Opinion: Nigeria and its State of Emergency politics

by Abimbola Agboluaje


The politicians are too busy planning to capture power to reform the bureaucracy and block opportunities for civil servants, who seems to be the main beneficiary of corruption, to routinely steal hundreds of millions of naira.

At a meeting in the early 1960s, the leaders of a poor nation just exiting colonial rule gaily informed colleagues visiting from another developing country how well they were doing under self-rule. They had acquired huge palm oil plantations through the state agriculture agencies they controlled. They invited their visitors to a club where party leaders treated themselves to exotic drinks and food and pretty women at night.  The visitors, members of a political party obsessed with clean government, slipped away from the merriment, also politely refusing offers to acquire plantations. The visitors built the far more economically successful nation whose per capital income of $60,410, according to IMF 2012 figures, is the 3rd highest in the world and which is the 3th largest refiner of crude oil despite not having any oil deposit. The hosts built a country which now has the 56th highest per capital income in the world despite being 460 times larger, 5 times more populous and being a major exporter of rubber, palm oil and petroleum. Singapore is the tiny highly successful economy. The larger country is Malaysia, a relative development laggard, and not Nigeria, a development basket case.

Malaysia, like many other successful emerging economies, is not an epitome of democracy, honest government or social justice. It has being ruled for 56 years by a party which is widely detested for corruption, having used ethnic quotas for public procurement considerably to enrich influential political families. Yet Petronas, the Malaysian state-dominated oil company was 68th in the 2012 Fortune Global 500 ranking of firms in which it also secured the world’s 12th most profitable company position. Its Nigerian counterpart, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company, remains mired in corruption and debt. Nigeria has tried and failed to pass the critical legislation to clean up and increase investment in its oil sector for almost ten years. Attributing the cause of Nigeria’s dismal failure to corruption, a problem often mentioned as if it is a genetic ailment, is a severe misdiagnosis. The real ailment is much worse.

State of Emergency (SOE) Politics

The key difference between Nigeria and countries such as Malaysia is that the latter are sufficiently coherent nations. The political leadership is much less prone to fragment disruptively in the quest for power. This is partly because ethnic homogeneity or the dominance of a fairly homogenous historic “state class” (which the Hausa-Fulani would be were Northern Nigeria a sovereign country) severely constricts the opportunity to build up rival bases of political following. These factors also facilitate the extension of hegemony of political parties through national territories. Where there’s ethnic heterogeneity such as post-colonial Nigeria, no matter how well Tafawa Balewa’s party ruled at the Federal level, his rivals would have employed identity-based mobilization (aka ethnic scare mongering) to take the votes of vast numbers of Igbos and Yorubas out of its reach. Conversely, any attempt by the regional leaders to build disciplined or developmental statehood would have been severely undermined by corrupt politics practiced at the Federal level and the option available to regional politicians to cross carpet to the “mainstream”. Hence, in a sense, post-colonial politics were “too” democratic.

Nigerian politicians built contending power bases by actively coaching Nigerians to distrust each other. The constitutional framework which created highly distinct regional administrations and placed regional economies under the full control of regional political parties encouraged and empowered identity politics. A political culture came into being in which the rules of the game of democracy were constantly attacked; elections were rigged, census figures were inflated, state funds diverted into party coffers, losers encouraged military coups etc. It was easy for politicians to incorporate others in perpetuating these infractions because the ostensible purpose was to prevent the emergency of one’s ethnic group being “enslaved” by parties controlled by hateful rivals. This politics of extreme contention between multiple “nations” could not build the sort of cohesive states that promoted development in Singapore or Malaysia. All organs of the state required to initiate development-the Ministry of Education, Housing Corporations, State Economic Enterprises etc- were tools and spoils that were used to fight and reward followers. Contrary to the frequent assertion that the problem of development has been executing policy, Nigerian economic policies historically have been atrocious. Policy has promoted distribution and consumption through subsidies and other forms of administrative allocation (of land, foreign currency etc) rather than long term investment. They facilitate the creation and capture of astronomical rents by elite rackets rather than investment and competition.

