- Recent events in our world are making us painfully aware that the institutions on which our societies are built are under threat. On-going efforts in a number of countries around the world, including attempts at muzzling the press, gimmicks by a president to delegitimize the outcome of an electoral process, the hijacking of parliaments in some countries, the use of deadly force against peaceful demonstrators and efforts at voter suppression all point to the dangers that society and institutions are increasingly facing in our modern world.
- Furthermore, the rising incidences of insecurity, poverty, hunger, injustice, systemic racism and gender-based violence, just to mention a few, are not fortuitous, but are rather signals that the institutions that are or were meant to guard against such are no longer functioning at their optimal levels. Ditto for failures in public procurement, declining standards in the regularity and quality of urban basic services and in collapsing municipal functions.
- The institutions that are meant to ensure that these services are provided or which were designed to protect our freedoms are now either becoming increasingly moribund or experiencing severe existential threats or are being exposed to severe bashing and or subversion, some subtle and some, frontal, brutal and unrelenting.
- The phenomenon of institutional bashing appears to be spreading all over the world from Asia, North America, South America, Europe to Africa, and if current happenings in God’s own country are anything to go by, would be seem to be gathering momentum and exercising a strong fascination for an increasing group of persons, converts and democracy iconoclasts.
- The aberrations mentioned above produce effects that lead to democratic backsliding, a backsliding that could then set off a vicious cycle of institutional weakening with deleterious impacts on a broad range of other institutions and this with major multiplier effects and compounded negative externalities and a number of social malaises.
- If these malaises can be blamed on weakening of institutions, what then are institutions? These non-random musings are prompted by a genuine desire to explore the concept of institutions, to unearth its meaning and the key assumptions that populate its vast and ever-expanding literature.
- These ramblings are structured thus – they start with an examination of the meaning of institutions and then move on to a consideration of the functions of institutions in society. From here, focus then shifts to threats to institutions and the ramblings end on what responsible citizens can do to check the attack on institutions.
- One needs to acknowledge from the outset that the literature in the area poses major challenges and which unless navigated with caution could represent conceptual landmines that stand in the way of shared understanding. Taking a leaf from North, all scholars in the field talk of rules of the game but most of the literature is quite fuzzy when it comes to giving concrete examples. For some, family is an institution, for some others, marriage. For some, Governance is an institution, for some others the constitution and the system of election are. People like me in search of clarity could thus be wrong-footed in this maze of definitional unclarity and inadequacies.
- Perhaps scholars need to come together to speedily address and resolve this unclarity. In such an effort, the definitions of sociologists, economists and administrators must be assisted to find common grounds both in content and in examples that they provide.
- For now, one can work with the following definition – Institutions are the formal and informal rules and norms that organize social, political and economic relations (North, 1990). Institutions are ‘the underlying rules of the game’. They are not the same as organizations.
- Organizations are ‘groups of individuals bound by a common purpose’. Organizations are shaped by institutions and, in turn, influence how institutions change. Some social scientists view organizations as the material expressions of institutions. Some see social groups such as government bodies, tribes and families as institutions. Some identify ‘primary’ or ‘meta’ institutions to be the family, government, economy, education and religion. North, 1990: 3, 5; Harper et al., 2012: 15.
- Key features of institutions are the following – They are brought to life by people and organizations (North, 1990; Leftwich & Sen, 2010).
They provide a relatively predictable structure for everyday social, economic and political life. Institutions shape people’s incentives (or calculations of returns from their actions) and behavior. They establish a predictable, though not necessarily efficient or uncontested structure for human interaction (North, 1990: 6).
Some argue institutions shape but do not necessarily always determine behavior (Leftwich & Sen, 2010: 9).
They lead to enduring patterns of behavior over time but they also change. Institutions are constantly being reformed through people’s actions (Giddens, 1984). Institutional change structures the way societies evolve (North, 1990: 3). However, institutionalized behaviors can be hard to change.
They produce positive or negative development outcomes. This depends on the kinds of relations and behaviors that institutions enable, and the outcomes for the enjoyment of rights and allocation of resources in society (Leftwich & Sen, 2010).
