What development and democratic models teach us is to build institutions first and tackle poverty later. That flies in the face of the maxim that a hungry man is a desperate man. We need to rethink that. Poverty in Nigeria and indeed the African continent is almost total. The poverty mindset fuels corrupt tendencies that will take generations to cure using the Western model…


The chief justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen’s asset declaration scandal has yet again exposed the weakness of Nigeria’s formal institutions. Institutions hold the levers of good governance by mandating adherence to rules, regulations and norms; collecting revenue, providing public services and ensuring stability and continuity. Public institutions must be able to solve public problems without interference, fear or favour. Evidently, Nigeria lacks maturity in maintaining formal institutions using the Western democratic template we copied. We established courts, appointed judges that are independent on paper and turn around to interfere in the affairs of the judiciary. The judges themselves are marred in corruption and undermine the institutions they swore to protect. Let us take a look at three well-intentioned institutions and how we have incapacitated them. One, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was created to fight corruption, yet it has become a political tool for selective identification and prosecution of corrupt persons or recovery of stolen public funds. Two, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) was created to criminalise human trafficking, yet the prostitution cartel and child labour rings are thriving without investigation or prosecution. When violators are caught, they are let go with the payment of bribes to officials of the agency. Three, the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) was created as a one-stop shop to simplify the process of business registration in Nigeria, yet significant hurdles still exist, making operating a business a nightmare in the country. Using the template we run, institutions must be stronger than powerful individuals within and outside government. When institutions are subject to personal whims, this has negative effects on growth and public policy implementation.

Institutions are both formal and informal. Formal institutions include the written constitution, laws, policies, rights and regulations enforced by official authorities. Informal institutions are (the usually unwritten) social norms, customs or traditions that shape thought and behaviour. Institutions are brought to life by people and organisations, and they provide a relatively predictable structure for everyday social, economic and political life. Institutions shape people’s incentives and behaviour, and lead to enduring patterns of behaviour over time, but they also change and produce positive or negative development outcomes.

Before we bought into the Western culture, we had our own democratic norms and systems of trade, diplomacy, governing intercultural relationships. Why can’t we evolve what is familiar and indigenous to us instead of tinkering with what is alien?


The argument in the development world is that poverty and weak institutions are mutually reinforcing. That is, when a country is poor, it will have bad institutions and when a country has bad institutions, it will remain poor. It is about time we look at our formal institutions differently because of the heterogeneous nature of cultures and traditions in the context of nationhood on the African continent. Nigeria stands out as an experiential and experimental ground for this new line of thought. Culturally, we do not understand the western system we are trying so hard to build and implement. We have informal systems and institutions from our cultures that projects the individual and protects the community. Before colonialism, every African society had its own traditional institutions that served them for centuries, with enough checks and balances. Traditionally, every ethnic group has its own culture that has evolved over centuries, with a system of widely accepted and established methods of actions and conduct, by way of rules, regulations, guidelines, and structure for their day-to-day activities like commerce, production, trade, law enforcement, and punishment, etc. Before we bought into the Western culture, we had our own democratic norms and systems of trade, diplomacy, governing intercultural relationships. Why can’t we evolve what is familiar and indigenous to us instead of tinkering with what is alien?

Have we paused to think and ask why our people have faith in customary courts and not in the magistrate courts, high courts or appellate courts? The reason is that they identify with the customary courts. It mimics their traditions and cultures. I believe Nigeria’s redemption lies in its indigenous institutions. This is not just an abstract viewpoint. Nigeria is not a total failure. Nollywood and the music industry have shown that we can create original institutions from our informal institutions. The film and music industries have created and managed themselves as institutional models existing as parallel constructs to the Nigerian state and its institutions. They have shown that the raw materials of development lies in our culture and home grown institutions.

Nollywood and the music industry localised their operations through loose, unregulated informal networks… They grew organically amidst chaos. With growth came the gradual evolution of structure that is creating global acceptance and recognition…


What development and democratic models teach us is to build institutions first and tackle poverty later. That flies in the face of the maxim that a hungry man is a desperate man. We need to rethink that. Poverty in Nigeria and indeed the African continent is almost total. The poverty mindset fuels corrupt tendencies that will take generations to cure using the Western model, and it can only get worse. The solution lies in fighting poverty first and letting institutions evolve. It may sound wrong. Nollywood and the music industry localised their operations through loose, unregulated informal networks. Piracy was rife, exploitation was big. They grew organically amidst chaos. With growth came the gradual evolution of structure that is creating global acceptance and recognition with the gradual elimination of piracy, exploitation and other killers of creativity. The answer to our problems lies within our cultural contexts.

Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo