For some reason – one I suspect is connected with my recent articles on the Nigerian political system – I have had several young Nigerians, people in their 20s and 30s, send me messages proposing or requesting ideas on the reform of Nigeria’s political system. Some of these ideas include organising an exclusive ‘youth’ party or movement, joining existing parties en-masse and taking over the system by sheer numbers. I have even had a suggestion on triggering the age-old tradition of rounding up existing politicians and subjecting them to the ‘Rawlings solution.’
This suggestion of a violent revolution is the least pretentious, but in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country like Nigeria, political violence will worsen the situation, not improve it. To me, the only time the people should resort to a violent overthrow of government is when government has initiated violence against the people. The argument that this is the current case in Nigeria is open to debate.
It is too early to be optimistic that these messages in my inbox are indicative of a re-awakening civic consciousness in young Nigerians. Perhaps, it is just a passing phase spurred on by other events, such as the election of a relatively young president in France. Nevertheless, whether such a civic consciousness exists or not, it is clear that more young people are becoming disillusioned with the Nigerian system. The immediate culprit is probably economic. The reality of our class-based economy may have begun to bite. Maybe some have begun to understand that political patronage is a faster route to economic profit than ordinary merit. Again, these are all debatable points.
What is clear to me is that our political system has a way of recycling the same set of politicians and their sycophants in different configurations. The former minister is the current senator. The current minister is a former governor. The director-general is a former commissioner. In a functional democratic and transparent political system, this would be welcome. We would want people who understand the system to continue handling it. In a dysfunctional political system like Nigeria, this is a huge problem for it means change will be illusory. It is then difficult to see how political reform can happen through people whose career progress is directly linked to the continued existence of the political system.
And so something has to be done. Yet, like the anxious messages in my inbox, nobody is quite sure of what should be done. I also do not have the answers, and I suspect no Nigerian is capable of drawing up a solution that will satisfy everyone.
However, I am convinced that a political system has to have an ideological basis. In Nigeria, not only are our ideologies disparate, but they are also incoherent. We condemn one thing in one politician and then justify it in another. We blame one public official for doing something then excuse her successor for doing the same: on the grounds that it has been done before. I have the impression that we, the political youth are, unthinking, directionless and just begging to be chained up by the next fancy politician.
My own political ideology, in the Nigerian context, is based on liberal democratic ideals. These evoke the governance structures of some communal pre-colonial African societies, and seem to have found modern expression in some of the Scandinavian countries through the welfare state.
First, Nigeria has to devolve the majority of political powers (including accompanying control of resources) closer to the people in the form of community governments. Local government has to have meaning for it to be effective. A local government that only collects the trash and cleans the market is merely a glorified branch office of the state government. And our state governments are merely branch offices of the Federal Government. Political power in Nigeria continues to be centralised and flows downwards. This is why patronage and political corruption thrive. The closer government is to the grassroots, the easier it is to ensure transparency and accountability.
Second, a country that needs the military to keep its constituent units together is not a real country. Till date, Nigeria is not a real country in this sense. Voluntary participation in the political project is the only way a national consciousness (whether for good or bad) can develop.
Third, we need to painstakingly observe the rule of law in its strictest sense. Our current political system puts too much power in individuals. This means that executive power has to be limited to executing the law. It should not involve deciding its content, directly or indirectly. For example, there is no fixed law on the salaries of public officials. Instead, individuals in the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission have to decide it. A governor can unilaterally ban motorbikes, and unilaterally unban them. Or unilaterally destroy an urban poor community to make way for a ‘development’ project. Yes, it is true that there are legal provisions that authorise these individual powers, but that is a simplistic understanding of what rule of law means.
Fourth, respect for human rights is connected to the economic development of the country as a whole. Government policy has to be fundamentally directed at upholding the dignity of everyone in the society. Without justice, there can be no peace.
And so, crafting an ideological framework helps to gauge the actions of public officials and politicians. Public policy has to be weighed and tested against these foundational principles. For example, building a road is not good in itself; it has to be demonstrably and measurably good in terms of accountability for the human rights and policy participation of the people. It is quite possible for a governor to build a road and yet impoverish 50,000 people in the process.
Creating an ideological foundation for our political system is a grand idea. The tricky question is articulating and actually directing this towards politics. Should we organise an exclusive ‘youth’ party or movement, join existing parties en-masse, take over the system by sheer numbers or go back to Rawlings? I will review some of these ideas in the continuing article.
Originally published in slightly modified form here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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