Public opinion is the aggregate attitudes, beliefs and views held by a group of people. In other words, it is the complex collection of divergent views about certain issue or issues. Public opinion as a term has its etymology in the French word “L opinion” first used in 1588 by Montaigne. Public opinion gained currency in the 18th century through urbanization, political and social factors in Western Europe. Of the earliest scholars to theorize the concept of public opinion, Jeremy Bentham’s postulations were most compelling. Apparently, he posits that public opinion is a very influential factor that compels leaders to adopt utilitarian principles–policies that ensure the greatest happiness for a greater number of the people.
Besides Bentham, German sociologists such as Ferdinand Tonnies and Jurgen Habermas as well as American sociologist Herbert Blumer viewed public opinion as a collective behaviour or views that best serve as a social function in the society. It is regarded as a social gauge of public debates and discussions. Nonetheless, in contemporary times, public opinion has been having immense influence on political sphere and on public administration. More so, there have been rapid spread of public opinion measurement across the world, especially in the developed nations. Just as there have been analyses of critical public opinions in these advanced climes, due to its profound influence on politics, policies, marketing, phenomena, crimes, cases, and individuals, among other issues.
Public opinion is the bedrock of liberal democracy, and as such, plays a huge role in a typical democratic setting and development. It influences and foretells the pattern of voting in elections, influencing public polices, above all, bridging the gap between the government and the citizenry. While in advanced societies, public opinions are often gauged and evaluated before certain salient public policies are even brought to fore. However, in the Nigerian context, public opinion barely influences politics, government, as well as public policies.
Nigeria’s chequered contemporary history is plagued by leaders who often disregard public opinion in pursuance of their selfish interest, the prebendal interests of their cohorts, ethnic groups’ as well as those of some foreigners. During the prolonged spell of military misadventure into governance in Nigeria, public opinion was often raped, gagged, ignored and bastardized. This was of little surprise or concern to Nigerians since the anti-democratic nature, posture and system of the military was synonymous with repressive measures. Even as tough as the military dictators were, they also caved in to some public opinions. Their repressiveness often do not bow to the verdict of public opinion on all but the issue of their reluctant exit from power.
In this regard, a transition programme is often used to placate public opinion, in order to hold on to their de facto rule. Ex-military rulers such as Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha were two notorious leaders with penchant for undermining public opinions, even on issues of grave national concerns. This glaring fact explains the prepoderance of issues such as political crises, political instability, sanctions and criticisms that trailed their infamous administrations respectively. If Nigerian past military dictators could be pardoned on the yardstick of their authoritarian nature and style of administration as well as the idiosyncracies of the leaders, what about the civilian regimes in the contemporary Nigeria?
Indeed, between 1999 and 2007, the Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration flagrantly and incessantly undermined public opinions. His constant Freudian slips often expressed his tacit avowed neglect of public opinion on numerous issues. Some of such issues include new Naira notes and coins, increment in fuel prices, ban of the importation of certain products, sheer disregard to the rule of law, worrisome electoral frauds, marginalization of oil bearing communities, rampant corruption among public servants, controversy-brimmed privatization and commercialization of some hitherto government-owned enterprises, incessant and unnecessary foreign trips, undue appointments, violations of the Federal Character Principle, public policy levity over the handling of the disputed Bakassi Peninsula issue, and excessive repressive measures in the polity, as well as the dumb neglect of sports men among others.
In only few instances, Obasanjo’s disregard for public opinion was stoutly resisted by the ever recalcitrant, labour unions and other pressure groups in the country. One can at least, blame Obasanjo’s negative disposition to public opinion on his military background and his antecedent as ex-military ruler, after all, they often say that you can take a man from the military but you cannot take the military from the man. It should however be noted that, even the political maneuvers and chaotic 2007 General Election that brought the Musa Yar’ Adua’s administration to power were visibly against the tide of public opinion. Admittedly, the unfortunate demise of president Musa Yar’Adua led to president Goodluck Jonathan emergence as president, to complete the Yar’ Adua’s tenure in 2009.
By right, president Goodluck Jonathan duly contested the 2011 General Elections and won, which was in line with the opinion of most Nigerians but against the political permutations and interests of some political cabals and sectional bigots’ interests. Unfortunately, the disgruntled cabals and sections of the country have been secretly promoting terrorism, unleashing untold violence and wanton destruction of lives and properties, since the inception of Jonathan’s administration. Apparently, the political instability and insecurity that has ensued since then, have compounded the challenges of governance in president Goodluck Jonathan’s Administration. Obviously, these daunting challenges include endemic corruption, comatose power and energy issue, negligence of infrastructural development, maligned poor state of education and problematic privatization and commercialization programme as well as the poor state of sports development. There is also the spiralling unemployment rate, the ironic menace of poverty among many Nigerians, as well as the Freedom of Information Bill and Petroleum Information Bill challenges among other thorny national issues.
In all of these, president Goodluck Jonathan has just suddenly realized that the public opinion euphoria that greeted his emergence has waned a great deal barely two years into his administration, turning music to war song. The president has apparently gotten the unsavory verdict of public opinion–that he fare abysmally on many critical issues. So widespread is this public opinion that many are castigating him in the Niger Delta as well. Public opinion has already crucified the president as sheer failure, while there is barely any disagreement whenever his performance is being debated in virtually all over the nooks and crannies of the country. This critical issue has vehemently dazed a man who maliciously and brazenly undermined public opinion to initiate his controversial fuel subsidy removal policy at the turn of the year.
It is instructive to note that against public opinion, Jonathan’s administration has failed to tackle corruption headlong, so is the lingering insecurity in the country despite his awareness of the culprits and masterminds of these social problems, based on the damning revelations of various probe panels’ and security reports. president Goodluck Jonathan’s philosophical statement at the opening of the 52nd Annual General Meeting of the Nigerian Bar Association at the International Conference Center, Abuja, though contradicting the legal maxim of nemo judex incasasua (no one can be a judge in his own case), President Goodluck Jonathan was the unwarranted judge to deliver the verdict of public opinion.
As a seeming biased judge, his verdict was incoherent as it failed to state the areas and reasons why he has become the butt of the barrage of criticisms in the country . Thank God he spoke of his will to become “the most praised president” in the world. It was Theodore Roosevelt who quipped that “it is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed”. Apparently, when the ex-governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chris Ngige was embattled by his estranged “god fathers” brigands, he simply performed realistically, to warm his way into the embrace of public opinion. This goodwill he still enjoy to date.
President Goodluck Jonanthan, of necessity, must learn from the lessons of Dr. Chris Ngige. Thank God this fact seems to have dawned on him as he strategize for 2015. He has suddenly realized that the only way he can surmount the army of opposition growing in some sections of the country is to endear himself to the masses. Hence, he has vouched to reverse the trend. This is a categorical, appropriate and philosophical twist as well as an expression of the dire-needed political will to transform Nigeria.
Little wonder Norman Vincent Peale remarked that “people become really quite remarkable when they start thinking that they can do things. When they believe in themselves, they have the first secret of success”. It thus, now remains to be seen how he would match words with actions . Whether this promise to deliver the dividends of democracy will join the long catalogue of president Goodluck Jonathan’s unfulfilled promises remain to be seen in the coming years.
Written By Johnny Eshikena Bob