Thursday, 1st June 2023

Between democratic leadership, elite nationalism: Which is Nigeria’s problem?

By Tunji Olaopa
20 June 2022   |   2:49 am
If this is not done, then critical time could be wasted on resolving what is not properly understood. It is this axiom that makes it imperative that we keep coming again

Leadership. Photo/FACEBOOK/professoryemiosinbajo

It is often said that a large part of problem-solving is achieving an acute understanding of what the problem is.

If this is not done, then critical time could be wasted on resolving what is not properly understood. It is this axiom that makes it imperative that we keep coming again and again to the perplexing question of what ails Nigeria and the Nigerian state.

How do we understand what is wrong with us—where, according to Chinua Achebe, the rain began to beat and is still beating us? Within the whole gamut of socioeconomic and governance woes being suffered by Nigerians, this might seem to be mere academic nitpicking on theoretical matters. To parody Karl Marx, scholars have only hitherto analyzed the problem of leadership in Nigeria in various ways. The point however is to change it.

Unfortunately, this way of looking at it is not accurate, unlike what Marx said about philosophers changing the world. This is because there is a key relationship between analyzing the problem of leadership in Nigeria and understanding the way to achieve socio-economic and political transformation for Nigerians. And more so, given the global, national and local dynamics over time, there are a way problems and predicaments keep changing their texture over time such that we need to keep tracking what the problem means within the context of the changing time.

In Nigeria, the problem of leadership seems to have become aggravated even with the onset of democratic experimentation in 1999. If successive governments since then have failed critically to translate the idea of democracy into a better standard of living and empowerment for Nigerians, how do we continue to understand democracy and leadership in Nigeria? When Mills and Herbst talk about Africa’s Third Liberation (2012), after the fight against colonialism and postcolonial authoritarianism, they had in mind the liberation of Africans from the incapacities generated by political economies founded on corruption, graft, nepotism, cronyism, and widening social inequality that, for instance, keeps widening the gap between the rich and the poor in Nigeria.

In other words, the third liberation needed in Nigeria is the liberation from bad policy and policymakers who have put the hope of good governance in abeyance since independence. Mills and Herbst’s book has, as its subtitle, “The New Search for Prosperity and Jobs.” Indeed, it is this bad policy architecture that summarizes the terrible state Nigeria finds herself in at the moment. It is bad policy, or even the lack of political will to create a good one, that has allowed the Boko Haram insurgency to attain the status of a national emergency, the same way the Fulani herdsmen menace is fast becoming one.

It is definitely a bad policy initiative that leads to the appointment of mediocre ministers and commissioners when there are those who have the requisite competence and skill set to adequately comprehend and tackle Nigeria’s problems. In the final analysis, Mills and Herbst’s hypothesis about Africa’s third liberation—and even Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (2013)—speaks to the availability of a leadership dynamics that possesses the capacity to turn bad politics into a good one. This bad politics is characterized by a decision deficiency that affects the kind of policy that a government puts in place.

Unfortunately, it would seem that Nigeria lacks the wherewithal with which to achieve the third liberation that will enable her to translate bad politics into a good policy framework for achieving good governance.

Democracy has become critical to the understanding of good governance anywhere in the world today. Unfortunately, democracy does not always sit well with elite nationalism tied around the desires of the political class of a country. And this derives from the fact that the political elites often define their interests in ways that are antithetical to the demands of the people on whose behalf they are often called upon to make political judgments that orient national policies.

The real problem with democracy now is that it makes it possible for unconscionable elites to politically bamboozle hapless and unsuspecting followers. In other words, democracy’s frame of operation leaves a tenuous line between it and demagoguery. A very smart and eloquent politician can scuttle the imperatives of democratic aspiration by merely speaking what the electorates want to hear. The democratic process got Donald Trump elected in the United States. It also got elected Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and other fascists and virulent nationalist regimes from India to Hungary.

It gets increasingly worse within the postcolonial context of Africa. And Nigeria is a prime example. 2023 is near, and we have got right into the depth of political campaigns, intrigues and chicanery. So far, and as the political drama keeps unfolding, we have been treated to so many obscene narratives and melodrama—from the number of candidates vying for elective offices to the sheer poverty of ideological moorings for their campaigns. We have seen the back and forth negotiations between the North and the South. We have also been treated to the hanky-panky political behavior of aspiring leaders in the face of serious national issues.

Most of the aspirants have unfortunately been silent about the blueprints that speak to the revamping of the Nigerian state and economy. And the electorates are swept clearly along in the tidal wave of ideology-less bad politics that is a façade for good intention.

Unfortunately, good intentions do not transform a nation’s economy. It is only good policies that do. And good policies emanate from an ideological commitment to a policy architecture that defines good governance. Nigerians are therefore caught in a bind: we have ongoing democratic experimentation that is not delivering any transformation of governance dynamics. And as 2023 approaches, there is that sinking feeling that we are doomed to another eight years of lacklustre leadership that further dehumanize Nigerians.

The electorate in any democratic experiment has a significant role to play in defining the shape of governance and development. It could either watch as politicians perform blatant stealing of the collective aspirations. Or it could stand vigilant to protect the democratic future of the country. In Nigeria, there is a vicious cycle that ties poverty and lack of political sophistication and education with the widespread and bare-faced stealing of the common weal by the political class. Thus, elite nationalism has a fundamental role to play in not only the birthing of a nation but also in keeping that nation together, stable and progressive.

The elites are the set of representatives that stand in the place of the demos and are meant to make informed decisions that conduce to well-being and human flourishing. And they are supposed to deploy democratic ethos and processes to initiate a trajectory of good politics that conduces to good governance. But where the political class is essentially rapacious, feeding on the future of the citizenry, I argue that it is not only democracy and elite nationalism that is to blame. The people themselves—the active citizenry—feature largely in the blame game.

An active citizenry is a key to a functional and developmental democracy. An active citizenry focuses on the energy of elite nationalism. It essentially shores up the flexibility of democracy in electing just any comer, as long as he or she has the demagogic capacity to sway with the force of fake political promises that bedazzle the electorate into signing off their future for pottage. The beginning of a bright political future for a country like Nigeria commences when the electorate becomes so politically sophisticated as to constantly refuse to be tempted into mortgaging its future. And yet, the active citizenry must emerge, within the Nigerian political space, amidst a crippling space of poverty, deception and illiteracy.

And emerge, it must. Or else, the unimaginative and aggrandizing logic of elite nationalism in Nigeria will keep the country’s greatness at bay for eternity. It behoves the enlightened citizenry to question the array of aspirants for any post, chairmanship or presidential. It is the prerogative of the citizens to stand guard over the collective wealth and future of the polity, and insist that no political robbers will gain access.

And poverty cannot be an excuse. There are poorer nations that stood guard over their electoral and democratic future. Singapore used to be like Nigeria. Botswana is African. There are so many examples that damn us and our electoral complacence.

To return to the title of this piece. There is no disjuncture between democratic leadership and elite nationalism. The former is supposed to be the procedural sphere for the operation of the latter. In fact, elite nationalism becomes liberating when it synergizes with the vocal demands of an active citizenry to facilitate a blueprint of democratic governance that keeps the well-being of the citizens in focus at all times as the objective of any politics.

In Nigeria, we are still far from this point. Our politics is still fundamentally bad. And that is what makes the prospect of a democratic succession in 2023 both exciting and dreadful.

Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor, National Institute For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos.