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Ezekwesili: Unless we fix politics urgently, it will disintegrate and destroy Nigeria

Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, a former presidential candidate in the 2019 election, served previously as Minister of Education and in the Debt Management Office (DMO). In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, she shared her insights to the shortcomings of Nigeria’s democracy and how to re-engineer politics to make governance work for the people. What would you…


Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, a former presidential candidate in the 2019 election, served previously as Minister of Education and in the Debt Management Office (DMO). In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, she shared her insights to the shortcomings of Nigeria’s democracy and how to re-engineer politics to make governance work for the people.

What would you identify as the major setbacks to genuine enthronement of democratic culture?
I recently completed research on this issue as a Richard von Weizacker Fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. As a candidate for the office of the President of Nigeria in the 2019 elections, I directly witnessed the absurdity of our politics and it naturally awakened my intellectual curiosity. What I observed in politics in that short time set me off on a journey to reflect and better understand the challenges of our Democracy, Politics, and Governance.

My research #FixPolitics has some interesting findings that specifically address your question. There are three interconnected factors that hinder democratic development in Nigeria and the rest of our continent. These are, the absence of a productive and politically literate, empowered and engaged voting population, the dominant culture of a political class, that is politicians and their allies across society; that subordinates the collective good of the society to their personal interest without any consequences and the existence of weak constitutional, political and electoral institutions and context, which lead to an ineffective regulatory context for politics.

What essential features should define the ambitious project of fixing politics in Africa, particularly in Nigeria?
My #FixPolitics research findings concluded that every democracy, including that of Nigeria, can function well when it stands on three triangulated pillars of empowered and engaged citizens, who vote rationally for candidates that can effectively run the government on their behalf, ethical, competent, and capable politicians, who compete for votes by presenting citizens with alternative plans of how they will govern on their behalf and credible institutions that include constitutional, political and electoral bodies to regulate the relationship between citizens and politicians.

This means there are three key factors that determine the quality of political culture and outcomes in democracy; the engagement of the citizens as informed and active electorate; the quality of the political class and politicians who vie for elective offices; and the institutional integrity of the political regulatory system and context.

The #FixPolitics research evaluated how well these three triangulated pillars are doing in Nigeria and Africa more broadly. We have five major findings, including Adopting a theoretical model that assumes governance as a product or service in a market structure, we simplified and were able to interrogate what happens between the demand side, that is, the electorate or voters; the supply side, that is, the political class, who run for elective offices and, the institutional and regulatory context, that is, constitutional, political and electoral environment) in which both sides interact.

Our politics is structurally challenged with unequal power relations between the people and a political class that is unaccountable in the exercise of their public mandate. We named the phenomenon, “monopolistic democracy” and like all monopolies, society is endangered by the distortionary effect it has on social outcomes.

If we do not #FixPolitics urgently, politics will disintegrate and destroy Nigeria permanently and that is because our ruling class has entrenched a corrupted political culture that stunts the common good of citizens and their society without any consequences.

The corrupted political culture undermines citizens, families, communities, society at large, businesses, and the economy as well as government, public institutions, and the governance processes.

The corrupted political culture is invasive and pervasive and thus constitutes a major obstacle to the economic growth and development of Nigeria and the continent. This inhibitive effect on development is the reason for the high incidence of extreme poverty in Nigeria despite the huge endowment of population and natural resources. The good thing is that the solutions to these problems were also identified by the research.

Where should the effort to fix politics begin and what could be a probable timeframe to evaluate progress?
The research found that any effort to #FixPolitics has to begin with the citizen’s pillar of the democracy triangle. It is only the Citizens Pillar that retains the credibility to fix the broken political system and corrupt culture that is to be fixed.

The Political Class Pillar cannot #FixPolitics, because they are the primary beneficiaries of the anomaly in our politics, therefore, inherently lack the incentive to correct it. The Regulatory Pillar unfortunately lacks the independence, strength, capability, and credibility to check the excesses of the political class in particular.

What makes the research unique is how it uses evidence to sequentially guide citizens that are persuaded to act. Fundamentally, the Citizens, who step out to #FixPolitics must act on all three pillars concurrently and simultaneously. The solutions highlighted that each Pillar must be systemically launched at the same time as the others.

Citizens have to execute the political structural transformation agenda in a systematic, coherent, coordinated, and collaborative way. It is the only way citizens’ effort will gather the systemic momentum and create political structural shifts that correct political culture and outcomes. A silo approach at addressing the problems identified for each of the triangulated pillars will fail for a lack of integrative impact.

It is why the Work-Study Group (WSG) is made up of a diverse group of Nigerians from all regions of Nigeria, works of life and political persuasion. The members of the WSG are bound in the common vision, mission, and core values of transforming Nigeria’s deformed politics and governance by rallying behind the #FixPolitics research findings.

The WSG members work together to design and execute the programmes under each of the three pillars while collaborating on crosscutting issues in an ecosystem-building approach.

On evaluating progress of #FixPolitics, it is important to clearly convey that this initiative is not a dash, but a marathon. This initiative is not about 2023. #FixPolitics is about designing Nigeria’s and Africa’s way out of the trap of underdevelopment occasioned by our faulty political foundation; it is not partisan. It is about building a new political culture of taking responsibility through participation and empowered engagement by citizens and providing service and public accountability by public leaders.

More specifically, the work-plans developed for each pillar have specific and easy-to-measure actions that are of short, medium, and long-term delivery and impact. For example, in the emerging new and value-based Political Class Pillar, we are establishing an unconventional School of Politics, Policy, and Governance, which will fully commence in 2021 and annually produce at scale, a new class of value-based politicians on a mixed curriculum of theory and practice of ethical politics, design of sound economic, social, sectoral and structural policies and building strong, open, accessible, transparent and accountable institutions, regulatory and legal contexts. We are aiming to graduate 500 such people twice each year.

Our school is unconventional because it is designed to disrupt the mindset of the 500 citizens that will have the privilege of being admitted into each class cohort every six months. Since the current marketplace of supply of politicians is holding the country hostage to a destructive political culture, we can upend their dominance by producing a new political class of public leaders with the requisite character, competence, and capacity.

A complex mix of challenges, including low literacy level and economic deprivation has thrown up what could be described as a crisis of democracy in Nigeria, is it possible to inject sanity into the country’s politics?
You are spot-on in identifying the adverse impact of low literacy levels and poverty on our democracy. In my research, there is a conclusion that these two factors inhibit the quality of voting decisions of our electorate that are within the low-income class.

First, the illiterate are likely to be poor. The daily financial worth of the productivity of poor people in our country is extremely low and so, whatever is offered them by unscrupulous politicians on Election Day is hugely attractive. For them, Election Day is simply another day of struggles to eke out a living.

Election Day is not a decision about the next four years for most poor voters. They have concluded that since governance did not improve their wellbeing in the previous years, nothing in the future would change. They, therefore, rationally make a decision to sell their vote and ‘earn an income’ for each time they do so.

In my conclusions, I wrote it this way: “The Price of the Vote of the low-income voters in Nigeria is extremely low, and corrupted politicians can easily pay for it.”

Second, the poor who are illiterate will also likely lack political literacy and so do not realize the power of their constitutional right to vote. In the power relations between the electorate and those they vote into office, the former have failed to take their primacy in our democracy.

What the #FixPolitics research recommends to these two issues are one, design a bundled and simultaneous program of economic empowerment and political literacy for low-income voters. The economic empowerment component of the programme raises their productivity. The political literacy component raises their political consciousness and awareness of their self-interest in elections and governance that follows afterward.

Two, organisations and groups interested in emerging an empowered and engaged electorate then work together to use technology to identify, connect, combine and scale up existing and new programmes of economic empowerment for women and young people, who together make up more than 70 per cent of the voting population.

Remember, women and young people are also the voting constituencies that actually turn up to vote on Election Day. Imagine that in-between our electoral cycles, that’s four years between one election and another, some organisations and groups collaborate to design a new economic empowerment initiative that is bundled with political literacy sessions or that they redesign existing programs in an intentional way to raise the productivity and political knowledge of say, Akara sellers across Nigeria.

Imagine also that currently, Akara sellers toil for just a daily net income of say, N1000- N2000. Imagine that the programmes succeed, such that their average daily financial output doubles or triples, rising above the ‘price that politicians will offer for their vote in elections’. Now, imagine that four years later, the now more productive, empowered, and more politically conscious Akara seller is faced with the offer to sell their vote. What do you think will happen in their decision-making? It is more probable that they would resist the offer and rather vote for candidates that will govern to improve their wellbeing because they have experienced improvement from a thoughtful and effective intervention.

Now they know why choosing the right candidates in elections can further improve their households and communities.

Thirdly, design and launch an innovative data-based nationwide political literacy campaign using community organising modules to awaken and engage the over 60 per cent of low-income registered voter-population that has never participated in elections by voting after being registered to vote. That only 15 million out of 84 million registered voters elected a President into office in 2019 is a risk that can be transformed into an opportunity to bring in new voters without the distorted incentives of repeat voters to sell their votes.

Considering our constitution, do you think Nigerians can repose confidence in the country’s political system and participate effectively?
The faulty foundation of our constitution is way deeper than even those issues you raised in that it was never the product of a citizens’ process. The military and some civilians collaborated to write a constitution, which they handed to our fourth republic democracy at the transition of 1999.

The tone of the constitution is militaristic and the content, unitary for a country that parades itself as a federation. It is not “The People’s Constitution” that it portends to be. The 1999 constitution does not reflect any form of negotiated common identity, values, vision, aspirations, political and governance structures of a country with a complex spectrum of ethnic, language, regional, cultural, religious, and other diversities like Nigeria. Nigerians have never had the privilege of determining their choices of what kind of union they wish to have as we enter deeper into the 21st Century.

One of the findings of the #FixPolitics research is that a credible citizen-led constitutional process and the consensus provisions the people agree to are key to helping transform, even countries with multi-ethnic nationalities intonations. There is a big difference between a country and a nation. Sadly, because of many factors that end up in elite failure, Nigeria remains a mere country and not a nation, sixty years after our independence in 1960. Worse is that even now, there are credible threats to its existence as a country.

The tragic failure of our political class to successfully mobilise our citizens behind a commonly agreed identity, while at the same time respecting our multifarious uniqueness, happened at least twice in our history. The Nigerian people could have, at the end of colonial rule in 1960 and after the Civil War ended in 1970, confronted their fractured and factional union in open and honest dialogues designed to agree on key rules and terms of remaining one people.

As a result of those failures to build consensus, Nigeria has hobbled along as a country of people who are not unified around common aspirations and shared principles. How different the outcomes would be if we were a country guided by aspirations like equal opportunity, inclusive growth and prosperity, social cohesion, and stability.

These are proven from our #FixPolitics research as some of the building blocks on which other countries transformed their societies. We found countries like Botswana, Singapore, and South Korea to have prioritised human development, merit, productivity, and healthy competition among constituent parts as well as their citizens. The results show up in their economic performance and the vastly improved wellbeing of their citizens in contrast to Nigeria all three countries gained independence in the 1960s from Britain.

However, the reality is setting in now. For after many decades of ignoring the obvious, it is becoming clearer to all discerning and reasonable compatriots that our union is facing the severest threat to its existence now. All is simply not well with Nigeria and Nigerians. Our country, Nigeria is on the brink of a break-up, despite the delusional protestations of federal government officials and their sycophants.

Our ethnic and religious divides and differences have never been sharper and deeper than now. That President Buhari, who was elected by a representative section of the Nigerian people in a protest vote against his failed predecessor, has in turn dug Nigeria deeper into the trenches of humongous failure will remain a wonder of historical proportion.

Nigeria’s failures under President Buhari have become profoundly unsustainable. It is perplexing to watch our political leaders carrying on with their pretense that Nigeria is currently being governed. How can the political leadership of a country, which is practically insolvent, terribly brittle on all fronts of national security and lost its diplomatic leadership and influence even in West Africa, keep acting as if everything is normal?

Such imperviousness was the same attitude exhibited by the previous government of the current opposition party. Most Nigerians are fed up with the Siamese Twins-type syndrome of our politicians, regardless of whether they belong to the All Peoples Congress (APC) or the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Their party acronyms may differ, but the people in our politics today are of one embryo and exhibit a common and dominant political culture that places the narrow interests of our politicians over and above the wellbeing of the people they govern.

Nigerians have experienced and now openly express frustration at the “hand-down” and “turn-by-turn failure” of the political leadership class in Nigeria at federal, state, or local government levels. They are designed by the environment that enables them to act without consequences and the incentive they respond to, to govern in ways that do not produce results for citizens.

The finding from #FixPolitics research on countries, which similarly came to the precipice because of ethnic and other tensions in the last few decades is that the citizens are the block with the credibility and legitimacy to push society toward fruitful dialogues and agreements, which become translated to a new constitution.

Conduct of a citizens-referendum is an innovation that was used in some countries to commence the national dialogue process with the first phase of deciding the key issues to be discussed and negotiated in a constitutional process. In the case of our country, there is no doubt that Nigeria cannot carry on for much longer under a bumbling political class and grossly weakened bureaucracy. The center is no longer holding, because the Nigeria-State, its institutions, and political operators have lost their credibility with the people. There are no known social contract binding citizens to their governments. The social capital that once minimally existed among members of society is now vastly eroded and depleted.

Are you saying it is possible to have a qualitative governance system in Nigeria without qualitative and informed citizenry?
I think my previous answer to another question shows that it is impossible to run a democracy of uninformed and indifferent citizens and end up with qualitative governance. If a country’s democracy is lacking in the basic features of democratic ethos, values, principles, and institutions, governance will less likely produce good outcomes for the larger number of people.

This is what we see in our country. It is why despite all our huge endowment of population, natural resources, and geography, we are the world’s capital of extremely poor people with more than 80 million Nigerians in that category. Nigeria is ranked one of the most insecure countries in the world, the number three spot on the terrorism-ravaged table and 13 on the state’s fragility index. Sixty years after independence, we have an infant and maternal mortality rates that are higher than the average in Africa.

We are a country with the largest number of out-of-school children. And by the way, on this matter of Out-of-School children, we did prove that there are sound policy solutions that work to reduce it and get children into the classrooms, especially in the northern states. As minister of education from 2006 to 2007, we reduced the number from about 7million to 6.5 million within one academic session. Today, the number is a painful 13.5 million children growing as illiterate in the 21st century. No, it is impossible for our democracy to deliver qualitative governance without informed, active and engaged citizenry who make a deliberate move to take their center stage in the electoral and governance processes.

What I have said of Nigeria is unfortunately applicable in most of the other African countries. It is why by 2035, if we do not #FixPolitics on our continent, more than 90 per cent of the world’s remaining poor people will be on our continent. That would be a monumental tragedy.
Does #FixPolitics involve holding leaders to account? If so, how could a product of rigged election say a lawmaker, be held accountable, for instance?
Yes it will; election is not the end game in a democracy. Voting at elections is therefore only a part of the duties that citizens have for staying eternally vigilant and demanding accountability from those who exercise delegated authority on their behalf. The political literacy programmes for both the middle and low income class must be designed to support post-election engagements — that is during the time that governance commences after elections— of citizens to hold those they voted into office, or against; to account for the performance of their public responsibility.
The #OfficeOfTheCitizen was identified as a credible initiative to empower such citizens’ actions. When you have more citizens in the constituency that delegated their authority to the kind of lawmaker you described, they will more probably become accountable. Why? They will because there is a disincentive of the credible threat of recall by united citizens in their constituency, working successfully together to remove the lawmaker. Not even the most perverse National Assembly can survive the pressure from a persistent citizens collective action.
Based on this grand agenda of sanitising democracy, which country serves as a realistic model to emulate and is that possible within the social limitations in Nigeria, viz, educational attainments and income levels?
First, from my research, no country’s democracy is perfect and taken for granted as having attained. This is absolutely crucial to note by those who assume that democracy has a destination, which when a country arrives, the citizens can then rest and “leave the institutions to work”. No, it does not work that way. Constant participation and vigilance is the only way a people can preserve their democracy and keep it working for their wellbeing.
Second, no country fully resembles Nigeria; not even Indonesia, which shares a significant range of similarities with Nigeria. So, if we are to learn any lessons at all, it is this. We the people, the citizens are the ones with the right to gather around the table and design the functional democracy that serves all our people well.