Pushing for change in Nigeria III: why real change proves elusive

Understanding Nigeria’s enduring challenges: a focus on the governance culture

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, and has yet to record 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 frustrate any plan that does not safeguard the class interest or does not strengthen the class’s grip on power, or (c) the champions of change have consistently failed to diagnose the challenges facing the country correctly and to administer the necessary, albeit, painful, medications?

It is this paper’s thesis that Nigeria’s state construction and maintenance challenges persist neither because they are beyond solution nor because members of the “ruling class” have conspired to keep the people in perpetual bondage. The challenges appear to defy solution 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 against the People, succeeding administrations have focused on symptoms, notably, on structures and processes needed to keep the engine of government running. Instead of looking for a lasting cure, the rulers have invested precious time and resources on, at best, band-aid solutions, and at worst, short-term power acquisition or retention ends.

We should not even bother to verify the first hypothesis, for the simple reason that it does not hold water. After all, no secular problem is beyond solution. The second hypothesis is equally falsifiable. 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 interest, have demonstrated the capacity to sustain themselves within, and reproduce their type 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. Having stepped into the traditional potentates’ shoes and the offices vacated by the colonial “masters”, succeeding generations of leaders are wont 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.

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 systematic 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-centred democracy, Nigeria has, aided and abetted by an elite-dominated order, changed hands between and among shifting oligarchies, sometimes, military, at other times, civilian, and at yet another, a combination of both. Where “governing” views the exercise of power as an aggregate of choices to be regularly tested against the citizen-inclined 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 a luxury that can easily be dispensed with.

That notwithstanding, the rulers do not constitute a “class”. First, they are not bound by a common ideal or a duly negotiated and unanimously accepted code of conduct. The rulers (including their proxies) differ markedly on what to do with power once it is acquired. While some leaders view power as an opportunity to improve the People’s living conditions, the majority of aspirants to leadership positions simply hanker after power. The obsession with power in fact explains the intense struggle for it, as well as 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 private 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 lack 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. This is how Nigeria has so far fallen into the hands of different and succeeding generations of strongmen and transactional leaders, meaning, leaders who rule for some time only to bow out without leaving a legacy.

If we reject the first two hypotheses, how about the third, the failure to diagnose the challenges facing Nigeria correctly and to apply the necessary medications? This would appear the most valid explanation for Nigeria’s recurrent governance crisis. That 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 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 uniquely different classes of citizens. The rulers do not bother about impact largely because they operate within a setting that favours strongmen and transactional leaders over their visionary and transformational counterparts.

As noted in succeeding paragraphs, 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 equally despotic, not always rational, but certainly contradictory, sometimes, irreconcilable, indigenous worldviews. Neo-feudal or neo-patrimonial best sums up the essence of this hybrid, this Janus-faced, governance system (Balogun, 1997). The culture or ‘the System’ started gradually with the accumulation of bad practices in the soft environment (e.g., manipulation of rules, abuse of office, conflict of interest, offer and acceptance of bribes, favouritism, impunity, laxity on, and indifference to, duty). With time, the bad practices moved from the soft environment, only to be assimilated into, and accepted as an integral part of, the unchanging hard environment. Under the neo-feudal system, 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 their 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, meaning, it is normal to view the constitutional provisions on individual liberties as mere window dressing;
• State agents, from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy, are members of the rulers’ domestic staff and are answerable to the rulers, not to individual citizens;
• 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 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;
• 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 tradeable good that can be sold and bought directly or through well-connected favour brokers and gatekeepers;
• 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 resolve a specific problem (or arbitrate 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 got the chance, will not subscribe to the above-mentioned neo-feudal worldview. It is only when power changes hands–when the opposition parties succeed in inheriting the intimidating powers of the state–that they, as the new rulers, feel secure enough to re-invent neo-feudal rule in their own image.

The origin and evolution of the neo-feudal state
Understanding how Nigeria ended up with a neo-feudal governance arrangement warrants delving into the past. In Max Weber’s formulation, authority is founded on three premises—tradition, charisma, and a combination of legality and reason. Colonial rule introduced a fourth way of legitimizing authority—coercion, or the application of superior military force by an external power to impose its will on a hostile community.

The neo-feudal system’s earliest challenge was basically that of state formation, that is, of how to weld diverse tribal societies into a modern nation under a unified authority. Before Nigeria came into existence, it comprised no less than 250 (two hundred and fifty) ethnic communities, which among them spoke, and still speak, close to 400 (four hundred) different languages and dialects. Before the 1914 amalgamation of the Northern and the Southern Protectorates, the country was made up of fairly autonomous kingdoms and the so-called segmented or stateless societies. Societies with fairly recognizable systems of government and administration were to be found in the North and parts of the South-West and Benin, while the stateless societies thrived in the East and in the modern-day Middle Belt zone, especially, among the Tiv. In these precolonial societies, life was likely to be “short, nasty, and brutish”. Public order was frequently threatened by boundary disputes, inter-ethnic conflict, and by sundry anarchic tendencies.

