By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has policy, but nothing more. – Albert Camus
What is the conscience of government in Nigeria? As a famous 2016 Pew Research Centre poll reminds us, many Nigerians believe that governance in Nigeria exists for the leaders and not the people.
Citizens baulk at tax increases in a weak economy, particularly when little has been done to carry them along or intimate them of the desired impact of the policy. Too often, political squabbles interfere with the activity of legislating, and, fair or not, many governmental agencies have earned a reputation for exploiting rather than promoting business activity. In this climate, it is important to remember that the heart of leadership and governance is service to the people. That all government policy should be people-centred. And that the improvement of human welfare ought to be an ultimate aim of government.
During his first gubernatorial campaign attempt in the early 2000s, Rauf Aregbesola published a Green Book titled, “My Pact with the People of Osun”, a six-pronged manifesto focused on the most pressing socio-economic issues in the state, from poverty to communal peace. Alas, articulate manifestos are a dime a dozen in Nigerian politics. Yet this one is significant as it introduced the State of Osun to a brand of people-centred policy that marked Aregbesola’s subsequent tenure from 2010 to 2018, and may have a lasting impact on the way policy is approached in Nigeria. In hindsight, perhaps the clearest commitment to putting the people at the centre of government policy is found hidden in the Green Book: a minor section extoling the virtues of Sage Councils (Egbe Agba) and Youth Councils (Egbe Odo) to leverage the wisdom of the citizens of the state, and give them a platform to articulate their problems and desired solutions.
Investing in citizens’ welfare
The policies implemented by the Aregbesola administration were far from perfect. Some were overly ambitious, others struck outsiders as too pedantic. The state still has many challenges, including creaking public finances and a relatively unsophisticated economy. However, one thing that stands out—in policy and outcomes—is the emphasis on people, an acknowledgement that the aim of government policy was to improve peoples’ lives—through direct intervention, if required.
This is best seen in the set-up of social investment schemes in the state, contrary to the prevailing wisdom that government’s role was to create an enabling environment for commerce and leisure. Echoing the welfarist approach of the Action Group (AG) party that ruled the old Western Region, the government set up a diverse range of social welfare schemes for the sole objective of making lives better for the most vulnerable residents of the state.
Notable among these programs is the Agba Osun, a conditional cash transfer (CCT) scheme that provided a N10,000 stipend to over 1,500 old and vulnerable people in the state, along with a designated caregiver. Cash transfers of this kind are a proven method of boosting the short-term welfare of recipients as policy-makers have finally caught on to the intuitive idea that one of the best ways you can help the poor is by giving them money. But the inclusion of a caregiver emphasises the people-centred thinking of the policy. Many old or vulnerable (e.g. disabled) people suffer from loneliness and social isolation and recent research across the world has shown that this can create a public health problem. Nigeria has a relatively collectivist culture where older people are looked after by extended relatives but this may not completely address the problem, and Agba Osun is an acknowledgement of this danger.
Other social investment schemes were narrower but more innovative.
In 2013, the government set up the Office of the Public Defender and Citizens’ Rights (OPD) to provide free legal services for those that could not afford representation. Over 1,200 people have so benefitted so far, according to public documents. In a country where it is often said that “the only crime is to be poor”, this move was a positive step in honouring the aspiration of ensuring equality between rich and poor in criminal proceedings. A functioning OPD acts as a mitigant against the “legal” exploitation of the poor, which remains a grim reality for many of Nigeria’s poor. That said, the system is only as good as the spirit with which it is executed and the jury is still out on whether the quality and consistency of legal representation provided by the OPD has fully addressed this peculiar judicial inequality. Nevertheless, the platform has been created for change and we have seen it work elsewhere: the Lagos State OPD received nearly N190 million in mediated compensation for clients defended in 2017.
Through a mental health initiative called O-REHAB, the state rescued nearly 200 mentally ill street-dwellers and rehabilitated them. In a country still waiting for the passage of the National Mental Health Policy (six years and counting), measured and positive responses to mental illness are rare. In truth, Osun State has only scratched the surface of what can be achieved here. There are a numerous NGOs operating in the space (e.g. Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative) that would benefit from the legitimacy and network effect of working with a state government and the next step ought to be partnering with such groups to keep pushing the agenda.
Finally, the loyalty to a people-centred approach is visibly seen in the administration’s flagship policies such as O-meals, a program that provided free school meals to almost all public primary schoolchildren. In reviving a school-feeding program in the state, the government went beyond investing in infrastructure and training teachers and looked at how to boost educational outcomes and raise welfare. School-feeding programs are implemented in many countries across the world, and research has found a consistent positive impact on both the health and performance of schoolchildren. In addition, the O-meals set-up ensured that local farmers benefitted (by supplying local markets and cooks through government schemes) and acted as a tool for female empowerment (3,000 women were trained as cooks).
