Sometime in January this year I was in my
hometown Abeokuta. I was interested in seeing how governance had fared and a
close friend had driven me around the town, showing me the modernisations. New
flyovers decked major intersections, revamped roads gleamed under the sunlight,
and pedestrian bridges brimmed everywhere. It was an impressive makeover.

asked my host if Abeokuta residents were satisfied with these improvements. He
replied no. He explained that the state’s health sector was dilapidated. Government
paid little attention to equipping the state hospitals and improving the
primary healthcare system. Healthcare projects still relied heavily on donor
funding. Similarly, the public school system was not exactly a joy to behold.
Human capacity in the civil service remained underdeveloped. Small and medium
scale enterprises creaked under aggressive fees, levies, and taxes.

I had just completed a research stint in
Mauritius, also spending time at their human rights commission studying the
country’s socioeconomic welfare system. Mauritius provides free universal
healthcare and education, free public transportation for students and senior
citizens, unemployment and welfare benefits, and even ‘social aid’ for families
of detainees. Yet, the country’s infrastructural investment has only just
started increasing to improve investment opportunities and tourism. Still,
Mauritius is reasonably more developed than Nigeria.

is frustrating that, whether deliberately or ignorantly, Nigerian politicians
conflate infrastructural investments with development. Lagos State, for
example, carried out the mass displacement of Otodo-Gbame residents to
literally pave way for an estate. But international law, binding on Nigeria
under the African Charter
and the core human rights treaties, defines the principles of development. For
instance, in the Endorois Case against
Kenya, the African Commission noted that the right to development requires the
state to ensure that its policies and projects are equitable,
non-discriminatory, participatory, accountable, and transparent, ‘with equity
and choice as important, over-arching themes’. Development has to be focused on
nurturing the people, not just fashioning the state.

Nigerian citizens are often misled by the simulated notion of development. Our
governments copy and paste infrastructure, mirroring developed countries, but ignore
the systemic socioeconomic empowerment of the people. We have roads and bridges
without comfortable mass transportation systems, hospitals and schools without
quality equipment and staff, and inaccessible government-funded estates while
majority live under horrible conditions. Ultimately, these investment in
‘things’ put us in debt, transfer our resources to external investors and
contractors, displace communities, are abandoned by new administrations, lack
long-term maintenance and deteriorate, or simply have their funds looted.

the majority of Nigerians remain disempowered.

in human capacity and welfare before building cities should be intuitive logic
for all of us. It is worrisome that it took a Bill Gates to make this a
national conversation (and we have already switched to our favourite hobby:
arguing over contestants in politics, sports and reality television). But while
Gates may have spoken specifically on Buhari’s economic policies, the message
cuts across all of Nigeria’s political history and applies at all levels of
government. Nigeria has to adopt a human rights approach to public expenditure
and investment if it is to cease being a dysfunctional country. This requires
that the allocation of economic resources should answer the question: how does
this expenditure protect, promote and fulfil the rights of the citizens? In
other words, public money should be used only in ways that enhance human
dignity and human rights for all members of society.

example, we should buy arms only to demonstrably protect the right to life of
the citizens and not merely to enhance state power or prestige. Similarly,
roads and bridges are not important in themselves, but only to the extent that
they fulfil the right to development of the people. A construction project that
displaces people or creates more hardship in the construction process violates
the right to development.

Nigerian Constitution, problematic as it is, also recognises socioeconomic
welfare as the basis of development. It does not mandate the government to
build megacities. Instead, it directs government to provide ‘adequate medical
and health facilities for all persons’, ‘equal pay for equal work without
discrimination’, ‘public assistance in deserving cases or other conditions of
need’, ‘eradicate illiteracy’ and similar objectives. 

True, unlike Mauritius where many of these
objectives have been realised, Nigeria has a very large population and
geography. However, this point only takes us again to the issue of
restructuring. Human development is best attained within relatively small
political units. We cannot continue with Nigeria’s highly unwieldy centralised
structure. We will need to devolve governance and return land – and the control
and use of its resources – to organic communities under an evolved local system
of government if we are to truly develop our people.

these reforms will disempower our current political class.

now, our politicians are more interested in encouraging photographable projects
with high contractual value, scamming us with ersatz development. As a friend
tweeted a few days ago:

‘When our senators speak at the NASS, they
speak from a place of sentiments and hysterics, quote the Bible, Qur’an and
stray far away empirical facts. They do not care about the citizens and they’ll
never care. We the citizens are out of cards to play.’

is very right.

 Originally published here in my new monthly column for The

Source –