Forging an elite Consensus


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at 76 years old is probably thinking of a legacy to leave behind after his 2 terms of 8 years at the helms, leading one of the youngest population of people on average globally.

Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a stalwart of the ruling APC is 67 years old, while the Presidential candidate of the opposition PDP is 72 years old.

Beyond politicking for the sake of politics, in Nigeria today there seems to be a lack of an elite consensus on the broad reforms that the country should be undertaking to leave a better future for the next generation.

In political science, the elite consensus theory posits that a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the most power—and that this power is independent of democratic elections.

Through positions in corporations or on corporate boards, and influence over policy-planning networks through financial support of foundations or positions with think tanks or policy-discussion groups, members of the “elite” exert significant power over corporate and government decisions.

The basic characteristics of this theory are that power is concentrated, the elites are unified, the non-elites are diverse and powerless, elites’ interests are unified due to common backgrounds and positions and the defining characteristic of power is institutional position.

Clearly today in Nigeria that is not the case.

The big issues that confront the nation today are largely unresolved, and there is a lack of clarity on what the way forward is.

From the huge fuel subsidy expenses, floating of the naira, an education policy, what to do with the power sector, privatisation of government assets, restructuring and decentralisation of power from the centre, comprehensive health care reforms, private sector led growth, free trade and non-protectionist policies, and so on, Nigerian elites are hopelessly divided on the way forward.

This was not always the case, at least from 1999 to 2007, during the President Obasanjo years.

At the time, with strong leadership from Abuja, the country pursued a right of centre economic policies, with acknowledgement from most elites that free markets, small government, privatisation and allowing market forces work were the best paths to prosperity for most Nigerians.

The consensus was also broad based at the time with buy in from the North-South divide in Nigeria.

A certain Nasir El Rufai (current Governor of Kaduna State) at the time was the head of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), while Atiku Abubakar (then Vice President of Nigeria), chaired the National Council on Privatisation (NCP).

Together they oversaw one of the most comprehensive privatisation exercise in Nigeria whereby government ownership in over 800 enterprises were sold entirely or reduced to minority stake.

This included stakes in major banks like UBA, First Bank, chemical plants like Eleme Petrochemical, oil firms like unipetrol, cement plants, and so on.

More importantly the private sector was unleashed and major reforms like bank consolidation, the new pension act, telecom deregulation, and others helped to build a more confident Nigerian corporate class, some of which began to extend their reach outside the shores of the country to other African countries.

It is impossible to underplay the importance of such an achievement, especially when one looks at the political landscape today, where regional interests are often considered ahead of national interests and where a zero sum game interpretation is given to most reform efforts.

So privatisation of government assets is seen as undesirable because rich people from a certain region may buy up such assets instead of being seen as a way to reduce corruption and pressure on the sovereign balance sheet.

Removing fuel subsidies, setting a cost reflective tariff for electricity, and letting the markets determine the value of the naira is also not to be contemplated, not because these are not sound economic policies, but because politicians think certain of their constituents and power base (the poor) will allegedly be harmed by these, even though the opposite is actually the case.

At the beginning of this piece the ages of certain power brokers and political leaders was mentioned to show that they have a limited time frame to set the country on a sustainable growth path and enshrine stability in the political space.

The major issues confronting the nation today are certainly daunting, the biggest of which perhaps is the lack of hope for millions of young Nigerians in the country or a sense of a ‘Nigerian dream’.

Any sensible or credible forecast/modelling of the future of the country (say 20 years from now), with the current trajectory will only come up with disaster as the conclusion.

A young population forecast to double to near 400 million people by 2050, an economy that is not creating enough jobs for the mass of people, dwindling oil production per capita, a huge uneducated underclass largely unprepared for the jobs of the future whether in robotics, artificial intelligence, science and technology, means a country tottering near disaster with a bleak future.

If the elites in Nigeria do eventually engage in honest soul searching, they would agree that the time to come together to rescue the country is now!


Patrick Atuanya

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