My word is my bond

Aug 29, 2015|Kitan Williams

Reports that Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode could be seeking legislative support to reorder the 2015 Lagos budget were met with a muted response. Yet a $200 million loan has been secured from the world bank, giving Governor Ambode the financial power to act on this. At the same time, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo was reassuring Nigerians that the flagship social welfare program that would provide a ₦5000 stipend to Nigeria’s poorest households will be implemented under his watch.

Both examples show victorious politicians attempting to deliver on campaign promises, a noble decision that hardened voters have become unaccustomed to. Notably, both would have to deviate from established economic plans in order to succeed.

More recently, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered a review of economic policies set by the previous administration and stated his willingness to reverse or abandon those deemed ineffective. This is consistent with President Buhari’s drive to eradicate public sector corruption and inefficiency. However, it is also characteristic of a culture of ‘policy-somersaults’ that has plagued Nigeria for many years. From local government councils to Aso Rock itself, there is the tendency for new regimes to purge their subjects of the former endeavours, a strategy that has led to a litter of abandoned projects across the nation.

But, there are wider issues at play here – about when campaign promises should take precedence over ongoing administrative plans and the extent to which elected officials should be held accountable for their campaign promises.

Disillusionment over broken campaign promises has become entrenched in democracies all over the world. In response to this, earnest voters have come up with systems for tracking the reliability of politicians’ words. An account on Twitter, @BuhariMeter, labels itself as a “platform to track action of President M. Buhari, connecting them to his promises.” 

Clearly, it is important to hold politicians to account for what they say before elections or else promises become entirely worthless. Yet the fulfillment of promises is politics, not governance. What really matters is whether the right policies are implemented. But this is often hard to judge prospectively. Furthermore, elections pose a problem of time-inconsistency and commitment: aspirants are either ignorant about the real challenges of the roles they aspire to or even worse, knowingly make promises with no intention of keeping them. Either way, an enduring feature of human nature is saying something now and doing another later.

A significant factor to consider is the strength of the mandate given to the elected official. In Nigeria, political roles change hands with a barrage of irregularities and petition tribunals. Yet a candidate, such as Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna who gains power following a landslide election victory has a much clearer mandate than one who assumes a position through election tribunals. It is not that one is more worthy, but rather that it is easier to see the former as representing the majority will of the people. This is usually regarded as political goodwill and gives credence to political plans under the assumption that the people voted for them to be enacted. This is particularly true for flagship policies.

For victorious candidates, it is often difficult to know when to stick or twist. Consider the United States of America, a nation that prides itself on its democratic ideals. In the state of Illinois, new Republican governor Bruce Rauner initially vetoed the state budget and made his approval conditional on the passage of his business-friendly reform agenda. Most definitely, this is a step too far. Vulnerable members of the polity have felt the full brunt of Mr Rauner’s radical agenda. Clearly, a political agenda should never get in the way of governance.

More locally, the widely spread promise of President Buhari to publicly disclose his assets has raised serious questions for his critics. Despite what was interpreted as a promise to disclose assets publicly, Buhari and his Vice President Osibanjo declared their assets directly to the Code of Conduct Bureau, which was not made accessible to the public. The reaction was not positive. Expectedly, the office of the President has offered explanations, stating that the delay is out of the control of the President, and is dependent on the timeline of the Bureau. Yet, if we accept this explanation, it further highlights the problem of promises and reality.

So politicians face the same question we have – should campaign promises take precedence over governance reality? Politicians seeking to navigate this minefield can draw solace from one notion – that the general principle or ideology a candidate backs is more important than particular policies. Promises are signals designed to express a deeper character of the political party or candidate. Osinbajo’s assurance about the ₦5000 social welfare program was important not just because it indicated a promise fulfilled but because it reaffirmed the Federal Government’s socialist stance on poverty alleviation. 

Undoubtedly, there are instances when it makes economic sense to alter policy direction when a new administration takes over. After all, the APC promised Nigeria change, it is natural to expect an exorcism of some sort. Nevertheless, democracy demands that economic plans are subject to the will of more than one person, and are set in advance. There is a reason for this, and it should not change. Not at the whims of any elected official or party.


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