Nigeria is not a democratic country. Although generally described as a democracy, Nigeria is, in reality, an anocracy. An anocracy is a system of government that is half democratic, half autocratic. In true democracies, authority progresses upwards from the people to a dependent centre. In true autocracies, authority flows downwards from an independent centre to the masses. An anocracy combines the authoritative ideology of autocracy with the institutional processes of democracy. In short, this system uses the negative aspects of one to cancel the positives of the other.
The anocratic nature of our political system is evident in the attitude of public officers. There is a tendency for the average public officer—whether special assistant or minister—to condescend to citizens. Public officers act with the confidence that backlash can only come from their superiors in office. The ideals of constitutional democracy have no impression on our public officers.
This is not surprising. Colonial and military influences have dominated much of our national history. An ingrained fear of public officers infects our social psychology. We cherish authority over intelligence, we consider judge over judgment. Our public officers know this, and they do not hesitate to flaunt this arrogance of office in our face.
Last week, both the Attorney General of Lagos State and the state’s Commissioner for Information and Strategy released a statement that described dissatisfied citizens as “hypocritical and manipulative”. Also recently, a Senate leader stated—without irony or hesitation—that they reshuffled Senate committees simply to “soothe frayed nerves” of some aggrieved members. We can give many more examples. Even the most junior special assistants consider themselves a tad higher than the ordinary citizen. Yet we have done nothing to stop this attitude.
It is easy to dismiss this apathy as symptomatic of traditional respect for authority. But this is a simplistic understanding of Nigerian pre-colonial societies. The citizens of pre-colonial societies did not live in constant subjugation by their governments. In fact, pre-colonial traditional rulers often reigned at the pleasure of their subjects. There was no guaranteed tenure of office. If displeased, citizens could remove their rulers by customary methods or direct uprising. Any respect for authority was balanced by socio-political checks that prevented despotism. A tyrannical ruler would have had only a short time to reign.
Unfortunately, with colonial intervention, the traditional rulers became “protected” under the British socio-legal order. Under this socio-legal order, the people lost the power to control their rulers. Only the elite and the political class could stimulate political change. And so it remains to date.
Today, we are fighting corruption. But corruption is multifaceted. While corruption is often exhibited as blatant theft, it has also passed—without challenge—as indiscipline in the exercise of public office.
Indiscipline is the unending verbal diarrhoea of our public officers. Indiscipline is when the president rebukes Nigerians for importing toothpicks while he travels to treat an ear infection. Indiscipline is when the same president returns from vacation to a red carpet, bagpipe-tooting reception. Indiscipline is when governors disrupt traffic with a convoy of cars. Indiscipline is when the public treasury finances the power supply, water supply, healthcare and transportation of public officers while these utilities are unavailable to the general public.
And so, it is unfair to challenge Nigerians to a disciplined behaviour when public officers are uncontrollable. Discipline is a holistic standard. It either exists across all aspects of a society or it fails. A society where the citizens are well behaved but public officers are uncontrollable is merely a slave society. In a developed society, public discipline starts with public office.
This is why public opinion has to react strongly to irresponsible imposition by public officers. We should not ignore bad behaviour simply because it is sanctioned by the president. We should not tolerate insults merely because a governor serves it out. We have to resist attitudes that disrespect the citizenry. Indiscipline in public office should be queried: from a minister who “jumps” traffic to a special assistant who insults citizens on social media.
Of course, this is easier said than done. The Nigerian masses are incapable of dealing with the machinery of government. This is partly because they are not educated enough to handle its incidences, and partly because the struggle for survival requires a capitulation before officialdom. Unfortunately, we cannot run away from the fact that Nigeria operates a patronage economic system. We have a system where profit is determined by closeness to political power, not productivity. Yet, it remains a patronage system because those of us who are enlightened enough to defy its excesses still choose to “support” these leaders.
We need a new war against indiscipline. This is a war against the indiscipline of public officers. And, until there is a full awareness by the masses, the responsibility for this war is on the educated minority. We have waged enough wars against ourselves as citizens. Now, we have to be more concerned about checking the excesses of all arms of government. We have the media and the various social platforms available for expressing public opinion. Pressure, if applied consistently, can yield results. This may be false optimism but, other than outright revolution, it is the best card we have.
Otherwise, we can only look forward to a future where our children will continue to be oppressed in their own land, bullied by comfortable parasites who feed fat—legally and illegally—on our resources.
Originally published in slightly different form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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