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Governance sans accountability, By Dan Agbese

by Nike
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The core principle of democracy as the government of the people, by the people and for the people, rests on this long English word: accountability. Its importance in democratic governance lies in its capacity to force or encourage dialogue between the people and their rulers by whatever titles they bear – presidents, prime ministers, heads of state, governors and in the lone case of Mao, chairman.

In addition to forcing and encouraging a mutually beneficial dialogue between the people and their leaders in a democracy, accountability seeks to achieve two critical objectives to enhance good governance. One is transparency in which the left hand must know what the right hand is doing; the other is to act as a constant reminder that despite their being decked out in the intimidating accoutrements of political power, politicians are accountable to the people. They are the custodians of power and to them must the leaders render an account of what they do and why they do it.

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If, according to the late British prime minister, Winston Churchill, democracy is a difficult form of government, it is because accountability is something all political leaders dread and would rather do without. Still, all democratic governments do manage to institute some form of accountability in the system, if only to somehow fulfil all democratic righteousness.

Section 22 of our constitution imposes on “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media (the duty to freely) uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.” This constitutional duty speaks to the importance of the mass media as critical partners in promoting good governance and the rule of law and in preventing incipient dictatorship in all democracies.

They are the platforms for dialogue between the people and their rulers. Without them, it would be impossible to have a government in which people have a say in who governs them and how they prefer to be governed. The downside, of course, is that because of their strategic position as agencies that make the exercise of the freedom of speech possible, rulers hate the mass media. It is important to note that as an ironic but obvious obstacle to accountability.

There are good reasons why accountability is at the heart of good governance. And there are equally good reasons why the makers of ours and other constitutions deemed it necessary to thrust on the mass media the duty of upholding governments at national, sub-national and sub-sub-national levels accountable to the people. James Madison, one of the architects of the American constitution, once put it nicely in these words – “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a farce or a tragedy, or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

A free mass media operating freely is the obvious means by which the people arm themselves “with the power which knowledge gives.” When, out of the desire to hide wrongdoing in government, the mass media are prevented from operating freely, ignorance replaces knowledge, and the people are denied their constitutional rights to demand accountability from their rulers.

Ignorance serves vested interests in government. That should be obvious to anyone who cares to watch the shenanigans often passed off as the discharge of responsibilities in government. If the people do not know, they cannot demand accountability. If they do not demand accountability their leaders can exploit their ignorance and get away literally with murder. It is not difficult to see why governments in developing countries prefer ignorance to knowledge at the expense of good governance. It is the bane of democracy in illiterate and semi-illiterate societies. Still, the light of accountability flickers in the inky sky of poor governance.

The purpose of accountability is to make transparency possible and guard against, and ultimately prevent, corruption and the abuse of power in government. No easy task but a necessary task. Michael L. Ross points out that, “…when governments are more transparent, they are less likely to have less corruption, higher levels of human development, stronger fiscal discipline and many other desirable qualities.”

Scholars have often made the point that it is impossible for governments in under-developed oil-producing nations to be accountable to the people because they do not depend on taxes paid by them. With or without taxes, oil revenue flows unhindered into the coffers of governments. Our rulers freely help themselves to it.

It seems to me that the progressive lack of accountability has become the broken pillar in our form of government. Lack of accountability is at the root of the failure of the long-running anti-graft war in the land. We, the people, have ignored this fact and have been content to let our political leaders spend and mis-spend our common financial resources as they deem fit. One result is the daily indigestible diet of egregious thefts of public funds the news media force down the throats of the public. Raids on our public coffers and the cynical looting of the contents thereof by men and women entrusted with the statutory duty of guarding and protecting them has become the norm, not the exception anymore. When we receive the news of a big man caught with his hand in the cookie jar from the media and EFCC, we shrug it off. What else, we wonder, is new or news?

Our leaders treat accountability as an irritant, not as an important constitutional obligation in a democracy. They have degraded it and promoted impunity because impunity accords with their right to do and not to be questioned. Transparency cannot thrive where impunity excuses the egregious raid on our treasuries at the three tiers of government. The lack of transparency is the bane of our economic and social development. When so much is stolen by the keepers of the treasuries, so little is left for our national development. It should not be difficult to see that without accountability as an article of faith in our democratic governance, the long running anti-graft war will continue to run without end.

The fault is in us, the people and not entirely in our political leaders. As citizens and the custodians of our political power, we refuse to wake up to our civic responsibility of demanding that our leaders treat us like their masters and account to us what they do our common share of the national cake from the federation account every month. Former President Obasanjo tried to wake us up to the need to demand accountability. His minister of finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, published the allocations to the three tiers of government every month. The idea was for the people to know what was given to their states and local governments and demand to see how the money was used. We refused to wake up.

Shortly after he assumed office as president in May 2015, President Buhari found that 27 state governments owed their civil servants for several months and that this crippled governance at the second tier of government. He advanced them some money to pay up their arrears and thereafter put their houses in order. The salaries were not paid; the treasuries were empty of the money because the state governors helped themselves to it. The people asked no questions.

The same thing happened to the ill-advised palliatives instituted by the same administration to help the people cope with the rising cost of living. The same thing is happening to President Bola Tinubu’s palliatives. These things will continue to happen for as long as the people choose to play the deaf mute; and for as long as we, the people, continue to treat our political leaders like tin gods and reinforce their belief in themselves that they are too big and too important to tell us how they spend our collective wealth. Time to wake up, people. Governance without accountability is a democratic nightmare. It is a huge joke.

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