The Trouble with Nigeria (1)

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Nigeria is bedevilled by serious challenges – from the problem of underdevelopment to corruption, poor governance, weak institutions and policy reversals. This has led to intense debates on what really is the trouble with Nigeria. Just as analysts disagree on their diagnoses of the problem they also differ on their desiderata for fixing the country.

 I will in this piece interrogate some of the popular diagnoses of the Nigerian condition. There are four popular articulations of the ‘trouble’ with Nigeria – those attributing the trouble with Nigeria to leadership, to weak institution, to corruption and to insecurity.  I will call these myths because in my opinion they are simplistic analyses of rather complex phenomena.  .  

Myth one: The Trouble with Nigeria is failure of leadership

Chinua Achebe (1983), in his slim booklet, concluded that the “trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” In essence for Achebe and others who argue within this framework the principal reason why Nigeria has continued to underperform is simply because she has been unfortunate to be cursed by a recurrent blizzard of mediocre and corrupt leadership.

One of the problems with Achebe’s analysis is that he neglected the influence of environmental variables – what we call the ‘Nigerian factor’ or political scientists would call system dynamics. In fact the structure-agency debate has been on-going in the social sciences since 1903 when the German non-positivist sociologist Georg Simmel published his seminal essay, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’. Essentially the debate is between the capacity of individuals (‘agency’) to act independently and to make their own free choices contra a patterned set of arrangements or ‘structures’ which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available to such agents.

In essence, for those who believe that the ‘trouble with Nigeria’ is squarely that of leadership, there is a wrong assumption that the environmental variables will lend themselves to whichever way the leader wants to manipulate them. There is also a wrong belief that the followership is necessarily virtuous. Adherents of this perspective equally fail to explain convincingly how this ‘good leader’ should emerge especially as it is commonly believed that a country often gets the leader it deserves or that that the quality of the leadership is a reflection of the quality of the followership.

Achebe’s analysis that the ‘trouble with Nigeria’ is squarely that of leadership in fact contradicts his earlier position where he seemed to identify the trouble with Nigeria to be systemic. In his novel No Longer At Ease (1960) Chinua Achebe vividly illustrated how system dynamics could determine one’s courses of action. In this novel, the main character, Obi Okonkwo, was a highly principled and independent-minded man, who was not afraid to stand alone against the crowd. Sent by his village to England to study law so he could handle their land cases, he ignored the collective wish of his people and read English. On his return from England he bluntly refused to live up to any one’s expectations but his own. First, when everyone expected him to come to a reception held in his honour by his town union in the best suit in town, he showed up wearing only a simple T-shirt. Again as a man who had just returned from England, people expected him to entertain them with the type of English that ‘filled the mouth’ but Obi Okonkwo again disappointedly only spoke the ‘is’ and ‘was’ type of English. On top of all these, he married an ‘osu’ (an outcast), which was an abomination among his people. He also bluntly refused to use his position as a senior civil servant to help his kinsmen and women to secure jobs in the civil service. However as morally upright and principled as Obi Okonkwo was, he was eventually forced by the imperatives of survival and social expectations to take bribe – and was caught.  The moral here is that contrary to Achebe’s own position in 1983 that the trouble with Nigeria is squarely a failure of leadership, the country’s problems is actually ‘something’ greater than leadership.

Myth 2: What Africa needs is strong institutions, not strong men

In his speech on 11 July 2009 to the Ghanaian Parliament at the Accra International Conference Centre, Obama declared that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”.

Since Obama’s famous speech, the new song, which is now held as bearing the cure for Africa’s numerous ailments, particularly the issue of poor governance,  seems to have become: ‘Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions’. But what do the purveyors of this new mantra mean? And can the desiderata for Nigeria’s numerous developmental and governance challenges really be located in this phrase?

What do the purveyors of this new mantra mean exactly by ‘strong institutions’ and ‘strongmen’?

Strong institutions

What is easily discernible when people brandish the new mantra is the tendency to equate ‘institutions’ with structures, organisations or public bodies such as the civil service, the police, the parliament and contraptions that fight corruption like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in Nigeria.  This manner of understanding ‘institutions’ is at best only partially correct because institutions are also rules, conventions, ethos that have endured over time . Even individuals, to the extent that they purvey a certain brand, which is consistent over time, can also be called institutions.

Institutions are crucial in any system because they help to structure social interaction, allowing for predictability or stable expectations by imposing form and consistency on human activities. For instance an electoral law which fixes election into public offices every four years and which requires those defeated to bow out honourably means that such law, if it has been observed for a sufficiently long period of time, has become ‘institutionalized’. This is another way of saying that the law has been so consistently observed that it has become rule through habituation.

It is important here to make a distinction between ‘laws’ and ‘rules’. A law is generally speaking the legal version of a rule. A rule can be set and enforced by a parent, a sibling or an elder whereas laws are enforced by the state or the legislature. Therefore, rules are more personalized in nature while laws are set in a more general sense. Laws and their observance differ from one country to another or from one nation to the next. Rules and laws also differ with regards to the consequences of breaking them. Rules tend to be more flexible and the punishments received for breaking them may not be as severe as those dished out when laws are contravened.  Quite often rules are observed not necessarily because of the fear of sanction but because of a certain perception that it is the right thing to do. In countries where laws are treated as rules – that is as something personal, there is likelihood that more people will observe such laws.

For laws to acquire the status of rules, they have to become customary and habituated over a relatively long period of time. There are several laws in every country which are ignored, meaning that such laws have not acquired the status of rules or that they have not been consistently observed over a period of time for them to be regarded as customary. In other words, such laws have not become ‘institutionalized’. It can be surmised from this that where the institutions are strong, there will be a strong observance of the laws such that even if you have someone of less than average intelligence as the President of that country, the institutions will be strong enough to cover such a president’s inadequacies. In essence when we talk of institutions, it must include habituating rule observance.

Strongmen

There is a feeling  that many of those who brandish the new mantra of ‘Africa does not need strongmen but strong institutions’ , will not like to be drawn into the conceptual issue of what they mean by ‘strongmen’. But we cannot make much progress unless we know precisely what they mean. Quite often they use ‘strong men’ interchangeably with either ‘dictators’ or ‘charismatic’ leaders.  There is a fundamental distinction between a dictator and a charismatic leader: while the autocrat thrives on cowing the citizens and wants to be feared, charismatic leaders draw people to themselves because of the personal magnetism they possess. It is obvious that in fragile and polarized countries with weak institutions neither the dictator nor the charismatic leader will be good in encouraging institution building since people owe allegiance directly to them, not to any structures, processes or set of laws. Both set of leaders cannot encourage habituation of law observance outside themselves. Even the visionary or bureaucratic leader will also find it difficult to encourage the habituation of rule observance because of the prevalence of constructivist and interpretive thinking (each leader’s policy choices will be scrutinized through tainted binoculars).  Since institutions necessarily have to be built by people, and since the environmental variables seriously constrain leaders who will want to encourage such, how will strong institutions then be built in a country like Nigeria?

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Adapted from the lead paper I presented at the National conference on Nigeria’s Socio-economic and Political Dilemmas, Achievers’ University, Owo, Ondo State, July 10, 2013

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