It has been said that Nigerians, at least at one time, were the happiest people in the world. Whilst you could argue against that at any point in time, you would find it a lot harder arguing against us being the most hopeful people. Hope is the dust our streets are made of. It is the air we breathe. It is the picture we see when we cast our sights on a better tomorrow.
Hope is the one thing that keeps everyone going. Without hope, existence would be completely different from what it is. It is our individual and collective desire to hold on today because tomorrow holds a new promise. It is why we keep going, irrespective of what life throws at us. That primal need to live, believing that whatever it is we are going through, time would deliver on its promise of a better tomorrow. When you reflect upon it, you would see that our most hopeful time as a country is often the period around elections and a new government.
Elections are here again, and we have heard shouts of messiah here and there. One cannot begrudge anyone who believes that there is any one man or woman who would come save this country. As with the right to vote, the right to believe in the near impossible is inalienable. However, one now has more than enough data to state this clearly without a doubt; this Federal Republic of Nigeria will most likely thrive on the back of working and effective subnational governments more than its future lies in the effects that a competent president could bring to bear.
In a world where nuance is dead and context is lost, let me make it clear that we would always be better off with a caring, competent and committed president. There’d never be a situation or context where Nigeria — or any other country for that matter — is better off with an incompetent leader. That ought to go without saying in a sane world, but conversations are more ruled by insanity these days.
Nigerians need their state governments and local governments to work. There is no running away from this. For a country of some 200 million people that is said to likely be 400 million in less than 30 years, our progress and development does not lie only in what happens in Abuja, it lies in what happens in every state capital and the development that filters from those capitals to the inner cities and the rural areas.
In a scenario where you have a competent president and 36 incompetent governors and one where you have an incompetent president and 36 competent governors, ceteris paribus, the second scenario would bring about more development than the first scenario. As we continue to obsess over who becomes president, we should spare some time and care for those we are electing as governors. It also matters that you pay attention to your local government chairpersons.
Some of the numbers we repeat as signals of our underdevelopment are numbers borne out of our failings at the subnational level. If you leave Nigeria, only five West African countries have more people than there are children out of school in Nigeria. This number is the failing of local governments and state governments. Each state has a State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) designed on the back of the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Act of 2004 and adopted as law by the state governments.
Whilst the federal government may concern itself with these issues, the state of primary education in Nigeria is an example of the benefits of a federation; we have seen some states pretend that basic education is a suggestion whilst some other states have stayed true to the spirit of the UBE — to get every child educated — by not only ensuring that children are in school but by ensuring that their teachers are able to carry out their teaching duties according to the claims of their certificates. Check out the state of primary education across Nigerian states, it is one of the most telling effects of leadership at the subnational level — some states are blessed, other states are otherwise.
Whilst the provision of healthcare is the responsibility of the three tiers of government, primary health care is the responsibility of the local government. They are managed collectively via the state governments’ primary health care board. Conversations about maternal and child mortality in Nigeria lose sight of the truth when they aren’t broken down to the numbers per state. When that is done, you start to have an appreciation for what some states are doing to keep their numbers low and what others must do to reduce their numbers.
These examples show that whilst we render some of these statistics as a reflection of the state of the country per issue, we see the challenges better when rendered per state. They also help reflect the essence of federalism. Electing the right president is good, electing the right governors and local government chairpersons is better. The best scenario is to have the right people across the three tiers and arms of government. But if we continue to obsess over who becomes president whilst largely acting like other positions are ceremonial, we’d continue to miss the opportunity to get the best out of each election cycle.
As with previous elections, the 2023 elections will come and go. We would be left with those elected across every tier of government to deliver the dividends of democracy. We must be clear-eyed about the different offices and their effects on our daily lives. Whilst the president becomes our national symbol with decisions that would reflect on us as a people, the local government chairpersons and the governors have a telling impact on our lives. This is an election about getting it right across the board. It would never be enough to just vote for the president and hope for the better.
This piece was published in the THISDAY Newspaper of 10th February, 2023