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Democracy, leadership, and the future of Nigeria

Democracy, leadership, and the future of Nigeria
November 19
09:47 2020

Nigeria is falling apart. It is falling apart fast. Nigeria needs to be rescued. It needs to be rescued quickly. Nigeria’s basic indicators are bad. Youth unemployment is about 23% and growing. Half of Nigerians are extremely poor, according to Nigeria’s official custodian of social data, the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS). This means that about 100 million Nigerians live below poverty level, with less than two dollars a day. Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world. With about 200 million people Nigeria has more poor people than India with 1.3 billion people. Horrible. With inflation at 14.4 and rising, Nigerians will be poorer in 2021, except a major tide turns the economy around. Life in Nigeria is even more wretched than this. There is no security of life in Nigeria. Nigeria ranks third in the global terrorism index. Only Iraq and Afghanistan are more terrorized. Nigeria hosts three of the five deadliest terror groups in the world. On the average, more than 100 people die monthly in Nigeria of banditry, terror attacks or extrajudicial killings by security agencies. One can say that in Nigeria life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

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But these are avoidable. Nigeria does not need to be like this. In 1960, at independence, the nations of the world looked with confidence to the future of an African rising star. Time Magazine reflected the mood when it celebrated the birth of Nigeria with a cover story. “The Giant of Africa”, the magazine proclaimed. It did not take long before the country disappointed its well-wishers. As Nigerian leaders squabbled for religious and ethnic dominance, it did not take long before the country slipped into civil war, long military dictatorship, and emerged with a ‘democracy’ that can neither satisfy the material needs of the citizen or ensure peaceful and legitimate selection of political leaders. In place of euphoria, friends of Nigeria are worried about its future. No one is banking on the country’s future. Everyone is agitated. Is Nigeria going to survive? How will the country survive? Is Nigeria at the precipice? Will the country fail or will it pass through this terrible period, like it has done many times in the past?

If there was any doubt that Nigeria was distressed, the events of the #EndSARS protest have cleared it. That long-lasting peaceful protests that turned violent towards the end shows clearly that the Nigerian states is gravely sick. As young men and women took to the streets across many Nigerian major cities, as they protested the brutality of the Nigerian state and its insensate indifference to the poverty and deprivations ravaging the country, as they raised their voice and temper at the noisome pestilence that has become leadership, many doubting Thomas, many privileged and indifferent elites, could no longer hide their despair of the Nigerian situation. The protest raged for weeks. At the end, Nigeria failed the leadership test again. Instead of the protests leading to a moment of awakening and awareness, it led to a return of gestapo-like brutality. Security officers, in the disguise of darkness, mauled down peaceful protesters in hale of bullets. The protests turned violent leading to ogre of unbridled looting and burning of private and public enterprises and homes. When the windstorm died down, many police stations have been burnt and tens of police officers killed. Across the country, soldiers and police shot dead many citizens. To further highlight the pathology of the Nigerian state, as government praises the organizers of the protests and sues for peace, it continues to brutalize suspected promoters of the protests. The Governor of the Central Banks surreptitiously secured court orders to freeze the accounts of some of the promoters who are also placed on ‘no-fly’ lists. The angry and faithless state walks back on its peace talk and pursues vendetta against youths who showed it the mirror.

Democracy and its Failure:

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What does Nigeria’s failure say about democracy, its democracy? This is Nigeria’s third experiment in democratic governance. The first two attempts ended badly. They were shut down by the military. Those experiments failed largely because democracy did not deliver the goods. democracy did not create social peace. Democracy did not produce prosperity and quality of life for the people. In 1966. the first experiment in democratic governance ended in ethnic violence, corruption, and military coup. In 1983, military adventurists shoved away a tottering civilian administration whose malfeasance and ineffectiveness choked the people. Now, the third experiment is headed in the same direction. Political leadership is self-serving, grossly incompetent, and unresponsive to the storms of violence and misery convulsing the ship of state. The only difference is that there are no military adventurists this time around to relieve the people of the misery and drudgery of corrupt and incompetent political leadership.

