Nigeria’s state construction and maintenance challenges have persisted, not because they are beyond solution, but due to the failure to apply the intellect in the search for fair, equitable, and rational answers to vexing governance and public administration questions.
The picture emerging so far is of a country wobbling from one pile of challenges to another since independence. Curiously, the country, Nigeria, has not buckled under, neither has it recorded any significant breakthroughs. While the challenges keep multiplying and mutating, substantive change has proved largely elusive. This raises at least three questions: If the country’s hardships have persisted for so long, is it because (a) the challenges are by nature superhuman and intractable, or (b) they are designed to be intractable; that is, designed by the ruling class to withstand and to frustrate any plan that does not consolidate their grip on power, or (c) the leaders and their followers have consistently failed to diagnose the challenges facing the country correctly and to administer the necessary, albeit, painful, medications?
We should not bother to test the first hypothesis, for the simple reason that it does not hold water. After all, no secular problem is beyond solution. This study would have been a pointless exercise were the contrary to be the case. In other words, if change is impossible, it will make no sense speculating about possibilities of making it happen.
The second hypothesis is difficult, if not impossible to test. To start with, there is no ruling class, as such, if by “ruling class” we mean one whose members, besides being bound by a common or widely shared set of ideals, have demonstrated the capacity to sustain themselves within, and reproduce their kind across, generations. The only characteristic that ranking members of the political class have in common is the insatiable lust for power, and at the lower rungs of the ladder, the predisposition to arbitrary and unaccountable exercise of authority. Beyond that, Nigeria’s “ruling class” has no vision of a willed future, and it has no ideology to mobilise popular support for its dominance or the capacity to enforce its will across generations. What passes for a ruling class is an oligarchy that rules for some time before passing the baton to its successor. The outcome is an unending cycle of constantly displaced or reshuffled rulers.
If truth be told, Nigeria’s governance crisis is best understood neither as an intractable one, nor as the dynastic succession “conspiracy” of rulers. The stumbling block, which has constantly been ignored, is the underlying governance culture. This is a culture that has evolved over decades and has survived different regimes and leadership generations. It is a culture that places a higher premium on power than on accountability for performance and results. As it is, only a few of the rulers test their policies against the impact which such policies have on all classes of citizens. The rulers do not bother about impact largely because they are accustomed to operating within an environment which favours strongmen and transactional leaders over their visionary and transformational counterparts.
Over time, a crude form of direct and indirect subjugation has evolved to replace the culture of “governing” with that of “ruling”. By governing, we mean the proactive entrenchment of practices that serve the interest of the people as a whole, rather than of a select few. This contrasts sharply with the notion of “ruling”, by which is meant the imposition of the will of a few on the majority.
Nigeria’s state construction and maintenance challenges have persisted, not because they are beyond solution, but due to the failure to apply the intellect in the search for fair, equitable, and rational answers to vexing governance and public administration questions. Rather than boldly confront the underlying governance malaise, specifically, a culture that tilts the governance scale in favour of the elite and to the detriment of the people’s welfare, succeeding administrations have focused on symptoms, specifically, on the structures and processes needed to keep the engine of government humming, even if the machine is not delivering the cherished results.
Having stepped into the pre-colonial (that is, the erstwhile traditional) rulers’ shoes and inherited the offices vacated by the colonial “masters”, succeeding generations of leaders are, at least, within the period of their incumbency, liable to carry themselves as God’s vice-regents on earth. Their proxies, in turn, almost invariably view themselves, not as “servants of the people”, but first, as members of the rulers’ domestic staff and, foremost, as extensions of the divinely ordained rulers’ unquestionable power. The people, for their part, are inured to seeing incumbent rulers as humans with a superhuman aura.
Over time, a crude form of direct and indirect subjugation has evolved to replace the culture of “governing” with that of “ruling”. By governing, we mean the proactive entrenchment of practices that serve the interest of the people as a whole, rather than of a select few. This contrasts sharply with the notion of “ruling”, by which is meant the imposition of the will of a few on the majority. Instead of a people-centered democracy, Nigeria has, aided and abetted by an elite-dominated order, changed hands between and among shifting “ruling houses” (or rotating oligarchies), sometimes, military, at other times, civilian, and at yet another, a combination of both.
…Nigeria has fallen into the hands of different and succeeding generations of strongmen, meaning, leaders who juggle competing interests, rule for some time, only to bow out without changing the retrogressive governance culture. Such leaders may launch projects and build monuments, but they are unlikely to leave lasting legacies.
Where “governing” views the exercise of power as an aggregate of choices to be regularly tested against the citizen-leaning criteria of service and accountability, its “ruling” counterpart regards access to service (or appointment to a service rendering position) as a favour to be bestowed on a select few, and accountability as an optional extra. A “governing” regime allows individuals to compete on a level playing field for vacancies, and, if appointed, to aspire to progressively rising standards of rationality and excellence. Its “ruling” counterpart has no room for competitive bidding, either at the recruitment or the overall decision-making stage. Where the “ruling” mentality prevails, the governed space will coincide with areas and populations of interest to the ruling party, thus leaving the ungoverned space on auto-pilot, typically, at the mercy of hoodlums, political wheeler-dealers, corrupt officials, and, in case of clogged highways, constantly squabbling road users.
That notwithstanding, the rulers do not constitute a “class”. First, they are not bound by a common ideal or a duly negotiated and unanimously ratified code of conduct. The rulers (including their proxies) differ markedly on what to do with power once it is acquired. While some leaders view their role as improving the people’s living conditions, aspirants to leadership positions mostly hanker after public office and the perquisites. The obsession with power frequently manifests in the intense struggle for it and explains the do-or-die attitude that determines the outcome of primaries, the competition for elective, and the appointment to non-elective, offices. All the same, and regardless of how powerful they are while in office, public officials become ordinary citizens immediately their terms end. What is more, ex-rulers are most unlikely to be succeeded by their heirs.
Of course, the erstwhile rulers’ failure to establish a dynastic succession order is not for want of trying. A few have not only attempted to reinvent themselves for post-tenure roles but have also sought to plant their scions or their confidants in key positions — all to no avail. Once one generation of rulers’ time is up, it leaves the stage, and another generation takes over. The only beneficiaries of regime change are the cynics and political wheeler dealers who get recycled across generations. Outside that, Nigeria has fallen into the hands of different and succeeding generations of strongmen, meaning, leaders who juggle competing interests, rule for some time, only to bow out without changing the retrogressive governance culture. Such leaders may launch projects and build monuments, but they are unlikely to leave lasting legacies.
M.J. Balogun is former special adviser to the president of the UN General Assembly.