Recently, a friend of mine finally defended his dissertation for a doctorate in Engineering after years of enrolling for the programme. He had graduated with first class in the same discipline before traveling to the United Kingdom on scholarship to study for a master’s degree.
He went further to earn an MBA from the same British university. Upon returning to Nigeria, he commenced a doctoral programme in his primary discipline, computer engineering. In the past seven months or thereabouts, he has undergone a series of oral examinations that culminated in the final one that handed him a doctor of philosophy (PhD) in computer architecture.
My friend’s odyssey pursuing his doctorate in a Nigerian university reinforces my argument about the reason we have remained where we’re as a people. He found the system so frustrating that he abandoned the programme midway and traveled out of the country for other pursuits. He was only able to complete his studies upon return to the country three years after when he, in his words, decided to try give a “final push” to the programme to see where it all ends. On the whole, he spent 11 years pursuing a three-year academic programme! Subtract the three years he left the programme to live abroad, it’s still an incredible eight years.
This friend had tasted a graduate programme in Europe before having a taste of its Nigerian version. His verdict is that in Nigeria’s education system we lack accountability, hence things keep going wrong. In a WhatsApp chat he had with me recently he wrote “In my university in UK, if a programme is for three years and a student stays beyond three years without concluding, an inquiry is immediately activated to find out the reason.
Of course the fault could be anybody’s; the student or the supervisor, but the school needs to know where to put the blame, it needs to know what the problem is so as to be able to take proper action. But in Nigeria, nobody cares, nobody accounts for anything, and nobody takes any responsibility. In those (western) countries, no one plays God because of an ever vigilant culture of accountability.”
I believe the above submission properly and exhaustively situates our problem as a country. It explains why we are unable to get anything right, why nothing seems to work for us, and why even policies and measures that have worked elsewhere have consistently failed here. My decision to peg this write-up on the experience of my friend in a higher institution of learning is to drive home an important point which we often tend to miss: that the problem of accountability in our nation is deeper and more pervasive than we tend to imagine; it is not limited to those in Aso Rock or other government circles, but extends to the entire spectrum of public life.
From the civil service to institutions of learning and from the judiciary to security agencies, everywhere stinks of poor accountability. It has turned our nation into one big oppressive enclave where, in my friend’s words, everyone plays God.
I recall a story told to me by a lecturer colleague of mine who while studying for his doctorate at a public university different from where he works was being delayed by his supervisor who would hold his papers for several months apparently being in no hurry to return them with the feedback to the student. According to this student, during one of such long delays, he had phoned his supervisor to enquire on the status of the particular chapter he submitted months back and the man angrily said to him, “my friend why are you in so much hurry? I spent 10 years doing my own doctoral studies and you are here harassing my life.” This is the level of absurdity you get where there is zero culture of accountability. In a sane country, the man that withheld a supervisee’s papers for several months would have since been dismissed from the system let alone have the opportunity to arrogantly gloat in his irresponsibility.
And guess what? This friend of mine was in no mood to report this matter to higher authorities. He was being cautious. Truth be told; in a higher institution where even a naïve and timid freshman undergraduate is too afraid to report any apparent case of injustice or abuse of power, serious questions must be raised about accountability in such a system. This is one truth ASUU must hear and start its fight for a healthy system from within its backyard. This, anyway, is a topic for another day.
Go to any court in Nigeria, the process of swearing affidavits is hardly straightforward. Judiciary staff members must cheat unwary members of the public, fleecing them of sums far above what is officially charged for such services, often in collusion with touts who hang around the premises. No one cares. Gone are the days when policemen and other security personnel are surreptitious in extorting motorists, now they demand the naira notes as though it is their right.
It happens in broad day light, sometimes very close to their stations, under the nose of their supposedly watching superiors. What of the recurring incidents of policemen being bribed to interfere in civil matters; their rogue practice of arresting of innocent people just to extort money from them, and their lawless mischiefs that have turned the arrest and detention duties of the police into a pay-as-you-go service where once you can provide some money policemen will get your enemy arrested and detained until you are either satisfied or your enemy pays for their “bail”?