Institutions are both formal and informal. Formal institutions include the written constitution, laws, policies, rights and regulations enforced by official authorities. Informal institutions are (the usually unwritten) social norms, customs or traditions that shape thought and behaviour (Leftwich & Sen, 2010; Berman, 2013). Development practitioners have tended to prioritise formal institutions, viewing informal ones as separate and often detrimental to development outcomes (Unsworth, 2010).
- In practice, formal and informal rules and norms can be complementary, competing or overlapping (Jütting et al., 2007: 36; Leftwich & Sen, 2010: 17). Whether they are relatively more strong/weak or inclusive/discriminatory is likely to depend on context (Unsworth, 2010). In some cases, informal institutions undermine formal ones; in others they substitute for them (Leftwich & Sen, 2010: 17; Jütting et al., 2007: 35-36). Informal social norms often shape the design and implementation of formal state institutions (Migdal, 2001; Jütting et al., 2007: 7).
- Let us note the following – Institutions should not be mistaken with buildings or physical structures. They rather refer to a set or series of rules, practices and procedures which govern the smooth functioning of societies. Institutions involve rules and norms, but some of these rules and norms are almost imperceptible and rely on a series of layered conventions and assumptions to maintain order and harmony in society. Concerning the link between development interventions and institutions, DFID argues that development interventions are more likely to succeed if they promote improvements at the wider level of institutions. (Without institutional reform, for instance, poverty alleviation programmes can fail – a basic truth that explains the glaring failures and indeed the poverty of most of poverty alleviation programmes in a number of third world economies).
- Family, marriage, government, banks, religious organizations, social clubs, parliaments, schools etc are all institutions. One can argue a certain biologism when examining institutions and their functions. Marriage as institution, for instance, functions to ensure social stability, reproduction and production. Places of religious worship function as defenders of morals, morality and social ethics.
- The age grade system in Igbo society is an example of a social institution that is society specific. The KKK is not an institution but an organization but the rules and norms of white supremacy and racial privilege on which it is built and sustained are aspects of an institution of systemic racism.
- The police and the criminal justice system are institutions designed to save society from anarchy, the rule of brute force and to ensure the protection of the weak.
- Banks, investment houses, the stock exchange are all institutions meant to sustain economic growth by ensuring greater predictability and protection in financial dealings and flows. The civil society, the industrial unions, the town associations are all institutions all designed to permit greater citizenship participation and ownership.
- In the domains of governance and politics, one comes across a vast array of institutions, each with a number of functions and some with overlapping functions, rules and norms Some scholars have isolated three sets of political institutions – these are the State, Rule of law and institutions that make for accountability.
- The state is defined as a structure that holds the monopoly of legitimate violence. In this view, the state represents a concentration of power and capacity for enforcement. The modern state is impersonal, best run on merit and talent and by an efficient bureaucracy. Rule of law represents an institution that allows for the power of the state to be held in check. According to Fukuyama, the rule of law is a constraint on the executive and embedded in a separate independent judiciary.
- The last in the tripod of political institutions are accountability mechanisms that cover issues such as procedural and moral accountability and responsibility.
- We can also say in a wider conception of institution that the judiciary is an institution, so are the legislature and the executive and these three need to be kept separate in good governance is to survive and thrive. The press is an institution, sometimes even called the fourth estate of the realm and is also vital for good governance.
- These four institutions must be kept separate to preserve societies from the menace of tyrants and dictators.
- Institutions thus have functions in society –
They operate to safeguard society.
They make for normalcy and for ensuring that all keep within agreed and often unwritten norms
They define expectations, responsibility and establish accountability based on agreed division of labor. Institutions are interlinked such that one weakness in one can lead to weakness in another and in several others. While some are society specific, some have rules and norms that are universal.
- Institutional development is a complex process which draws from and build on local realities. The dynamics of institutional change are complex. Creating institutional change is a slow difficult process and some times involves changes in cultural beliefs, norms and assumptions. Such change can often meet with resistance. For this reason, it is important from the outset to establish the development outcomes of any proposed institutional change.
- It is critical to distinguish between the organizational changes and the changes in the wider institutional framework needed to achieve these outcomes. Organizational problems are usually visible and tangible while those to do with institutions may be invisible but determine how people operate in society.
- Institutional interventions (those that deal with institutional problems) can be divided into two areas: policy reform and improved service delivery. Organizational interventions, on the other hand, can be at three levels: structure, systems and human resources
- Successful interventions (be these at organizational or institutional levels) require the active participation of all the stakeholders in diagnosing the problems to be tackled and deciding on the actions to be taken. They also require the following i) Accessing important sources of information and research material to inform both the institutional and organizational appraisal ii) Identifying the key people in implementing the intervention along with their roles and responsibilities. iii) Designing an effective strategy and programme for implementation of the planned intervention, and taking action if a programme becomes stalled and iv) Putting effective evaluation and monitoring systems in place so that there will be clear evidence that the goals of the intervention have been achieved.
- Threats to the solidity to democracy that these three institutions contribute to begin to surface when topics like benevolent dictatorships, authoritarian modernizers and well-meaning authoritarianism are allowed to creep into the public discourse.
- Tyrants are very fond of such notions and they encourage the uptake of discourse that promote and justify them to creep and seep into the public domain. Things like benevolent dictatorships and authoritarian modernization are unsustainable and their presence in public discourse should be seen as red flags.
- For one thing, models inspired by such notions eventually build the cult of the strong man, and such a strong man is usually insensitive to and non-receptive of feedback.
- Such developments are red flags, and once these begin to appear, institutions come under threat – both in terms of solidity and stability
- Essentially such institutions are concerned with making power responsible and ensure that decisions taken by the executive serve the common good
- The rule of law therefore represents norms of justice that are applicable to all without exception
- Standard orthodoxy holds that social progress depends on the solidity of institutional arrangements
- Some development theorists have argued that development is impossible in the absence of strong institutions, that institutions safeguard development and make them sustainable.
- Some others have also argued that you do not really need institutions for development to occur, that institutions involve too many transaction costs and that development, any way, brings institutions in its wake. The questions that then emerges is a chicken and egg one – which came before the other. A related and often ignored question is that of the trade-offs involved.
- Each one of these two possible views implies a view of development – both in terms of its social drivers, the role of people participation in it and the whole question of sustainability. Though views on development may vary and clash, there is a strong consensus among development practitioners on the role of good governance in promoting development.
- Such an emerging consensus is now leading scholars and practitioners to devote more and more time to understanding those institutions that combine to enable societies to have all the benefits of good governance.
- Good governance is about public service that is efficient, effective, responsive, transparent, accountable, consensus oriented and participatory. These qualities of Governance all add up to contribute to society’s social capital. Social capital forms the structure on which most other capitals – economic, financial, knowledge, intellectual, legal – are built
- Tyrants and dictators whether of the left or from the right are the greatest threats to the stability of social institutions, and thus to good governance and ultimately to the sanctity and the rights of the citizen. A system of checks, balances and rules are usually put in place to keep such institutions functional and thriving. Dictators and tyrants do their best to undermine the functioning of such institutions.
- They try to do this by undermining and weakening institutions through a number of egregious acts that threaten and eventually undermine and subvert such institutions. They do or try to do through several strategies viz
• They de-legitimize such institutions. They trivialize such institutions
• They underfund such institutions.
• They influence and corrupt the leadership of key societal institutions
- Other antics include the attack and demoralization of the judiciary and legislative institutions.
• Parliament is bought over with generous and its members are seduced to soil their hands with generous gifts.
• Anti-corruption agencies are converted to instruments for personal vengeance and attacks against opponents.
• The corruption of anti-corruption agencies is a major feature of the demise of institutions
- Other institution bashing moves include the following:
• some Institutions become co-opted as willing hatchet persons whose primary assignments and ultimate deliverable is the discrediting and eventual drowning of existing institutions.
• The police and other law enforcement agencies are perverted.
• organs of government, especially the judiciary are bought over and soon begin to deliver judgements that put their whole integrity and the credibility of their judgments in doubt.
- As these processes are unleashed on an indifferent or tolerant society, one begins to notice that the strong man who arrived as a liberator and reformer is gradually morphing into a tyrant. Most times, this strong man/woman rides in on a wave of public disenchantment with existing social stasis which he exploits to wrest extra-judiciary and legislative powers. He or she demonizes the leaders of institutions that they cannot buy over. Suddenly elections are decided by the courts and judges appointed by the strongman/woman. Soon justices, judges and magistrates court the friendship of their strong man/woman who eventually curtails their powers and tenure according to his/her whims and pleasures
- The strong man/woman unleashes a campaign of harassment and terror against such any institutional leadership that is bold enough to speak out. The strong meddles, pesters and slowly and subtly hijacks the organs and institutions of the state and converts these to attack dogs, rottweilers and agents of terror
- He perverts, through a series of accretions, the ethos and functioning of some institutions. The long-term objective is the hijack and personalization of Institutions of the state.
- New structures with hazily defined functions but limited accountability to the public are soon spawned. Constitutional provisions are ignored or spurned. A gradual attack on civil liberties with the complicity of an emasculated and perverted judiciary soon commences and pucks up speed. Civil society and the press are muzzled. Laws limiting freedom of expression and are rushed through to legitimize new and emergent forms of illegitimacy
- Soon a new norm, corrupt in intention, warped in its formulation and odious in its outcomes starts being installed. Decency is dismantled progressively and existing institutions soon begin to lose their internal autonomy. The structure and composition of some state institutions are soon changed by such usurpers. When institutions are forced and rushed through such changes, they begin to lose their credibility in the eyes of the public. They also become weaker. Weak institutions allow for further weakening and social abuse.
- Because institutions are organically linked and exist in some form of hierarchy, a weakening of one institution transmits some weakening to other institutions engaged in similar civic protection functions. For example, a weak legislative invariably leads to a weak judiciary, which in turn leads to a weakening of institution concerned with the protection of civil liberties
- One of the greatest threats to the autonomy of institutions is their personalization by such power usurpers. Features of such usurpation and perversion/hijack of functions of public institutions is their use to settle personal scores and not for the service of the people. Sadly, such selfish exploitation of the functions of public institutions is accompanied by the acquiescence of the public in the loss and suspension of personal liberties. The justification and rationalization of this loss of personal freedoms is usually done by invoking the idea that this is being done for a superior public good.
- Strong ambitious individuals are a threat to institutions of state. Insensitive individuals are the worst enemies of institution. Dictators hate institutions. Institution bashers hate institutions. Tyrants work to weaken institutions. Such persons can achieve these feats because of the lethargy and indifference of the public.
- The dismantling of institutions thrives in a situation where the public is lethargic Institution dismantling thrives in an atmosphere of stakeholder and citizen indifference. Africa has had more than its fair share of such institution dismantlers. In this regard, a reading of Michela Wrong’s “In the footsteps of Mr. Kurtz; living on the brink of disaster in Mobutu’s Congo” is most revealing and instructive. Mobutu was the institution dismantler par excellence.
- Often times, such dismantling is done in slow imperceptible stages such that by the time the public wakes up, a lot has been lost and is difficult to pull back. Such usurpers usually sell themselves to a gullible public as messiahs who have come to redeem society and restore its sanity. A cult of the person is carefully cultivated such the strong individual is easily allowed to usurp functions and roles that are not his/hers.
- Selfish individualism and an absence of social cohesion breeds anomie and criticism which then encourage institution dismantles of rashness and further knavery. Civic timorousness encourages usurper temerity. Fela said it well -“I no wan die”, “Papa dey for house”, “I wan enjoy” – are all attitudes which lead to societal indifference.
- Responsible citizens must all unite to resist the dismantling of institutions of democracy. They must overcome divisions that usurpers try to exploit. The common divisions that such usurpers appeal to are those of Creed and Breed. Such usurpers also appeal to Greed existing in society to recruit an army of followers who they use to advance their selfish and socially destructive purposes.