So, even as Nigerians clamor for democracy, democracy has failed in Nigeria. why is it so? Is there something about democracy that means it will never flourish in the Nigeria soil? Or it that we are not able to nurture the seed of democracy? Democracy has a long and confusing history. It could be defined in different ways. But today, it has been accepted as an electoral system that allows the people- all adult citizens- to periodically elect their leaders. Through democracy the people rule themselves and therefore protect their interests. The minimum requirement of a democratic system is that it institutionalizes free and fair electoral systems and creates enough incentive structure to encourage those elected to public officer exercise political power to the benefit of the people. These two features of democracy- free and fair election and accountability- are what makes elections worthwhile. If any or all of them are absent, then democracy means little and achieves little.

It is easy to understand why democracy has failed twice in Nigeria and failing the third time (the third experiment is not a complete failure because we still have the chance to rescue democracy). The continuing failure of democracy in Nigeria is because of the failure to institutionalize a system of fair and free elections and a structure of governance post-election that constrains the exercise of political power towards political stability and socioeconomic wellbeing of the people. If there is a secret code of these many failures, here it is. If you crack this code, you reset politics in Nigeria and ensure the survival of democracy in Nigeria.

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Note that I use the verb ‘institutionalize’. This brings up the primacy of institutions in sustaining democracy. I emphasize the definition of institution from Nobel economist, Douglas North, who defined institutions as norms, rules, processes, and procedures that enable and constrain actions. What is paramount about institutions is that they are humanly created, they are human devices. Again, institutions include norms- social and moral norms. So, when we speak about institutions of democracy we do not mean only or necessarily the different branches of government, the state institutions like the courts, parliaments and police and other security agencies. We also mean values and norms that shape what people expect, how they behave and interact with one another and how they assess the performance of those in public office. Therefore, institutionalizing democracy requires that we have or develop the values and norms that generate the social behaviors that nurture and sustain democratic practices. Democracy fails in Nigeria because the Nigerian social environment does not sufficiently produce the norms, values, rules, processes, and procedures that engender democratic practices. So, a democratic way of life is necessary for a democratic practice.

Now, it is clearer why the experiments in democracy have failed. Recall the two definitive features of democracy: free and fair electoral system and effective incentive structure for accountability. Democracy requires people to elect those who will govern them in an environment where they can make free and clear choices. It is believed that because the people have the votes, they will choose those they believe share their views and concerns and will promote their wellbeing when given political power. Two assumptions are built into electoral democracy. the first is that the people understands the issues involved in the politics of the day. The second is that the people can freely express their choice. The first requires basic education, a free press and freedom of expression and significant degree of public reason, that is, reason that is not based on divisive ethnic, religious or cultural sentiments not generally shared by large number of citizens. Now, where the people are mostly uneducated or not capable of inquiring into public affairs or not disposed to form opinion on public issues based on publicly accessible and acceptable premises, then elections may not produce results that are good for democracy.

The quality of civic education and degree of consensus on important matters of public policy determine whether the choices citizens make about who leads will produce the so-called dividends of democracy. if the people do not know enough of the issues or are driven by divisive ethnic, religious and cultural issues and don’t focus on what contributes to their wellbeing, then they will not make electoral choices that promote their wellbeing. If their choice is constrained by poverty, inducement, or violence, then they can’t choose those they wish to choose. In this way, democracy fails. It fails because the people cannot elect those they wish to elect, those who care enough for their wellbeing and who have the capacity to promote their wellbeing when in public offices.

This is why electoral democracy has not produced the kind of leaders who can sustain accountable governance and produce quality goods and services. This is the reason since 1960 Nigeria has produced poverty and conflict instead of prosperity and peace. This is also the reason we may continue in this circle of failure until a favorable tide and a knowledgeable sailor set us on a new voyage. We are really stuck.