Variability and convergence in indigenous practices
In precolonial society, identity with the primordial group took precedence over individual aspirations or rival contemporary demands. The principal obstacles to inter-group harmony were (and still are) cultural heterogeneity, the relativist and conflicting notions of right and wrong (with the conflict persistently reinforced by the accent on group solidarity and instinctive distrust of “outsiders”), contradictory child-rearing practices, and possibly, dissimilar visions of the current and the after life (Balogun, 2010). Where some Nigerian communities accord sycophancy and deference to age or hierarchical authority high importance, as a means of getting ahead in life, others teach children to be self-confident, possibly, assertive and pushy.

The moral relativism, as sanctioned by indigenous cultures, almost invariably equates one group’s right with another group’s wrong, and conversely. While it is wrong to steal from one’s clan, it is heroic, in fact, commendable, to invade “stranger” communities and to take possession of their land and their harvests. This explains how a state official who loots the state treasury is welcomed back to his/her community with chieftaincy titles and eulogies. An embezzler can count on “his people” vigorously defending him anytime the state demands its pound of flesh, and rival communities demand that the wrongdoer be punished.

The ethnic nationalities might differ in many respects, but they have a few but significant attributes in common. Solidarity with the primordial group is a widely shared value. So is the predisposition to fictive thinking. In almost every Nigerian community, belief in God co-exists with superstitious beliefs and the morbid fear of the Devil. This is how it is “rational” to attribute one person’s misfortunes not to his choices, but to the capricious behaviour of local deities, to enemy plots or to the machinations of envious rivals.

Regardless of the differences between hierarchically stratified societies and their “stateless” counterparts, deference to authority and socio-economic status is a widely shared trait. A Hausa or a Yoruba monarch is revered as God’s anointed and vice-regent on earth. Similarly, a title holder or a wealthy person among the customarily republican Ibo is held in higher esteem than an ordinary, lowly-placed, and materially deprived mortal. Since the rulers are God’s vice regents on earth, it is “impious” to challenge them or hold them accountable for their deeds or misdeeds. It is “abominable”—and an unmistakable sign of “envy”–to question the source of a leader’s wealth.

Impact of colonial rule on indigenous societies
The colonization, by the British, of societies currently making up Nigeria had an immediate and dramatic impact. Among other things, the new rulers applied a combination of methods to impose order and secure the allegiance of the various nationalities. These included direct military conquest, the pacification of restive communities, the co-option of traditional institutions into a system of “indirect rule”, the establishment of a professional, merit-based, service-rendering bureaucracy, the formation of local military and police units, proactive enforcement of obedience to, and compliance with, centrally enacted edicts, and the gradual replacement of idiosyncratic moralities with universal, or at least, ethnically neutral, codes of conduct. The birth of a modern state was, in a nutshell, facilitated by the establishment of a system of government and administration, and the creation of a bureaucracy whose legitimacy rested on legal-rational premises rather than on traditional or charismatic authority.

The immediate aim of the British colonial authorities was to secure, if necessary, by force, the diverse nationalities’ will to “associate together”, while the intermediate objective was the creation of a state founded on law and thriving on order. The underlying and long-term goal, of course, was the confirmation of the British Empire’s “ownership” of the new territory and its resources. The annexation and extractive policy would not work if the indigenous peoples had a say in the matter. That was why the British ensured that the colonized territory had no say in how it was ruled.

To sustain its dominion over the territory, the British “ruled” rather than “govern”. In other words, the colonial power ruled over diverse primordial groups; it did not govern consenting parties to a social contract, much less, a state of rights-asserting citizens. Under the prevailing order, the colonized peoples were “subjects” not “citizens”.

Colonial bequest to post-independence rulers
The nationalist leaders ultimately fought and won the battle for independence. However, the new rulers did not change the domineering, “we-own-the-state”, mindset which they had inherited from the former colonial “masters”. Just as their predecessors did, the new leaders, with few exceptions, ruled in their own interest, they did not govern for the sake of civilizing the populace and safeguarding individual rights.

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. At the very least, bad practices must be moved back to the soft environment where they could be speedily and effectively reformed. Until that is done, the System will find it well-nigh impossible to perform basic public administration functions. Tracing the link between the culture and Nigeria’s widening public administration deficits is the purpose of the next article.

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