Pushing for change in Nigeria I: First, the theoretical underbrush


Change was the mantra that galvanized Nigeria’s All Progressives Congress/APC in the run up to the 2015 elections and enabled it to terminate the People’s Democratic Party’s/PDP’s sixteen-year grip on power. Alas, the party of change has, by its opponents’ reckoning, yet to make good its promise. The question is whether the PDP has what it takes to change, within four years, what it could not throughout its sixteen-year uninterrupted rule.

Still, and regardless of whether it might have merely served an opportunistic electoral purpose at one time or the other, change epitomizes a sense of urgency–and of absolute necessity–that makes it all but impossible to ignore both as an abstract idea and a programme of action. Whether we like it or not, change is inevitable. We can not stop it. We can either act proactively to plot its tempo and direction, or wait and watch as it happens on its own, bringing in its wake consequences we neither expect nor cherish.

As it so happens, making a convincing case for change in Nigeria is not difficult. Everywhere one turns, one is likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of challenges left untended for decades–challenges that have accumulated over the years because they and subsequent complications were allowed to fester, mutate and multiply until they became virtually intractable.

In fact, the range and magnitude of hardships that contemporary Nigeria faces have triggered a debate on broadly two conflicting models of change. The first, labelled “restructuring”, holds the country’s centralized power and resource control structure responsible for practically every problem surfacing in recent years. The second but lesser discussed, the systemic reform model, counters with the argument that tinkering with the constitution and allied institutional arrangements might (or might not) alter the power equation but it would certainly not go to the heart of what ails Nigeria as a nation—specifically, an enduring, neo-feudal, governance culture that allows the whims and caprices of the elite to frustrate the will of the People and to undermine the performance of institutions. Where the restructuring model places high premium on the re-ordering or re-adjustment of institutional arrangements, its systemic reform equivalent, prefers to invest its energy on the holistic transformation of culture, processes, and practices.

If change is both necessary and inevitable, what precisely do we mean by it? This is the question that the first part in a series of articles tries to answer. The current article starts with the taxonomy of change and the end which each ideal-type is meant to serve. As part of the effort at concept clarification, the article asks why change proceeds smoothly in some environments while stalling in others. This is where it interrogates the practical policy (means/ends) issues frequently raised, as well as the deductive, axiomatic, causality questions frequently glossed over or completely evaded, in the contemporary discourse on state “restructuring” and constitutional reform.

Changing ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ environments: a conceptual framework

The question we must first answer is not rhetorical—as in whether change is necessary or inevitable–but what the term exactly means. Change, after all, takes several forms—among them, mutation, evolution, adjustment, alteration, modification, reform, transformation, revolution, progress, back-sliding, improvement, deterioration, and, in the Nigerian context, movement towards “true federalism”, “restructuring”, or IPOB’s preference, outright secession. While differences in pace and direction mark one type of change from another, each is defined by the sense of motion or activity it conveys. Regardless of how it is termed, change is the opposite of inertia, drift, stillness, and motionlessness. It connotes transiting, within a time and space horizon, from one form or state to another.

At times, change is consciously pursued when the status quo seems not to be working satisfactorily or not working at all. Adjustment, alteration, modification, reform, state or local government creation, restructuring and revolution are examples of change directed at righting perceived wrongs, or forestalling developments deemed unpleasant or unjust. At other times, change happens on its own or as part of the natural evolutionary process. This is the case with the abolition or overthrow of unjust and plainly abhorrent systems like colonialism, apartheid, feudalism, neo-patrimonialism, as well as systems that are nourished by rent-seeking and sustained by endemic corruption.

At yet another time, change is pursued either for its own sake or to advance some hidden, possibly, personal or sectional agendas. The sale of public assets to cronies fits the description of self-serving change. So does change that stops with the change of guard or personnel and omits radical overhaul of morally repugnant cultures and practices.

No matter the end it serves, transition from one state to another occurs when triggered pro-actively and consciously by an individual, a group, a government, or a society. A change is deliberate when it is, as earlier noted, meant either to preempt an occurrence deemed unpleasant or to bring about a condition assumed to be advantageous to an individual, a group, or the generality of the people. This is sometimes the case with the changes made to a dysfunctional but ‘soft’ environment.

Mutation or natural selection occurs automatically, spontaneously, and without human intervention. It is the type of change that occurs when an organism, an institution, or a nation-state fails to solve, on its own, problems emanating from within itself, or from the soft and the hard environments. Such problems first self-assemble before breaking up into new but separate, possibly, combustible, fragments. Examples of shaky arrangements are apartheid; the caste system; endemic corruption; nepotism; aging and cell deterioration; technology obsolescence; unceasing dependence on crude oil in a world gravitating towards electric-powered vehicles; increase in population, literacy, urbanization and social mobilization rates; explosion in school enrollment; rising incidence of unemployment; air pollution, toxic waste dumping; emergence of new diseases like Ebola and avian flu; growing cases of drug addiction and escalating mental health crisis.

The hard versus the soft environment

The change ideal-types mentioned in earlier and subsequent paragraphs flag two types of environment, the ‘soft’ and the ‘hard’. What exactly do the terms mean? As conceived in this paper, the ‘soft’ environment is one which is malleable to human intervention. Such an environment is one that can, at least, theoretically, be changed with the reordering of existing ‘institutional arrangements’ (Alberti and Balogun, 2006; Balogun and Mutahaba, 1999). Examples of changes in institutional arrangements are state restructuring; the promulgation, abrogation or suspension of constitutions; the introduction of new fiscal and revenue-sharing formula; the implementation of “structural adjustment” programmes; the reform and reorganization of the civil service; and privatization or repossession/renationalization of key enterprises.

Changing the soft environment may appear simple in theory, but is likely to be difficult in practice. The first obstacle to be surmounted is the lack of consensus on those institutional arrangements to change. This is the case with ‘restructuring’ the demand for which, as earlier noted, is not always universally shared. The second problem with the selective change of the soft environment is the wide gap between form and substance, between statutory provisions and day-today application, and between wishes and horses. Restructuring again comes to mind. The power which restructuring purports to devolve to local communities may end up being hijacked by local elites, along with the resources that the communities were expected to “control”.

In contrast to changes targeting malleable institutional arrangements are those directed at not only the soft but also the hard environment. The ‘hard’ environment is one that no single individual or a mundane rule can change with the proverbial stroke of the pen. As a creature with a mind of its own, the hard environment is, again, theoretically, impervious to human manipulation. Changing it requires collective determination to renounce, prior to replacing, encoded values, accepted principles, and collectively enacted “rules of the game”. Since change cannot be “engineered” on a whim, the hard environment’s only option is to change either from within—as part of the natural evolutionary process—or from without, when pressures become irresistible. Whatever the case, a ‘hard’ environment succumbs to change when its underlying values and principles are outmoded, and the practices and conventions by which the environment is governed can no longer serve the needs of a new age.

Many features of the “hard” environment are not amenable to change. No matter how determined a government is, it cannot ‘ban’ ethnic identity, alter a person’s religious belief, or substitute its moral judgment for that of national sub-cultures. In so far as local beliefs and practices are not repugnant to the principles of natural law, equity and good conscience, they remain part of the unchangeable environment.

Efforts at changing the hard environment may also encounter resistance in authoritarian environments. Status-quo-inclined regimes distrust not just their opponents, but the average citizen as well. If it is any consolation, what change-resisting leaders distrust is not the citizen as such, but the latter’s presumed lack of capacity to make rational choices. Appropriated responsibility or excusable disavowal is the term applied in this paper to sum up this act, the act of relieving the citizen of the obligation to answer for what natural law (or reason) decrees as his sole and exclusive concern.

Strangely, without accepting, at least, partial responsibility for the creation and nurturing of the citizen’s dependent and/or tribal mentality, reactionary rulers tend to score the citizen low on capacity to think rationally and autonomously. The citizen, in the rulers’ reckoning, is liable to be swayed by “irrational” impulses such as ethnic prejudice, religious indoctrination, other primordial allegiances, and impressionistic images of reality. As if they were not largely responsible for the creation of the servile, robotic, citizen–one who believes that his lot in life depends on primordial ties and the intercession of powerful benefactors–the rulers talk individual “merit” and “achievement” in one breadth, and legitimize ascriptive and primordial causes in another.

Sooner than later, the reactionary rulers’ prophesy is likely to become self-fulfilling. Their lack of trust in the citizen’s capacity for independent thinking will ultimately turn the citizen into a dependent and volatile being, thus further encouraging the rulers to deny his existence as a rational, uniquely different, thinking, and purposeful individual—an individual with energies, needs, fears and aspirations. It is only a matter of time before the rulers begin to confiscate the citizen’s sovereign rights, including the right to decide matters that concerns none but the citizen him/herself. This is how a vicious cycle of autocracy/submissiveness/autocracy is set in motion.

In a nutshell, a state which persistently obliterates its citizen’s individuality runs the risk of turning the latter either into zombies, meaning, glorified robots that never act except as programmed, or worse still, into neurotic, self-deprecating, maladjusted, insecure, paranoid, uncivil, and, at times, aggressive, personalities. Neither of the two character ideal-types is helpful to the cause of peaceful, self-sustaining change, much less, good governance.

A Taxonomy of Change

Within the governance context, change takes different forms, ranging from change of government and of personnel, tinkering, restructuring, systemic reform, and revolution. The attributes of each are examined in the succeeding paragraphs.

Change of guard

This is basically a status quo, or zero, option. It is an option favoured by new regimes when confronted with demands that could not be instantly met, and certainly not with shrinking resources. Such regimes tend to be prickly and overly defensive when confronted with the accusation of being too slow in solving ongoing and new problems. They especially distrust the motives of the opposition and the judgement of the “too demanding” citizen.

The change of guard’s advocates proceed from the premise that change starts and, for sometime, must remain, with the transfer of power and authority from one group to another (Ayang’ Nyong’o, 1995). Any suggestion for further change (or for mid-term cabinet reshuffle) is viewed with suspicion, specifically, as an attempt by the opposition to snatch power for itself.

Meanwhile, the system is on auto-pilot. Anxious to maintain the “continuity” of programmes, the system goes out of its way to block substantive change and to entrench the status quo. In that state of self-contentment, it sees no evil, hears no evil, and thinks of nothing that needs changing, least of all, the composition of the ruling clique and the existing policy direction. It piles up and implements new programmes, but leaves structures, rules, and processes untouched. It remains in this basically motionless state until changes begin to emerge from unanticipated directions.


In no time, structures and processes left unchanged start to atrophy and to show signs of inability to respond to current and new demands. It is at this stage that an inflexible system makes grudging concessions to the demand for change. Whatever changes the system institutes are likely to be half-hearted and superficial, targeting inconsequential processes, and leaving the “tried and tested” practices as well as the “rules of the game” intact.

Cosmetic changes may also serve as a preemptive attack on movement towards real change. Cynics may, in particular, be inspired by the anxiety to win new friends while appeasing or neutralizing old enemies. The Not-Too-Young-to-Run bill that was rushed through Nigeria’s National Assembly was basically a crowd pleaser, not a prime mover or a catalyst. It was meant to appeal to youths that laboured under the impression that a law was all that stood between them and their ambition to compete on a level playing field for elective positions. The law did not address the real obstacles to competition—notably, the dictatorship of the elite and of the political godfathers, income disparities, thuggery and violence.


Dissatisfaction with the aftermath of post-election personnel reshuffle or with the outcome of tinkering soon builds up into a demand for profound, instantly recognizable change. In a society characterized by diversity, change is rarely deemed meaningful unless it results in substantial re-ordering of relations between and among the associating units, mostly ethnic nationalities. Where certain communities feel “marginalized” and/or “internally colonized”, they are likely to vent their grievances on the manifest, easily identifiable, “cause” of their headaches, typically, a central authority that controls the resources and performs the tasks which sub-national authorities believe, right or wrong, should fall under their dominion. Restructuring is, for the most part, the rallying cry of a counter-elite agitating for constitutional amendments aimed not only at redressing perceived historical imbalances but also at furthering the cause of “power shift”.

In specific terms, restructuring seeks no less than a constitution that is selectively amended to accommodate a counter-elite’s power sharing demands, notably, demands for “power rotation”, for devolution of power to sub-national authorities (within the context of ‘self-determination’ and ‘true federalism’), for the review of revenue-sharing formula and for the transfer of ‘resource control’ autonomy to the resource-producing communities.