Still Chopping at Very High Speeds

Nigeria no longer has ethnic parties controlling big regional governments with which they could plan secession or promote economic development. But politics remains first and foremost a competition to distribute and consume state resources by politicians on the basis of ethnicity. We thus simultaneously suffer both the ills of excessive centralization and excessive decentralization. It is not clear if Nigeria is negotiating ownership of crude oil with the communities in which they are found or if Nigeria, or a section of it, is to tell the communities how the income from oil should be shared.  Meanwhile, despite the almost uninterrupted decade-long high oil prices, more than 60% of Nigerians continue to live in absolute poverty, evidence that the billions of dollars injected into national and state budgets have not translated into better education and health care and the physical and bureaucratic infrastructure which drive investment and growth. Extensive weakness of state institutions generates and fosters communal violence, kidnapping, oil theft and terrorism. While direct elite action has been prevented from directly rupturing the nation at the centre through the powerful regions, the actions of people below are tearing the nation apart from many points at the seams.  The politicians are too busy planning to capture power to reform the bureaucracy and block opportunities for civil servants, who seems to be the main beneficiary of corruption, to routinely steal hundreds of millions of naira.

Clearly, Nigeria is drifting at a very high speed. While our deep-seated problems cannot be solved in 4 or 8 years, clear measures can be taken to pull the country back from the brink and bolster state capacities, especially its ability to support economic growth, provide security and basic public services to citizens. The most important measure is to diminish the incentives and opportunity for Nigerian politicians to disrupt the rules of the game of democracy through ethnic-based political organization and mobilization. It is clear that modifications to the rules of the game meant to engender respect for them, such as federal character and zoning, have promoted corruption and waste, intensifying the political feeding frenzy and thus, the attacks on the rules. The premature and violent arrival of the 2015 elections is incontrovertible evidence. Attacks on the rules of the game have almost become the very rules of the game. An informal association of Governors seeks to usurp the policy-setting and candidates’ selection prerogatives of the party and it is itself rendered incapable of conducting elections amongst just 36 members.

A new constitutional architecture which creates larger units of sub-federal government and intelligently devolves political power and economic resources based on the widely recognized but informal six geo-political units will have the merit of localizing tensions rather than generating and diffusing them from the centre. There will be more adherence to the rules of the game at the federal centre where the incentive to attack them is diminished and the “regions” will develop varying levels of adherence to the rules, and thus varying capabilities but uniform incentive to promote social and economic development.

The argument is not that the arrangement of First Republic was perfect but that it could be improved. The tragedy is that the structure of Nigerian politics is far more shaped by the pursuit of personal power and profit than principles and programmes related to solving problems. President Jonathan has been extremely conservative, reinforcing the methods and structures of the politics of ethnic-based distribution as the battle between regional cliques to keep or win power in 2015 consumes his party. Rival parties have an equally stunted constitutional imagination, driven as they are by the obsessions of individuals to rule Nigeria without any thought to whether Nigerian can be ruled successfully the way it is constituted. The major parties and political leaders profit too well from the way Nigeria is designed and run to seriously mobilize for, rather than merely mouth, a significant restructuring of Nigeria. Kenyan politicians in 2012 redesigned the country’s constitution, seeking to tame fractious ethnic politics with far-reaching devolution of political power. In another move to address a well-known malaise, the new President, Uhuru Kenyatta, reduced the number of Ministers from 42 to 16, thus swiftly and decisively addressing a source of corruption and public disaffection. There’s nothing to suggest that any of Nigeria’s opposition parties (whose lawmakers are quite happy to receive pharaonic salaries along with their PDP counterparts) will in power take decisive steps to address demands to make Government in Nigeria smaller, less expensive and less centralized.

Constitutional redesign apart, the parties are hardly a fount of ideas on economic policy and effective government. They are not driven by proven technocrats such as Nasir El Rufai and Babatunde Raji Fashola who remain only class captains of Nigerian politics. The principals are individuals who have either acquired enough state resources to build wide networks of agents or politicians who can build a fanatical, chauvinistic ethno-regional following. The proposed opposition merger is the ultimate insult to Nigerians. At a time that the nation needs clear plans for a host of economic policy, administrative and constitutional reforms that the PDP Government has proven incapable of initiating, all that the All Progressives Congress has arrogantly offered are the usual vacuous promises. The intention is to use the party to grab power rather than build a genuine party that invites millions of citizens as members (as opposed to being agents of party barons) with a real say in who gets power and how it is used. It is not even pretending to offer a genuine alternative to dominant political practices. Even on the serious threat of Boko Haram, it seems APC leaders have asked themselves, “how can we profit from this crisis” rather than think about real solutions. Nigeria desperately needs politicians who can imagine and fashion a new nation. It has been sent politicians who are just desperate to acquire power, live in opulence and control people through the same old cynical State-of-Emergency politics.


Abimbola Agboluaje, a Lagos-based consultant, is a visiting member of the Editorial Board of the Guardian.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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