous as it stresses the key message in the UNN logo!) I would certainly commend the speech to any person interested in understanding why we are the way we are and also to anyone interested in understanding the phenomenon of resource curse, and the boom and doom that reliance on extractive resources can unleash on a people, on a nation.
At one point in the speech, Dr. Ezekwesili asked questions as to what happened to the 67 Billion USD that the Obasanjo administration, of which she was a part, left in the national coffers and which was inherited by the Government of Yar Adua and Jonathan administration. The question posed is a critical one and touches at the heart of citizens’ rights to demand accountability and prudence in the management of public resources. Concerns may be raised on the choice of words she used in asking the question given that the words “squandering” and ‘brazen misappropriation” already suggest a judgment on the part of the speaker. Such a decoding of the choice of these words by a very talented public speaker would of course immediately raise doubts as to Dr Ezekwesili’s real motives in asking the question. A similar concern could also be raised on Dr Ezekwesili’s comment on the dysfunctions of the educational system in Nigeria, especially her time focus in the paragraph in question and her use of the expression “imprudent choices”. But if we focus on these, we run the risk of losing sight of the strategic national importance of her asking such questions.
For whatever may have been her motives, the questions she asked serve our national interests, and a consideration of such national interests should make the nation beholden to her. It is thus immaterial to argue that Dr Ezekwesili may have asked the question to score a political point against the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. It does not and should not matter in the least. In matters of such national importance, we must focus on the question and not on the questioner or on the motives we impute to him or her.
Government responded to the two issues (funds utilisation and educational dysfunction) through the Minister of information, Mr. Labaran Maku. The published response shows Mr. Maku presenting the government position on the question of ECA and ER, the current balances and how they were applied, thus attempting to provide clear cut answers to the questions posed by Dr Ezekwesili. Interestingly, the figures and amounts he provides do not agree with those provided by Dr. Ezekwesili. (A third voice has now come in to argue that the figures put out by both Ezekwesili and Maku were inaccurate, but this is by the way). For education, Maku should also have presented what the government is, and has been, doing to address the dysfunctions in that crucial sector of our national economy and stopped there. Unfortunately he did not. Regrettably, he allowed himself to take the provocation bait, made some unflattering remarks and even asked Dr. Ezekwesili to account for use of some funds allocated to the Federal Ministry of Education under her watch as Minister of Education. An unnecessary political joust then developed which soon blossomed into a sad spectacle of a twitter fire fight. In such jousts and fights, no one ever truly wins, only noise wins. Such jousts and fights end ugly and bring out the ugly sides of us as humans as we soon abandon ourselves to name calling and character smearing, all of which is sad.
Government should realise that it is the right of every citizen, including aspiring politicians, to ask questions. Citizens should also ask questions but should so responsibly and constructively. Such question asking is critical to good governance. Good governance is about accountability, prudence and transparency in the management of public resources. Going by that universally accepted truth, all acts of governance and mis-governance, (omissions & commissions) in the management of the commonwealth merit questioning, investigation and the provision of forthright answers. It is only when questions have been freely and responsibly asked and credible answers politely provided that closure on any nagging national issue of importance can be reached. Closure cannot be reached by sweeping things under the carpet and hoping that they will go away. Closure cannot be achieved by shouting down the source of the questions. Closure is achieved through the provision of forthright and honest answers. To fail to achieve closure through transparent provision of answers and, where necessary, sanctions is to enthrone opacity and all that go with it in governance. Government must therefore be willing to provide answers to the questions similar to the type that Dr Ezekwesili raised in her convocation address. Government must also anticipate more of such questions in our new democratic dispensation and acquire the skills and composure to provide concise, credible, polite and dispassionate responses, not minding what it may sense to be deliberate provocations, mischief making or concealed politicking as underlying motives for such questions. This is the only way to achieve quick and satisfactory closures.
Incidentally, we appear to be in a season of unclosed and unfinished businesses in this country, and this is perhaps also a good time to raise other unfinished business which touch on governance, and they are legion. Let me point out a few of major national importance:
- What has happened to the fuel subsidy scammers?
- What has become of Farouk?
- What has happened to the Pensions Fund scammers?
- What has happened to accusations of conflict of interest in some land allocations in the FCT?
I am not aware that any of these four issues has been closed, prosecution completed, the innocent discharged and acquitted whilst the guilty are sanctioned.
Why is the course of closure through normal judicial processes being slowed down? What is holding things up? What are the bottlenecks to the prosecution of these people? Are these bottlenecks from the executive, the judiciary or the legislature? What is being done to remove these bottlenecks and to open the way to speedy, credible and transparent closure?
How are these bottlenecks being addressed with a view to removing them and thus opening the way to speedy but fair prosecution?
President Jonathan must realise that it is his ability to demonstrate leadership that would lead to the provision of answers and eventual closures to these and related questions that will define his presidency. He should realise that whereas Nigerians may forgive him for wrong decisions, they will not forgive him any appearance of indecisiveness. Decisive and bold actions are what Nigerians require from him and his team in dealing with these issues and providing the Nigerian people with convincing answers. Failure in acting now could lead to inferences of presidential weaknesses, timorousness, and/or indifference. There is also the risk of inaction being read as a sign of either endorsement and/or complicity. Any of these inferences could have damning consequences for not only the president’s image, but also for the image, moral direction and morale of Nigeria.
There are some problems that will not simply go away by being ignored. There are moments when an elected leader must make decisions, act with swiftness and resolve and take responsibility for action. Reading the mood of the Nigerian nation shows that this is one of those moments. People want answers. People demand action based on the existing level of information available to the president and the belief is that the information available is good enough to enable action to commence. People want proof of action. People want boldness and people want closure. The guilty must be punished; punishment playing a corrective function for the offender and a deterrent function for future offenders. To fail to punish is to encourage a culture of impunity. To fail to punish is to incentivise wrongdoing whereas appropriate levels of punishment provide the badly needed disincentives to gradually whittle down the plagues and cancer of corruption that stifle our development as a nation.
Dr Ezekwesili has thus done her country well in asking some hard questions during her convocation address. People like her who insist on transparency, accountability and due process in governance are what countries like ours need. Nigerians expect her and like-minded persons to continue to raise similar questions and to raise them for every sphere and level of governance – federal, state and local government levels. Nigerians expect them to ask these questions with openness and mind-sets devoid of partisanship and selective bias. And here, other possible areas for question raising come to mind – how were the country’s oil blocks apportioned, how were federally owned property in Lagos disposed of, how were plots of land allocated in the FCT, how did the sudden huge wealth of some former state governors come about?? Etc. Questions like these would enable the country to look deep and perhaps to discover other areas of governance that need cleaning and tightening up.