The continuing mystery of President Buhari’s illness and the handling of the saga by his aides is more evidence that Nigeria’s political system works almost independently of the individual nominally in charge. If we had a responsive and functional political system in Nigeria, the independence of the system from political actors would be a good thing. Unfortunately, our system is dysfunctional and thus its ramifications are always disadvantageous.
The incapacity of President Buhari’s body language in preventing this administrative relapse to the Yar’ Adua hide-and-seek legacy shows the nonsensical value of arguments that the system can be changed “from inside.” It also shows that the idea that we only need to elect “good” persons to make progress is only half correct. To paraphrase Chinua Achebe, electing a no-nonsense leader who lacks a “well-conceived and consistent agenda of reform” for our dysfunctional political system is a waste of everybody’s time.
And so, the question is: how do we conceive and implement an agenda to reform the Nigerian political system? The answer is obvious: by replacing the existing political class with people who will trigger and implement these reforms. But we come to the complicated part. First, how do we identify people across Nigeria who genuinely want to reform the Nigerian political system for the benefit of the population? Second, how do we get this people into a position to trigger and implement these reforms?
The usual answer is to urge such people to “join politics.” But this thinking assumes that the Nigerian political system is a receptive system. It assumes that our system is welcome to new ideas and capable of self-correction. This is a wrong assumption, proven wrong not just by history but also by current affairs.
We should understand that political parties in Nigeria are not the same as political parties in functional democracies. Our (realistic) political parties are merely vehicles for consolidating power by different interests in the existing political class. We should also understand that economic power and political power are directly proportional in Nigeria. The ability to gain political power is dependent on a person’s command of economic resources, directly or through sponsors. Equally, the ability to gain economic power is dependent on a person’s ability to command political resources, directly or through others. In Nigeria, only the wealthy get power, and only the powerful get wealthy.
Consider that the Nigerian Constitution requires membership of a political party before anyone can stand for election. Consider, also, that electoral guidelines cut off the majority of the population from starting a party. For example, the 2014 guidelines required prospective parties to pay administrative fees of up to one million naira and set up offices in, at least, 24 states (with a headquarters in Abuja). We can then see how and why remote people at the national level are the ones who determine grassroots politics. Our laws have designed power to flow downwards.
It is, therefore, difficult to see how hundreds of young people, themselves employed or contracted by the people who fund the realistic political parties, can seize control of these parties. Control is dependent on an abundance of independent income. That is, wealth derived solely from market conditions; wealth that does not rely on political patronage and not negatively affected by a change in personal politics. Very few people, if any person, in Nigeria can truly boast an abundance of independent income. It is doubtful if such a mass market exists in Nigeria.
The same principle applies at the inter-party level. Elections in Nigeria are merely power tussles between members of the same political class. We, the people, are just spectators often used as pawns. It is delusional to think that we are in control of our electoral fate when, over 50 years after independence, the same set of people who ruled between the 1960s and the 1980s (and their families or friends) are still the ones controlling power. The average Nigerian still cannot boast of a clear path to Aso Rock, dependent on the people and independent of the current political class.
And so, we will never be able to vote out the political class by joining their parties or competing with them on the political field. Not unless a number of young Nigerians develop competitive resources outside the Nigerian economy and deploy these against the current political class—or some unexpected cataclysmic event happens.
Then, how do we reform the system? The short and unfortunate answer is: no, we cannot. Not yet.
What we can do now, I think, is to make power uncomfortable for the political class until they are frustrated into handing power back to us, in bits and pieces, whether literally or figuratively. This, however, is not the same as making the country ungovernable — whatever that may mean.
Making power uncomfortable means that we, the people, have to own our sovereignty. Look, we have become too complacent, too grateful, too optimistic, and too thankful for small favours that we have become fully complicit in our own slavery.
A governor builds a bridge and we praise him. We forget that the bridge is a token. We forget that, in reality, we are slaves to this governor. We forget that he can demolish our neighbourhood if he pleases. We forget that we cannot share the road with his convoy. We forget that we cannot take the same elevator with him without an invitation. We forget that this governor does not share public transport or other public facilities with us. We forget so many things because we see a bridge here, a wheelbarrow there. The evidence of our slavery is all around us, yet we applaud projects built with money from our collective resources. We need to stop being stupid. There must always be a consciousness that we have not attained full social equality: regardless of infrastructural tokens from the ruling class.
We have to learn to be demanding. We have to learn to be dissatisfied. We have to learn to be suspicious: to keep asking for more. We have to make life difficult even for the seemingly honest public official. Power must never be comfortable. The only reward for office should be the opportunity to serve, currently or through re-election. Our praise should come only after a person has left office, and only as a standard for others.
Change will come only with unyielding scrutiny and pessimism. I do not promise magic. It will take a while before our continuous pressure forces something to give. But nothing will change if we keep softening our stance. We have been optimistic for over 50 years. That is long enough.
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.