The Nigerian Polity, Politics And Politicians: Moving From Transaction To Transformation


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Lecture delivered on the occasion of the public presentation of The Nigerian Political Turf: Polity, Politics and Politicians written by Mobolade Omonijo on Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at The Muson Centre, Onikan-Lagos.

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The Nigerian Polity, Politics And Politicians: Moving From Transaction To Transformation

  1. 1. The Nigerian Polity, Politics and Politicians: Moving from Transaction to Transformation By Dr ‘Kayode Fayemi, Governor, Ekiti State. Being Lecture delivered on the occasion of the publicpresentation of The Nigerian Political Turf: Polity, Politics andPoliticians written by Mobolade Omonijo on Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at The Muson Centre, Onikan-Lagos.
  2. 2. PROTOCOLSLet me express my deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing this special audience on theoccasion of the public presentation of Mobolade Omonijo’s book, The Nigerian Political Turf:Polity, Politics, Politicians. When I first saw the title of the book, it reminded me so much of asimilarly titled book by the late James Ajibola Ige (aka Uncle Bola), progressive politician,intellectual par excellence and former Attorney-General of post-military Nigeria. Thatfascinating book entitled, People, Politics and Politicians of Nigeria: 1940 – 1979, chroniclesUncle Bola’s reflections on the triumphs and travails of Nigerian politics and polity during theperiod before independence to the resumption of democratic rule in 1979. Written almost twentyyears before Mobolade’s book, Uncle Bola’s inimitable and often irreverent style had presagedmany of the issues raised in this new book in a prescient manner leaving anyone readingMobolade’s book with a sense of déjà vu. While it is really not my task to review BoladeOmonijo’s book - having been saddled with an altogether different task – that of reflecting on thepolity, politics and politicians from the perspective of an “active participant” as he put it in hisinvitation letter, it would nevertheless be remiss of me not to comment on the timeliness andtimelessness of the book at a time that many continue to worry about the Nigeria project.As a journalist of repute, experience and exposure, Mr Omonijo has done a brilliant job ofplacing the people, citizens at the centre of this retrospective assessment of his last twenty fiveyears in journalism. He highlights important issues like democracy, constitutionalism, povertyand development as well as regional integration. In his own view, fifty years after independenceand a century after amalgamation, politics and politicking have still not served the people well.The country is far from being a nation and the polity is in need of thorough restructuring. Heunderscores the importance of institutions much more than personalities. Especially, institutionsthat can mediate the relationship between the leaders and the led; relationship between tiers ofgovernment; and the electoral process through which leaders are recruited. He paints the polity inthe frightening image of the Hobbessian state of nature – nasty, brutish and about to be cut short!
  3. 3. Many groan that Nigeria is at another crossroads. For such people, the country only seems to gofrom crisis to crisis. If truth be told, there seems to be a vibrant industry of ‘Niger-pessimism’.Like most Nigerians, the author appears very cynical about the average Nigerian politician. He ishowever hopeful about the possibilities the country holds for the future, certain things being inplace. The picture of the politician he paints is one of an unconscionable, venal, greedy, corruptleech feeding off society and one who would seize any opportunity to fleece the people. Whetherone agrees with this view of the Nigerian politician or not, very few in our country disagree thatthe nation is experiencing a ‘leadership challenge.’ Nigerians mistrust and distrust their leaders –whether they are politicians, captains of industry, faith based clerics, media watchdogs or civilsociety activists. I suppose as an active participant who has been asked to reflect on currentchallenges in the polity, my task is not to bemoan the fate of our troubled institutions in thepolity. It is to proffer, in so far as my experience can take me, what should be done about thecritical problems highlighted in Mr Omonijo’s book and outline how we must workexpeditiously towards their resolutions.A progressive participant-observer in my view would want to call attention to what must be doneto increase the population of those who access power with a view to serving the people andlaunching the country on an irreversible path of development. He would want to reflect, forexample, on what is the place of values in politics? How can transactional politics be replaced bytransformational leadership? How should institutions of state be strengthened to ensure effectivechecks and balances? What should be done to promote internal democracy in political parties?How should leaders and the led - work together? What systems and processes should be put inplace for genuine empowerment of the citizens towards the attainment of full rights? In short,how can excellence become the habit in our beleaguered nation?As for the polity, the question that many continue to pose will have to be answered with all itsattendant ramifications if we are to respond to Mr Omonijo’s thought provoking treatise. I agree
  4. 4. with Mr Omonijo that many of the internal contradictions of the Nigerian state have beensharpened to a point that the bare bones are now visible. The failure to address the national (ity)question in an inclusive manner is evident in the varied responses across country to conflictsover identity, nationality, self-determination and autonomy. These issues are, in turn, bound upwith such questions as what manner of federation do Nigerians want? Unlike in the past whengovernment has always decreed issues like religion, autonomy and resource control asconstitutional “no-go areas”, Nigerians are now forcing these issues in the open and the hithertoauthoritarian might of the federal centre is being put to test. What is this nation called Nigeria?What does it mean to be Nigerian? How do we manage diversity and difference in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith polity? These were some of the questions that we avoided in the eventsleading up to May 29 1999 in the desperation for anything but the military.As a participant-observer equally troubled and concerned by these untoward developments in thepolity, I have attempted to reflect on these questions as they affect the polity and its politicians.Of course, as someone who was on the outside looking in and now an active participant on theinside undertaking self-introspection, I know how tempting it is for those on the outside,particularly my friends in the fourth estate to assume a moral high ground. They are irrepressiblein the belief that the politicians are the problem. I also know that politicians see themselves asreflections of their milieu which often compel them to act in a Jekyll and Hyde dual mode – onthe one hand, charismatic, visionary, caring, fascinating and sophisticated, and on the other,repulsive, cynical, calculating, corrupt, venal and opportunistic. My own interest is really not toindulge in any deep philosophical or academic arguments about the distinctions betweentransactional politics and transformational leadership - many of which you are familiar with butto simply explore the necessity for citizens’ engagement in a democracy. I also want tounderscore the importance of accountability to the citizens by those elected to serve them. It ismy own conviction that where there is no active civil society engagement, there can be noresponsible and responsive political society. Such a State runs the risk of decay and illegitimacy.
  5. 5. I intend to argue based on my experience that politics – properly conducted - is a form of socialactivism and another stage in the struggle to restore the dignity of humankind. It is an integratedcontinuum rather than discretely compartmentalised oppositional phenomena, often complicatedand contradictory, but mostly in the quest to make a fundamental difference. This is perhapswhy the issue should not be one for politicians or non-politicians, but the extent to which we areable to achieve citizen participation in our democracy. The issue of leadership – particularlyhow we conceptualise leadership is central to the discourse. In my view, our discussion shouldreally focus more on the making of leaders and citizens in a good society because without directcitizen participation, the legitimacy of our political institutions will continue to decline. It is forthis reason that I strongly believe that leaders – be they politicians or non-politicians shouldworry because their ability to lead effectively is being seriously undermined by the desertion ofaverage citizens from the public space, deepening the crisis of legitimacy in the country. Yet, thislack of legitimacy cuts both ways. When we the people withdraw our trust in leaders ordiscountenance politicians, we make our democratic institutions less effective and risk makingourselves ungovernable.For too long, our political culture has perpetuated the myth that strong leaders can bring aboutchange single-handedly – rather than convert the formal authority derived from legitimateelectoral mandate into a process of democratic renewal. The myth of the heroic and charismaticleader dominates the literature on leadership. After all, to lead in Greek and Latin was originallya military term meaning a “General of soldiers”. In my own view, real leadership ought toinvolve motivating people to solve problems within their own communities, rather thanreinforcing the over-lordship of the state on citizens. It is to build as well as strengthen politicalinstitutions that can mediate between individual and group interests, between human andpeoples’ rights. Joseph Nye, jr, the Dean of Harvard’s John Kennedy’s School of Governmentwho coined the term ‘soft power’, define leaders as ‘those who help a group create and achieve
  6. 6. shared goals.1 The authoritarian residues of politics continue to see leaders as magicians with allthe answers to societal problems – hence the immeasurable disappointment when they fail toleave up to this exaggerated expectations.The main challenge in my view therefore is both a psychological and a contextual one and itcentres on de-emphasising superficial and unearned notions of heroic leadership by reconnectingdemocratic choices with people’s day-to-day experience and to extend democratic principles toeveryday situations in citizens’ communities and constituencies.This is the reason why leadership must be mediated by the context of power and politicalstructure. What do I mean by this? Many will recall that at the commencement of the currentpolitical dispensation in 1999, many were of the view that the path we were treading was one oftransition without transformation.2 We argued severally that it was wrong to suggest that anyopening after Nigeria’s prolonged authoritarian rule was inherently irreversible and would leadto the deepening of democracy without interrogating the nature of the opening itself. We felt atthe time that we needed to think more carefully about the implications of what we considered tobe a staged-managed and guided democratic transition because even if Ali Baba was dead, theforty thieves were still very much around, especially in a setting where the authoritarian ethos,language, and character of command and control of public discourse remained in place.Looking back, we may have been correct to be cautious about embracing the military transitionof 1999, but I now believe we were tactically wrong for completely eschewing participation inpolitics. The fact that the military had not responded to a full-scale defeat by the democracymovement could hardly be discounted in understanding the nature of post-military governance.The eventual dominance of the party hierarchy by retired military generals and civilians closelyconnected to them certainly set the tone for party formation and also resulted in authoritarian1 Joseph S.Nye Jr, The Powers to Lead, (London: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.x.2 For a discussion of my scepticism, see ‘Kayode Fayemi, “Military Hegemony and the Transition Program”, Issue:Journal of Opinion – Special Edition on Nigeria, Vol.XXXXII, No.1, 1999., Journal of the African StudiesAssociation, Rutgers University, USA.
  7. 7. presidential governance particularly under President Obasanjo. Essentially, the outcome of thatparticular phase of the transition ensured a mere reconfiguration of the political space, ratherthan guarantee transformative leadership.Yet, even with all of this, we could have started the process of organising along political lines,rather than agonising about the militarised nature of power and leadership. After all, we(journalists and activists alike) were the ones who risked our lives to fight for the restoration ofdemocracy in Nigeria – only to vacate the space when power was literally lying on the streets.So, we ended up with a democracy with pseudo-democrats and yet we are worried about the lowquality of our democracy and deficits in governance. For the majority of our citizens –democracy was supposed to bring the end of military dictatorship in form and content; theyhoped that it would bring greater involvement of ordinary people in politics, whether in thefederal, state and local institutions or even in civil society ones. They hoped for real andimmediate dividends in employment, clean water, affordable shelter, accessible health care,improved education, reliable and consistent power supply, rehabilitated roads and food on thetable. While we generally enjoy a qualitative air of freedom in the last decade, there is stilldespair, despondency and disillusionment about material dividends of this democracy.Democracy is not an abstract concept to the ordinary people. Indeed, they do not valuedemocracy any less than their elite compatriots. But they want democracy to be relevant to theirlives in a concrete and fundamental manner. If democracy is not capable of wiping out poverty,curbing corruption, guaranteeing transparency and improving people’s well being and quality oflife, it is at best an empty concept, at worst a sham to many. Poverty and despair, oppression andhumiliation, economic and social insecurities are breeding grounds – even if not the only reasons– for violence and conflict. As much as Nigerians want democracy, they also want to seeconcrete evidence of democracy making a difference in their lives and not just in aninstrumentalist sense of embracing freedom.
  8. 8. These are, however, not challenges charismatic politicians or heroic leaders are able to resolveon their own without a careful consideration of the context of the issues. It is for this reason thatthose who want to re-draw the map of Nigeria’s future for the better must return to more solidgrounds rather than tie themselves to the apron strings of power-holders. Power wielders whoneither have a track record nor demonstrate a vision that can inspire our people and offer themhope about tangible transformation. This solid ground must be within a larger movement though,one that accommodates the place of political institutions. It should not simply be the celebrationof astute individuals as the ultimate panacea to our crisis of governance. The most practical wayto link individual choice to collective responsibility is to participate in the institutions thatinfluence our lives. We must ensure that formal and informal institutions are democratised andgiving more responsibilities for exercising state power. To do it well, we have to see Nigeria as apermanent enterprise that has to be fought over and restructured in order to provide cover for allNigerians.Understandably, if you make political discourse more negative as some do – you deliberatelyturn ordinary people off politics; more people grow cynical and stop paying any serious attentionto politics. This experience is not unique to us in Nigeria; in fact it is the crisis that democracy isexperiencing all over the world, with low turn out at the polls and scant regard for politicalleaders. Yet, if we as citizens choose not to play a part in this process of activism in ourcommunities and our State, we will get the politicians we deserve, allow the hijack of thepolitical realm by special interests, religious bigots and ethnic jingoists only keen in thepromotion of their narrow agendas. So, being political is being patriotic and we all must be readyto leave our comfort zones to embrace active engagement.
  9. 9. The State of the PolityExcellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, this is why I see the extended focus of thebook on the polity quite useful. Important as politicians are, they are just the tip of the iceberg inthe democratisation complex. Indeed, genuine democracy ought to rest on a much richer ecologyof associational and organisational life and should be nourished and reproduced through every-day struggles of the citizens. Operating in the practical field of politics, I have come to realisehow detached many citizens are from the institutions and structures that should ordinarilyempower them to engage the State. To enable the citizens to engage, they must feel and actuallybe empowered to have oversight of their own state agencies and functions. They should be givenlocal input and control in a genuine and open, not tokenistic and patronage-based, manner.Giving communities a role in their own development is the essential part of dismantling thecommand mentality which plagues our country today.This is why I am not sure that the solution to the current deficit that our polity is experiencingcan be solved with this either - or approaches of politicians and non-politicians. For autonomousinstitutions to play a different role in mediating citizens’ democratic choices, their organicdevelopment must be combined in a more nuanced manner and a more systematic way with theuse of public and state power. The choice is therefore simple: one can continue to snipe on thefringe and complain that government is not listening to the yearnings of the people.Alternatively, one can stop agonising about missed policy opportunities and organise in a mannerthat places citizens as drivers of change. Especially in our quest to restore communitarian valuesand create a future of hope and possibilities for our people.This is why I am in politics. It is my belief that committed social activism must help provide theroad map that people can employ to help undertake various empowerment projects that will givethem control over their own destinies and lives. It is the belief that public office is too serious tobe entrusted in the hands of charlatans and that when serious people turn away from politics, thefield is left to those who have nothing to offer than crass opportunism and damage to our
  10. 10. people’s well being. We must – politicians and journalists alike - be determined to ensure thatthe State empowers rather than dictate, enables rather than control, pushes power down to thepeople and shares the responsibility of governing with them rather than turn them to supplicantsat the table of power wielders.Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no doubt that the democracy we areenjoying today continues to be threatened by severe internal contradictions. Nowhere are thelimits of the democratic project in Nigeria more apparent than in the question of creatingappropriate institutional arrangements for the political accommodation and management of socialdiversities and difference. By its very nature, democratic politics has radically altered theexisting social boundaries and divisions, accentuating hitherto dormant identities and conflicts.The consequences of the relationship between the two have not only posed a challenge to thosewho seek to understand these dynamics, it has also placed a question mark on the very viabilityof Nigeria’s democratic enterprise. The lethality of many of these conflicts has been transformedin scope and intensity with the unrestricted availability of small arms and unemployed youths. Atthe core of the crisis either in the Niger Delta or in the North is the failure of politics to allocateauthority, legitimise it, and use it to achieve the social as well as economic ends that conduce tocommunal wellbeing. The ordinary people, expelled to the margins of politics and economics forso long appear now to be knocking insistently on the gate, demanding to be let in - in therenewed context of democratisation and freedom.Sadly, successive Nigerian governments have seen these communal crises as purely a securitymatter.3 Given Nigeria’s experience of prolonged authoritarian rule, a very narrow andtraditional definition of security persists as the psyche of militarism remains pervasive in thesystem. There is therefore the need to re-conceptualise ‘security’ in a more responsive direction3 Save in the context of the Amnesty programme adopted by the late President Yar’adua to tackle the lingering crisisof militancy in the Delta, security response has been the norm rather than the exception since President Obasanjo’sinvasion of Odi and the pacification of Zaki Biam.
  11. 11. with a move away from the traditional emphasis on national/state/regime security to a focus on‘human security’, with an expansion, concomitantly in the scope of the concept from itsminimalist meaning (as in physical security) to include access to the means of life, the provisionof essential goods, a clean and sustainable environment, as well as to human rights anddemocratic freedoms. It may well be that as Nigeria purges itself of its military, authoritarianpast, the chance of embracing a more humane perspective of security becomes increasinglyrealistic. In this respect, a complement to massive security and law and order response andcontainment of conflict ought to be a new political and economic framework, guaranteed by anew federal constitution, that would transfer power, and with it the control of economicresources, to local people allowing them in turn to pay appropriate taxes to federal coffers. Thiswould entail the democratisation of politics in such a way that the ordinary people would becomethe object and subject of development.In a country where stupendous wealth often lies astride abject poverty, the seeds of conflict areeasily sown and understandably germinate faster. Set against the inability of the State toprovide basic services for its citizens, new conflicts have manifested through politicised agentswho appear to be using the conditions of the poor to address the responses or non-responses ofthe State to the legitimate yearnings of the people. This comes into clear relief in the context of ademocratic transition, in which, conflict becomes an integral, and often inevitable result of powershift. In fact this is because democratisation or at least democratic transition represents in thelarge part restoration of agency to some actors, but also loss of power by others accustomed to itsunaccountable use. There can be no doubt that the transformation and utilisation of objectivefactors in the exacerbation of conflicts in Nigeria is not unconnected to this fact.Given the above, the key to understanding and explaining conflict in Nigeria, it seems to us, liesprimarily (though not exclusively) in specific local dynamics and responses, on the part of thecommunities and states, to the crisis conditions created by the existing economic and politicalconditions. It is also in the lack of institutional mechanisms to mediate conflict when they occur.
  12. 12. The above, in our view returns our search to the patterns, texture and quality of politics thatemerged with political liberalisation and transitions, which in Nigeria’s case reflected areconfiguration and reassertion of pre-existing (though temporarily submerged) structures ofnational and local power bases, rather than a fundamental transformation. It also involved, inother cases, the activation of alienated new strata – especially amongst the youths, reflecting thedangerous ideological transformations wrought by the combined forces of authoritarianism,economic decline and social marginalisation in Nigeria.Yet, as argued earlier, democracy is much more than just achieving material benefits. Butwithout economic improvement, especially the broadening of the basis of wealth creation andpossession, the conditions which threaten democracy and civil peace will continue to worsen.Poverty in Nigeria has not bred radical politics, but radical religious, ethnic and opportunisticagendas. Those who in the last decade would have eked out a living in the informal economy,are beginning to turn to the criminal economy to effect direct redistribution of wealth through therising tide of terrorism, armed robbery, assassinations and kidnappings which form the backdropto an increasingly brutalised society. Unemployed youths, when they do not become criminals,join vigilante organisations which supplant the job of the security forces by dealing out directjustice – at which point this threatens the states supposed monopoly on the legitimate use offorce? Also, beyond this, they become thugs-for-hire, abused in their vulnerability by theirscheming elders, who expend them in gang fights over electoral wards, or dispose of them for afew hundred Naira in order to destabilise towns and cities for sectarian advantage. Nigeriasyouth needs gainful employment. And so do its rural and urban poor, its old, its women, andanyone who does not happen to be lucky enough to have connections to persons of influence.It is in this sense that the current debate on the insurgency known as Boko Haram is itself adebate about the status and quality of democracy in Nigeria; a debate about the future of thecountry as a united, federal entity. With bombs going off incessantly in the Northern part of the
  13. 13. country in particular and an increasing level of panic in other parts of the country, thinking ofinnovative ways of accommodating social diversity in a democratic frame is a challenge that is atonce intellectual and political and it is perhaps the greatest challenge to democratic transition andsecurity in our country today. Consequently, it is my view that we must at least see what ishappening in Nigeria today as an outcome of the nature of the country’s democratic transition. Itis an argument for treating Nigeria’s democratisation project as a work in progress, not as acondition for hopelessness.Road Map to Democratic Consolidation: Next Stage of the Collective StruggleHaving spent the last seven years in partisan politics and participating in grassroots organising,my belief in the need to take politics beyond political parties is more reinforced. The immediatechallenge for all of us is to concentrate on how to rescue our people from bad governance.Unless the critical mass of our people cutting across age, gender, zones and party politicalaffiliations adopt the same positions, with a more clearly defined collective agenda, the currentapproach to solving our problem will not suffice. There is an urgent need to build coalitions andpermanent platform in the public sphere that is beyond party and personalities, but all embracingenough to those who subscribe to the core values of integrity, honesty and dedication totransformation in Nigeria.This all-embracing platform could address a variety of issues, but none is more urgent today thanthe question of the structure of the Nigerian state. However, the task of such an all-embracingplatform must not be limited to reforming the institutional framework of the State alone. It mustalso focus on Leadership and Conduct in Public Life; The Constitution and the Legal Frameworkof the Federal State; Human Rights, Militarism and Civil Violence; Public Sector Management,Transparency and Accountability as well as visible economic progress and wealth creation forthe ordinary citizens. This is not an exhaustive list, but it certainly provides civil rights activists,journalists and progressive politicians with a template for democratic renewal.
  14. 14. Based on my own trajectory and experience from direct anti-establishment confrontation at thebarricades through civic engagement with political actors and public officials to partisan politicalinvolvement, I am convinced that the ordinary people in Nigeria are committed to democracyand genuinely want to see it work. Herein lies my hope about the future. This hope is certainlynot bleary eyed optimism. It is not even the optimism that the crisis of governance in our landwill simply disappear or that journalists will stop being cynical; it is not the hope that politicalimpunity would stop being the name of the game, overnight. I am talking about the hope of ourfounding fathers in the struggle for independence and freedom. I am talking about their unshakenbelief in our inalienable right to rule ourselves. It is the hope that led us to resist militarydictatorship in our land because of our belief that another Nigeria is possible – one that will beaccountable to its citizens, legitimate in their eyes, transparent and respected around the world;the hope that allows us to hold our heads high, proud of our accomplishments and contributionsto humankind; the hope that help is on the way.This hope is alive. I believe we can revive the Nigerian State in a qualitative manner and makedemocracy more meaningful to our people, provide jobs for the jobless, improve healthcare,modernise agriculture and reclaim our young people from a future of violence, decadence anddespair by linking social enterprise, civil society activism to politics and not draw artificialdivisions in our promotion of values-driven leadership. Renewing our democracy through thestrengthening of institutions and public participation increases our collective capacity to tacklethe major problems facing our society – with a corresponding achievement of individualcontentment even as we pursue the common good. We need leaders who have a clear vision ofthe future, who see character as destiny, who advocate values-driven reorientation, who don’tjust mouth transformation, who are compassionate about changing the decrepit plight of ourpeople, who act with integrity and ethics, who create an entrepreneurial mindset and capabilitiesin followers, who see leadership as service and responsibility and who are not content withmediocrity. We must move away from transactional politics to transformative leadership.
  15. 15. Genuine representatives of our people, not retail traders of the Commonwealth. This is ourmodest agenda for a collective rescue mission in Ekiti State, and indeed Nigeria. Our effort tochange the orientation of our youth and the designs to transform our local economies are alreadybearing fruits. We are framing a future of virtue couched in values education and embedded ineveryday competencies for a generation whose challenges are in a world where they not only arecompeting at the national level, but puts them against the best prepared of all nations at all times.But we do not claim to have all the answers to the numerous challenges faced by the people.What we do have is an unshaken faith in our people, the determination to restore integrity topolitics and the commitment to turn Ekiti into a model for the polity. This is where we areheaded and we are convinced we will get there but we must do it within the larger context oftransformation in Nigeria. It is the only way to consolidate this democracy and not suffer direreversals as we perch on this dangerous precipice.Thank you very much for listening.