Over the last few weeks, the political actors of Nigeria served us fresh drama. This time, the plot revolved around the ownership and purpose of some millions of dollars discovered in a flat in Lagos. Like any good thriller, it contained the elements of crime and corruption, heroes and villains, suspense, political intrigue, betrayal, and even a tinge of romance. If there is anything our government does quite well, it is keeping the Nigerian middle class entertained.
But how many political dramas will we watch before my generation turns middle-aged and we realise that nothing has changed since the 1960s? Yes, we have ‘democracy’ but Nigeria has been having elections since 1922. Yes, we had a transition of power: but only the party has changed, the people in power today have always been in power. In other democracies, political parties are constant while the people in government change; here, the political parties keep changing but the people in government are constant. It is a system.
For those of us in our 20s and 30s, this disguised aristocracy should be alarming. Our generation has the advantage of being able to assess over 50 years of post-independence history. We should, therefore, be immune to patronising slogans about youths being leaders of tomorrow. It should be clear to us that Nigeria has been captured and carved up by a political class that maintains the economy and the government for its own benefit. Our political system is an oppressive one that gives privileges only to the political class. A good example is how one man – Akinwunmi Ambode in Lagos – singularly took the decision to destroy a community of over 20,000 people, against court orders, to make way for an elite project.
I have been asked several times: what is the political class? Who are the political elite? Nigeria’s political class consists of: (i) the paramount traditional ruling families across the country who hold significant land resources; (ii) the families of the ‘nationalists’ who had the privilege of early western education and quickly used this knowledge to seize Nigeria’s industries through the government; (iii) the military politicians who took over from the nationalists and developed the constitution we use today; and (iv) the pseudo-democratic chieftains who have partnered with the military hegemony since 1998. These four groups are the political class. They may not all actively take part in politics, but they control Nigeria’s resources and influence political participation and policymaking. An ordinary Nigerian cannot compete against them in business or in politics. Those of us in the middle class can only make significant material and political progress either as their employees, contractors, political sycophants – or spiritual leaders. The rest of Nigeria – up to 70% of the population – are kept in constant poverty and kept out of the policymaking process.
But this is not how a country should work. Economic and political opportunities should be available to everyone. Clearly, we ought to fashion a more inclusive political system. We ought to exercise our imaginations. In Switzerland, for example, there are seven heads of government. That is Switzerland’s way and it has its reasons. We ought to question our own political framework and ask: What are we doing? Why are we doing it this way?
But, look at us youths. At the time of our lives when we should advocate reforms to the constitutional and political system, we are captivated by scandals and gossip. Worse, the only space in Nigeria where we can freely engage ourselves and exchange critical ideas are now managed by youth ‘overlords’ who try to keep us in the slavery of the current system by pressuring us to choose sides in the political dramas of their paymasters. Yet, these dramas of ‘lost and found’ money have nothing to do with our development. If we filter news stories through the lens of history we will realise that ‘loot recovery’ has always been a resource redistribution process. Just as the Abacha loot was integrated into PDP, the PDP loot is now being integrated into APC. The EFCC is just the latest way of legalising the process. They use development and security as anti-corruption rhetoric, but when loot is ‘recovered’ it vanishes into the wastage of Abuja.
And so, our worst mistake will be to fall for the drama. Our best approach will be to classify all the actors as one: the political elite. If we understand that our political leadership from 1960 to date – including Obasanjo-Jonathan-Buhari – is a continuum, then we will be ready to fight. We will fight for our freedom from this system, and not just for some favourite politician.
True, Nigeria is too ethnically and religiously diverse – too geographically large – for a successful physical revolution. That type of revolution will not gain traction before the Army crushes it. Political revolts are constantly nipped in the Niger Delta and the South East. Instead, our hope lies in an intellectual revolution. The educated middle class – especially the youth – has to start resisting the political class vocally. We have to start articulating ideas for humane reforms, spreading these ideas across the country. Our thinking has to change from ‘how can I participate’ to ‘how can we reform so that every Nigerian is always participating.’ The battle will be half won when we: (i) agree that the current political system is a gimmick; (ii) start identifying areas for reform; and (iii) start agitating to strip the power structures of Abuja that currently sustain our political elite. We should do these through our social media, through civil society organisations, and through formal and informal platforms at our disposal.
But this will not be an easy fight. Other youths will disagree, encouraging us to participate in the system by aligning with one member of the political class or the other. They will argue that one side is good and another is bad. They will suggest that the situation can be changed ‘from the inside.’ They are wrong. We have had over 50 years of people trying to change things ‘from inside’ and failing. This political system is inherently incompatible with humane policies and independent-minded peoople.
To quote Victor Hugo: nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. The time for political reform has come in Nigeria. That should be what we care about. Now is when we should start.
Originally published in slightly modified form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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Ever wondered about the class structure of Nigerian society? Read the mini-series on the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy.