By Rev. Fr. Evaristus Bassey
Nigeria’s major problem is leadership, poor leadership of course. Leadership in this sense is not just the assumption of a commanding height of authority but a visionary one, where ideas permeate contemporary challenges and submerge them. In deed there has been a dearth of such proactivity and rather a replete of reactivity as far as leadership is concerned. Beyond leadership however, the problem I see with Nigeria is lack of the operationalisation of subsidiarity.
The principle of subsidiarity was enunciated by Pope Pius Xl in an encyclical letter called Quadragesimo Anno on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the very first social encyclical of any pope. Rerum Novarum was a ground breaking publication Pope Leo Xlll made concerning the condition of workers in the western world. At the height of capitalism, this missive from the pope put the welfare of workers above capital and advocated for the revaluing of labour. Ever since, every pope has attempted to deepen insights into issues already addressed by his predecessors or chart a new course on a different social problem. This body of knowledge is known as the social teaching of the church.
Pope Pius Xl stated the principle of subsidiarity thus: “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So too it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance to right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies. In as much as every social activity should, by its very nature, prove a help (subsidum) to members of the body social, it should never destroy or absorb them.” (no.79).
In other words the subsidiarity principle means that those who are closer to a situation are best suited to handle it and should be supported to do so rather than their initiative usurped by those with higher authority perhaps in misguided helpfulness.
What happens in Nigeria is that those who are far away from a problem are the ones with the responsibility to resolve it, and so those who face a problem day by day keep on waiting for those who are far away to come solve it. Take our roads for instance. Someone lives in Abuja and is expected to be the one responsible for the repair of roads passing through Aba.
The flip side of it is that many officials inadvertently have an ‘outsourcing’ mentality; even when they are elected or appointed to act in positions, they do not believe that they have the power to act, they look up to those above them to permit them to use the authority they should exercise ordinarily by the very fact of their appointment or election; and those who are superiors easily veto authority which is ordinarily located with lower level officials. Local government officials, even when elected, do not believe they have the power to go beyond the governor’s directive. And the governor has to wait to be ‘directed’ by the President of the Federal Republic, to pay salaries of workers he has owed for months; while the president has to be the one to direct that someone be sacked, when there are constituted authorities, including a Code of Conduct Bureau that has to wait for instruction to identify contradictions in a senator’s assets declaration form! Tragically while we commend the federal legislature for being autonomous, many state legislatures do not even believe they are a different arm of government.
The developed world succeeds because duties and powers have been devolved to the lowest level, and the official at the local level knows his/her responsibilities full well and will carry them out irrespective of who is involved, without looking up to anyone above, because he is already powered by his position. Our problem in Nigeria is that we wait for too much empowerment, we wait for power to come from somewhere else when we already have the power. And so because the ‘powerless’ wait to be empowered by the powerful and the powerful do not want to lose the power they have usurped, the ‘powerless’ remain powerless.
As long as we keep looking up to the president of the Republic, as if he is the only one with authority, even our fight against corruption will be slow because the president cannot be everywhere. If the desk officer studies his/her job description once again and begins to act without apologies to anyone, resisting the pressure of those who want to push him by the side because they occupy a bigger office, then will things change in Nigeria.
It is in this wise that I want to reiterate my earlier call for the strengthening of the local government system. Yes the local government is not a third tier of government, as lawyers claim. But it is a recognized structure of governance. It’s autonomous and direct funding is essential to the provision of and access to services by people in the grassroots. Also a proactive government would quicken steps to work with NGOs especially faith based organizations knowing that they are close to issues that affect the people directly, against the background of the SDGs.
As long as those in the hinterland look up to the capital and those in the capitals look up to Abuja, then those responsible for governance at the sub-state levels and sub-national levels will continue to cater only for their selfish interests, knowing that there really is no one calling them to account.
It is important that as we march towards 2019 every Nigerian learn the art of engagement, this time bringing to the attention of the man behind the desk the need to simply exercise his given authority in furtherance of the common good, and not in service of any superior.
***Bassey, Abuja-based Catholic Priest, is the International Director of Catholic Caritas Foundation of Nigeria (CCFN) and Executive Secretary, Justice Development and Peace Commission (JDPC), two agencies of the Catholic Church.