Essays / The Pontifical Papers

HARD WORDS FOR A HARD COUNTRY | by Ayo Sogunro

Nigeria is not progressing in any meaningful way.

Except that modern technological advances  continue to insulate us from the worst effects of bad governance, we are deteriorating rapidly in several ways. In particular, the last few years have seen a rapid decline in Nigeria’s indicators. Between 2016 and now, Nigeria has been ranked as having the worst police force in the world, having the highest rate of poverty globally, being one of the most difficult environments to do business, and being one of the most violent places in the world. In 2014, when I gloomily wrote the essay ‘Everything in Nigeria is Going to Kill You’, things were better than this. 

And yet, within this state of steady deterioration, the political elite continue to profit politically and economically. Political control gives economic control and economic control gives political control. Our elite – a poor imitation of their foreign counterparts – continue to be comfortable, serviced by those of us in the educated middle class who pretend not to see the dysfunctionality of the political machinery. The educated middle class, which ought to be the hotbed of revolutionary political ideas, has become self-satisfied  and complacent. The best of us assuage our conscience with the hope of eventually electing a socioeconomic messiah. The  worst of us hope to join the ranks of the elite while mouthing the often-broken promise of ‘changing things from the inside’.

But the worst of the Nigerian experience has always been reserved for the 87 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty and another 25 million living in some form of poverty. For these poor and undereducated majority, the Nigerian condition does not only bend the crayfish, it also breaks it. Life as a disempowered Nigerian can be a daily reoccurring nightmare that drives its victims to despair. The stoic seek out spiritual succour, becoming potential victims for predatory religious leaders. Others are compelled into electoral fodder, violence, militancy, or deadly attempts at migration. Yet, this majority remains unheard and unseen, subject only to the judgemental moralising of ignorant middle-class people who expect them to just do better.

Bleak as this scenario is, social interactions are even bleaker. For within the socio-political disasters of our own making, we still have to deal with the challenges common to our flawed humanity: gender-based violence and the general marginalisation of women, ethnic and religious conflicts, oppression of sexual minorities, disenfranchisement of the young, and a general hostility to new cultural ideas. Ultimately, nobody is spared: the elite are plagued by their own insecurities, the educated middle class are in constant worry of slipping down the material ladder, and the poor are poor. Mutual suspicion and intolerance means we all deal with our struggles in different ways. In the most populous black country on earth, every citizen is fundamentally alone.

Much of these troubles are caused by systemic issues. The constitutional design of Nigeria’s democracy attempts to minimise the possibilities of autonomous decision-making outside the presidency and so perpetuates a patronage system. The highly centralized political structure of the country, fashioned by colonial interests and perfected under military dictatorships, does not allow for a clear expression and actualisation of the norms and aspirations of the pre-existing societies that now make up the Nigerian state. What ought to be a cooperative community has become a competitive society struggling for resources from political centres. Because our provincial state governments and local governments originated as  branch offices of the central government, they remain politically dependent and incapable of sustaining the social and economic rights of their citizens. The continuing lack of governance institutions independent of the presidency means that autocracy continues to rear its head within our so-called democracy.

What Nigeria needs is a transformative constitutional process that will identify all of these issues and enunciate a comprehensive participatory program for dealing with these. But this is not going to happen through the normal run of elections. Elections may sweep some people out of office and bring others in, but they are inherently incapable of being used to change the systems that sustain them. As such, anyone who truly cares about Nigeria has to focus less on elections, and more on the stimulation of an organised mass movement for a transformative constitution. It is we, the ordinary Nigerians – and not the people elected in Abuja – who will save ourselves.

Yet our democracy is not going to evolve outside the scope of our socio-cultural paradigms. This is why our social awareness and consciousness have to evolve first. This awareness – ‘being woke’ – requires us to understand and think through uncomfortable perspectives that seem to go against ‘common sense’. In this case, this requires our ability to see that the existing political structure of Nigeria is inherently unjust and unsuitable for actualising the diverse experiences of people we term citizens.

But as long as the general social aspiration of most Nigerians is merely to be integrated within the existing political system – or as we say, ‘to make it’ – then there will be no incentive for democratic evolution. The political elite know this, and this is the hope they keep selling: the hope that if we are patient enough, we will eventually see the Promised Land. But this is untrue. Nigeria has been going nowhere and patience is getting us there.


 Originally published here in slightly different form for my monthly column for The Guardian.


Also, watch my interview on related issues with Sahara Reporters:

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Ever wondered about the class structure of Nigerian society? Read the mini-series on the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy.

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