Wanted: A Government “For” The People

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Long ago, in the 1980s, I lived with my mom in Aggrey Waterside – one of the most enigmatic informal settlements in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

In those days, the first thing that came to your mind when you woke up in the morning was how to join the long queue leading to the communal toilet on the banks of the Aggrey River.

I was a teenager, but I learned my first lessons in human resilience by simply looking at the quiet desperation of the people on those long harrowing queues.

There were no water closet systems in the area, no health care services, and we heard of the word “government” only as a cruel and distant rumour.

For many people, government was a mythical entity whose agents occasionally came to raid small shop owners in our area, demanding for “tax.”

Fast forward to 2015, when I was invited to serve as a Commissioner for Information in the Rivers State Government.

As i stood before the governor to take the Oath of office, it struck me that the majestic opulence of the Government House where I was being sworn into office was only 900 metres away from the prosaic squalor of Aggrey Waterside, where I lived decades before.

So why was the Government House so near, and yet the “government” itself seemed so distant from the people?

As I found during my time in government, the distance between the people and those who lead is not necessarily a physical distance. It is a policy distance, a performance distance, and an empathy distance.

Policy distance happens when what the government thinks and wants to do is in complete misalignment with what the people actually need.

For instance, if you build an “ultramodern” post office in a community where the people are concerned about the high infant death rate, then there is a serious policy distance. A well-staffed primary health care delivery system may help the people more.

So, as governor, you may invite the Sultan of Brunei to join the King of Monaco to commission the completed ultramodern post office to much media fanfare, but children continue to die from all kinds of preventable diseases, and your post office is unable to help them.

In government, performance distance happens when there is insufficient or lack of imaginative and practical capacity to deliver services that actually improve the people’s lives.

For example, a local government chairman may be quick to organize thugs to disrupt an opposition political rally in his area.

But if he lacks the imaginative capacity to mobilize the people on a campaign to, say, increase school enrolment in his domain, then the council area may not see positive development in the long term.

This is performance distance because the council chairman’s mobilizational ability is misdirected, destructive, and does not bring any benefits to the people.

Similarly, a governor may position his henchmen in every political unit in his state, and he may master how to manipulate the judicial system for his political gain.

But if the governor lacks the imaginative abilities to understand and implement sustainable development goals for the benefit of the people as a whole, then his negative hold on the political system will ultimately lead to a failure of development.

Finally, one of the biggest lessons i learned during my time in government and in my studies at Harvard is that empathy does matter in leadership.

Empathy does not require us to act as emotional holograms on behalf of other people.

Rather, empathy challenges us to reaffirm our own humanity by showing compassion and understanding in our relationships with others.

In leadership, empathy distance occurs when leaders feel no connection with the plight and struggles of the people they were meant to serve.

Empathy is what moves us to stand hip to hip with the people when our communities are flooded, and the people need to be evacuated to a higher ground, with warm blankets on their backs.

On the other hand, empathy distance is what happens when we’re so obsessed with the tantalizing hedonism of high office, that we’re unable to hear or respond to the piercing cry of a woman in labour only 900 meters away, who has no access to prenatal care.

Empathy distance is the icy indifference we show when 20 million children are out of school in Nigeria – the highest number of children out of school in the world.

For too long in Nigeria, we’ve practised government essentially without the people.

We need to rethink the notion of “government,” with a prepositional insistence that places the people’s present and future needs at the centre of public policy.

We need a government that is “for” the people.

  • Dr Austin Tam-George, an alumnus of Harvard Kennedy School, Boston, is a former Commissioner for Information, Rivers State.

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