- Andrew Marantz in an article in the New Yorker of November 16 2020 identifies the key risks that institutional violators and power grabbers who I prefer to describe as progressive institutional rapists pose to democracy. Marantz goes on to describe how the actions of such persons can lead to the norms and rules of institutions growing weaker over years or decades without people noticing. He also points out that there often are decisive moments of contestation and confusion that such violators and authoritarian power grabbers stoke and exploit to steal power and damage institutions. Maurice Latey, in Tyranny, A Study in the Abuse of Power makes similar observations.
- When institutions are destroyed or perverted, the destroyer becomes stronger and the larger society gets weaker following the rapid loss of freedoms – society must therefore come together to challenge, resist and pushback. Your personal freedoms and liberties depend on such resistance as these institutions are the bulwarks for the defense of personal freedoms.
- Options for resisting such erosions of the protective power of institutions include strategic non-violent activism and civil resistance for security, rights and access. John Lewis’ concept of good trouble should inspire all civil rights defenders here, whether these be individuals protesting the perversion and conversion of agencies and institutions for citizen protection to instruments of citizen persecution, extortion and exploitation. Good trouble is a good way to protect those institutions that were meant to protect us from abuse. Silence is not an option.
- Acquiescing in the dismantling of such protective institutions therefore amounts to selling your liberty and freedom. Rights and freedoms must be defended.
Noel Ihebuzor 18/11/2020
Useful sources on institutions
DFID Guidelines on Promoting Institutional and Organisational Development (2003a) provide an overview of institutions and institutional change.
Leftwich and Sen (2010) define institutions and their policy implications for donors.
Giddens (1984) explores the role of structure and institutions in society.
Harper et al. (2012) explain different understandings of institutions.
Helmke and Levitsky (2004) summarise the literature on informal institutions.
Jütting et al. (2007) summarise key issues on informal institutions and development.
North (1990) provides a seminal definition of institutions and institutional change.
Unsworth (2010) explores the interaction of formal and informal institutions. – « Inclusive institutions on the development agenda, How institutions shape development outcomes »
By Noel A. Ihebuzor
The word count is 295, that is when you include the title; less than a page of typed text but “Dressed like a Prince” (DLAP) is a great story. Brevity does not deny it depth and breadth. Rather, brevity is used cleverly to accentuate depth and to increase the poignancy of the tragedy it narrates. DLAP is a story that stirs, that sears your body and soul and one which overwhelms you in the end by its delicately handled pathos, a pathos that has none of the antics of pity porn that tear streamer tales usually resort to. The start of the story is abrupt but innocuous enough, children desiring new clothes on the occasion of Nigeria’s Independence day celebration. Narration is through a third person. We meet the vocally talented and light-hearted Godspower and his aspirations to a career in music, ambition in sharp contrast to the reality of the extreme poverty he lives in with his sister. Their poverty is aptly and economically conveyed through their tattered clothes. Close by to them in a neighbourhood called “America”, are signs of opulence. Living in such close proximity to affluence only accentuates their and the reader’s senses of social inequities in our society. Two sub-themes flow like quiet streams shaping the story and increasing our empathy for these two children trapped in an exceptionally difficult situation. These themes are the possible deaths of their parents in Yobe (victims of religious violence?) and the failure of our child protection systems to pick up these children and provide them some protective care. (Grandma headed households in urban settings are usually very deprived, so we can imagine the daily existence of Godspwer and his sister).
We learn that urban demolition is on-going in “America”. The two children are drawn to the scene where they rummage in the rubble and find a bag half-filled with clothes. They grab this and run. And the noose of tragedy suddenly tightens around the necks of these already traumatised lives. Urban jungle justice is swift and savage. And it is only in death that Godspower eventually gets the decent dressing he had so longed for in life but never got. Where were these kind neighbours who contributed to buy the suit in these children’s moments of need, we ask silently as we read? The story prompts other questions too – questions on indifference, the collapse of our social safety nets and human savagery!
