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Town Hall Meeting: A Novel Approach To Citizen Engagement In Policymaking

Donald Ugwu

Town hall meetings, as an approach to citizens’ engagement with the government, once again, came to the fore on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, when the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, had a dialogue with residents of Victoria Garden City (VGC) in Lagos.

On that fateful day, the vice-president discussed some policies of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration with his co-residents in VGC, particularly those policies that aim at turning around the nation’s economy.

The dialogue was the fulfilment of a promise which Osinbajo made to the residents, prior to the March 28, 2015 presidential election.

Specifically, he then pledged that he would, from time to time, return to “base’’ to give account of the service delivery of the Buhari-administration, while benefiting from the people’s intellectual resources.

The hall of Chrisland School, the venue of the meeting, was full to capacity, with Osinbajo assuring the attendees that the Buhari-administration had kept faith with its pledges on security, governance, corruption and economy.

As regards security, the vice-president said that the nation could not easily forget the evils of the Boko Haram insurgents who, by and large, had been decimated by the military within the last one year.

He, however, noted that the terrorist group had resorted to carrying out suicide bombings in some parts of the Northeast, using young girls to perpetrate the gruesome acts.

The vice-president stressed that what was now more important was the human tragedy caused by the displacement of nearly two million persons, with thousands of orphans and widows.

“Boko Haram insurgency had been degraded as a `military might’, although pockets of suicide bombings still take place.

“This is a challenge we must tackle head-on but the other challenge is the over two million people displaced by insurgency who need resettlement,’’ he added.

Osinbajo said that the Federal Government was working toward resettling the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in their homes after demining the places completely.

He bemoaned the fact that most of the affected persons were farmers who were forced to abandon farming because of the insurgents’ atrocities.

Apart from the menace of Boko Haram, Osinbajo said that other sources of concern included the activities of militants, who often blew up oil pipelines in the Niger Delta area, and the protracted feud between farmers and herdsmen.

On corruption, the vice-president said that the government was waging a war on corruption in the public and private sectors.

“In governance, corruption is a critical issue because the whole system, both public and private, is replete with corruption which has become the rule rather than the exception.’’

Osinbajo recalled the arms purchase scandal “where a huge amount of money was purportedly spent on arms procurement but unfortunately, it went into private pockets’’.

He also said that the government was making concerted efforts to revive the economy, particularly in the face of a sharp decline in revenues in May 2015.

He emphasised that the nation’s foreign exchange reserve was depleted by the previous administration from about 40 billion U.S. dollars to about 27.5 billion U.S. dollars.

Osinbajo said that since most states solely depended on monthly allocations from the Federation Account, many of them could no longer pay workers’ salaries, adding that this explained the rationale behind the bailout funds which the Federal Government gave to such states.

The vice-president said that the Buhari-administration had solid plans for the diversification of the nation’s economy with a focus on agriculture and solid minerals, as part of pragmatic plans to boost national revenue and create jobs.

He said that in agriculture, specific emphasis would be placed on improving the entire value chain, while strengthening efforts to turn the nation into a net exporter of rice.

Osinbajo said that the government was also intensifying efforts to refine petroleum products locally, adding that by 2018, the nation should be able to reach a remarkable level in the production of refined petroleum products.

He also said that the administration would encourage the establishment of private refineries, as part of efforts to meet the local needs for petroleum products.

With regard to rail transportation, Osinbajo said that the Chinese firm handling the projects had made a lot of progress in different parts of the country, adding that the government was also endeavouring to rehabilitate all roads linking major cities.

During the question and answer session, the vice-president reaffirmed the decision of the Federal Government not to devalue the national currency.

He also said that calls for the abrogation of the Land Use Act were counter-productive, as such an action would thwart efforts to encourage the youth to go into agriculture.

Osinbajo said that the Federal Government was designing a lot of materials for teacher education to improve standard of schooling, adding that priority would be given to science and technology, engineering and mathematics education.

“Our priority is how to provide education that is relevant to the 21st Century,’’ he said.

He said that as part of plans to develop the education sector, the government intended to engage 500,000 graduate teachers to teach in rural areas across the country.

Besides, Osinbajo said that the Federal Government was planning to extend the National Health Insurance Scheme to accommodate every Nigerian.

He said that tangible efforts would also be made to implement the protection of copyright and intellectual property laws in a practical way.

In his address, Mr Olusegun Ladega, the Chairman of the VGC Forum, thanked the vice-president for being an active member of the VGC community.

He, however, urged Osinbajo to intervene in efforts to tackle the estate’s flooding, caused by the non-provision of ancillary drainage on the Lekki-Epe Expressway by the Lagos State Government.

Ladega also asked the vice-president to look into the possibility of giving development associations a voice, through law, in the administration of their various communities.

Another resident of VGC, Dr Tochi Okwor, moaned about the high rate of communicable diseases such as TB, HIV and AIDS in the country, saying that the scale might reach unacceptable proportion s if nothing was done to curb the spread of the diseases.

She also advised the Federal Government to excise the National Centre for Disease Control from the Federal Ministry of Health and make the agency an independent organisation to enable it to function effectively.

A former CBN Governor, Mr Joseph Sanusi, said that a Public-Private Partnership arrangement should be put in place for the maintenance of roads across the country.

He said that under the arrangement, tolls should be collected on major roads so as to raise money for the maintenance of existing roads and for building new ones.

Observers say that the organisation of town hall meetings in the country should be strengthened and perfected since the meetings are veritable avenues of garnering citizens’ input to government policies and getting their feedback on specific programmes. (NANFeatures)

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