One of the most interesting developments that democracy has brought us is the ability to criticise various governments in Nigeria. There was a time when it was impossible to criticize, let alone, say negative things about the different military junta that ruled Nigeria. Times have changed!
Or have they? What we have in Nigeria is a fairly greater ability to criticise the government but none of the debates, rejoinders or actions that should come out of criticism. However, criticism is necessary in any government that is interested in appraising its efforts with a view towards improving the lives of the citizenry. As Winston Churchill puts it “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
What is interesting is not the criticisms but the rejoinders by government spokespersons or social commentators/youth leaders/interested members of the public etc. who are really government spokespersons. One of the interesting versions of the foregoing happened recently when Mrs ObyEzekwesili, a minister under the Obasanjo regime and later of the World Bank, openly challenged the Nigerian government to account for the management of the Excess Crude Account. The President’s spokesperson, Dr DoyinOkupe, a man whose utterances do not match his size, responded by telling the nation that Mrs Ezekwesili did not know what she was talking about. He informed the nation of how much was allocated to the Education ministry (when she was minister), telling her to explain to the nation how the funds were managed. When she challenged the government to a debate, Dr Okupe responded with that very Nigerian response (we should in fact patent it as Nigerian!)that it would be a waste of time to dignify such “baseless” allegations with a response/debate.
Fair play to Dr Okupe as he stopped short of the other very Nigerian rejoinder, “attack the character of your critic and not what he says”. Attacking your critic is an art in itself. Different strategies range from the outright insult e.g. “he is critical of government now that he is out of power and broke”, or the classic “he/she is a disgruntled element” or expression of shock “at the casting of aspersions on the person of….”
The classic case of Nigerian rejoinders was by Chief KayodeOdunaro JP, Special Adviser, Communications to the erstwhile speaker of the House of Representatives, DimejiBankole. Chief Oduaro,who was responding to criticisms of Bankole’s plan to spend NGN1 billion on a guest house, wrote that “The House is the official Guest House of the Speaker of House Of Representatives and not that of Speaker Bankole. It is for anybody who is Speaker just like the Official residence of the Speaker. I need not explain to you sir the uses to which guest houses are meant for.”It gets better. The Chief goes on to inform us that “Speaker Bankole case is only special because the Pull Him Down Gang after him cannot find anything against him after all their false allegations over time have failed.”
The Chief’s rejoinder proudly features a very Nigerian style of classifying critics as “disgruntled elements”. The Chief actually addresses some of the criticisms but it is very wishy-washy. At no time does the Chief justify the quantum planned to be spent given the prevailing poverty in Nigeria. Also, the Chief does not explain to us the cost-benefit analysis that justifies the proposed expenditure.
In all, criticism should be expected especially by any government desirous of knowing its shortcomings (if any) with the ultimate aim of satisfying the vast majority of its citizenry. Criticisms need not be scathing, although it can be argued that this does not really apply to government. However, what I would like to see is a Nigerian government that is not threatened or insulted by criticism. Criticism should be seen as an opportunity to hear and indeed know what the citizens think of a government.
According to Elbert Hubbard “the final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” On this premise alone, we know why Nigeria is where it is: we have never had a great government based on our primal rejection of any form of criticism!