Chamberlain S. Peterside, Ph.DFriday, November 20, 2009
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New York, NY, USA



OU - yes you can make the difference. Not often in our daily lives in course of pursuing livelihood do we realize we are making one form of difference or another. But when it comes to politics and nation-building we display somewhat passive emotions or simply conclude that “you don’t count” - wrong. Nothing in recent memory exemplifies the believe that You can make a difference than the energy brought to the last US Presidential election by candidate Barack Obama. This was unequivocally displayed in his campaign slogan – “Yes We Can”, which resulted in sweeping victory that catapulted him to the presidency.


During President Obama’s recent visit to Ghana in July this year, he was quoted as saying that Africa needs strong institutions and not strong leaders. In my understanding, that inference is underscored by the need to continuously create public institutions and systems that are solid and vibrant rather than allowing individuals bask in the euphoria of attaining high office as we often see in Africa. It is only in Africa you still find several heads of state (both current and previous) serving in office for decades with no positive change in sight. Yes you might say Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore also served for decades, but during his long tenure he laid the sound foundations that made the country what it is today.

My deep introspection clearly reaffirms believe that unless Africa has the right systems and public institutions – not powerful leaders, it will never shake-off backwardness. In fact the art of nation-building entails continuous debate, enacting legislations, tweaking them, embarking on reforms, retracing your steps when necessary and trying again and again until you get things right. The difference between young democracies in Africa and advanced countries is the sequence and time that lead to institutional reforms on which the respective countries stand. In Africa’s case does it necessarily have to take 200 years to get the right governance standards in place? I don’t thinks so.

Society usually must be able to reinvent itself or falter. As is clearly witnessable in the United States, it is well-known fact that healthcare industry for instance is serious drag on the economy – It employs 13,7 million people, accounts for 16% of GDP spending. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security combined are amongst top expenditure items of US government that also constitutes huge waste-pipes replete with fraud and inefficiency. As an example, unnecessary medical tests or procedures cost $210 billion per annum, whereas inefficient claims processing cost another $210 billion annually just as medical errors cost $17 billion annually according to PricewaterhouseCooper’s health research institute.

Compared to other advanced countries cost of US healthcare is highest and growing at more than twice inflation rate, yet quality-delivery lags behind its peers in other developed nations. In midst of all this, 45 million Americans remain uninsured. Does it take rocket science to realize that unless something is done urgently to plug the holes healthcare cost alone could burry US economy? This begs the questions - where will the country be in 15-25 years without healthcare reform? How will it compete with rising economic powers in Asia and Europe? How high can the national debt grow to fund such essential services?

Despite these hard questions and plain truths, efforts were made to truncate passage of healthcare reform bill during heated town-hall meetings around the country this year. Thankfully the House of Representatives approved a legislation, now lets see what happens in the Senate.

If this is predicament faced by the world’s most powerful country imagine the situation in Africa. It is when nations are confronted with such tough choices that people should rise to the occasion and make their voices heard, such as Obama did in galvanizing support that ushered a new era. Exactly in the same light I see imperative for change in Africa, given all we know about the deplorable state of affairs on the continent.

No single individual dead or alive in Africa no matter how hard he/she tried could have started and completed the required change because that’s a continuous process - whether its transforming the economic landscape or strengthening governance standards.

If you look at some countries like Nigeria over the last 10 years, it was obvious that change was imminent, in what form or shape it will come was unclear. But upon assuming office in 1999 Obasanjo’s administration set the ball rolling. Despite tremendous huddles I believe some distance have been traveled since then. Did Obasanjo's government get everything right? - No. Did he need to stay in office for as long as possible until everything was in place? Impossible.

But as you look back, some of the institutional measures like fiscal responsibility reform, privatization, deregulation of telecommunication and banking industries and setting up of Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) could be seen as some of the remarkable strides that are irreversible and will ultimately add up in constructing the right framework for the country.

The essence of constitutional provision that stipulates term limits is quite sacrosanct and not necessarily designed for or targeted at anybody. No matter how much you enjoy the office there must be room to regenerate ideas and pass the baton, through fair and transparent process.

For this to happen consistently and long enough in other to build nations, the onus is on every citizen to participate either in voting, critiquing, expressing their views or vying for office. Hence over time it is possible to have confluence of factors resulting from crafting the right laws/regulations or amending them thereof (as much time as is necessary) to lay ground rules of engagement for long term sustainability.

Is this some utopian delusion of a perennial optimist? You be the judge. But as I thought deeper, I discovered that those are fundamental tenets on which many prosperous nations around the world were built and Africa’s experience will be no different. Naysayers and by-standers must therefore realize that their apathy to whatever is going on society is great disservice and does serious harm. If analyzed against the backdrop that year 2000 elections in the US was decided in the state of Florida by less than 500 votes thereby putting candidate George W Bush in office as President. With time it was clear the direction US policy took but didn’t last forever, creating room for Obama to be elected the 44th President.

Despite how laudable and disappointing an elected office-holder performs systems are built to self-correct whenever it is time of reckoning. This must be vital lesson for political aspirants in Africa that despite the best intentions in office they must learn to play their role, plant the seeds for stable institutions then move on. Civil society groups and electorates must continue to speak up, band together and help change happen one day at a time or give up hope and expectation for better society.

Chamberlain is a New York based financial professional and member of Rivers State Economic Advisory Council.