…substantive change is impossible unless and until visionary leaders move decisively to change the prevailing neo-feudal culture. Until that happens, the System will find it well-nigh impossible to perform basic public administration functions. And more alarming, institutional decay in government will keep triggering or emboldening bad behaviour in the wider society.
It should be noted that each generation of leaders’ hold on power is a function of how successful it is in securing the support, and/or acquiescence of the people. A regime which fails to respond to the demands of a vocal and politically significant public must brace itself for turbulence and, possibly, a short tenure. It is precisely in the attempt at preempting such an unwelcome development that succeeding generations of leaders invest in projects with maximum political returns.
Believing that strength lies in numbers, they relate more easily to numerically strong groups than to stand-alone individuals. The citizen, for his/her own part, plays into the cynical leaders’ hands. Instead of fighting his own battle his own way, the citizen places his trust in numerically significant ethnic or religious advocacy groups, and failing that, in political godfathers, and relatives “in high places”. This is where the divide-and-rule tactics of the leaders collude with the average citizen’s narcissism to uphold the existing neo-feudal arrangements. In short, the citizen is not as weak or as blameless as is generally believed. He is complicit in, and partly responsible for, the survival of the neo-feudal state; the state that he accuses of “not working”.
The “ruling” culture came about as a result of the super-imposition of alien, legal-rational, and coercive governance arrangements on institutions that are founded on superstitious but, all the same, despotic, not always rational, certainly contradictory, and mostly irreconcilable, indigenous beliefs. Neo-feudal or ‘neo-patrimonial’ best sums up the essence of this hybrid, this Janus-faced, governance system.
The neo-feudal culture (or ‘the System’) started gradually with the accumulation of bad practices in the soft environment. A bad practice in the public domain is, by the way, like cancer. It moves unnoticed until it has taken control of an organism’s vital components and mutated into a malignant tumour that is difficult or impossible to remove. So it is that over time, seemingly harmless habits creep from their soft environments, only to be assimilated into, and accepted as an integral part of, an unchanging hard environment.
As earlier argued, the leadership ranks of a neo-feudal system are never stable. They keep changing from time to time. However, instead of consolidating good practices, each generation of leaders almost invariably preserves the bad ones it met on arrival, and/or, on departure, leaves a new record in institutional depreciation. Among the bad practices that were accepted as “normal” at one stage and subsequently recycled across generations are apathy, laxity, indifference and slovenly attitude to work in the public service, bribe-solicitation, budget padding, failure to keep records, mutilation or falsification of records, inflation of contract prices, emasculation of due process, castration/manipulation of rules, disregard of lawful instructions, influence peddling, abuse of office, conflict of interest, offer and acceptance of bribes, favouritism, exceptionalism, impunity, falsification of records, tolerance of indiscipline, growing contempt for state edicts and notices, all translating into impaired capacity to perform basic public administration functions.
The cohabitation of otherwise mismatched governance doctrines has serious implications, not only for administrative behaviour and decision-making in the career civil service, but also for effective, rational, and efficient coverage of the space meant to be governed.
Good and bad practices intermingled as the post-colonial state struggled to reconcile incompatible, meaning indigenous and foreign, governance doctrines. The cohabitation of otherwise mismatched governance doctrines has serious implications, not only for administrative behaviour and decision-making in the career civil service, but also for effective, rational, and efficient coverage of the space meant to be governed. The hybrid, at least, gave birth to a neo-feudal arrangement under which, not just the rulers, but their proxies, and their subjects think and act as if:
• The state is the possession of those momentarily running it, and not a commonwealth founded on some abiding values, much less, the will and consent of the people;
• The rulers are not just those exercising authority at the highest level in the executive branch of government in the centre and at the periphery, but also other members of the “ruling house”, like the rulers’ proxies and minions at the lower levels, as well as their counterparts in the legislative and the judicial arms;
• It is perfectly in order for the constitution (or rules of the game) to be drafted and promulgated by the rulers without the participation and/or buy-in of individual citizens;
• Rights and freedoms, in any case, belong not to the individual citizen, but are held in trust by the citizen’s arbitrarily designated “custodians”, mostly the primary and secondary group(s) to which the citizen belongs, and/or influential personalities with ties to the rulers;
• It is normal for the constitution to contain elaborate provisions on rights, and for the rulers to be ambivalent or deafeningly silent on access to individual rights. In other words, it is normal to view the constitutional provisions on individual liberties as mere window dressing;
• Politics is “a game of numbers”; it has nothing to do with the search for answers to nagging questions, the management of diversity, the adoption of sound governance practices, or the alleviation of suffering;
• State agents, from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy, are members of the rulers’ household staff and are answerable to the rulers, not to the citizen or the tax-payer;
• Only those are recruited into the service of the state who prove themselves personally loyal to the rulers, and, in their absence, to the rulers’ allies, agents and political godfathers (all serving as gatekeepers or clients);
• The chances of being recruited into, and rising in, the service of the state depends not on any demonstrable capacity to meet citizen demands, but on whom a candidate knows, and who knows, and is willing to sponsor, the candidate;
• The neo-feudal state is a state of law quite alright, but the law is what the rulers and his proxies (e.g., police constables on daily beat) say it is;
At the very least, bad practices must be moved from the ‘hard’ back to the ‘soft’ environment where they could be speedily and effectively stamped out or reformed. At the same time, the quest for excellence must progressively interdict mediocrity in the decision-making and management process.
• By the same token, the neo-feudal state accommodates reason so long as “reason” mirrors the wishes of the rulers’ delegates, and allows right and wrong to be transposed at will;
• Access to the rulers and to service is a tradable good that can be bought and sold directly or through well-connected favour brokers, influence peddlers, and gate-keepers;
• The citizen has no say in the quantity and quality of service to be rendered, the timeliness of delivery, and the attitude of the service delivery agents;
• Since rulers are God’s elect on earth, it is impious, if not treasonable, to challenge them and their proxies, or to hold them accountable for deliverables and results;
• Even if they are God’s vice-regents on earth, the rulers are not obliged to ask themselves how God would have resolved a specific problem (or would have arbitrated a particular dispute) were He to decide to administer the earth directly, neither are the rulers required to consult the moral guidebooks (the Bible, the Qur’an, and other holy texts) which God might have passed down through the line of prophets and messengers.
Naturally, those aspiring to rule, but have not yet gotten the chance, will not acquiesce with the above-mentioned “ruling-house” hypothesis. It is only when power changes hands – when the opposition parties secure the people’s mandate and inherit the intimidating powers of the state – that they are likely to feel secure enough to re-invent neo-feudal rule in their own image.
The upshot of the preceding analysis is that substantive change is impossible unless and until visionary leaders move decisively to change the prevailing neo-feudal culture. Until that happens, the System will find it well-nigh impossible to perform basic public administration functions. And more alarming, institutional decay in government will keep triggering or emboldening bad behaviour in the wider society. At the very least, bad practices must be moved from the ‘hard’ back to the ‘soft’ environment where they could be speedily and effectively stamped out or reformed. At the same time, the quest for excellence must progressively interdict mediocrity in the decision-making and management process.
M.J. Balogun is former special adviser to the president of the UN General Assembly.