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Let us flip the other side of the democracy turn. So, because citizens are civically educated and the electoral system is designed to minimize corruption and violence, they are able to elect the right people into political offices. What now remains for democracy to work is to have structures of governance that encourages performance of the promises of partisan politics and imposes real costs for failure to perform and rewards for good performance. This is the heart of the institution of democracy as a form of good governance. Where such structures and incentives do not exist, or they are easily subverted and thereby ineffective, democracy fails as a proposition about good and effective governance.

So, next time you noticed that there are no good roads in Imo State or that children in Gombe states are not in schools and don’t have access to the most rudimentary healthcare or that a large swathe of Niger State or Zamfara State is in firm control of banditry and citizens are being are killed at the drop of a hat, just know what has not worked. Yes, you can say democracy has failed in these places. But it is more precise to say that the people cannot elect the right leaders and those elected , whether right or wrong leaders, don’t have the incentives to govern well, which is to build schools, provide quality healthcare and protect the lives and property of the people. And there are no structures to constrain them to do so. Democracy failed because its two defining features are absent.

Does Leadership Matters and How?

I teach social justice to 300 level law students at a Nigerian university. In my class there are very experienced government officials and top corporate executives. The class always involves hot exchanges and deep disagreements on the hottest social justice issues. On one of the classes we discussed about the alleged marginalization of the southeast in Nigerian politics and the call for a Nigerian president of southeast extraction. One of the students, a former governor now a minister, argued that all these contentions about social justice in Nigeria are essentially arguments by elites to continue to control resources and power to the detriment of the poor in all the geopolitical zones in Nigeria. In his view, social justice campaigns in Nigeria are contrived. As part of the debate, someone challenged the argument that building institutions is the most important work for development. He observed that some good governance practices by the previous administration are being undone by succeeding administration. This means that it may be leaders rather than good institutions that we need to exit the circle of failure. There is an element of truth about this statement. There is also much untruth in the statement.

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Development scholars have argued about the relationship between leadership and institution in good and bad governance. Development studies promote the examples of Lew Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping in arguing for the role of transformative leadership in promoting and sustaining development. Other highlight how institutional design affect leadership. Daron Acemoglu and James Anderson in their book, ‘Why Nations Fail’ provide a definitive statement on how institutions and their design affect development. This insight has a long history and pedigree with social scientists. The resolution of the debate is that institutions influence the type of leaders who can emerge in a society. Also, the quality of institutions in a society depends on the quality of leadership. So, there is a symbiotic relationship between quality of leadership and the quality of institutions. Good leadership over a long time ends up creating, nurturing and consolidating good institutions. Those institutions, if they last long, ensure that the society continues to produce good and effective leaders. Lew Kuan Yew was a great prime minister. His greatest legacy is a solid institution that continues to give Singapore great leaders.

To conclude this conversation, let me present a statement about the miserable state of Nigeria and its states. Nigeria is a failed or failing state because its founding leaders did not create veritable institutions that create prosperity, justice, and stability. Instead, they created flawed institutions that continue to produce leaders who lack capacity and commitment to create prosperity and just and peaceful society. This is the reason we must restructure the country. Now we have different ideas of what restructure requires. Many argue that restructuring is an everyday staple. Governments keep altering its structures. Some alterations are minor. Some are major. Some alteration reinforce the social pathology. Some revise marginally or majorly. But, in the minimum, it means creating better institutions. Nigerians are mostly asking for major restructuring that will have the effect of changing the structural relationship of entities in the country in terms of how we produce and share; how we acquire and use power and how we change and exit the federation. This sort of restructuring requires expansive deliberation, consultations, and political action. Should we wait till we restructure before electing good leaders? No. We should start the journey of reformation through electing leaders who have the commitment and competence to drive change. If we really mean to achieve that we will need to redesign electoral process and civic education so that the two features of electoral democracy are achieved.

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