Essays / The Pontifical Papers



This is Part 1 of the article series, “The Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy”. Read Part 2 here.

The best way to understand the class structure of Nigerian society it is to think of the country as a corporate setup. One with several levels of participation and authority in the affairs of the company. This is not just a business comparison; it is also, somewhat, a historical fact.

It is common knowledge—I think —that our country grew from the territories and ethnicities administered by the trading entity called The Royal Niger Company. This company was passed to the British Government in 1900 by the entrepreneur-explorer George Taubman Goldie, the “father of Nigeria.” Like any company based on English corporate law, Goldie’s Royal Niger Company had its shareholders, directors, and employees. And, that demarcation of interests in the business of Goldie’s company is the foundation of the structure of Nigerian society.

The original company that birthed Nigeria started business around the land areas surrounding the Niger-Benue confluence up to the Niger Delta. The territories grew into the current map after the succeeding British Government seized more territories through treaties and “pacifications”. Still, the core of British administration over the territories was based on the template originally developed by the traders (or, looters) of the Royal Niger Company.

Essentially, the British ran the amalgamated territories as a “business” and not for social development. The “Nigerians” who willingly participated in the venture became partners. Those who resisted were “pacified”. Hence, the importance of early “Nigerians” became directly proportional to the level of their participation in the British venture.

And this is how things remain to this day. The Royal Niger Company has merely morphed into the Federal Republic of Nigeria—Plc. As Claude Ake, the famed Nigerian political scientist, stated in a 1981 speech:

“As things stand now, the Nigerian State appears to intervene everywhere and to own virtually everything…. Inevitably, a desperate struggle to win control of state power ensues since this control means, for all practical purposes, being all powerful and owning everything.”

Throughout the rest of this series, I will use the corporate analogy to describe the political class structure of Nigerian society. This may seem a rough analogy, but it helps us easily identify the relationships between Nigerian citizens, the Nigerian government and the subtle segregations in the socio-legal order.

So what is Nigeria’s corporate setup? The direct answer is this: because the State owns everything, we have shareholders, directors and employees of the Nigerian Plc. The shareholders “own” the business of the State and control its revenue-generating policies. The employees service the business.

Nigeria’s directors—that is, the members of the Nigerian government—are the buffer between the shareholders and the employees. As a corporate business setup, it is natural for directors to implement the interests of the shareholders in preference to the wishes of the employees. True, the employees, because of their numbers and ability to “unionise”, may stimulate some reaction, but it is the interest of the shareholders that shapes company policy and actions.

But, you may ask, isn’t every citizen supposed to be a shareholder in a democratic polity? For example, our Constitution guarantees the right of every adult Nigerian to vote at elections, right? Yes, the right to vote implies “shareholding” but it doesn’t translate that way in practice. In reality, the right to vote at elections is diminished greatly by other legal rules that vest policymaking in “special” individuals. Their policies secure “approved” privileges for some Nigerians at the expense of millions of others.

Contribution to policy formation is the most significant right—or privilege, if you prefer—of a democratic citizen. In one sense, this participation is exercised by voting at elections to elect policymakers. But in a wider—and better—sense, it means that policymaking has to be participatory. That is, there are no “special” or “supreme” authorities, commissions, councils or other exclusive body responsible for policymaking not subject to legislative control. It means that elected policymakers should consider the opinions, interests and contribution of every citizen before reaching a policy decision. It also means that, except under supervised conditions, non-elected members of government should only execute policy—and not be tasked with making it.

This does not mean that every citizen will necessarily contribute to policy. It only means that the mechanisms of government should ensure that the greatest number of citizens possible have access to the formation and development of policy through decentralisation, periodic elections, feedback processes, referendums, legislative fiscal oversight, participation in military and para-military activities and, importantly, uncomplicated impeachment and recall processes.

In short, the extent to which individual citizens are relevant to policymaking is a good rule of thumb in gauging the democratic level of any country.

Based on this idea, we can, therefore, classify all Nigerians according to the level of their (effective) participation in Nigerian policymaking using our corporate analogy. If we discount the fact that every adult Nigerian can vote at elections, the level of effective participation in policy control can be graded as follows, from the least significant policy influencers to the most significant:

  1. Menial workers: individually irrelevant; and collectively irrelevant
  2. Junior staff: individually irrelevant; but collectively persuasive
  3. Senior staff: individually varied; but collectively relevant
  4. Management: individually relevant; and collectively relevant
  5. Directors: individually relevant; and collectively potent
  6. Shareholders: individually relevant; and collectively transformative

These classifications constitute the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy. The description of each class indicates its policy relevance, and not its social, economic, or numerical relevance — although these tend to be proportionate to policy relevance.

The Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy is enforced through subtle segregation in the practice and laws of Nigeria’s socio-legal order. These include the limitation on participation in economic activities for most Nigerians, and discretionary tax breaks, waivers and exemptions to “special” businesses and individuals in the country.

The phrase “National Cake”—our colloquial euphemism for legalised corruption—is not just part of our lexicon, it is a part of our reality. If you prefer, you may also call our classification in this article the Hierarchy of the National Cake. This is equally apt.

Read Part 2

Originally published in slightly different form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.

Follow @ayosogunro on twitter for more engagement, buy his books, and—if you really like stimulating, if sometimes annoying thoughts on socio-legal philosophy—enter your email in the right sidebar to get notifications of fresh talk on this fine blog.


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