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The ‘new and improved’ trouble with Nigeria

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Political news in Nigeria is generally depressing. This is not because it is bad news – which it mostly is – but because it is, tiringly and achingly, an endless torrent of reality show drama featuring politicians and their antics. There is no political discourse, no ideological direction, and no intellectual proposals. Our news is either just politicians fighting politicians or politicians reconciling with politicians; it is a hot mess of political gossip and low drama where every issue starts with an ego tussle and ends with a power struggle.

In the rare instances that governance issues take the stage, they are merely used as self-aggrandising props by political leaders or wielded as score-keeping tabs against their predecessors and opposition. Although our leaders decry corruption, they do not honestly engage the causes of corruption as it involves ordinary people – such as poverty, burdensome laws, and general desperation to survive. Instead, they think of corruption in relation to their political opponents. Similarly, they hardly engage the scope and limits of the rights of ordinary citizens, instead, they complain about abuse of power by their rivals when it affects them. They do not reflect on insecurity as an issue destroying real human lives, but as a game plan to make the country ungovernable for them. Nigerian politics has long ceased to be a conversation about the people and the ideas that best represent their interests. Instead, our politics continues to be a drama about politicians and what affects them. Meanwhile, ordinary Nigerians are compelled to watch this horror show, captive audiences of a serial killer nation.

Over thirty years ago, Chinua Achebe summarised in The Trouble with Nigeria that our crisis of governance was ‘simply and squarely’ a failure of leadership. This argument has become trite, the default quote of Nigerian secondary and tertiary students in their essays on governance. The effect of this idea has been a continuous race to Abuja, as every new generation of politicians rushes in hubris to be ‘the third force’ and the kind of leadership that they imagine Nigeria needs. This has never worked.

Certainly, Achebe is right: we have a failure of leadership. But what we are rarely told, from primary school to adulthood, is that we also have a ‘success of followership’. Most Nigerians of my generation and after have been taught to follow, to conform, and to revere the wisdom of existing political leadership. And now, there are young people of my generation still proclaiming praise for the Tinubus and the Sarakis. In this process, many have been moulded into groupthink identities – ethnic, religious, or political – convenient for the continuing rule of our political elite. The result is the success of followership. While followership of humane norms has its advantages, Nigeria’s followership norms are derived from a colonial worldview of the infallibility of executives and blind loyalty to hierarchical power structures. Because of these norms, followers will resist opportunities for a better kind of leadership as unrealistic, impractical, or radical.

It is clear to me that, throughout all of human history, no leader has been so powerful or so tyrannical that their reign has been fully independent of the followership of the people. The intricacy, however, is in how this followership is manifested. In several instances, followership can be direct and sycophantic – the kind you see at political rallies and events. But, in most cases, followership is indirect and passive, a quiet kind of resignation derived from the primeval and genuine belief of a people that rulers have the legitimacy to govern as they please, or that proper civic responsibility is to wait for the process or circumstances to introduce new rulers. Followership of this kind need not be support for the individual occupying office, instead, it is followership based on a belief in the processes, culture, and institutions that sustain the office holder. People will endure a despotic leader because they deeply believe in the system through which the leader emerged. We may blame the failures of governance on an individual in power but the continuing power of the individual is a product of the collective belief of the people. To change a political system, you have to change what the people believe. The colonisers understood this well. The British created and ruled Nigeria for a hundred years not just by brute force, but also by erasing the ideas that sustained traditional societies and imposing their own ideologies, particularly ideas that asserted the supremacy of the white man. Colonial rule collapsed when enough people – locally and globally – stopped believing those ideas.

Similarly, it is the belief in the legitimacy of our ‘democracy’ that continues to power the dysfunction in Nigeria. But what we have in Nigeria is not a democracy, what we have is merely a civilian autocracy. Nigeria’s political system is a resource generation system manipulated by a political elite for their own economic benefit while the people are distracted by dramas that have little or no connection to them. These dramas are compelling enough to mesmerise even those of us who consider ourselves too educated to be deceived by an oppressive system.

To change our political system, we must change our belief in the legitimacy of the system. Nigeria as it is cannot and will not work for the benefit of the people until we build a true democracy through a transformative constitution – under a human rights framework that assures the equal freedom of all – and negotiated by the people through their own neutrally selected representatives and affirmed by a popular referendum. Indeed, we have a failure of leadership in Nigeria, but we must also stop doing well as followers. We will not have the kind of leadership we desire until we get rid of our belief in the legitimacy of a system that continues to produce and sustain dysfunctional leaders.


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