Policy Briefs

Policy Brief 47/18:   Nigerian Elite Indorse Democracy’s Uncertainties

By Oseloka H. Obaze 

Description of Nigeria’s nascent democracy and its increasingly uncertain state can be redacted to a simple phrase – paradox of plenty and deprivation. Oddly, the presumption persist that democracy in whatever context, will default naturally to equity and distributive justice that enhances security and social order. This presumption is rooted in the belief that the so-called dividends of democracy, naturally taken for granted in entrenched democracies, will manifest in nascent democracies, and help in securing an irreversible process of democratization, even if incrementally. Nigerians are learning otherwise. The fallacy of this thinking, which has been slow in manifesting fully, is now stark, as emergent democracies in Africa, Asia and Latin America evolve in a stunningly halting manner. 

Nigeria’s democracy is foundering on the issue of restructuring. Nineteen years and four successive administrations after her return to democratic rule in 1999, Nigeria’s still evolving democracy is fraught with great uncertainties, including challenges of participatory democracy and development. The causative prebendal factors are many, and include corruption, nepotism, weak institutions, impunity, ethnocentrism, disfranchisement, marginalization, and underachievement. Yet there is a singular factor that triggers each cause or various combinations; elite unaccountability. This raises two heady and inevitable questions: Is Nigeria truly a democracy? And more generally, why is democracy everywhere struggling? The latter question pertains to several countries on the African continent as it is specific to Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria. Understanding Nigeria’s democratic challenges require placing the Nigeria-pertinent questions in the proper global context.

Global Challenges to Democracy

Globally, the democratic order seems also to have become conflictual in character as nascent democracies grapple with establishing legitimate and effective governance. Democracy is proving insufficient as the salve or antidote to destructive nationalism. Older democracies also struggle as exemplified by the deep and divisive impact of Britain abandoning the European Union via BREXIT. The election in the U.S. of President Donald Trump with his insular “Make America Great Again” and “America First” narrow world-view and protectionist policies, deemed mostly as nationalistic but undemocratic, has only compounded the unfolding loss of faith and diminution of democratic ideals. Some democratic countries in Eastern Europe have also regressed. Poland and Hungary, once bellwether and democratic exemplars, “Have shackled the media, cracked down on public gatherings and attacked the independence of their court system.”Incidentally, recent attempts by leading democracies to foist democracy on presumed rogue regimes in places like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Egypt failed woefully. The resultant discontent offers awkward but concrete lessons that contrived democracy is not a panacea for illiberal governance.

 A common strand in the slew of challenges faced by democracies in a globalized international system, is the tendency to openly question authority and all forms of power; an acceptable tenet in the democratic context of freedom of thought and speech; but nonetheless, one incessantly fueled by the open system of information communication technology in the age of rich and accessible information. The baffling subtext is that globally democracies are struggling. Dramatic and abnormal manifestations abound since normalcy is hard to dramatize. Expert opinion has encapsulated the phenomenon thus; “New or struggling democracies are experiencing blockages and backsliding while older established democracies are roiled by new internal challenges and questions regarding democratic values and process.” It is common knowledge that “in the United States and Britain, working people have suffered joblessness and declining living standards while political leaders have prescribed policies that have enriched the elite – more trade deals fewer strictures on bankers. These countries’ economies have been bolstered by trade, but not enough of the gains have filtered down to working people.” These and other challenges confronting established democracies are now manifest in Nigeria and other African democracies.  

Furthermore, growing concerns of external meddling aimed at influencing democratic electoral outcomes, is on the rise and are as egregious as internal manipulations, such as underage voting, vote buying, tempering with voters’ register and voters’ card and pre-loading and post-loading of data cards readers outside actual votes cast. These latter challenges are rife in Nigeria, and scant attention is being given to them by the national elite that represent constituted authorities, some of whom are beneficiaries, or presumptive beneficiaries.

Unaccountable Elite Undermine Nigeria 

The paradox of deprivation amidst plenty continues to resonate in Nigeria, raising deep concerns. As Nigeria seeks progress and ways of advancing and developing, the nagging and confounding realities are constant reminders of what Barack Obama once said: “Progress isn’t always a straight line or a smooth path.” Yet, as Nigerians try to square the democratic and governance circles, and tackle the ills confronting the nation, almost every aspect of the Nigeria’s problematique is being looked into, except the role of the national -civil, political, military, religious and economic – elite and their collective unaccountability. Nigerians seem oblivious of the postulation that, “the failure and success of any nation reflect the aspirations and political astuteness of the elite in that country. If the elite are dishonest, selfish and preoccupied with political gamesmanship, their example will affect the standards of the national character of its citizens. If conversely, the elite is not swayed by nepotism, are progressive, nationalistic and enterprising, their qualities can constitute the very hallmark of leadership, and constructively guide the nation.”