If the past is any guide, restructuring is an eternal pursuit. After all, the North and Southern Protectorates and the Colony of Lagos were once administered as separate entities. Then amalgamation happened in 1914, and a unitary Nigeria came into being. Based on the outcomes of constitutional conferences and at the initiative of the colonial authorities, the unitary system gave way to a federal constitution, and with that, three regions. In terms of land area, the Northern Region looked like a colossus vis-à-vis the Eastern and the Western Regions.

Still, the East and the West had no time for the North as both were busy trying to undermine each other politically. The West backed the push for the creation of a C-O-R (Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers) State in the East, while the East actively campaigned for the excision of the Mid-West from the Western Region. The East got its wish in 1963 with the creation of the Mid-West Region. The West had to wait until 1967 when twelve states were carved out of the then existing four Regions, with the North split into six, the East into three, and the West and the Mid-West into three States. As a result of further tinkering, the number of States increased to nineteen, before rising to the current thirty-six.

Interestingly, the first military coup (of January 1966) was itself a major “restructuring” project—in fact, the origin of the malady that the “restructuring” advocates are currently eager to cure. If the change set in motion by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, and continued (vide Decree No. 34 of 24 May 1966) by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, had succeeded, Nigeria would have reverted to a unitary state. The change envisaged the abolition of the four Regions, their replacement with “groups of Provinces”, and the deletion of each citizen’s ethnicity on official documents (including birth certificates).

Now that the states have replaced the old Regions (and rendered Ironsi’s groups of Provinces defunct), it is not clear how the advocates of restructuring expect to appease interests that are committed to the currently functioning 36-state structure’s survival. Specifically, what compelling reasons will the advocates of restructuring adduce to persuade the existing states to surrender their autonomies and merge into larger regions?

In addition to the difficulty of undoing a done deal, advocates of restructuring have yet to ponder the side effects of some of their prescriptions. Power rotation, for one, may lead to the perpetuation of bad practices or the “rotation” of the culture of mismanagement and mediocrity (Balogun, 1997). Sub-national authorities may be saddled with responsibilities that they are ill-equipped to discharge. Transnational crime and terrorism are examples of challenges that are clearly beyond the capacity of the over-hyped, territory-bound and jurisdiction-confined “state police”. The state police might itself be captured by the local power elite and rendered ineffective by corruption and nepotism.

The most powerful argument against restructuring is, of course, the obstacle it erects to rational dialogue. Almost invariably pitched as an assertion of ethnic or regional separatism, restructuring frequently takes a dogmatic, take-it-or-leave-it form, and, by so doing, leaves no room for compromise or negotiation. Its proponents’ intransigence often backs its antagonists into a corner. This leaves both sides no option except dig in, with neither willing to hear what the other is saying.

Of direct relevance to this paper’s theme is the restructuring manifesto’s lack of plan to change plainly retrogressive and unjust practices in the soft and the hard environments. So long as the “problematic” clauses in the constitution are repealed or amended, restructuring is glad to spare laws which either oppress a cross-section of the public or are enforced selectively and unjustly. The state may be restructured, but the restrictions placed on individual liberty and on access to citizenship rights are likely to persist. Since restructuring has no explicit anti-corruption strategy, the monster is also likely to go on unchecked. In such circumstances, funds transferred to resource-producing communities are apt to end up in private coffers, thus wittingly or unwittingly cementing the “devolution of tyranny and corruption”. So long as the “rules of the game” are changed sufficiently to accommodate the demands of aggrieved communities, the police may continue to demand bribes in broad daylight, and other agencies of the state may remain incapacitated by red tape, graft and corruption.

Further muddling the conceptual waters (and posing challenges of a different kind) is the tendency to equate “restructuring”, not with the redrawing of power boundaries, but with the implementation of neo-liberal reforms. Privatization, divestiture, deregulation and downsizing are the main attributes of these reforms. Sadly, the pay-offs that Nigerians recall from the implementation of these so-called reforms are the institutionalization of mediocre and sub-optimal performance, job-less growth, mass unemployment, reduced budget allocation to human development, widening inequality, the elimination of the middle class, the transfer of the commanding heights of the economy to foreign and indigenous oligarchs, partial erosion of national sovereignty, and increasing social dislocations.

Systemic Reform

In contrast to the limited focus of restructuring, systemic reform proceeds from the underlying assumption that a system is never “suddenly” corrupt, incompetent or broken, but must have taken its time to acquire, perfect, entrench, and implicitly legitimize, or at least, condone, unhealthy habits. If this assumption is valid, it will take nothing short of a root-and-branch shakeup of a corrupt system to rid it of its debilitating maladies and to place it on a trajectory of institutional wholesomeness.

The holistic approach to change aims at transforming a dysfunctional, neo-feudal, self-serving, rapacious, oppressive, rights-confiscating, basically unjust, and rent-seeking governance order (that has evolved since independence) into an open, people-centered, citizen-responsive, service-delivering, equity-based one. It targets not only the dysfunctional policies or the failed programs, but also the doctrines underlying, as well as the modalities for, the involvement of the people in the enactment, promulgation, application and/or amendment of the ground rules.

What are the indicators of systemic reform’s success? This change ideal-type can be said to be working if, and only if, its implementation triggers visible change in the average citizen’s living conditions. Systemic reform it is not which does not bring and periodically accelerate positive change in the life of the people. At the minimum, it must, over a period, translate into improved access to essential services (like safety and security, policing, and justice administration, health and medical care, environmental sanitation, quality education), improved rural infrastructure, expanded job opportunities, rising per capita income, the number lifted from poverty, high rankings on ease of doing business and international competitiveness, periodically low rankings on corruption league tables, howsoever compiled, and zero tolerance for corruption and impunity. A system is not yet reforming if police constables can pull motorists over, not for the purpose of enforcing the law, but to extort money from the later. Systemic reform becomes a reality when institutional avenues exist allowing the citizen to demand quality service, and to evaluate the performance of service delivery agents on a regular basis.


Change is gradual and controlled when, as in systemic reform, it is plotted from the beginning to the foreseeable end, and the means are matched with the ends. It manifests as a revolution where institutional arrangements have been allowed to coagulate into a rock-solid but dysfunctional and unsustainable environment–an environment that has gone past the stage of being fixed but is ripe for a cataclysmic shake-up.

A revolution or radical transformation thus becomes inevitable when practices have remained impervious to change for a fairly long time, while the practices’ opponents are unyielding in their demand for a new order. Revolution is the outcome where discontent with the status quo is at its peak, and demand for change has reached boiling point. This was the fate of colonialism, apartheid, and institutionalized racism. It may yet spell the doom of systems founded on primitive accumulation, over-ripe or crony capitalism, crude tribalism, inbreeding, favouritism, and incestuous attachment to the “ways of the ancestors”.

The arrowheads of a revolution generally start by repudiating the existing system’s underlying values, doctrines, practices, totems and rituals. The military juntas that popped up like unwanted children in many African countries last century, for instance, often started with demolition (notably, the suspension of constitutions, the proscription of political parties, discontinuation of arrangements for the conduct of “free and fair” elections, the shutting down of representative assemblies, suspension of civil liberties, “preventive detention” of members of the “old guard”, and the enactment of decrees with “ouster” clauses, that is, decrees that virtually exclude the jurisdiction of regular courts and hamstring the rule of law).

Change, however, is not a one-off event. It is an unending process. So it is that a government, which started with revolutionary fervor, risks turning into a reactionary regime unless it constantly keeps up with the demand for change. The NRM’s experience in Uganda is particularly illustrative. The Movement’s no-party option proved attractive and appeared revolutionary in the 1980s, more so, as it served as a panacea for the country’s ailments at the time, especially, sectarianism, ethnic animosity, political paralysis and instability. Over time, socio-economic change began to pose new questions which the no-party formula could not answer.

The trajectory and velocity of change: working hypotheses

Explaining why change proceeds smoothly in one place while constantly hitting road bumps, or completely stalling, in another, requires starting with a set of hypotheses. At least three of such hypotheses will be explored in subsequent articles, notably:
(a) Nigeria’s governance and development challenges have endured for so long because they, the challenges, are by nature intractable;
(b) The challenges have endured because they have been designed by the ruling class to be intractable, that is, designed to withstand any determined reform effort, and to ensure that no change happens unless it serves the ruling class’s interests;
(c) Change has proved elusive because the managers of change have consistently failed to diagnose the underlying challenges correctly, and to administer the painful but necessary medications faithfully.

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