The problem of accountability in Nigeria?


Last week I found myself reflecting on the aberration that is Nigerian democracy. We all agree that Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999 and has successfully had four different civilian administrations at a stretch. What is more, it has even peacefully transitioned from one political party to another. That, in some democracy scholarly parlance, is one of the prerequisites for being regarded as an entrenched democracy.

However, like I have always argued, Nigeria and African countries under pressure to democratise the society and liberalise the economy have mastered the art of isomorphic mimicry – what Ricardo Hausman describes as the creation of institutions that act in ways to make themselves “look like institutions in other places that are perceived as legitimate”, but which in reality are not. We can have the best anti-corruption laws on paper, like Uganda, but also be among the most corrupt countries in the world. We could have constitutions guaranteeing freedoms of speech, of the press, of association etc, but in practice be under a repressive state where none of these rights can be exercised. We are just good at quickly stripping institutions of their meanings and turning them into caricatures once they collide with our selfish interests.

In like manner, we have completely stripped democracy of virtually all its meaning save the dry, periodic conduct of elections that are neither free nor fair. For instance, there’s broad agreement by Democracy scholars that modern political democracy, as defined by Schmitter and Karl in 1991, “is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.” The question that comes to mind: are Nigerian rulers accountable to their citizens or can their citizens through their representatives in parliament hold their rulers to account?

As a rule, Nigerian chief executives – president, governors or even local government chairmen – see themselves as imperial lords and are not subject to or accountable to anyone, not even the citizens from whom they claim to derive their legitimacy. They often see the push for accountability even by equal and co-ordinate branches of government as an affront and they move quickly to eliminate or neutralise the threat(s). That is why, for instance, every incoming president or state governor moves to ensure that only his ‘boys’ or loyalists are elected to the leadership of the national or state assemblies.  The lack of accountability in the states is even worse. State governors, in the words of former president Obasanjo, are “emperors” and lords of their states. They brook no dissent or answer to anyone. Speakership and leadership of the state assemblies are ‘jobs for the boys’ and if for any reason the state governor is removed by the Supreme Court (who have now replaced the people and electoral commission as the final arbiters of who won and lost elections) the speaker of the state assembly promptly resigns or is impeached to give way for the new governor’s boy to assume the position.

While Nigerian leaders are generally experts at claiming credit even for the air the citizens breathe, as a rule, they accept no responsibility for anything that goes wrong. Our leaders rather see responsibility like Abrose Bierce, the American satirical writer, as “a detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, fate, fortune, luck or one’s neighbour.” Bierce said in the days of astrology it was even customary to unload it upon a star. This perfectly describes Nigeria. For instance, while former president Obasanjo will gleefully take credit for single-handedly picking the late Yar’Adua and Jonathan to be president and vice president in 2007, he would vehemently refuse to accept any responsibility for foisting a known terminally ill person on Nigerians that led to a constitutional crisis that ended only with Yar’Adua’s eventual death.

President Buhari also spent the better part of his first term of four years blaming just anyone and everything under heaven except himself for the state of the country and the economy. Even now with the country virtually collapsing all around him, with kidnappers, terrorist insurgents and criminals virtually holding the country to ransom, he would accept no responsibility for the situation in the country. He is, in his words, “doing my best”.

Just last week, he moved quickly to claim credit for the 5 percent quarterly growth of the Nigerian economy – the first such growth since 2014. But in 2018 when the same National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released a record unemployment figure, the Statistician General of the country, Yemi Kale, according to Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu, was summoned and the president ordered him “to change the high unemployment statistics. When Mr Kale wouldn’t budge, the president instead set up a new Economic Advisory Council (EAC) and in his inaugural address, admonished them to help produce regime-friendly data to highlight the gains of his administration. The government since then began ignoring all the unemployment and growth figures Mr Kale’s agency periodically put out until last week when he rushed to claim credit for the 5 percent growth announced.

But it is not only our leaders that do not accept responsibility or render account of their stewardship. The culture of lack of accountability and refusal to take responsibility is firmly rooted in Nigerian society. After all, is the leadership not a reflection of the society? Last year, Dellibe Onyeama, a Nigerian writer, was willing to travel to England to accept an apology from Eton College over the racist treatment he received while a student there in the 1960s. but the same Onyeama, whose grandfather was a major slave trader in precolonial Nigeria and whose family’s wealth and privileges are directly tied to the inhuman trade in people, was not willing to apologise for his family’s role in the inhuman trade.

“My grandfather had no rudiments of any form of education at all and he knew nothing beyond the ‘kill or be killed’ way of life in those days,” Onyeama said in justifying his decision not to apologise for his family’s crimes. But he was willing to travel all the way to England on Eton’s bill, to accept a moot apology from Eton’s principal for the attitudes of fellow students in the 60s who didn’t know better!

Come to think of it, when has anyone resigned or accepted responsibility for anything that goes wrong in Nigeria? Yet, no institution, no agency is working, and life is literally becoming like Hobbes’ state of nature, nasty, brutish and short.


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