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, but 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 interest of the ruling class, or does not strengthen the class’s grip on power, or (c) the managers 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 have persisted 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 favor of the elite and to the detriment of the People’s welfare, 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 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. Having stepped into the traditional potentates’ shoes and inherited 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-centered 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-leaning criteria of service and accountability, its “ruling” counterpart regards access to service (or appointment to a service rendering position) as a favor to be bestowed on a select few, and accountability as a luxury that can easily be dispensed with. A “governing” regime allows individuals to compete on a level playing field for vacancies, and if appointed, to aspire towards 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.

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, the majority of aspirants to leadership positions simply 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 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 juggle competing interests, rule for some time, only to bow out without leaving an indelible mark.

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, short tenure. It is precisely in an attempt at preempting such an unwelcome development that succeeding generations of leaders endorse or tolerate vaguely defined group aspirations over individually specific demands. The citizen, for his own part, plays into the cynical leaders’ hands. Instead of fighting his own battle his own way, the citizen places his trust in ethnic or religious advocacy groups, political godfathers, and relatives “in high places”. This is where the cynicism of the leaders meshes with the average citizen’s narcissism to uphold the existing neo-feudal arrangements. The logic here is that 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.

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 favors 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 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 (Balogun, 1997).

The neo-feudal culture (or ‘the System’) started gradually with the accumulation of bad practices in the soft environment. 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. It should be recalled that 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 preserved the bad ones it met on arrival, and/or, on departure, left a new record in institutional corruption.

Among the bad practices that were accepted as “normal” at one stage and subsequently recycled across generations are 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, favoritism, exceptionalism, impunity, falsification of records, tolerance of indiscipline, laxity and indifference while on duty, and growing contempt for state edicts and notices–all translating into impaired capacity to perform basic public administration functions.

Good and bad practices intermingled as the post-colonial state struggled to reconcile incompatible governance, meaning indigenous and foreign, doctrines. The hybrid eventually 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 center 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. 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 depend, 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 tradable good that can be sold and bought directly or through well-connected favor brokers, influence peddlers, 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 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 got the chance, will not subscribe to the above-mentioned neo-feudal worldview. 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 origin and evolution of the neo-feudal state

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 territory. Understanding how Nigeria ended up with a dysfunctional, neo-feudal, governance arrangement warrants delving into the past.

The centralized states, in indigenous societies, emerged in the wake of territorial conquests and the establishment of ruling dynasties with divine auras. Their stateless counterparts survived by recycling oral traditions and encoded superstitious beliefs. It did not matter whether a pre-colonial society fell under the monarchical or republican category; 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 afterlife (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 insist that the wrongdoer be punished.

The ethnic nationalities might differ in many respects. They nonetheless have a few but significant attributes in common. Solidarity with the primordial group is, for instance, a widely shared trait. So is the predisposition to fictive thinking. The average Nigerian will sooner acknowledge the power of the occult than rely on the authority of reason. In almost every Nigerian community, belief in God thus 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 behavior 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 another widely shared characteristic. 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 formal and predictable bureaucracy, 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 ratification 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”. In any case, by “ruling” the native races, the colonial authorities simply built on the indigenous feudal tradition.

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 pre-colonial institutions, and later, from the colonial “masters”. Just as their predecessors did, the post-independence 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 from the ‘hard’ back to the ‘soft’ environment where they could be speedily and effectively stamped out or 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.


  1. Suleiman M. Kabir says

    This is a brilliant food for thought. However, considering that our first post-colonial rulers were generally adjudged as prudent, nationalistic and visionary; one would find it difficult to conclude that the present despotic neo-feudal culture pervading our political landscapes is an off shot of colonialism. It is also a negation of the very essence of the African culture which was centred on welfarism amplified by being your brothers keeper.

