I had never been to Africa, so I was glad for the invitation.
The event was the induction and initiation workshops of the Nigerian Governors Association. Earlier this year, the people of Nigeria elected new governors across their 37 states. And so, I traveled with former New Mexico Governor, Bill Richardson, and former U.S. Ambassador, Howard Jeter, to share our American perspective on what it takes for one elected executive to govern effectively.
Not since our own Civil War, perhaps, have Americans traveled abroad with such a renewed sense of the humility regarding their own democracy.
On the plane, I read “Sapiens — a brief history of mankind.” This national bestseller by, Yuval Harari, lays out the cold evidence of the destructive nature of our humankind, and of our innate tendency to view the world in terms of us versus them. The “natural law of limits” is not something that has ever really applied to the behavior of our species — in our relationship to one another or in our relationship to the other living systems of this Earth.
Archaeologists tell us there used to be seven different species of human beings in the world. What happened to the other six?
On the ground in Africa — in the capital city of Abuja — there is a never ending series of panel discussions on jobs, health, education, and agriculture. But the central question of this conference — like many I have attended for newly elected mayors and governors in the U.S. — is, “how to govern?”
They don’t teach you governing technique on the campaign trail. And there aren’t any textbooks, yet.
The road to a stable democracy in Nigeria has been difficult and sometimes violent. Since 1999, Nigerian democracy has been generally improving. But many of its laws remain oppressive, unjust, and cruel. And Nigeria’s broader challenges make ours in the U.S. look easy.
Nigeria — with its population of 200 million — is the largest country in Africa. With a land mass the size of two California’s, Nigeria is also one of the most diverse country’s in Africa. Over a hundred different tribal languages are spoken in this former British colony. In terms of religious affiliation, her people are almost equally divided with 50% being Muslim and 50% being Christian. The Al Queda-like terror group, Boko Haram, wreaks havoc and violence in the northeastern corner of the country. Local banditry is the far larger threat for most of the country. “Rule of law” is not an esoteric constitutional issue here; it’s fragility and frequent absence has life and death consequences for all Nigerians.
The people of Nigeria have recently chosen to double the minimum wage in order to better reward work and lift more of their people out of poverty. But there is a price tag to such progress. And every level of government has to find the revenues to pay for their share of those increased wages, and to put in place a regulatory apparatus to enforce it. Complicating matters further is Nigeria’s big reliance on oil revenues. One governor asks, “what are we to do as the global demand for oil declines?”
There is a video message from a Deputy Secretary of the U.N. Her message has three themes — scolding on democracy shortcomings, and urging forward on rule of law and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals for Nigeria and the planet.
But all politics is local. And the question for these governors is “how?” How to manage the gap between high ambitions and the art of the possible? How to manage one’s own schedule in order to be effective and accessible — without losing your relationship with your own family? How to promote sustainable agriculture in ways that balance the needs of farmers with the needs of herders? How to lift the children of Nigeria up from the bottom of the scale when it comes to education?
How to manage the creative tension of our times in order to serve the longer term interests of humanity?
How to save just one life from disease, poverty, or starvation?
No generation of people has ever had the technology we now have to better govern ourselves. Geographic Information Systems and the Internet of Things has given us the ability to model, measure, and map human interactions across our built and natural environments in ways never before possible. These technologies give us the power to predict and to act on massive scales — and in real-time. Whether it’s traffic management, arresting the spread of epidemics, deploying renewable energy, or restoring the health of our waters, democracy has never had better tools for effective governance.
What we lack is not technology. What we lack are the new human habits — the socio-technical disciplines — for addressing and solving complex problems. What we are reaching for is the ability to collaborate at scale and speed sufficient enough to promote, to preserve, or — perhaps even — to rescue the common good we share as voyagers on this small blue life-capsule called earth.
A new way of governing is emerging all across the world. It is open, transparent, performance measured, and collaborate. It’s authority is based not on title or taboo, but on visible proof that it is working — in “all of the small places close to home.” [Eleanor Roosevelt on the UN Declaration of Human Rights.]
Every year in Nigeria now because of Climate Change, the Sahara Desert expands another mile southward. As the Sahara expands, it consumes homes, farms, and grazing lands that once supported human life. It is metaphor. It is reality. And it is story all in one.
A great man once observed, “it is the nature of all progress that it must sometimes pass through periods of great instability” — and so it is with us now. [Teilhard deChardin]
The instability of this moment of progress are the twin crisis of Climate Change and Democracy.
The questions are open and urgent.
Whether — with all of our science — we can act in time to reverse a sixth planetary extinction event?
Whether — with all of our data and technology — free people still have the capacity to govern ourselves effectively?
I believe we do.
But time, intention, and action will tell.