It is yet another 1st of October. For 62 years, ‘most’ Nigerian roll out their drum to celebrate our dear country’s Independence Day anniversary, and today is not an exception.
While some people are optimistic about the future of the country, others are pessimistic. For me, I am neither of the two. I prefer to be a realist or what some people might term a pragmatist. I see things as they are by reflecting on how we got here and what we can do or should have done better.
In essence, rather than see the glass as half full or half empty, I prefer to see a glass that can be filled and wonder why it hasn’t been filled by the groups that either see the glass as half empty or half full.
One of the challenges confronting us as a country after 62 years of ‘NATIONHOOD’ is that of the inability of our leaders, knowingly or unknowingly, to promote or address the SOCIAL INJUSTICE in our SOCIETY. There is evidence that lack of social justice is responsible for most, if not all of Nigeria’s woes – poverty, inequalities, insecurity, lack of patriotism, corruption, unemployment and above all our state of DEVELOPMENT.
So, what is SOCIAL JUSTICE? Perhaps a thought experiment by economist and social philosopher Amartya Sen, in his book “The Idea of Justice” can help us flesh out this abstract concept.
THIS IS THE SCENARIO:
You are the President of Nigeria or an an authority figure and you come across three children (3 states one each from the North, South West and South East) – Amina, Bola and Chinyere – fighting over a flute (national resources, resource control, VAT, etc). The trio cannot decide who gets the flute and so you want (have) to decide for them. One by one, they make their respective cases for you.
Amina says: “I should get the flute. I’m the only one here who can play it. And after all, the point of the flute is to make music. The other two can’t play, so why should they get it?”
Then, Bola says: “I made the flute. I provided the materials for it. I spent time and effort making it. It is the fruit of my labour. How could you possibly take this from me and give it to someone else?”
Finally, Chinyere says: “Of the three of us, I am the poorest. I have nothing in this world. Even though I don’t play the flute and I didn’t make it, you should give me the flute. Because, then, you would have improved my lot in life immeasurably.”
Which child (State) you give the flute to, and the reasons and qualifications behind your decision, says a lot about how you define or see social justice and fairness.
You can assign the flute only to a single child (state). Sharing the flute is not an option, nor is selling it and splitting the proceeds.
I can imagine that if you are or were a pragmatic leader, you would give the flute to Amina. Meaning that you would be compelled by utilitarian logic to match the flute (“resources”) to the flautist (“talent”). You might even go further to justify this on the grounds of efficiency, and by saying that social welfare is maximized because everyone, including Bola and Chinyere, gets to enjoy the music.
I can also imagine you giving the flute to Bola because it resonates with your dominant narrative of meritocracy and deserved reward. After all, Bola’s case – using the language of desert and entitlement – rests on the notion that the flute is naturally hers, and that it is wrong to dispossess her of it for whatever reason.
What of Chinyere? Alas, Chinyere rather inconveniently puts some of you, and indeed most Nigerian leaders in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
Two years ago, I adapted this thought experiment for the NATION BUILDING training program for an Abuja-based CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANISATION. When I ran this experiment, the majority of participants did not give the flute to Chinyere. The reasons typically given are that it creates moral hazard and a culture of dependency, that it is a waste of resources (the utilitarian argument), and that it is unacceptable to deprive someone (Bola) who merits the flute through effort (the meritocracy argument).
Furthermore, those who reject Chinyere also start to “fill in the gaps” in the story -for example, by saying that Chinyere must have been lazy and hence deserved her lot in life. Very quickly, the platitudes like “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” are uttered.
Some participants, though, catch on very quickly, and they start to distinguish the “house view” they feel prompted to hold, which leads them down the paths of utilitarianism and meritocracy, onto the arguably more compassionate choice of giving the flute to Chinyere.
As one participant put it: As a public servant, I should give the flute to either Amina or Bola. But as a human being, I would rather Chinyere have it.” As if public policy enterprise, or even the Nigerian condition generally, requires that we suspend our humanity and compassion, and opt for utilitarianism or meritocracy
Now, of course, the reality is far more complex than this thought experiment. Over the past 61 years, Nigeria has had more than that one flute to give out, though she is accustomed to always assigning the flute in a particular way rather than being governed by an uneven blend of utilitarianism, meritocracy or egalitarianism; an approach that has helped widen our fault lines and made some Nigerian to resent the state.
Anyway, the point of Sen’s experiment, however contrived, is to make explicit our biases in national discourse (or moral reasoning, if we prefer), so that we can unpack that blend of logic that governs our allocation decisions, and openly debate why one particular logic dominates rather than others if indeed we want to build a Nigeria where peace and unity reigns.
This thought experiment asks us – if there is a chance we turn out to be disadvantaged by our default choice, would we still make that choice?
Nation building is not simply an isolation exercise, but that of transformational leadership and good governance. Similarly, public policy is more than assigning funds to various policies or programmes, but rather the social injustices that are addressed. Meaning that what leaders do, why and when, should speak to how they think and act on the fairness of opportunities and outcomes.
On a final note, as we approach the 2023 general election, it will be nice to see citizens electing politicians who can, without hesitation convince them which child they will give the flute to and why.
God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria