Why are Nigerian leaders so dictatorial?
Our family is the first government we experience. A government whose system is shaped by the inclinations of its rulers, our parents. Our parents are our first contact with power. It is from the way they govern our household that we pick up our first lessons on how leadership is practised. It is from them we learn our first lessons on how power should reward compliance and punish deviance. Our family’s governance dynamic is our introduction to political culture.
We learn whether those not in power – children – have a right to participate in decision-making or not. To question the decisions of power-holders or not. To call out power if it is being hypocritical or not. We learn whether those in power – our parents – are subject to constraints by a higher power such as the law or not.
While there are obviously exceptions to the rule, I think most would agree the Nigerian norm is that parents inflict physical violence on their children if they defy their wishes, cannot imagine them questioning their decisions much less calling them out on hypocrisy and are unrestrained by any higher power from inflicting whatever punishment they wish on their kids, short of killing them. They are also completely free to abuse them verbally and emotionally without consequence. So, the first lesson we learn about power is that might is right. And that power is entitled to physically punish those not in power if they disobey its wishes.
Our next major contact with power is in school where teachers are in authority. Again, apart from a few posh private schools where teachers might be afraid to cane children because their rich and important parents would consider that a personal affront (only we are allowed to hit our kids), the general norm is that teachers can flog students to instil “discipline.” You are also not expected to question what you are taught in school, but to accept it on the authority of the power-holding teachers. Questioning them is disrespect. And one thing power cannot afford to do in Nigeria is lose face.
By the time you are a teenager, you have started becoming more aware of other power-holders around, outside your family and school. You now know there are ministers, governors, senators and of course, The President. The stories you hear about how they exercise their power don’t surprise you at all. They generally align with your experience of it. Obedience and deference are what power expects.
Of course, there are some people in positions of authority who seem to take a different approach. These ones make you pause. You start to wonder if maybe there are different ways after all. But the people around you usually set your mind straight fast enough. “That man is too weak to rule Nigerians. You have to rule Nigerians with an iron fist, or they won’t respect you. That one is busy blowing grammar there,” they’ll scoff.
You sense clearly, they would not respect a leader who isn’t “strong”, meaning ruthless and unshy of lording their power over others. But aren’t there people elsewhere ruling others without doing that, you still wonder. What about that kind of Obama style? Gentlemanly. Everybody seemed to admire him after all, including Nigerians. But when you suggest his ways, folk burst out laughing: “Dude, where you think say you dey? This na Naija. Obama no fit rule Nigerians.” They look at you with a mixture of irritation and amazement, like, is this guy for real? By the time you’re all grown up and ready to go into politics, you know one thing. If you ever get into power, you are going to do it “Naija style.” Because if not, people won’t respect you. They’ll say you’re not strong enough to rule Nigerians. Who needs that?
Thing is, democracy is not just a system of government, it is a system of values. Values which, at their core, are actually behavioural instincts. The instinct to listen to those you have power over and take their opinions seriously. The instinct to tolerate critical views told to your face without lashing out
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. 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.
Thing is, democracy is not just a system of government, it is a system of values. Values which, at their core, are actually behavioural instincts. The instinct to listen to those you have power over and take their opinions seriously. The instinct to tolerate critical views told to your face without lashing out. The instinct to restrain yourself when you have the power to dominate, to crush even. Everybody knows the lingo of democracy these days, but it is quite another thing to actually practise it.
I am not suggesting Nigerians start raising their children full Western-style. An environment where it is not that unusual to hear a 10-year-old swear at their parent is the other extreme. The good news is that there is a lot of space in between these two extremes. Democracy begins at home. Literally. Most Nigerian leaders are not democrats because they were never taught to be. I too still sometimes contend with authoritarian impulses picked up in childhood. Those raising the next generation of Nigerians must know they are also raising the next generation of Nigerian leaders. The way you exercise your power over your children will be their first lesson in government. So, take care not to be the one raising the next dictator.