From government to governance

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By Sam Amadi

This past Christmas, I took a closer look at how folks live in the rural side of eastern Nigeria. I also chaired a workshop on local government and socio-economic development in Nigeria. It was a rewarding experience moving through some of the rural communities in Imo State. The weather may be very salubrious, and the people may be as upbeat as they can be, in spite of very crushing economic realities. But there is little or no governance.

There is no real experience of law enforcement despite the spate of violent crimes, except in the circumstances where the police officers accompany one of the city’s big men to his country home. What you will generally refer to as government, in terms of public sector facilitation of economic and social transactions, is non-existent.

If government is about providing public goods and fixing the social and economic challenges that inhibit the people in their quest for better life, then there is no government in much of Nigeria. If government is the overbearing officialdom, the extortion of whatever it is the people have scratched from an unyielding earth, then there is government aplenty.

If government is about the expansive bureaucracy that oils the wheels of conspicuous consumption of the few that has won the battle for the treasury, then there is government everywhere. If government is fixing potholes and helping rural folks access farmlands and markets, there is little government anywhere in Nigeria.

Nigeria suffers the absence of governance, the absence of social order, the failure to maintain law and order, the disinterest in the welfare of the people. The absence of governance means that the vast resources in rural communities are literally dead. Large swathes of land are abandoned for up to 10 years because of the lack of human resources and machines to effectively cultivate the land.

Under a proper business model, these lands would be productive and yield abundant crops for food and export. But they are abandoned. They are not productive. There is no one to provide the incentives to turn them into cultivated land because, although there is government, there is no governance.

The local government chairman is a partyman whose job is to hold the lines and get the federal allocation back to the Governor, the big boss. He is not expected to create wealth. Therefore, he does not need to nurture the land.

The Peruvian economist, Hernando De Soto, famously summarized the crisis of development in poor countries as the fact of dead capital. In De Soto’s rendition, these economies are not performing because, unlike the economies of the developed West, their land resources are not catalyzed by the visible hands of the state to become fungible for commercial purposes.

This observation unleashed the rash of legal reforms in the form of digitalized and optimized land registries and new land laws in developing countries. The thousands of hectares in my communities are twice dead: they are not fungible, and they are not cultivated. They cannot be used to raise credit for trade; and they cannot be used to grow food for subsistence. And you wonder why poverty and starvation is growing in Nigeria?

The challenge of the 21st Century for the African state is what to do with the state. The state and society problematic has received considerable thought from political economists. In many African countries, the state is either predatory or disordered. We are seeing the return to primitive banditry in differing forms.

In places like Guinea and Mali, government as representation and stabilization has been replaced by government as roving banditry. In Nigeria, where terrorists and bandits are franchising communities and imposing taxation, government is a localised phenomenon, both in spatial and ontological sense. The state is both illegitimate and ineffective.

In 2022, as we stare into the depth of poverty and social disorder, we face a dilemma. What do we do with government? The dominant neoliberal advisory from multilateral financial institutions and their development partners is to deemphasize the state and look unto the profit and non-profits sectors as the drivers of development. This advisory is helped by the rise of billionaire capitalists in Africa, especially Nigeria.

The logic is that the African state is a drag on development; get past the state, let the entrepreneurs flourish. The other perspectives bolstered by Robert Wade’s interpretation of East Asian economic miracle argues for a developmentalist state, a state actively changing behaviour and creating markets where none exists. This is what the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Gunnar Myrdal calls ‘super planning’. A dirigiste state. Where should we go? What do we do with the state?

Going through the wastelands across the eastern part of Nigeria this Christmas, I am struck with the sense that it does not matter whether we want a small or big state, a minimalist or dirigiste government, we just need to have governance. If development is transformation, we need a functional social order, we need a social ordering to help the people raise capital, reduce costs, increase yield, mitigate risks, and acquire knowledge to adapt to climatic and social changes. Yes, we don’t need a big and overbearing government. But we need effective governance.

Dr. Amadi is a senior lecturer, Baze University, Abuja and former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission.

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