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Path dependency is the bane of Nigeria’s development

Nigeria is trapped in an inertia-inducing path dependency. It is unwilling to break free from the paths imposed by critical junctures in its past. Although the constitution and governance structures foisted on it through decades of military rule are obstacles to its stability and progress, Nigeria has refused to make the critical path-switching decision to restructure itself. Yet, to be a stable and prosperous nation, Nigeria needs a root-and-branch reform, a transformative change. Sadly, this country utterly lacks the will to change.

I have often wondered why Nigeria is so sclerotic that radical systemic change is almost impossible through a democratic process. Virtually all the structural changes that have taken place in Nigeria took place under military regimes. Yet, a democratic system, by its nature, is supposed to create the ideational framework, the dialectical process, where the exchange of ideas and the finding and constructing of points of resonance lead to consensus-building and institutional change.

When true democracies reach an inflection point, when they reach a point where there’s no alternative but to change, they always rise to the occasion and bring about the necessary change. But in Nigeria, there is so much resistance to change that the status quo always prevails regardless of the situation. Self-reinforcing path-dependence makes structural, root-and-branch, changes through a democratic process virtually impossible in Nigeria.

Read Also: Nigeria needs a new constitution: Tinkering with the current one is futile

Not long ago, a senior lawyer, Chief Robert Clarke, SAN, controversially called for military intervention under which the Constitution would be “ungovernable” and all governors and legislators would be sacked. According to him, the military should dissolve the current 36 states and replace them with six states, and military administrators should run the new six states. I was scathing in my criticism of him for what I called his “barmy ideas”.

But in fairness, Chief Clarke was probably venting his frustration as a concerned Nigerian and elder statesman. He knew that Nigeria must be radically restructured, with a radically streamlined governance arrangement, but he also believed, rightly or wrongly, that a proper restructuring couldn’t happen under a civilian administration. Hence, he wanted the military to do the job. But he, wrongly, ignored the question of legitimacy; the end cannot, in this case, justify the means: restructuring, yes, but not by the military!

Unfortunately, the National Assembly, which supposedly has the democratic legitimacy to do the job, gave credence to Chief Clarke’s prognosis: only the military can truly restructure Nigeria! Speaking during the Senate’s constitutional review hearing, Senator Opeyemi Bamidele, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, said that Nigeria couldn’t have a brand-new constitution because that would require suspending the current one, which he said only the military could do.

Hear him: “We cannot afford to do away with the current Constitution because it would be an invitation to anarchy. The only way a constitution could be suspended is if there is a military coup that no one prays for. Only the military can suspend the Constitution”.

Put simply, Senator Bamidele was saying: as long as Nigeria is under civil rule, it cannot have a new constitution; it can only amend, incrementally, the current one imposed by the military. If radical constitutional or structural changes can only be done under military rule, what does that say about Nigeria’s democracy. Well, the best words for it are in the title of Nancy MacLean’s book, “Democracy in Chains”!

Sadly, even some of the strongest advocates of restructuring favour a less radical approach on the basis that a more radical restructuring, though desirable, is unachievable. Recently, Professor Attahiru Jega, former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and a strong advocate of restructuring, said that power should simply be devolved to the current states and local governments. He then added: “The dismantling of the current 36-state structure is at worst unrealistic, a pipe dream, and virtually impossible to do”.

Of course, remember, a military regime, a la Chief Clarke, could collapse the current structure. But, alas, a civilian government cannot do it, even if collapsing the current structure would serve the best interests of Nigeria and Nigerians!

Truth is, Professor Jega’s relatively easy option of devolving powers to the current 36 states, most of which are technically unviable and can’t handle such powers if given to them, is the kind of tinkering around the edges of reform that can’t transform Nigeria, that can’t move this country forward. Anyone who thinks that devolving powers to the current 36 states, some of which are glorified local governments, is the restructuring that Nigeria needs is looking at restructuring only from the point of view of politics, not the economic viability of the sub-national units.

Professor Jega argues that “collapsing the current structure would be akin to asking the people to voluntarily surrender their autonomy”. But what “autonomy”? True autonomy is when a state entity and its people have the wherewithal to run their own affairs, generate economic prosperity, tackle poverty and insecurity, and, generally, create social progress. Only a handful of the current 36 states have such autonomy, and most of the current states won’t have it even if powers were devolved to them.

Surely, when Professor Jega said that collapsing the current 36-state structure would be akin to asking “the people to voluntarily surrender their autonomy”, he did not mean ordinary Nigerians, who are victims of the widespread poverty and insecurity induced by the current structure. Rather, he meant the political elite and their hangers-on whose vested interests are entwined with the current structure. They are the ones who would not voluntarily surrender their “autonomy” or vested interests.

But let’s face it, as I said at the beginning of this piece, Nigeria is in this state of sclerosis because of what political scientists call “path dependency”. Political scientists use the term “path dependence” to explain how a country can be trapped by its past. In the life of a country, a critical juncture, a fundamental causal event, can create and put institutions and structures in paths that are difficult to alter, because vested interests tied to those institutions and structures would resist attempts to reverse them.

In Nigeria, military interventions were critical junctures that created path-dependent institutions and structures. The military came, created states, imposed constitutions and changed Nigeria’s governance structure, setting the country in paths that are now difficult to reverse. Scholars say that critical Junctures often unleash path-dependent processes that outlive them. And that’s true!

Think of it. The last military regime ended 22 years ago, yet the Constitution that the military imposed, the states they created, are still structural obstacles to Nigeria’s progress today. Yet, thanks to path dependency, government and vested interests are resisting calls to restructure the country and replace the old, deeply-flawed structures with new, fit-for-purpose ones.

But, as Professor Douglas North, the institutional economist and Nobel laureate, said, even path-dependent institutions and structures can and must change when they become obstacle to progress and when they lack or lose legitimacy. What’s more, path-dependent countries never make progress. And, truth is, Nigeria is utterly underdeveloped and fragile due to path-dependency. It’s time to break free from it and move the country forward!

Of course, Nigeria doesn’t need a critical juncture, in the form of military intervention, to switch from its current failed path to one that will enable it to become stable and make progress. What Nigeria needs is the will to change; as they say, when there’s a will, there’s a way! With the right ideas, the will to talk and build a national consensus and, of course, the will to change, Nigeria can be transformed into greatness.

Sadly, that will, the will to transform itself, is absolutely lacking. Yet, to succeed, Nigeria must have the will to change!

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