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?
Understanding Nigeria’s enduring challenges: a focus on the governance culture
It is this paper’s thesis that Nigeria’s state construction and reform 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 bother to verify the first hypothesis, for the simple reason that it does not hold water. After all, no secular problem is beyond solution. This study would have been a pointless exercise were the contrary to be the case. That is to say if change is impossible, it will make no sense speculating about possibilities of making it happen.
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 to 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. Where the “ruling” mentality prevails, the governed space will be restricted to areas and populations of interest to the ruling party, thus leaving the ungoverned space on auto-pilot, typically, at the mercy of hoodlums, political wheeler-dealers, and corrupt officials.
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. A bad practice in the public domain is like cancer. It moves unnoticed until it has taken control of an organism’s vital parts and has mutated into a malignant tumor 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.
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 preserves the bad ones it met on arrival, and/or, on departure, leaves a new record in institutional corruption. 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, favoritism, exceptionalism, impunity, falsification of records, tolerance of indiscipline, 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, meaning indigenous and foreign, governance doctrines. The marriage of otherwise incompatible governance doctrines has serious implications not only for administrative behaviour and decision-making in the career public 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 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-eudal state
Understanding how Nigeria ended up with a dysfunctional, 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 territory.
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. Whoever has access to power or wealth (or both) becomes a Big Man, and is credited with the ability to bend institutions to his will. Thus, 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.