“…the decisions that most affect our lives as Nigerians are made with the same attention to detail as decisions about what to have for lunch…”
The quality of government-level decision-making in Nigeria deserves scrutiny. How does a President or Governor or Minister come to make up his mind on critical national issues? How much of it is idiosyncratic, how much formally structured?
We’re still suffering the effects of the military era, when military authority infiltrated everything, and it was natural to make decisions unilaterally, and with assumed immediacy of effect. Sani Abacha may have consulted widely before creating states, but he didn’t need to. President Babangida’s first press secretary, Major Debo Bashorun (rtd), says that the decision to style himself “President” instead of the traditional “Head of State” was made by Babangida in the car on the way to his inaugural broadcast to the nation, after the August 1985 coup; such randomness.
I have heard that the burden of the presidency on an ailing President Yar’Adua forced his inner circle to start summarising all memos meant for his attention. George W. Bush was also a ‘summaries’ sort of President, but not for health reasons. Of his style, journalist Wayne Slater said: “He surrounds himself with a very small group of people he trusts, whose instincts he regards well, whose ideas he’ll consider. And rather than read big long memos, he wants one page. Rather than hear 15 minutes of recommendations, he wants to hear a minute. And he wants to hear from a series of people, “What do you think? What do we do about this issue? And he distills from those ideas what his decision is. And he makes a decision and moves on.”
Bush’s friend Clay Johnson said: “He’s … not one to engage people in long philosophical discussions about key issues… He’s not one to review a 200- or 300-page document on some key issue. That’s not the best use of the president’s time.”
While Bush was more a gut-feel kinda guy, Barack Obama brings a studious, professorial air to his decision-making. He has been quoted as saying he “got rid of all the clothes I have except for gray suits and blue suits, so I don’t even have to think about what I put on.” The idea has been to sacrifice the opportunity to make a lot of his mundane personal-life decisions – so that he can focus his time and energy on making the really important ones: presidential decisions.
No one style is necessarily better than the other (perhaps that’s open to debate), but what’s most important at least is a clear self-awareness; knowing that the task of a President is to make decisions that will affect the lives of tens of millions of people, and shape and reshape the future, and even the past. By a political leader’s actions and inactions, lives are very easily built and destroyed on a large scale.
That awareness ought to bring with it a sense of responsibility, and a desire to give decision-making one’s full commitment.
It would be interesting to get a sense of how President Jonathan makes decisions. Every president usually has a kitchen cabinet, a group of people to whom he’s closest. In a country like Nigeria where sycophancy and rumour milling are thriving industries, how does a president or governor or minister sift through confusing and contradictory strands of information, and wild whispering campaigns?
Let’s take the fuel subsidy removal in 2012 as an example. How was the final decision arrived at? Was there anyone in the innermost presidential circle playing Devil’s Advocate, trying to anticipate the pitfalls and landmines? Was the matter seriously discussed by the president? Did people make presentations to him, arguing for and against? Did these happen formally?
We hear a lot of stories about how important decisions are made in informal gatherings, over (alcoholic) drinks. Knowing how Nigeria is, it’s not hard to believe these stories. And there might be nothing wrong with making decisions in those settings some of the time. But if that’s the normal pattern of doing things, then we’ve got a problem on our hands.
And perhaps its evidence of the poorness of our decision-making practices that we see supposedly important decisions released into the public like orphans. No one wants to be identified with a stupid decision. Till date we have no idea who exactly signed off on the document (if one exists) announcing the removal of fuel subsidies in 2012. Was it the President? The petroleum minister? The news appears to have simply filtered into the media, as a PPPRA directive. That was how the June 12 annulment too happened; an unsigned letter faxed from the office of the then Vice President, who it turns out may not have been aware of the decision.
Last year the Federal Government announced an automotive policy that significantly raised duties on imported vehicles. It’s now six months after the policy was announced, but as far as I know there’s no publicly availably copy of that policy. It seems like an off-the-top-of-my-head idea that quickly became binding simply because it had the all-powerful seal of the government on it.
As though we learnt nothing from it, the Federal Government has recently fiddled with the import duties on educational and scientific books, in apparent defiance of a 60-year-old UN agreement, to which Nigeria is a signatory, that precludes that category of books from import duties and all forms of protectionist policy-making. Who did the government consult before making this policy? How was the decision made?
Last year someone decided to set up a blockade to prevent the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited from exporting gas, on the grounds that it was owing the Nigerian Maritime Safety Administration (NIMASA) taxes. The story is that a well-known militant (and beneficiary of a controversial multimillion dollar security contract) ordered the blockade. It went on for almost a month, costing Nigeria hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. As far as I know, there has never been any formal investigation as to who ordered the senseless blockade, and why.
I am convinced that a lot of the time the decisions that most affect our lives as Nigerians are made with the same attention to detail as decisions about what to have for lunch, or what car to take to an event. All countries are by and large the products of the decisions made by its Ogas At The Top. You can tell a lot about the quality of Nigeria’s decisions from its current circumstances.
Still on the matter of decisions, I’m also interested in how we convert statistics into stories, to better inform the decisions we make. Perhaps the problem with economists (and other government policy makers) is that they deal too much in numbers and not in stories.
This inordinate focus on statistics at the expense of stories is evident all around us. Boko Haram murders forty-three children in a school in Yobe and all we see in the papers the next day are the numbers. No names, no lives, no stories. We have a policy of devaluation in place – devaluing victims and tragedies by not giving them a face and a context.
Granted that we’re doing much better with numbers today than ever before. A resurgent National Bureau of Statistics, combined with a number of better-run government bodies, has helped provide us numbers that were not available a decade ago. So now we’ve been told that there are 19 million small and medium businesses in Nigeria, 99 percent of which are actually micro-businesses, employing less than ten persons. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture tells us they’ve got a database of 10.5 million farmers across the country, who today receive seeds and fertilisers through their mobile phones. We have a mobile phone database that holds in excess of one hundred million names.
But we need to also get behind the numbers, and focus on the stories, especially of those who are not the upper and middle class. Who are they, what are their stories? Where are our own versions of ‘Joe the Plumber’?
Earlier this year in Abuja I met a taxi driver who had written an economics textbook. We got into an interesting conversation about the economy and Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi. He has a degree in economics but is forced to drive a taxi to make ends meet. He wants to write more books. Nigeria is full of people like him, PhD holders applying for Dangote transport jobs, Degree holders working as low-level security guards. They are not mere statistics to be played with and adjusted by policy-makers; they are people too.
If we don’t know what the lives of the people are like, how do we make decisions and policies that will benefit them?
You can reach Tolu Ogunlesi on Twitter @toluogunlesi
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