Nigeria: Making Nigeria's Change Count


May 29, 2015 stood out as one of the most important dates in Nigeria's history. For many, it was Nigeria's epiphany.

For the first time since Nigeria's independence in 1960, an opposition party is took over government through the ballot. Never had a ruling party lost election at the federal level in Nigeria. The event redefined Nigeria's political landscape; it reinforced the primacy of the citizen's ballot and showcases Nigeria as a maturing democracy.

Nigerians did not only see this date as a seismic change in politics but a beginning of a genuine development and emancipation of its people from poverty, corruption and insecurity. The only change that matters to Nigerians at this point is a change that transforms the nation's immense natural resources into a better life for its citizens; a change from dictatorial to accountable democracy; a change from impunity to the rule of law and a change that recognizes the sovereign power of the office of the citizen.

May 29 came at a time when the nation is facing deep dysfunctionalities and existential contradictions. The prognoses are dire, especially at a time where power generation is at an all season low. Nigeria, a country with a population of over 160 million people, generates less than 2000 megawatts of electricity. Presently, the economic life of the nation is practically grounded, due to acute shortage of gas and electricity.

Unemployment rate is well above 20 percent while youth unemployment is estimated to have reached 54 percent.

While the World Bank puts the poverty rate at about 31 percent, many Nigerians and indeed development experts place it at around 69 percent.

The challenge of leadership in the last decade has entrenched corruption. There are claims that the country loses close to 50 percent of its budgetary earmarks to graft. Insecurity persists within large portions of communities in the North East and North West as a result of serious threats from Boko Haram. Whilst other parts of the country are not spared from sporadic inter-ethnic violence and episodic onslaught of armed criminal groups. The overall economic outlook of the nation is grave. To put it simply, every facet of the nation's life is confronted with one challenge or the other.

While this long list of woes triggered the change in government that the nation has now experienced, it has also heightened Nigerians' distrust of government and undermined citizens' zeal to perform their civic duties to the country. Sadly, the election season has reinforced the social cracks and exposed the polarization that exist along ethnic and religious lines. Paving the way for Nigeria to be considered a socially fractured country.

The new government with all its promises of change is fraught with internal contradictions. The All Progressives Congress (APC), which just won power, can best be described as an amalgam of strange bedfellow with no clear unifying political ideology except wining power. It has in its folds characters who were formally members of the outgoing ruling party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

The only credentials they bring to the APC is their financial strength which could be seen as investments. The repayment terms are yet to be seen. Of course the APC has people of impeccable credentials but no one is in doubt that the fight for the soul of the party will be a tough one between the progressives and the political investors, who carry with them their own corruption baggage. The personal integrity of the new president seems to be all the party has going for it.

On May 29, Nigeria experienced a change in government. However, achieving a change in governance will require some backbreaking work on the part of the new government, civil society, development community and Nigeria's international friends. Though there are no quick fixes to the challenges the nation is confronted with, there are opportunities for quick gains.

This new government must be a government of positive symbolism. It must lead by example. It has to be clear from the body language of the government that true change has come and it shall no longer be business as usual. Important decisions must be taken in the first few days of the administration. The new administration will need to clearly demonstrate how to reduce the cost of running the presidency, appoint people of impeccable repute and sterling skills to the presidential cabinet and institute a zero tolerance for corruption within the government ranks.

The president must demonstrate commitment to the Nigeria project by establishing through words and action that his only interest is for a unified Nigeria, putting to rest any ethnic or religious agenda. The new government has to demonstrate it is subject to the law and ensure that it doesn't brook any act of impunity. The culture of impunity that places government above checks and public accountability has been one of the greatest pitfalls of previous administrations in Nigeria.

History cannot repeat itself, and this new government cannot afford to make the same mistake. The only way to restore the battered credibility of the presidency in Nigeria is to ensure that government is open, accountable and subject to its laws. It must run a lean government, especially against the backdrop of the debilitating economic realities of the nation.

These recommendations are easier said than done. Given the prevailing public sector challenges especially the culture of rent seeking, Nigeria will require help from the international community to embark on much needed reform to prune and reset its public sector to effectively deliver on the change that the nation so desperately yearns for.

The international community should not make the mistake of celebrating Nigeria as a success. If anything, this new government will require sustained technical and financial support; constructive criticism and most especially international respect to help it provide the needed leadership that Africa currently lacks.

The greatest recipe for the success of this administration will be a sustained engagement with citizens. The relationship with the citizens must be responsive and consultative. Here, civil society has a role to ensure that citizens' voices are amplified, information about what government is doing available to the public and political and legal consequences are imposed when government fails.

Development partners will need to provide the needed support to CSOs that would enable them play this critical role of citizens' mobilization. The change in government in Nigeria was made possible by citizens. Citizens can again turn this change into one that concretely impacts their lives and the development of the country.

As we usher in this new administration, it is worth stressing that this could possibly be Nigeria's last best chance to reset and reposition itself. As they say in South East Nigeria, agba mbu otu n'ogwe, agba ibo otu ni ogwe obu so ogwe ka apiri aki? (loosely translated as "you cannot shoot your arrow in the wrong direction twice").

Udo Jude Ilo is Country Officer at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) based in Nigeria. Follow him on twitter: @udoilo

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