    The question to ask is “why has it becomes so intractable for successive government to reduce the so called cost of governance to enhance funds for developmental projects”? Why are our Educational institutions being deliberately run down, with animal staples being mansions when compared? Why are workers being owned several months salary when same political class goes about dashing handouts to praise singers and political thugs? In fact, their are many questions begging for answers. Attitudinal change can only be effective and meaningful if it starts with our emerging feudal Lords. Change should truly begins with them.

  2. M J Balogun says

    Thanks for the insightful and exhaustive comments!

  3. “Pushing For Change in Nigeria”
    Massoud Omar
    On your three assertions or hypotheses, I quite agree with the first one. The challenges facing us are not beyond solutions.
    Secondly, and this is linked to the first argument, they are not designed to be intractable, if by “design” you mean they are deliberately created by the ruling class. The ruling class may rather frustrate or sabotage efforts aimed at finding solutions to these problems, due to selfish and vested interests
    Thirdly and this is where I strongly disagree with your hypothesis, I don’t think there has been a failure on the part of our intellectuals, or “social engineers” to proffer solutions to the seemingly intractable problems of governance and administration bedeviling our nation-state.
    We are a nation richly endowed with mineral resources and arable land. Name it what don’t we have to make us move beyond our current state of sorry affairs? Since independence, we have been moving one step forward, two steps backwards. The corruption in the political system of the first Republic pales into insignificance when compared to what happened during the Second Republic. Similarly, the monumental stealing of public resources in the present political dispensation makes the politicians or leaders of the Second Republic look like saints. The amount of stealing of public resources in the Fourth Republic has never been heard of in this country.
    One main reason for our endemic state of underdevelopment is the erosion of norms and values in our society. Or to put it another way, norms and values have been turned upside down in our society. In the pre and immediate post-independence era, the stigma attached to corruption made it almost unnecessary to flaunt ill-gotten wealth with impunity. Society frowned on those who stole from the public purse. One’s children were not spared the stigma of public opprobrium if found to be corrupt. Today, many politicians and public servants who have stolen from the public till are given chieftaincy titles by their communities’ traditional leaders. You are made a community leader if you are able to steal massively form the public purse. Many governors, or party leaders together with their sons, currently have cases to answer before EFCC.
    The leaders of the First Republic were imbued with both national and regional patriotism. Thus, the regions had their blueprints for development, which, if not torpedoed by the 1966 coup, would have at least taken us beyond our present sorry state. Sometime ago, I stumbled upon the blueprint of the Northern Regional Government for socio/economic development. I was really surprised by the details contained in the document on how to move the Region forward, in terms of education, industrialization, infrastructural development etc. If this blueprint, or roadmap had been implemented, the North would have been a better place today. I believe there are similar blueprints for the other regions too.
    I believe there exists a class in this country, whether they “govern” or “rule”. They may not be the productive type like we have in advanced Western democracies. The ones we have are a parasitic class which does not produce but rather feeds on State resources. This parasitic class only reproduces itself by sharing state resources through nepotism, cronyism. In this respect, governance suffers. No accountability nor transparency. Compare the attitude to public service during the First Republic with what is happening now. Politicians, quite a majority of them, do not go into politics to serve, but to enrich themselves. Once politics becomes an enterprise, not a yearning to serve the people, then, governance suffers. Democracy also suffers because the stakes are high. Elections become a do or die affair.
    We had about four development plans in the past, what happened to them in terms of implementation? Nigeria’s problems have been correctly diagnosed by generations of intellectuals and think tanks. The problem lies in the political will to implement the solutions because of vested interests whose oxen may be gored in the process.
    These are my few observations.

    • M J Balogun says

      Thanks for the exhaustive comments. The anomalies which you rightly identified are precisely the motivation for the series of articles on change. You have confirmed that until the existing neo-feudal arrangements are changed, we shall be moving round in circles. By the way, by the champions of change, I do not mean the intellectuals. I mean government leaders that embark on change (apparently without a clear roadmap). Once more, thanks for enriching the debate with your comments.

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