The Nigerian society makes it difficult for good leaders to emerge
In his “The trouble with Nigeria,” the late renowned playwright and social critic, Chinua Achebe, diagnosed Nigeria’s problem thus: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else.” Achebe believed with good leaders, Nigeria could resolve its inherent problems of tribalism, corruption, social justice, the cult of mediocrity, and lack of patriotism. Since the publication of the pamphlet in 1983, virtually every analysis of the Nigerian situation has tended to follow Achebe’s thinking.
In recent times, analysts are quick to point to the brilliance of Nigerians doing exploits around the world to show that Nigeria has all the human resources it needs to develop and that what it lacks is a committed and visionary leadership to harness such vast resources to develop the country. It does not matter to these analysts that the leadership is a direct product of the society and portrays the values, customs and ideals of the society. No wonder the French philosopher Joseph De Maistre made the famous remarks that “every nation gets the government it deserves.”
True, Nigeria is not conducive for the production of good leaders. To begin with, the Nigerian society has a defective understanding of the social contract. Like I argued elsewhere, the Nigerian notion of citizenship is basically right-based – one that sees itself more as receiving from, and not giving to the state. With the discovery of oil, the taxation systems instituted by the colonialists were gradually dismantled such that rather than depend on the people for its revenue, the government had no recourse to the people. Rather, the people became heavily dependent on the government for their survival. So, by default, the Nigerian state is set up not to be accountable to its citizens since its source of revenue is not from the people.
Even with the advent of democracy that right-based conception of the social contract is yet to abate. Citizens see elected officials as going to eat from a “national cake” and also make huge financial demands from their representatives. A Nigerian legislator once complained that he gets inundated daily with financial requests from his constituents that if he were to attend to all of them, his entire salary/allowances won’t be enough to take care of 50 percent of such requests. This becomes an added incentive to engage in corruption. That is why, for instance, despite Nigerians shouting themselves hoarse, the salaries and allowances of their legislators remain the highest in the world: they need money to cater to the innumerable demands of their constituents who do not care what bills they sponsor but what they can get out of them. It is not hard to see that even the best elections cannot be free from voter inducement and vote buying.
True, Nigeria is not conducive for the production of good leaders. To begin with, the Nigerian society has a defective understanding of the social contract. Like I argued elsewhere, the Nigerian notion of citizenship is basically right-based
What about the middle class – that broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class or in classical Marxian speak, located between the bourgeoisie/capitalist class and the proletariat – and who traditionally are so critical to the sustenance of democracy, good governance and economic development? Well, they have been consumed by the narcissism and greed which prioritises self over the society? Rather than positioning themselves as bulwarks against bad governance and dictatorship, they have become, as I argued in this space sometime back, “the greatest advocates of the ruling class [and] the greatest defenders of Nigeria’s politics of plunder, neopatrimonialism and prebandalism.” They offer their services to any government in power and suggest ingenious ways that the ruling elite can remain unaccountable and undemocratic. Just one example will suffice here. In the aftermath of the civil war, the intellectual wing of the middle class, which greatly helped to stabilise the military in power began to advocate for a diarchy – a form of government where both the military and civilians rule – as the best system for Nigeria.
The failure of Nigeria’s social class becomes apparent in a place like Lagos – Nigeria’s largest city and the city that boast of the highest number of middle class in the country, reputed to be in their millions. The Lagos state government has been fighting since 1999 to institute a rights-duties conception of the social contract by compelling the largely middle class in Lagos to pay taxes – and they have been largely successful. Lagos state is largely run by tax-payers money, which dwarfs oil money by a ratio of 1:6 at the very least.
However, the Lagos experience confounds long-established social contract theories that accountability naturally improves as the government relies more on the people for its revenues (through taxation). The Lagos state government is one of the notorious non-accountable states in Nigeria. It not only refuses to publish its statement of accounts, it runs the government in such an opaque manner that leaves no one in doubt that it is a feudal system with fealty to only one master – the godfather of the state, who brooks no disloyalty from any government personnel, elected or appointed.
Yet election after election, the vocal but ineffective middle class shirks its responsibility to challenge such feudal system and acquiesce to the wishes of the feudal lord no matter how irrational. In 2019, the former governor of the state was denied a second term for disloyalty and someone, whose only political ambition, by his own admission, was to be Chief of Staff, was imposed as the governor of the state. But he went through the process or elections and secured a whole 75 percent of the votes cast. The statistics was harrowing. Out of the 5.6 million registered voters in the state, less than a million voted.
During the election campaign, I was invited to moderate a town hall meeting between Lekki residents and then candidate of the All Progressives Congress. I overheard an argument between the organisers and a member of the campaign team of the candidate. The individual made it clear to the organisers that the governorship candidate was only being magnanimous by attending the town hall meeting, but that he doesn’t need their votes to win. Besides, as he claimed, the middle class don’t vote. And even when the candidate came for the event, he arrogantly refused to entertain any of the requests made by residents of the area. This is an area with a population in the millions.