DLAP is a slap on our faces and our consciences. It is many things – an indictment of the failure of our child protection systems and a sad commentary on the inadequacy of social provisions in our societies. It is also a reminder of the savage that lurks in each one of us, the savage that accounted for the tragedy in #Aluu 4. StNaija has written a very moving story, a story of poverty and death, the death of a child and by implication of the underlying progressive death of social institutions that should ensure that the deprived and underprivileged have life. By locating the death on the day that our country was born, St Naija also sends a very strong message to us all. Should a child die in the midst of plenty on the day of birth of our country? We can only wonder why. We can also wonder on the anonymity of the location and with that the anonymity, the implied message that sad events similar to those in DLAP could be repeating right next door to us, in our very town, in our own very neighbourhood. What are we doing? St Naija has written a troubling story about our troubled land. Her skills in micro fiction come out very beautifully as she effectively exploits a number of literary techniques to tell her story and jolt us. The mastery of the skills in writing flash fiction displayed by the author, the theme as well as the handling of theme commend this piece of art that says so much with so few words.
Good things are happening in our land and one of them is this flowering of fresh talents in literary creativity as evidenced in the works of ladies like Kemi Ogunniyi, Ego Okoro and N. Bassey
Noel A. Ihebuzor
The big pot on the fire
slowly cooks a rot of a plot,
rotters, revellers and rioters,
sing and rejoice, copiously salivating
the glimmering prize in sight, tantalizing
We must not talk or sulk or balk
The dropping romps of the cooks and crooks
too obvious to even non-looking eyes,
the fevered stirring of this sticky broth
a mish-mash pot-pourri cobbled by a medley
of assorted chefs of drooping and dangling mores,
tired and tiring broth
to be served for our famished jaws
We must not talk or sulk or balk
Doom beckons coyly in this season of declining bloom
nimble fingers play with our minds chords,
clever tongues sing swans to dull us
the ever hungry lion
spins his wealth on our common loom
glows and swims in an ocean of wealth
whilst all around us
lame lambs drown in pool of poverty
in a season of plenty
We must not talk or sulk or balk
And all this dance of drunken lizards and
dead beat rats racing almost dazed,
looking for who to bait and bite.
We must not talk or sulk or balk
We must like Isaiah go the slaughter
with laughter, “shuffering & Shmiling”
but with no salvation in sight
By Noel A. Ihebuzor
(A response to this poem which pains and troubles me)
I veil my face
I fake, I affect a pace
I strike a pose to please
I part unveil my ware
to attract, to beckon, to appeal,
all to strike a better bargain
on these dark streets,
where for a fare fair
I fair sell my flesh and frame,
me tame, soul lame, filled with shame
before rates of exchange
driven hard, harsh, heartless
unequal, the weak cannot bargain
I empty my soul,
as he emptyng inside me, also empties me
so much pain,
for so paltry a gain
all so that you, my child
will not be empty
when you rise
In the mornings, when you rise
clad in your innocence,
as you eat and fill up, I sing for you
but also to forget, my smiles fake, as guilt
and self-pity gnaw at my insides
And I sink, I sink and sing to forget.
By Noel A. Ihebuzor
Title – Today na Today
Author – Biko AGOZINO
Publishers – Omala Media Ltd, Awgu, Enugu
Year of Publication – 2013
I have just been privileged to read a collection of poems most of them in pidgin English by Biko Agozino. Onwubiko Agozino (Biko), is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA
The collection, titled “Today na Today” is made of 36 poems, 31 of which are in pidgin English and the last 5 in standard English. The poems treat a broad range of contemporary social issues in Nigeria from life in our typical urban ghettos characterised by “face me- I face you” type of accommodation to protests over the conditions of host communities in the oil rich Niger delta of Nigeria. The issues covered are indeed broad but a common thread of social relevance unites them all. Take the poem “Fire the devil”. Here Biko slams with very biting wit the rise in a theology that seeks explanations for social failings in the unceasing interference of the devil. Or consider “Black sperm” where the poet describes and takes issues with the social consequences of new developments and possibilities in fertility management and reproductive choices, especially the whole issue of sperm banks and artificial insemination.. “Time na Money” starts off innocently on the title of a song by Okri but ends up with a deep and shattering broadside on an enlarging cult of materialism. Poor people pay more is particularly disturbing and contains lines that etch their words in the minds of the reader
“Them fit prospect for oil self right inside we wife and daughters’ thighs
We only beg make them rub small oil for we cassava leaves make them shine”
These are strong words. These are powerful condemnations of the activities of the oil companies in the Niger Delta (ND) whose failures and negligence along with other failures explain the abject poverty of the ND.