By being unaccountable to the nation, Nigerian elite as a collective, continue undermine the nation and thus indorse democracy’s uncertainties. The reason is simple. “Part of the Nigerian problem is elite indiscipline. A certain elite restiveness, political, economic and social, arises out of lack of socialization beyond that which is available in homes and schools; a lack of certain ordered attitudes.” Moreover, “Nigerian elite continuously placed vested and enlightened self-interest above national interest, even in matters of universal virtues.” This is possible since Nigerian elite consist in one breath, the leadership, the players, the regulators, the reformers, and the enforcers in the governance of corporate Nigeria. Members of the Nigerian elite mimic long standing democracies– they hardly go to war against each other. Consequently, Nigeria’s democracy struggle due to an unwritten code and consensus of elite collegiality in subjugating the nation, even as some observers contend that “there is an edge behind elite collegiality.”Despite such glided edge, evidence abound that formed elite factions and alliances in Nigeria, more often than not, are about elite collective self-preservation rather than national interest considerations. Such disposition accounts for the lack of consequences for underperformance and “lack of repercussion for underachievement” in Nigeria. Contextually, a question has been asked: “Who in Nigeria is ever held accountable for substandard performance?”

The ubiquitous intertwine between Nigeria and democracy, has been likened metaphorically to relations between Siamese twins; “conjoined, they are uncomfortable and at the risk of death, yet the prospect of an operation to separate them generate deep anxiety, leaving concerned onlookers unable to breathe, sleep or rest pending the outcome.”The freedom to choose, plebiscites and universal suffrage are core tenets of democracy. Yet, allowing the national population to make a choice –be it election, census, or referendum– has become distractive and divisive, thanks to elite proclivities. Nowhere is this reality more biting and obvious than in the trending debate on restructuring Nigeria. Trenchant and unambiguous claims persist at the two ends of the spectrum: if you don’t restructure Nigeria it will implode; if you restructure Nigeria it will be dismembered. Those for and against restructuring of Nigeria are strident in their positions. According to Prof. Ango Abdullahi, “If we don’t resist it objectively, we can resist it politically.”For his part, Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife contends that “those opposed to restructuring were laying the foundation for Nigeria’s disintegration.” His words: “Opposition to restructuring is to prefer what does not work over what works…in substance, restructuring calls for going back to the agreed Nigeria; that Nigeria agreed by our founding fathers.”

These and other governance imponderables pose great concerns as to the resiliency and sustainability of Nigeria’s democracy. The core challenge becomes how to overcome democracy’s uncertain state in Nigeria. Ironically, many current leaders and practitioners of democracy in Nigeria pay less attention to democratic institutions and their values and instead, focus more on the instant gratifications accruing to the national elite from the democratic process, even if such doles are devoid of content and context. This makes Nigerian-type democracy underproductive, troubling and patently ad hoc. The prevailing modus operandi has left a broad swathe of the national population disenfranchised. Over time, “While elites have benefited from the gains of the oil economy, most popular strata and even segments of the middles class have felt insecure and excluded.”Thus, understanding how Nigeria’s elite have continued to diminish democratic values and ideals, require grasping the existence and functionality of similar power plays and idiosyncrasies in other democracies. For instance, it is now clear that “Growing inequality has vitiated the American middle class.” Such parallels are discernible across broad democratic systems like Britain, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, South Africa and Nigeria, where democratically elected leadership elite attempting “to dismantle the liberal parts of liberal democracy” has become pervasive and the bane of the middleclass and the poor. In the case of Nigeria, inequality has so vitiated Nigeria’s middle class that it has all but disappeared.

Even if one variable – inequality – is taken as the sole measure, its prevalence reveals distressing trends in Africa as it does in Latin America. It is still uncertain whether it is African or Latin American democracies that represent the most unequal region in the world. One shared commonality in both regions, is that equality indicators have deteriorated drastically over time. Both regions continue to also experience the deleterious impact of long military rule and the attendant consequences of military anti-politics. Nascent democracies also seem to suffer from a deficit of strict ideological leaning. Moreover, the residual impact of the Cold War non-alignment movement on countries like Nigeria is hugely manifest. Nigeria’s elite as represented by military leadership by not embracing either Communism or Democracy fully, left Nigeria idling ideologically. Whereas non-aligned nations like Czechoslovakia splintered peacefully into two democratic nations, Yugoslavia splintered into eight nationsmostly via internecine warfare. Nigeria remains a work in progress in this regard, with uncertain outcome. