By Sam Amadi*
The problem with Nigeria is that the basic logic and structure of its governance is neo-feudal and aristocratic and its salvation requires a radical reinvention and institutionalization as a modern democratic state based on an enriched and lived concept of citizenship.
Nigeria is today at a very difficult time. The nation is witnessing the most severe crisis of multidimensional nature. Severe economic crisis is coming at the heels of unrelenting terrorist attacks. The present administration is challenged on two fronts: defeating terrorists and imprisoning corrupt leaders. Nigerians believe that their country is much more corrupt than the Transparency International Index may suggest. Corruption has become the dominant mode of public and social interaction. Going by the allegations and recent revelations, the words of a Time magazine writer that Nigeria’s leaders are not distinguishable from its criminals and corruption is not an aberration but a normal mode of governance are not totally off the mark. Corruption and incompetence in government have worsened poverty and trapped politics in stasis. This is the context in which to understand Mr. Chido Onumah’s new collection of essays: We are all Biafrans.
The most recent attempts to negate Nigeria are the militants of Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and the Niger Delta Avengers. You can add to that the Fulani Herdsmen and you will have a perfect storm. It is arguable that Nigeria is much more divided and challenged at this time than any other time since independence. Ironically, this is also the time we have the best chance to reset the engine of development in Nigeria after an election that pitched status quo against change and change won. But it looks like the victory of change is ephemeral. We are still trapped in stasis.
Nigeria is trapped in yesterday. A yesterday that is defined by undue focus on ethnicity and religious identity. A yesterday defined by ceremonial rather than functional leadership. Leadership in Nigeria has always been plagued by the commitment of Nigerian leaders to expropriate the common wealth for their personal interest. Leadership in Nigeria has always been largely about contest for opportunity to appropriate the resources of the state. This characteristic is underwritten by both the values that defined the conception and establishment of the Nigerian state and its institutional adaptation.
The crisis of leadership in Nigeria is worsened by the scourge of religious fundamentalism that is fostered by the lack of culture and practice of rule of law and the absence of commitment to protect the rights of citizenship. The effect of these social and political pathologies is that the Nigerian state faces severe crisis of collapse. This is precisely the message that Onumah wants to pass onto his compatriots. He feels we are at the precipice and need to watch out closely. He wants us to rethink the structure of the Nigerian state and reinvest the republic with those values that secure a democratic society.
We need to watch out closely because the political auguries about Nigeria look dismal. The political parties are yet to rise up to the challenge of clear and decisive departure from the politics of the past. The political parties look more like platforms for aggregating resources to attack the Nigerian state and loot its resources rather than ideological movements to save Nigeria from destructive crises. The political parties are not thinking outside the box to create a Nigeria that will not be amenable to raping and plundering. They are always reluctant to move away from unprofitable focus on Nigeria as a loose amalgamation of ethnic and religious groups rather than as a modern democratic state defined by inviolable commitment to cater for the social, economic and political wellbeing of every citizen.
The present leadership has the responsibility to buck the sliding trend and set Nigeria up for forward march. To deliver on PMB’s [President Muhammadu Buhari’s] laudable commitments we need clarity on the fundamental problem with Nigeria, the underlying cause of these pathologies. My basic conclusion is that the problem with Nigeria is that the basic logic and structure of its governance is neo-feudal and aristocratic and its salvation requires a radical reinvention and institutionalization as a modern democratic state based on an enriched and lived concept of citizenship that leads to accountability. Citizenship and accountability are two sides of a single cure.
Nigeria was ill-defined during the transition from colonial rule to independence. The country’s institutions created in that period were of such character as does not make it a democratic modern state. The political development in Nigeria, whether conceived as development of state institutions or the practices of public leadership, has reinforced those pathologies that arise from this ill-definition and malformation. The wrong concept at the heart of the failure of leadership in Nigeria is neo-feudal in character. It is the insistence on building the Nigerian nation on the basis privilege and exemptions from the universal requirements of a civic democratic nation-state.
Nigeria developed as an amalgamation of ethnic and religious groups with asymmetrical powers and privileges and not as a modern democratic state based on the protection and promotion of the rights of citizenship. The founders of the Nigerian state failed in this singular but all-important point: they did not insist on a country that offers every citizen equal protection of the law. They did not insist on the transformation of the ethnic and religious ideologies and interests wielded together by colonial interests. They crafted a legal regime that panders to these differences and even exaggerates them.
Let me illustrate the problem of wrong definition in the formation of Nigeria with the case of the legal system. It is clear that the basis of a modern democratic state is the rule of law characterized by formal legal regimes that apply equally to everyone. Multicultural or multireligious societies are challenged to a find legal regime that guarantees stability and happiness for every composite of the society. There are many options. During the discussion leading to independence, Nigerian leaders confronted the challenge of how to engraft the various customary laws within the context of liberal law. Nigeria chose the option of compromise, which resulted in two separate legal frameworks that lie uneasy.
The colonial authorities had done a better job of subjecting all forms of customary and religious norms to the values and ideals of liberal legality. This meant that no such religious or customary law would be enforced if it violated the English man’s view of justice and morality. We may rightly deplore their overbearing snobbery of thinking low of customary norms and laws. But they wisely recognized that their version of the state must erect a sentry to screen different values and laws before admittance to formal legality. What the postcolonial founders should have done is to erect a similar high wall to ensure that no idea or principle is admitted into the corpus of political and constitutional thought that would have the effect of reintroducing feudalism or its concomitant aristocracy.
Today, the Nigerian constitution continues to contradict itself by eroding all the protections around the central idea of democratic citizenship. For instance, having described who is a Nigerian citizen and how a person could obtain Nigerian citizenship, the constitution should make no reference to indigenes and non-indigenes. For the purposes of administration of the public space the constitution should be totally agnostic of a Nigerian ethnic or religious identity. No benefit, legitimized by the state, should flow from ethnic or religious identity. State laws should define citizenship of states based on rational coordinates like reasonable length of continuous stay, payment of taxes and other forms of social good behavior.
Citizenship-based definition of the state is radical and has far-reaching implications for governance. First, it has legal implication in the form of equal standing and protection of the law. This is the basis of a well-secured rule of law state. Nigeria has continued to struggle with being a rule of law state because citizenship is not at the heart of its self-definition. The ubiquity of impunity in Nigeria is understandable considering that the idea of public leadership has incorporated the dangerous notion of cultural and religious exceptionalism. This means that the instrument of rule of law does not act swiftly and consistently. Similar cases are not treated similarly, as they must undergo further reviews based on religious or cultural sensibility.
The implication of the lack of strict and consistent application of the rule of law is the culture of impunity that makes Nigeria one of the most lawless and corrupt countries. Our diagnosis of corruption is incomplete and unhelpful if it does include an understanding of how our much-cherished privilege-based and neo-feudal state encourages the exemption of individuals from the full rigor of law. Our laws are religious, cultural and social-class sensitive. We have built a country for the privileged. That privilege may come in the form of religion or ethnicity or wealth.
The economic implication of the weakness of the controlling idea of citizenship in the administration of Nigeria is seen in the widespread poverty and high inequality. The management of the national economy has not been guided by the idea of citizenship. A modern democratic state is fundamentally focused on promoting the wealth and happiness of the citizens. Fiscal policies should reflect commitment to deal with the material conditions that affect the people. Therefore, money follows the people. Money goes to solve real problems that affect the welfare of the people. For instance, consider the northeast of Nigeria, which is described as one of the poorest parts of the world. Economic management derived from this concept of public leadership will put money to improve the material welfare of the people. Money will not be poured to northeast because its cultural or religious leaders needs to be placated or bought over. The same with the Niger Delta. The huge financial allocation to that region will be warranted and focused on redressing the huge environmental and human crises in the region and not to settle noisy militants and ethnic warlords.