One cannot in a short review of this nature cover all the poems in the collection but a few deserve special mention – Dialectical dialogue, Yabbis, Capital punishment, Slum dwellers, Odyssey, Below sea level, Too Much Generals, Knowledge be privilege, Again born again, You be witch and Brain drain all stand out. Each in its special way takes up an aspect of our social life and our experience of it, be it as voluntary emigres in God’s Own country or as forced prisoners/participants in the gaols of our country where social services are almost comatose, social inequities and cleavages are on the increase, misery and despair so palpable and a tendency to play blame games on the ascendancy and dissects this with a blend of humour, sarcasm, irony, wit and some compassion. But for my concern not to enflame current sensitivities concerning the Igbos and the Nigerian state in the 1967-70 period and even beyond, I would also have mentioned “Forgive” as one of the poems that stand out given its plea to the Igbos to forgive the wrongs done them during the civil war. I will keep clear of that. The topic is too delicate, but the theme of Victory song, a poem which celebrates the victories of the ANC and Mandela among others, is not. Read it and rejoice with the successes of the liberation struggles. Read it but please do not say “Cry, the beloved country” for some of the failed dreams, unfulfilled expectations and matters arising in the present from those brave liberation struggles of the past.
The last five poems in standard English (is there such a thing, by the way) – Abu jah, Say Sorry, Massa day done, Con and Blue – are a delight to read. Abu Jah is troubling as it reveals all the shenanigans and shoddy dealings in our new capital city, a city, where for example, one family gets allocated 8 plots of choice land out of 16,000 plots in a country of 160,000, 000 people and the person who was principally involved in making the allocation is either unable or incompetent to recognise his guilt and to say “Sorry”! “Say Sorry” is a listing of our failings in society, failing we should be sorry for and to turn away from. I could go on but it is best I stop here to allow the reader discover and enjoy this collection of poems where art is used to project social conditions, contradictions and challenges for herself or himself as I have done.
Biko has certainly enriched the literary world with this collection of poems. Some of the poems betray his Igbo origins in their choice of words, cadence and rhythm! “My water pot it done broke” in its form, structure, especially repetitiveness of lines, has all the elements of the akuku ufere – akuku ifo (poem tale usually with a refrain) we used to chant as children during moonlight plays – “Ebele mu akuwala”.
I just have one problem with Biko’s efforts to write in pidgin – Biko him pidgin no trong at all at all – him pidgin na oyibo pidgin. Him pidgin na “ajebo” pidgin. He mixes correct English forms with pidgin forms (he uses “them” instead of dem, for example). This is a weakness and a “corruption” of our “ogbonge” pidgin. But we can pardon this “corruption”once we realise that this professor of sociology and Africana plus poet at Virginia Tech, VA, grew up inside Naija but has lived outside the country for more than 20 years in places like the UK, the Caribbean and the US. (Incidentally, his pidgin orthography is similar in many ways to the style of Chinua Achebe who used ‘them’ instead of dem in many of his novels).
The collection is published by a small publishing house, Omala Medsia, based in his home town, Awgu in Enugu State, Nigeria, and it can be ordered from www.lulu.com but I look forward to when this collection can be re-published by a more renowned publishing house but this is beyond the control of Biko or any of us. Decision for that lies with the publishing houses whose choices on what to publish are driven less by literary worth of a manuscript but by consideration of economics and market realities. But here, I stray and dabble into the difficult waters of the sociology of publishing. Happy reading.
An additional treat is that Biko Agozino recorded nine of the poems, mostly at Harry Mosco Studios, Lagos Nigeria with just one recorded at Paramount Studios in Nashville, TN. To listen to the recorded poems, follow the link here. Enjoy.
Noel A. Ihebuzor
@naitwt on Twitter
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.