Editor’s note: When discussing Nigeria's political course, the majority of us are quick to point out proudly that we’re now “a democracy”. Decades later, does current state of affairs reflect rise of democratic values, or does it remind you more of a democratic degradation? To what extent do our authorities care about us? Legit.ng columnist Ebenezer Obadare on how the rotting ties within layers of government and questionable decisions in the economy sector directly affect every one of us.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Legit.ng.
— “Autonomous only in theory, local governments live and die by the whim of the state governors, who themselves must continually tug at the center’s teats; things are OK as long as the center, the ultimate benefactor, continues to funnel down funds, but go awry as soon as something happens to it"
— "Millions of workers across the country are left reeling and deeply traumatized by a structure of triple jeopardy, in which local governments count on states, who in turn count on the federal government, which … continues to risk everything on the global gyrations of a single commodity, one that, as it happens, it cannot even muster the capacity to refine locally"
— “But the real fear for students of society should be elsewhere; that the salary – unpaid, deferred, reduced, suspended, etc. – may just have become a veritable instrument of civic pacification, a mode of domination by a state that has never been more distant from the rest of society"
On Saturday June 6, Ojo Owolabi, a sanitary officer with the Obokun local government authority in Nigeria’s Western state of Osun, decided that he had had enough. For six months, he had watched his life slowly unravel. During that time, his modest salary had not been paid, and when his wife decided to take the children with him to ride out the difficult times with extended family, he had been helpless to stop them. One can imagine his state of mind as he took one gulp of herbicide after another, intent on ending it all. But Owolabi did not succeed. His aghast neighbours got to him before the poison could work its way through his system, and, having survived, he must now reacquaint himself with the agonizing reality that he so desperately sought an escape from.
Owolabi is one of the thousands of Osun state employees who have not been paid for work done for the past six months – and counting. Osun state employees are not alone, enduring the same parlous fate as state employees in, to cite three of the more extreme cases – Plateau, Kogi, and Kaduna states. In those places, state governments have been derelict for a total period that, combined, runs into years. This at a time when legislators at the state and federal levels have not skipped a single paycheck, and most of the larger society carries on as if nothing is amiss.
This may trigger the obvious conclusion that the government or traditional pillars of civil society like the media and labor unions do not care. For instance, torrents of condemnation and accusations of wickedness and apathy have greeted the response by the director of the Osun State Bureau of Communication, Semiu Okanlawon, to media reports of Mr Owolabi’s attempted suicide. Said Mr Okanlawon: "I am not aware of the incident, and I don’t see the nexus between a man drinking poison and when the government will pay workers’ salaries".
Insensitive and coarse? Yes. Thoughtless? Without question. But what Mr Okanlawon and the increasingly jittery state government of which he is a spokesperson are not, at least not primarily, is apathetic or wicked. On the contrary (and this by no means excuses their own infantile fiscal choices), as social agents, they are victims of a volatile arrangement, Nigeria’s own ‘trickle down’ political economy in which all 36 states and local governments more or less depend on the center for sustenance. Autonomous only in theory, local governments live and die by the whim of the state governors, who themselves must continually tug at the center’s teats. Within such a matrix, things are OK as long as the center, the ultimate benefactor, continues to funnel down funds, but go awry as soon as something happens to it.
The problem of course is that a lot has not been right for the benefactor of late, starting with cascading global oil prices (hence, reduced intake into the federal accounts), and a fiercely-competed election in which the Jonathan government, not otherwise renowned for its rectitude, somehow figured that the best strategy to salvage its increasingly desperate situation was to throw cash – a lot of it – at various stakeholders and constituencies.
The current grim situation in Osun state and, to some extent, across the country, is the immediate and unfolding aftermath of the foregoing. Mr Owolabi and millions of workers across the country are left reeling and deeply traumatized by a structure of triple jeopardy, in which local governments count on states, who in turn count on the federal government, which, contrary to all common sense, continues to risk everything on the global gyrations of a single commodity, one that, as it happens, it cannot even muster the capacity to refine locally.
In a capsule, the plight of all the Owolabis in Osun and similarly stricken states is a cameo of the crisis of federalism in Nigeria, and while simply incredulous, really shouldn’t astonish even the most casual observer of postcolonial Nigeria’s history. For the truth of the matter is that we’ve been here before, most memorably in the dying days of the Shehu Shagari administration (1979-1983) and the outset of the Buhari/Idiagbon junta, when the country was similarly brought to its knees by adversity in the global economy and consequent trimming of the federal purse.
Back then, though, it was a different country, not least in terms of the state-society compact, and the ethos that pervaded both civil society and the organized private sector. These days, journalists cannot rush to print with news of unpaid salaries, when, mostly likely, they themselves are still waiting on their employers for salary arrears that sometimes go as far back as eight months, a whole year in the most extreme cases. I have no independent confirmation for a friend’s assurance that a certain Lagos-based news organization has not paid its workers for two full years. Even when pay is not an issue, journalists may refrain from making an issue of the degradation of their fellow citizens because of their own political entanglements. As for the trade unions, they languish in the shadow of a glorious past, sapped by disputations and continued defections to the state.
In a logic all too reminiscent of the economy of the ‘captured salariat’ in other African countries (Zaire under Mobutu comes to mind), traumatized Nigerian workers are finding new grounds for solidarity, even as they are stretched to their wits’ end by an economic gloom with nary a prospect of abatement. But the real fear for students of society should be elsewhere; that the salary – unpaid, deferred, reduced, suspended, etc. – may just have become a veritable instrument of civic pacification, a mode of domination by a state that has never been more distant from the rest of society.
Ebenezer Obadare is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA.