Even in the face of years of co-optation by a venal state, of some of the best minds out of civil society, folks still insist that it is better to serve incompetent governments from “inside” than to (painfully) develop both a new public narrative and the structures that will aid its supplanting of the current dominant one.


That Nigeria has been badly ruled since obtaining flag-independence in 1960 is a point open to debate. Still, no matter where the needle stops for you on the dashboard where the macroeconomic and political competence metres lie, ultimately, the relativity of “good husbandry” is a matter of outcome. In this sense, agreement on whether the country has been poorly-, fairly-, or well-run is the consequence, not of the intent of those who have been fortunate to be at the helm up to this point. It is, instead, the direct result of the choices that we have made (when, as voters, we had the opportunity to choose our leaders), and their subsequent decisions once in office (irrespective of the many routes by which they got there).

Yet, ideology matters. We can’t, therefore, glibly dismiss the riot of opinions on this matter – even though the usefulness of much of the available opinions is often obscured in the mist generated by the tension produced by the difference between what our leaders commit to in their public pronouncements and what they eventually end up doing. Be that as it may, what passes for our “national ideology”, expressed narrowly, in terms of what our leaders think the guiding principles of the state should be, has been largely dirigiste. Except for the brief interval of the Babangida years, and Obasanjo’s (Fourth Republic) second term. But there is, especially now, so many years after, and seeing how easily the conceptual gains from those years were rolled up, a strong case for arguing that not much of the commitment to market-led growth in the eight years between 1985 and 1993, and the four years between 2003 and 2007, was the result of strong convictions on the part of the country’s leadership in those periods.

Instead, with the economy’s back to the wall, it was easy for the respective administrations to be persuaded by alternative perspectives to proceed down routes not regularly travelled by leaders before. Truth is, at those intersections, traditional thought paths no longer offered ways out of the cul-de-sacs that the economy was stuck in. Once, though, the outlook for the global oil markets improved, it was far easier to return to our mental comfort zones. Easy? Yes. Because, even today, the dominant public narrative doesn’t sit comfortably with evidence of wealth. Or rather, it perceives all wealth as the reward for wrong-doing, especially of malfeasance (larcenous conduct) at the public’s expense. If, by extension of the public narrative’s logic, “all property is theft”, then the private sector, built as it must be around strong protections for private property and the rule of law, is nothing if not a gratuitous violation of the people.

…much of the corruption that we’ve experienced arises from our preferred means of running the state. A strong state, with benevolent rulers dispensing favours to courtiers, is as open to being suborned in the interest of racketeer-influenced and corrupt organisations. Than one where a decentralised structure with strong markets and communities act in restraint of the state


The incumbent administration is riding this perception to outstanding effect. Its anti-corruption campaign taps into deeply-held beliefs. One of which has our people willing to bear unusual levels of immiseration and hardships, so long as they believe that those amongst us who have enriched themselves at the expense of the people are suffering even more.

Of course, I’m loth to agree that this is a proper basis for the construction of public policy frameworks. Without question, corrupt practices have hurt the economy tremendously. But much of the corruption that we’ve experienced arises from our preferred means of running the state. A strong state, with benevolent rulers dispensing favours to courtiers, is as open to being suborned in the interest of racketeer-influenced and corrupt organisations. Than one where a decentralised structure with strong markets and communities act in restraint of the state. Because, in truth, the former is a useful description of the Mafia.

Accordingly, a big challenge for those who are concerned with re-orientating the trajectory of the Nigerian state and its economy is to put forward a competing public narrative – one that says to the people, “Look, your current adversities follow from the natural limits of your current way of thinking”. And, then, to develop institutions that allow this narrative to take hold of the popular imagination. Across the world, this is the big challenge before civil society. The example of the U.S. is always a useful one, because it is the prominent democracy globally. But we find in successful democracies that civil society institutions with strong convictions spend time and money building political structures, establishing think-tanks, doing battle through the courts and legislatures, etc. in order to see their fringe ideas move towards the centre in two decades. Today, Britain’s disorderly exit from the euro area is the standout example of the tenacity of British Eurosceptics. In the U.S. Roe v. Wade in 1973 was such a moment too. As is the slow triumph of the LGBT movement across the world. From our current promontory, we could also ask: “Wither goest Victor Orban’s ‘illiberalism’ and the ‘Old World’s’ apprehension of being ‘replaced’ by ‘brown folks’?”

The problem is that the “opposition” in Nigeria has shown, time and again, that it lacks the staying power to bring about lasting changes to the way the country has been run thus far. It rails against the epidemic of short-term thinking in the corridors of power. But its thought-capacity is only strong enough to build short bridges.


The point is that when our disagreement with government is of a root-and-branch nature, there are established and long-lasting ways to bring about change. The problem is that the “opposition” in Nigeria has shown, time and again, that it lacks the staying power to bring about lasting changes to the way the country has been run thus far. It rails against the epidemic of short-term thinking in the corridors of power. But its thought-capacity is only strong enough to build short bridges. Once these latter structures connect with the fabled “corridors of power”, the “opposition” evanesces.

Post-smoke puff, to the credit of our society, new “antipodes” emerge – sustaining the movement for changing, while conceding much momentum. That these new centres of conversation on the need for change go on to rehash the myths of the “activists” that they succeed is bad enough. But worse is the conversation post-disappearance. Even in the face of years of co-optation by a venal state, of some of the best minds out of civil society, folks still insist that it is better to serve incompetent governments from “inside” than to (painfully) develop both a new public narrative and the structures that will aid its supplanting of the current dominant one.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.