• Thursday, May 30, 2024
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The Nigerian society makes it difficult for good leaders to emerge (II)

Elections in Nigeria

Last week I weighed-in on the leadership question in Nigeria and made the point that the entire society, not just the leadership, is out of joint. As against the popular tendency to see our problem as basically leadership deficit, I argued that every society produces leaders that mirror the society, its customs, beliefs and values, which made me assert it is more a problem of followership than of leadership, even if the leaders exploit those societal vulnerabilities to gain and retain power. I proceeded to cite examples of our right-based conception of the social contract and the middle class’ abdication of responsibility in bringing about an accountable government that works for the good of all.

What I omitted was the role of crude ethnicity and religion in bringing about this deficit in followership. Even if for political correctness we like to deny it, the reality remains that elections in Nigeria are basically ethnic censuses – a situation where, according to Donald Harowitz, elections are little more than a head count of identity groups. This, in the view of some political theorists, is responsible for the perennial lack of government accountability. Claude Ake, for instance, argued that  “where voters cease to reward and punish leaders for good performance, and rather vote on the basis of community identity, the accountability of the government to the wider public is undermined, whatever the political system.”


In Nigeria where no particular ethnic group is large enough to sorely determine elections, politicians are forced into broadening their appeal by appealing to broader identity groups – religion, language, regional affinities – and most importantly, by creating coalitions with politicians from other ethnic or identity groups. Take Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari for instance. He began contesting for elections in 2003 where his support remained largely within his Hausa-Fulani ethnic base in the north. He consistently failed at the polls until he was able to forge a winning coalition with politicians from the Yoruba ethnic group. And to ensure that some Yorubas are not alienated, the inter-ethnic coalition went for a Christian pastor as Buhari’s running mate.

And to prove that elections in Nigeria are basically ethnic censuses, despite Buhari’s abject performance in office in his first term in office and his demonstrable incapacity to forge a vision for a new Nigeria or even present a modest plan for the next four years, his inter-ethnic coalition still won the 2019 elections by an even higher majority.

In the mainly educated and so-called liberal and progressive Yoruba enclave where the government’s failures could not be disguised or hushed over, sensing the deep disaffection, the partners in the ethnic coalition abandoned all pretences to policy appeals and began to campaign sorely along ethnic lines, reminding their fellow Yorubas that it will be their turn in 2023 to rule but only if they vote for the Coalition again in 2019. The Vice President, a Christian Pastor and Professor of law, during the campaigns in 2019 at the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo was quoted as saying:

“The 2019 general elections is our own. We are not looking at 2019 but 2023. If we get it in 2019, Yoruba will get it in 2023. Because if we don’t get it in 2019, we may not get it in 2023 and it may take a very long time to get it. We need to look at tomorrow and not because of today. What we are doing now is for tomorrow and not for today.”

Babatunde Raji Fashola, the former poster boy for progressive ideologies and a super minister in the Buhari administration, also became an ethnic champion urging his fellow Yorubas to vote in Buhari again so that they could take over power in 2023. In October 2018 at a town hall meeting, and speaking in Yoruba, he was quoted as saying:

“Did you know that power is rotating to the South-West after the completion of Buhari’s tenure if you vote for him in 2019?” spicing it up with a beautiful Yoruba proverb, he continued:

“Your child cannot surrender her waist for an edifying beads and you will use the bead to decorate another child’s waist.”

A vote for Buhari in 2019, means a return of power to the South West in 2023. I am sure you will vote wisely,” he counselled.

At another occasion, he was again quoted as urging his people to vote for Buhari-Osinbajo “because my people stand to gain more from it…The South-West is at present occupying the position of the vice president. We have three sitting ministers and many different federal appointments from the present administration which we cannot afford to lose.”

The same scenario played out in 1999 and 2003. Although the South-West region in 1999 overwhelmingly rejected then candidate Olusegun Obasanjo who’s also from the region, the main reason he was rejected was because the two contestants were Yorubas. In 2003 when Obasanjo was contesting against politicians from other ethnic groups, the entire South-West rallied round him and even ensured their ethnic party, the Alliance for Democracy, did not present a presidential candidate, to enhance Obasanjo’s chances.

I use the Yorubas of the South-West as an example here only to show how even the most educated, liberal, progressive and western-facing ethnic group in Nigeria quickly succumbs to the lure of ethnicity in times of elections.

To be sure, ethnic politics did not start in Nigeria in 2015. It has always been there even before independence where the parties were formed along ethnic and identity lines and even subsequently, where deliberate attempts were made to form national parties. The pull of ethnicity and other such identities like religion and language has held sway over the Nigerian system making it virtually impossible to select leaders based on policy, track record or performance.

Christopher Akor