Does anybody within the police hierarchy or political authority care? It doesn’t seem. Enter any civil service office to get something done for you, chances are always high that you will be asked to “drop something” and failure to do which may get your mission frustrated. This happens every day and every single hour and yet no one accounts for anything. In many public higher institutions, incidents of imposition of textbooks and handouts by lecturers have continued unabated so much so that a lot of people no longer see anything wrong with that. No one is accountable.
Public accountability is the bedrock of democracy given that democracy is all about being accountable as against being unanswerable and brazen. In other words, where there is no accountability, people who exercise power exercise it based on their whims and caprices, they exercise power for themselves and towards their selfish gain and not for the people and towards a collective gain. Power then becomes an instrument of destruction as against that of building. This explains why a nation like ours that lacks nothing in terms of human and material resources has failed to really get going after all these years.
Years ago, Bishop Matthew Kukah cautioned Nigerians against the wrong mentality that the much taunted dividends of democracy lie in socio-economic developments like road infrastructure, food security, access to health etc. He rightly argued that dividends of democracy, in the true sense, rather subsist in intangible elements such as rule of law, justice, equity, and transparency among others. These non-material factors (which sum up to accountability) are, according to Kukah, the “software” of democracy while material elements like good roads, well equipped hospitals and schools constitute the “hardware” of democracy. Stated differently, the former are the soul of democracy, the spirit of governance, while the latter are the physical manifestation of democracy, the material dimension of governance. It is the former, therefore, that will bring about the latter. There are no two ways about that.
Where there’s no accountability anything goes. Money meant for public infrastructure may end up in private pockets or even get swallowed by a snake! Jobs meant for the best endowed may end up going to the highest bidder, sons, daughters or mistresses of people in positions of authority. Elections may be “won” by a candidate who polled the fourth highest number of votes as against one who polled the highest number. In fact, all manner of absurdities become possible because no one is answerable to anyone. Humans will always act like savage beasts as long as there are no measures to tame behaviour. This is the spectacle that prevails when public accountability is absent.
It’s exactly for the above reason that I was never impressed by either the content or quality of the debate among the presidential candidates in the last general elections. They all talked about how they will build bridges across the Atlantic and construct highways through the Sahara desert without exactly addressing the very reason why previous makers of such laudable promises failed to keep them. Femi Falana, in the build-up to the elections, once made this point quite succinctly. Truth remains that our dear country has never been in want of brilliant ideas or in lack of resourceful humans to execute the ideas. What we have indeed lacked has been the institutional efficiency to drive the implementation of our lofty goals; an efficiency anchored on accountability where people entrusted with responsibilities feel compelled to serve with integrity and commitment. Without addressing this “software” component of governance, all talk about its “hardware” component indeed stands on nothing.
For God’s sake, how the issue of institutional accountability failed to be the rallying point of campaign and debate in the last general elections is annoyingly strange considering our experience over all these years. What were the candidates thinking? That they possess the degree of intelligence, skill and personal integrity which no previous leader of our fumbling nation ever possessed? Or that they have a kind of magic wand to dramatically transform the fortune of the country without having first to restore the institutions through which this transformation will be realised?
Whatever the answer is, one thing I’m sure of is that the question of accountability is one we cannot shy away from if we are really serious about changing the course of our nationhood. I would expect presidential candidates to be articulate, firm and with unblinking attention to details in speaking to the issues of public accountability in government, in civil service, in schools, in the police, in the customs, in the military, and in fact everywhere.
This will not only be evidence of one who understands the problem and knows how to solve it, but will as well serve in focusing the minds of the citizenry on what everyone must do in their capacity as civil servant, teacher, lecturer, police officer, custom officer etc in working towards the new era. In other words, it will be a potent way of rallying the citizenry to become the change they desire as against the prevailing disposition where everyone wants the system to change yet is unwilling to change their old habits.
Unfortunately, we seem not to be conscious of this fact or are merely choosing to ignore it. In my honest view, until we have an electioneering discourse where candidates and citizens will engage issues related to how to tame the this demon of poor accountability that has pervaded the entire spectrum of our public life – from Aso Rock to the lowliest office in the public service – we may yet be failing to locate the right trajectory in our chequered effort to journey to the promised land.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.