Nigeria: Hubris and the School-Feeding Programme

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines hubris as exaggerated pride or self-confidence. It is tantamount to arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, pride, self-importance, pomposity, big-headedness, and vanity.

It is evidenced by addressing people in proud, dismissive and offensive manner. Perhaps the biggest problem with communication between government and citizens in Nigeria, is the hubris with which government spokespersons address the public.

Their overbearing pride is routinely demonstrated in the contemptuous manner with which they address citizens, characterised by unwarranted excessive confidence and presumptive arrogance that leads them to mistakenly believe they can do no wrong. Personality traits like charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, breadth of vision and persuasiveness are the qualities required for good leadership.

Unfortunately, high office in Nigeria continues to be held by people whose traits are impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice, and a particular form of incompetence indicated by inattention to detail. The ability to make swift decisions, despite public objection, is of particular importance in good leadership.

However, history teaches that wherever there are no constraints at all, political leaders and their appointees become dictators who feel no need to explain anything to the satisfaction of others.

Psychiatrists have carried out several studies in the area of the "hubris syndrome" in political leadership. They identified patterns of behaviour in which people assuming public leadership positions see their office as a place for self-glorification; take actions which primarily enhance their personal interests; confuse their personal interests with the public interest; routinely show manifest contempt for the general public; lose contact with reality, and worst of all lower their moral standards for political expediency.

The penchant for Nigerian political office holders to exude excessive unwarranted confidence in their judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others despite their lack of competence for the details of policymaking is no more apparent than in federal and state government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been too many criticisms of palliative measures which mainly consisted of publicly handing out wads of cash to unidentified persons, to be ignored. It contradicts the adage that it's better to teach people to fish than to give them fish to eat for a day.

The pandemic is bringing home to roost the truth that little has been achieved in reducing the nation's poverty rate which has been increasing since 2015. Valid criticisms of the cash-handout policy which were dismissed at the onset, have been proved to be very much in order. The opaque process has been lambasted after some recipients claimed they were given N20,000 on camera yet went home with only N5,000!

Both the Senate and House of Representatives have condemned the disbursement process. The best that can be said of the response by the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs is that it was both illogical and full of hubris.

Nigerians occupying high office seem to forget that their raison d'etre is to serve.

The question has been posed as to how many of them in their homes would accept pride and haughtiness from their servants, or even allow their house-helps to address them in the manner in which they address the public who are their "masters"? In Nigeria, public servants have become public masters! This is aptly illustrated by the recent announcement that quite incredulously despite schools being closed over the COVID-19 pandemic, the school feeding programme will continue at an undisclosed cost! The minister's defence for this ludicrous announcement can only be classified as full of hubris.

Public opposition to the continuing operation of the defective school feeding programme at this time has been understandably hostile. It's important to bear in mind that hubris is a character trait which concerns an unacceptable manner of addressing people, and insensitivity towards the feelings of others, and most especially about an inability to express empathy.

The minister felt no need to provide any sensible explanation of how the programme can be implemented efficiently with schoolchildren currently at home. Her claim to be using school registers which contain children's names and addresses only led to derision.

No mention was made of who will bear the extra cost of delivering food to various homes as opposed to a school location. It hardly seems plausible that after keeping children out of harms' way at home, government intends to order caterers to visit them, deliver food and possibly spread the virus!

From the onset, Africa's largest national school feeding programme in which the Nigerian government proposed to collectively feed 24 million children, has been beset with problems. In addition to being viewed as simply another treasury looting scheme, there were complaints about poor quality food, delayed payments to suppliers and cooks, and hijack of the programme by politicians.

Furthermore, the cost of the food is subject to dispute, and opponents of the programme rightfully query the logic behind government's willingness to allow approximately 30% of the programme's cost to go towards profits instead of financing schools to run their own kitchens and make use of the profits. It's self-evident that the policy as it stands isn't sustainable.

Against the backdrop of growing criticisms, the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs claims that government mobilised food vendors before the closures and most of them had already purchased food items, therefore, the programme must continue!

The question as to why the food was not diverted to camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) or used to feed almajirai remains unanswered. The minister is not unique in her inability to rationally defend her policies. The school feeding programme is simply another symptom of the malaise in the nation. These days government spokespersons act as if they owe nobody an explanation and everyone criticising inappropriate or misplaced government policies is ignoble.

Until government spokespersons and those occupying high office understand the concept of democratic leadership, apply temperance and civility in their speech, and accept that all wisdom does not lie in the brains of those who are paid through public purse, the chances of Nigeria ever becoming a nation which all citizens can be proud of will remain slim.

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