Just imagine that this principle determined economic development in Nigeria since 1960s. We would not be such a hugely underdeveloped economy. We would not be running a rent-seeking economy as we do now. Our huge natural resources would have translated into enormous infrastructural and human development. Power plants would have been sited where gas and transmission facilities are available but not where political exceptionalism dictated.
The political implication of the concept of protection of citizenship as the definition of a democratic state is democratization. Where the state is focused on protecting the enjoyment of the right of citizenship the institutions of the state will promote openness, accountability and voice. Free and fair election and responsive and responsible governance would be guaranteed because these are inherent in treating citizens as citizens.
One of the key factors for growth and development is competent public sector management. The civil service has been the driver of transformation through leadership in value orientation and competence. Most developed societies emphasis merit and productivity in their public affairs. The Nigerian state has been defined more by privilege and conservatism such that it has not allowed merit and productivity to determine access to positions in the public service. This has created a mediocrity that totally destroys both democratization and development.
We Are All Biafrans calls on Nigerians to engage more seriously with the crisis of governance in Nigeria. Chido Onumah believes that the crisis of governance in Nigeria is also a crisis of constitutionalism. We need a new constitution that decentralizes power. But for me, Nigeria’s problem is more fundamentally a crisis of conception and ideation. And with the election of a puritanical and seemingly incorruptible president whose commitment to a united Nigeria is effulgent, it is now time to start in earnest the salvation of Nigeria.
The practical challenge for Nigeria is to piece together a set of fundamental principles that will instruct the search for institutional adaptations for the future. First, we must acknowledge that we are living in a world which our sentiments and conservatism cannot change. This is a dynamic world. We have to understand it and survive in it. Secondl, we must realize that we have built on shallow ground, on troubled ground, on a soil that nurtures corruption and mediocrity in public leadership. We must acknowledge that if we create a state that admits that privileges and exceptions of religion and ethnicity can trump citizenship we are building a society that cannot enforce the rule of law and therefore encourages lawlessness. The continued triumph of religious fundamentalism from Maitasine to Boko Haram and the accommodation of all sorts of ethnic militancy and warlordism; and the thousands of deaths along their ugly paths are a lesson on the folly of building a nation-state on multiple exemptions from robust citizenship.
Nigeria needs to grow its economy, employ technological innovation to overcome diseases and hunger and compete in a world that is bursting with knowledge. That means we have to focus on creating values. It is technocratic power that makes us win the rat-race to produce more and better than the rest of the world. You don’t become technocratically sophisticated if you must negotiate through the labyrinth of ethnic and religious differences and privileges before you decide to invest in human development. You can’t compete in today’s world if every opportunity must wear the right kind of religious and ethnic label before you cash in on it.
The conclusion of the matter is that the problem with Nigeria is first and foremost a failure of the idea. The country is running on the wrong ideas of neo-feudalism and conservatism. The institutions of the state have developed with the DNA of protecting traditional privileges. It started as ethnic and religious and has now snow-balled into social and economic. The Nigerian state is conservative and traditional and lacks the capacity to fully protect citizens. Because of its wrong self-definition and the institutional adaptation of this definition the Nigerian state is liable to being raped continually.
Chido’s We Are All Biafrans has opened a fresh debate. In the context of this discourse how do we regard campaigns for ‘fiscal federalism’, ‘creation of more states’, ‘cabinet system of government’, ‘decentralization’, etc? The answer is simple: all these are second order issues. They answer to institutionalization of a reformed concept of the Nigerian state. They have marginal value. When we have answered the first order question as to what the Nigerian state is to become we can settle on the best institutions that will realize the clear idea of the Nigerian state. It is a mistake to fight over the institution if we don’t first conceive Nigeria as a modern democratic country pursuing the objective of promoting and protecting the full rights of citizenship.
* Dr Sam Amadi is a lawyer and development practitioner.