• Friday, September 29, 2023
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Why is Nigeria not working? Think institutions


There is a reason Nigeria is not working. Many Nigerians believe it’s due to corruption. In fact, that was the main reason Muhammadu Buhari was elected president. He promised to fight corruption and insecurity. But since his coming to power, Nigeria’s corruption perception index ranking has only continued to plunge further.

What is more, Nigeria is not only dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency now, it has added armed banditry in all of the Northwest, killings and massacres by marauding cattle herders in the Northcentral, a brewing secessionist uprising in the Southeast, and kidnappings and armed robbery all over the country.

This is to say nothing about the record-breaking youth unemployment rate, worsening poverty, misery, health failures, and social dislocations.

This is not just a theory. We know from “history that strong institutions are the best guarantee of progress and sustainable growth and development…

I have consistently maintained that corruption is only one of the symptoms of the Nigerian malaise, and so long as we continue to mistake or even treat the symptom for the disease, Nigeria’s problems will only continue to mount and the country may reach a point of implosion. Nigeria’s main challenge is the absence or weakness of institutions.

But what is an institution?

There is so much confusion about the concept of institution, especially in Nigeria. Going by Nigerian usage, institutions mean structures or agencies of government. In time, we even begin to call those agencies national institutions. That was why the former acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu, launched into how they were building a permanent headquarters for the EFCC when he was asked by a journalist what the agency was doing to institutionalise the fight against corruption.

Institutions, according to Douglass North, one of the prominent institution scholars, are “the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, the humanly devised constraints that shape human interactions.”

Acemoglu & Robinson present three important features of institution: (1) that they are “humanly devised,” which contrasts with other potential fundamental causes which are outside human control; (2) that they are “the rules of the game” setting “constraints” on human behaviour; (3) that their major effect will be through incentives.

Institutions are fundamental to the development of society because they reduce uncertainty by providing a structure to everyday life. They structure human interaction in a stable even if not efficient way. This is not just a theory.

We know from “history that strong institutions are the best guarantee of progress and sustainable growth and development. Institutions are impersonal and not subject to the whims, caprices, flimsy and erratic nature of human behaviour.

Reforms based on personalities, personal rule or individuals fizzle out eventually. What is more, human nature is erratic and does not guarantee consistency. History has shown that it is not always possible to get excellent people to run institutions over time.

Weak and sometimes, morally bankrupt individuals get into positions of authority. The key difference however is that in societies where institutions are strong and well entrenched, these institutions withstand or survive such persons without considerable damage.

However, where institutions are weak or non-existent, all previous progress is destroyed and the society or organisation had to start afresh after such weak or bankrupt individuals depart.”

It is the presence of institutions that ensured that Donald Trump, despite intimidating the entire Republican Party to submission and with his vice-like hold over the party’s base, could not succeed in flipping a single electoral college vote or get any conservative judge to do his bidding. But we know how it could have ended were Trump president of an African country.

Fortunately, Africa arrived at modern statehood quite late but had the benefits of learning from the experiences of countries that struggled to build prosperous societies over hundreds of years. But we choose a different course, one that repeats the mistakes of centuries ago (dependence on strongmen and personalities) to develop its societies.

We cheer for administrators and politicians who systematically destroy institutions in the name of trying to fight corruption, national interest(s) or develop societies and we expect Nigeria to get better.

The prioritisation of personality over institutions has led to the virtual collapse of all institutions in Nigeria. No institution works, from the presidency to the local governments. Evidence abounds. The presidency in Nigeria, for instance, since 1999 has been unable to implement the very budget it writes.

Read also: What Nigeria needs is transformational corruption

Capital budget implementation has never gone beyond 51 percent. In short, the entire Constitution is being observed mainly in the breach. What about the legislature? It is more concerned about budgetary allocations and shakedowns of agencies than the performance of its constitutional duties.

For instance, the very Senate that passed vote upon vote of no confidence on the retired service chiefs was the same Senate that confirmed their appointments as non-career ambassadors, supposedly on merit.

The same Senate that said the former service chiefs were failures was the same Senate that confirmed as Chief of Army Staff someone who was removed from command of Operation Lafia Dole for incompetence.

Worse, the same Senate complaining about insecurity and insurgency is the same Senate that confirmed in 11 minutes only a confirmed hate-preacher, terrorist sympathiser and genocide planner as federal minister in Nigeria.

Nigerian judiciary? Well, it was the same judiciary (up to the Supreme Court) that allowed Ibori to remain governor despite his conviction for theft and criminal breach of trust in 1995. It was the same judiciary that discharged and acquitted James Ibori over 170 counts of corruption and abuse of office brought against him by the EFCC in 2009. Yet the same Ibori pled guilty to those same charges in a London court in 2012 to avoid going on trial.

It is the same judiciary whose chief justice was illegally and shamefully hounded out of office by the executive despite all the elaborate constitutional provisions about the independence of the judiciary.

It is the same judiciary that completely turned all legally known concepts on its head and took on the role of defence counsel for the president in the 2019 presidential elections petition tribunal when even the president, so sure and confident, refused to even enter a defence.

State governments? Despite the entire elaborate constitutional provisions for electoral and governance accountability at the state level, state governors operate more as emperors with absolute powers and authorities. Ditto local governments, whose only functions now consist of collecting and sharing federal allocations and nothing more.

Like I have argued several times before, what we do is just what Harvard’s Hausmann refers to as ‘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. The reasoning is simple: “if the West insists we have democracies, we will, on paper. But we’ll continue like before with authoritarianism and strongman rule.”

But the joke is on us. The country is coming apart at the seams because the contradictions can no longer hold.