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Tolu Ogunlesi: Rethinking Our Ideas Of Democracy And Governance



Today, I’d like to focus on some lessons – and possible action-points – that have emerged from our recent political and democratic (or pseudo-democratic, as some might argue) history.

One. The concept of democracy takes on a totally different meaning when you have an overwhelming number of poor people. While on the theoretical hand it still remains about collective societal benefit, it then also becomes, on the other hand, about individual benefit – which we have come to sum up, with the trademark Nigerian ingenuity for naming our problems (but not solving them), as “stomach infrastructure.”

Hunger and want are far less abstract than the idea of “democracy”, so it’s hard to blame multitudes of Nigerians when they appear to be more focused on short-term benefits, captured in the politician’s act of sharing money and food.

A poor or hungry man or woman has far more pressing needs than philosophising about the ethics or metrics of a sheet of ballot paper. As long as we keep the majority of the population in poverty, stomach infrastructure will continue to be a bigger part of our democracy than “real” infrastructure. It’s not rocket science.

Two. Corruption does not – and is not likely to, in the near future, play a significant role in influencing opinion in Nigerian elections. Politicians in Nigeria are generally all regarded as corrupt. (There’s one prominent exception to this generalisation: Muhammadu Buhari, whose wide appeal in the North appears to derive from his reputation for personal honesty and incorruptibility; it seems to me he’s the exception that confirms the rule).

On that basis of the perceived (emphasis on that word, “perceived”) corruptness of the entire political class, it’s therefore hard to sell yourself on an anti-corruption platform, or seek to undermine your opponent by portraying him or her as a corrupt person. If every politician is perceived to be stealing money, an anti-corruption stance automatically becomes a moot campaign point. In fact, the politician who campaigns on an anti-corruption stance is likely to be at a disadvantage because he will come across as being sanctimonious and hypocritical; a ‘thief’ trying to pretend he’s not. That perceived dishonesty is not likely to win many fans amidst the populace.

Three. It is common to hear Nigerian politicians and pundits speak about the importance of “home-grown” democracy. That concept might actually be more a lot more significant for the future of Nigeria than we’re willing to acknowledge. The foundations of our democracy have sadly been built around copy-and-paste.

At Independence, we borrowed the parliamentary system of government from Britain. Two decades later, we decided to jettison that and try out the American presidential system. It hasn’t proved to be particularly more effective, from the point of view of national development. Perhaps, the lesson there is that we need to be more discriminating in the way we adopt foreign ideas of governance and leadership.

I think we need to become a lot more confident at experimenting (with care and thoughtfulness, of course) with ideas that owe their inspiration to indigenous systems, practices and cultures. In 1989, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and his electoral commission boss Humphrey Nwosu brought us the idea of Option A4 as an electoral mechanism. It made the election process not only more grassroots-based (transferring influence into the hands of the “masses”), but also more transparent.

IBB was of course the master of social, political and economic engineering; I believe he presided over the most ambitious series of shifts in Nigerian consciousness – everything from the culture of a government buying and “settling” its political opponents and enemies, to the culture of flamboyant Firstladyism. (It’s of course probably a lot easier to tinker with the status quo when you’re a military dictator, without the complications of legislative and judicial oversight that “democracy” throws up).

So, in practical and contemporary terms, what if the Western ideas of mortgage financing, or of health insurance, will never work in Nigeria? What if what we need to be doing is more ambitiously and self-consciously adapting those concepts to our own peculiar local conditions. Which leads to the questions: What would a home-grown Nigerian mortgage system look like? What would health insurance look like?

As much as Nigeria doesn’t seem to function on a wholesale level, it does actually function quite efficiently at the “micro” level. Every time you drive past that large dump in Ojota, Lagos, you see an eyesore. But embedded into it is an incredibly organised system of scavengers, middlemen and “buyers”. Even pickpockets and muggers demonstrate some level of organisation – it’s why I hear that if your wallet gets stolen at Obalende or Oshodi, if you know the right people, you may be able to get it back intact. Below the surface chaos, there are layers of seemingly instinctive self-organising mechanisms that organise collective behaviour, incentivise accepted behaviour (as defined within the system) and penalise the unacceptable.

How do we therefore tap into that understanding that Nigeria’s seeming randomness is actually far from random, and on that basis create home-grown solutions to our most pressing problems? (There might be lessons here from Rwanda and Brazil).

Four. The changes that Nigeria requires are far more likely to come incrementally, than in a wholesale manner. This might be the reason why our National Conferences are doomed right from the start. We might be living in fools’ paradise thinking that we can assemble hundreds of Nigerians for a few months and emerge with a radically different country. This country is far too complicated for that sort of assumption.

The work we need will be a series of efforts of quietly raising the bar, like the one in which Lagos State somewhat quietly raises the governance bar such that other states are now quite used to the idea of having it as a model for infrastructure development and urban redemption. We will also need to focus on taking on smaller units of challenge, instead of imagining there’s a single magic bullet (yet another constitutional conference?) that will make all things right.

We definitely have a long way to go as a country. There will be no massive overnight change. Neither “Occupy Nigeria” nor ‘#Bring Back Our Girls’ campaigns will by themselves accomplish the work of revolution. But they are important elements, and each new upheaval (including the one recently triggered by the Ebola threat) will need to build on previous ones, to help create the evolutionary chain that might shift Nigeria towards real greatness.

As the so-called “elite” citizens, we will need to be less dismissive of concepts like stomach infrastructure, and instead commit to, while not excusing or justifying them, recognising them as merely logical out-playings of the intimidating levels of poverty and illiteracy in Nigeria. We might then be able to put the right kind of pressure on governments and ourselves to work at creating local models of governance and development that do not allow stomach infrastructure mentality to thrive.

Finally, the slow and long-drawn revolution we need will require all sorts of elements working together – governments that start defining transformation not merely by “constructing” and “commissioning”, but in terms of a continuing positive psychic shift in the population, and that are committed to intelligent and well-thought-out experimentation that might accomplish that shift; thinkers and theorists and pundits who work hard to lay out the intelligent, flexible and practicable theoretical foundations for true transformation; and a middle-class that not only seeks to better understand the cultural and behavioral peculiarities of the country, but also realises that it has a very important role to play in demanding accountability, on behalf of the “Bottom Millions”, from itself and governments at all levels.


Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH Newspaper.


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