BusinessDay
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Up-bringing doesn’t make dictators; political systems do

Last week, Remi Adekoya, a respected BusinessDay columnist wrote an interesting piece titled: “Why are Nigerian leaders so dictatorial?” His main argument was that Nigeria’s system of excessively harsh and punitive parenting and schooling systems set up children to become dictators when they grow up.

According to him, “the idea a society where children are brought up learning might is right will somehow magically produce leaders who are empathetic democrats is asking a bit much.” He therefore concluded that: “Nigerian leaders do not suddenly become dictators when they get into power. They have been dictators in the waiting since childhood. Hungry to experience compensation for all the moments they were made to feel powerless. Now, finally, they get the chance.”

This is a compelling argument on the political socialisation of children. The only problem is that this theory of Authoritarian Personality is not new. It has been around for a while and has been repeatedly attacked and debunked for its flawed methodology and bias. Authoritarian personality was first propounded in 1950 by a team of social psychologists and philosophers Theodore W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik (refuges from Hitler’s Germany) and Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford, all researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. They had set out to account for and measure factors that led to the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism in Western societies. In fact, the study started at the Frankfurt school where Adorno was a leading member. However, most members of the school, predominantly Marxists, fled Germany when Hitler shut down their Institute for Social Research.

After the war, the team continued the research but dropped its controversial Marxist and radical leanings. They administered questionnaires to about 2000 respondents to measure attitudes and personality and concluded that due to excessively harsh and punitive parenting, there was “no difficulty in finding subjects whose outlook was such as to indicate that they would readily accept fascism if it should become a strong or respectable social movement.” Although the work became highly popular in the decade after its publication, its power of analysis was weakened by the ascendancy of democracy in the Western world. Critics soon began to criticise its focus on western societies and exclusion of left-wing authoritarianism. Soon researchers began to deploy it to study left-wing tyrants. However, by this time, the study’s deep methodological, procedural and substantive errors (for which there won’t be time and space to examine) had become apparent that some scholars even regarded it as “the most deeply flawed work of prominence in political psychology.”

True, social and economic dislocations of the 1920s and 30s led to the weakening of institutions of restraints in Western Europe and the rise of authoritarian and fascist regimes. But those countries have largely learnt their lessons and have now built strong democratic institutions to prevent the emergence of authoritarian regimes

By the mid-1960s even staunch supporters of the study felt the story was ‘largely complete’ and by 1990, that authoritarianism – whether left or right – was dead. That is the theory that Dr Adekoya, without mentioning it, was deploying to explain authoritarianism or dictatorship in Nigeria. Of course, the prevalence of child abuse in Nigeria means there are deeply troubled and psychologically imbalanced adults in Nigeria, but it cannot be the cause of dictatorship in Nigeria. True, parents and schools play a leading role in political socialisation, but it is widely accepted that political structures cause actions while agents only provide reasons for acting. Our political system vests almost unlimited powers in elected leaders with little or no institutions of restraints to constrain their exercise of those powers.  There is very little agents can do to change the situation.

True, social and economic dislocations of the 1920s and 30s led to the weakening of institutions of restraints in Western Europe and the rise of authoritarian and fascist regimes. But those countries have largely learnt their lessons and have now built strong democratic institutions to prevent the emergence of authoritarian regimes. With the right political system and institutions in place, up-bringing and the tendency for the development of a fascist personality becomes largely unimportant. Even if we assume one’s upbringing predispose him/her to the development of a fascist personality, the political system and institutions, to a larger extent, has provided a natural check on that impulse. James Comey, former FBI Director argued recently in a piece in the Washington Post that “since the beginning, the United States has built a system with bad and incompetent leaders in mind,” and as Frederick Douglass opined, “Our government may be in the hands of a bad man…We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.”

But in Africa, our systems are built for only good men; and we know there are hardly good men in politics, especially in Africa where there are little checks on the powers of leaders and where politics is like war. Like I opined on this page some months ago, our political systems in Africa, on the most part, is one of three things: ‘there are no institutions in place, the institutions are weak and unable to check the excesses of politicians, or there is what is called isomorphic mimicry – the creation of institutions that act in ways to make themselves “look like institutions in other places that are perceived as legitimate,’ but which in reality are not.”

In fairness though, Nigeria and much of Africa inherited states that were, according to Claude Ake, unusually statists and relied more on coercion than authority to achieve compliance. The colonial state needed not only to be absolute but also arbitrary in service of the colonial enterprise. But even with the gaining of independence, the character of the inherited state did not really change and the nationalist leaders, for most part, were more interested in inheriting the powers and privileges of the departing colonialists than “broadening the social base of state power.”

In Nigeria, the ruling class were not even satisfied with the more collegiate and democratic parliamentary system bequeathed to them at independence. They instead went for a more authoritarian presidential system with little checks on the powers of the president. The 49 Wise men, who drafted Nigeria’s 1979 constitution, not only lauded the structural elegance of the presidential system, but also scoffed at the idea of sharing of power and putting too many checks on the powers of the chief executive.

In summary, the reason why Nigerian leaders have dictatorial tendencies has very little to do with their upbringing than the political system we run. It is clear that one of the most critical challenges facing Nigeria at the moment is how to build and strengthen its institutions of restraints to rein in the worst instincts of its politicians and leaders. Only then can we hope to build a capable state.

This piece benefitted from critical comments from Promise Ejiofor, a PhD student at Cambridge University

 

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