36% of the Nigerian working population is considered a “youth”, and the story is similar in Osun State. Therefore, any people-centred policy approach would naturally account for this demographic, and that was true under the Aregbesola administration.
It is accepted wisdom that providing better economic opportunities and reducing inequality are key to improving civility and reducing anti-social behaviour among the youth. However, direct cultural and civic reorientation remain important, especially given the ubiquitous “area boy” culture present in the country. Likewise, rebuilding social ties and strengthening citizens’ bond is critical to social development and fostering a social contract, but is ignored in most countries. Scandinavian countries are notable exceptions and are unsurprisingly some of the most organised societies in the world.
This thinking is evident in the state’s approach to youth and cultural development, whether through the Osun Youth Empowerment Scheme (O-YES) or cultural and tourism initiatives. The latter is noteworthy as investment in tourism is usually framed as an economic tool, and there are clear economic benefits of investing here—see Calabar. Amid this, we ignore how important cultural preservation is to quality of life, especially given Nigeria’s ethnic diversity. Micro-cultural identity is a big part of the Nigerian psyche and the appreciation of this reinforces the view that the government is indeed set up to promote the common good. In this case, the government simply targeted the main heritage sites in the state and went to work on making them attractive again. Sometimes, this required infrastructural investment, like in the reconstruction of a 3-kilometre road leading to the Osun Osogbo groove, a UNESCO world tourist heritage site. Other times, basic promotion or state support did the trick; for example, government intervention transformed the fortunes of the Olojo festival in Ile Ife.
Of all the people-centred policies rolled out, the O-YES scheme merits special attention. The set-up is familiar: recruit and train a given number of youth to boost employability and welfare. The usual approach is to dump these youth in quasi-governmental sectors—education, sanitation, etc.—to keep them busy, but Osun State bucked the trend; instead, placing these 60,000 or so youth at the centre of their social welfare policy. For example, a bulk of the O-YES participants were recruited to the other social investment schemes run by the state. About a thousand were assigned as caregivers under the Agba Osun program, nearly five hundred were trained as paramedics as part of O-AMBULANCE, the state’s free 24-hour ambulance service, and nearly five thousand were absorbed into the agriculture value chain in any of the government’s agriculture schemes. This approach meant that the success of Osun’s social welfare policies was intrinsically linked to the success of O-YES. As youth empowerment was placed at the centre of the administration’s social investment drive, it could not be done in a shabby manner.
Evaluating people-centred policy in Osun State
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, the clearest sign that Osun State got something right is that a number of the policies deployed were subsequently adopted by the Federal Government (or other states), which itself is based on relatively socialist ideals.
The O-meals program became the National Home Grown School-feeding Program (NHGSFP), the Federal Government N5,000 handout program shares features with Agba Osun, and O-YES inspired the N-Power programme and was also adopted by the World Bank to be replicated in other states. If none of this directly tells us that Osun’s policies were successful, the data is at least suggestive.
UNDP recorded a drop in poverty in the state from 37.5% in 2010 to 17.5% in 2016 (the lowest in Nigeria) and the National Bureau of Statistics reported a drop in the state’s unemployment rate from 17.2% in 2010 to 5.3% in 2017 (2nd lowest in Nigeria). The data suggest that Osun was able to improve human welfare in the state without having to break the bank and in spite of unspectacular macroeconomic progress.
In light of all this, it is easy to imagine ways that the state could have gone further. Apart from employing female cooks as part of the O-meals program, they trained nearly 2,000 women in various crafts (tie & die, soap & detergent making, catering, etc.) and provided zero-interest micro-loans to female entrepreneurs (a precursor to the federal TraderMoni scheme). Still, more could have been done in the area of female empowerment.
Women remain unrepresented and excluded in critical economic and political spheres. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) revealed that women accounted for just 5% of legislators in State Assemblies as at the last count (2015) and occupy under 20% of the top civil service posts.
Yet, research by the Mckinsey Global Institute suggests that developing economies would benefit significantly by empowering women.
On a more administrative level, Osun’s good work is vulnerable to policy summersault, a scourge of Nigerian governance.
A critical step would have been to institutionalise a number of these people-centred policies—or the general approach to policy-making. For example, the Lagos State OPD was set up in 2000 and enshrined in law in 2011 through the Office of Public Defender Laws of Lagos State.
This helps mitigate problems with funding and provides an institutional basis for persisting with and evolving the scheme; for example, by attaching NYSC lawyers to public defenders.
The importance of institutionalising policy can also be seen through the evolution of school-feeding programs in Nigeria. Initially piloted in thirteen states as part of the Universal Basic Education Act in 2004, school feeding programs were almost non-existent by the end of the decade.
Despite these faults, the most important legacy of the administration is the appreciation of the worlds of long-serving United States Congresswoman, Maxine waters, “We have a responsibility as elected officials to do good public policy in the best interests of the people.”