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Rethinking Nigeria’s social contract

May 5, 2009

The void of leadership can be justified by the lack of a social contract. For as long as our oil-wealth was ‘distributed’ as fuel subsidy, Nigerians were willing to ignore its spendthrift political leaders.

Recent events are turning the tables. Oil prices are dwindling in tandem with output contraction in developed and emerging economies. Rising unemployment, de-leveraging, and the hoarding of cash have reined in private consumption. External indicators that can help us rethink our social contract.

Even more, developed countries are not taking the positive inflationary impact of lower oil prices for granted. In response to climate change and last year’s sky-high oil prices, efforts at finding alternative energy are underway. Necessity, the mother of invention, has thrown the gauntlet at these economies. Thus, cars that run on electricity and hybrid technology are been expedited to ensure their energy security and a greener environment.

Meanwhile in Nigeria is in a gradual transition; from denial to acceptance of the global crisis’ effects on the economy. Government’s financing gap is widening faster than it can fill it. Moreover, alternatives for funding it are wilting. International capital markets, with a sour taste for debt and less appetite for risk, are reworking their investment models. Chances of putting their eggs in a ‘basket case’ are slimming down by the day. Locally funding a 1.6 trillion naira deficit may be a drag. Nigeria’s financial system is still in the throes of a liquidity and confidence crisis. Nonetheless the likes of Lagos state have bucked the trend. However successful, how about repayment?

Internal generation of funds via taxes is therefore now a front burner issue – state governments have turned ingenious at levying taxes. Taxing the citizenry comes with strings attached. Expenditure of money collected will be scrutinised. Accountability and transparency will be demanded. Doctors, teachers etc, will be more willing to go on strike if any whiff of impropriety is smelt. In other words, the advent of an active civic society is bound to burgeon. Hopefully. Credibility to enforce tax compliance is gained when political leaders are seen to be above board in deploying it.

That our society is markedly one of self-enrichment through politics cannot be gainsaid. Public or civil service has become synonymous not with service of the common interest but of self. Today, a major source through which bureaucrats and their cronies enriched themselves is shrivelling. Furthermore, avoidable losses in the stock market – occasioned by brokers and bankers recklessness and the poor oversight by their respective regulators, have caused popular distrust and disdain. In addition, a vocal press – not paid pipers, is willing to unravel dodgy public servants. A good beginning that must be sustained.

Still, does our political system “allow for an orderly transition? Is it competitive enough to prevent discredited leaders from clinging to power?” asks Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords and professor emeritus of political economy, in a recent article. Alas, headlines about second term jousts, cross and mega partying suggests no. Wherein lies the fulcrum to steer our system around? A new social contract is needed.

Leadership may be in short supply but a moribund followership is hardly the lesser of both evils. However abhorring ‘leadership delinquency’ is, to borrow the words of Dr Christopher Kolade, Nigeria’s erstwhile high commissioner to UK, followership must act. He perceptively also notes that “people in their 30s and 40s seem to assume we have to live with it”. No! For starters, likeminded people in each constituency can call their representatives to task. Constructive public debates or town hall meetings, aired live, are one such means.

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