The conventional wisdom has settled on the subject of this year’s presidential campaign; it is about the proper role of government in our nation’s life. This is a good argument to have, but do not expect it to be resolved by the election. Nigerians have been debating the question since before the Constitution was drawn up, and we have not come to terms on it yet.
At the moment, we have got a challenger in the mainstream opposition who embraces the conservative conviction that government must be as limited as possible. In his view, much of what government spends is wasted; a certain American ex-president once said “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is our problem,”. The All Progressives Congress (APC) probably posseses the magic wand to reposition Nigeria on the path of economic development, a feat Nigeria is probably yet to attain or achieve under the present administration by reducing regulation, make cutting taxes the highest priority, and consider a more active government the wrong answer in almost every case. Privatization, contracting out, and a private sector freed from the intrusive hand of government will be the engines of a stronger society. Day dreamers if you ask me because virtually these mechanisms have been employed by a team of economic experts in Jonathan’s cabinet and today Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and rated the third fastest growing economy in the world in spite of the agonizing distractions here and there via jihadist insurgency ravaging the country but Buhari says the Nigerian economy is in shambles! President Jonathan probably controls the World Bank and IMF, the supranational financial institutions that made these ratings and assertions probably to boost his ego.
Against this view we have a Democratic incumbent President Jonathan who has performed excellently well, backed by competent hands who see value in government’s role. They are concerned about social inequality. In this view, public spending is necessary to stimulate the economy when needed and regulation is vital to checking the excesses of the market. There are times, this side would argue, when a muscular government is indispensable to our national fortunes — properly deployed, government can expand opportunities to achieve the Nigerian dream.
The gap between these views seems unbridgeable – especially in the midst of a presidential contest between two parties whose interest lies in highlighting their differences. Yet in the end this fundamental political gulf is not as wide as it appears. Buhari who has been shying away from this presidential debate must be forced to come out and tell Nigerians what his plans are to ‘regenerate’ Nigeria and bring about the changes of which he thinks we stand in need.
This is because the real question in governing is rarely, ‘What is the ideologically proper thing to do?” Instead, it’s how do we run the country day-to-day? And how do we get a diverse group of politicians to make progress on our current problems while putting aside the problems they cannot solve? When Broad Street or natural calamity strikes or schools fail, the pragmatism of the moment always comes to the fore, no matter what ideology elected officials espouse.
Which is where most Nigerians , I mean bigoted critics, find themselves. They do not consider the present administration to be all good. If the gospel must be told this is a government that works well and efficiently, productive as the private sector, exert itself to keep the market functional and get a handle on entitlements so that they are sustainable over the long term. Our people believe that we cannot prosper unless government builds infrastructure, protects property rights, helps develop the economy, sustains basic scientific research, undergirds the development of human capital, sets up and protects the social safety net, but do they realize that Nigeria is not on a par with other developed and high-income economies around the world?
In essence, government is a tool – it is one of the ways that we as Nigerians meet the challenges that confront us, whether it is fighting a terrorist attack or educating our children, safeguarding our retirement, undergirding commerce, and protecting the country’s natural treasures for everyone to enjoy. Government may not be the highest, broadest purpose of the nation, but most people recognize that without it, we cannot prosper.
So while many people may feel that the federal government sitting in Abuja has too much power, they still want it to protect their interests. This is why we will probably never reach a consensus on the proper role of government. We are more likely to work out solutions issue by issue, trying to reach a pragmatic solution for the problems we face as a nation.
The nation’s current fiscal difficulties will surely force government to do less than many people want, and the public sector will have to become smarter, more productive, and more efficient. This is not a bad thing. But no matter who is in charge, we are unlikely to veer too far left or too far right, because the debate over the proper role of government will remain unsettled. And that’s not a bad thing, either.
Iyoha John Darlington writes, aka Lington Donovan, a social activist, political analyst and public commentator on national and global issues writes from Turin, Italy.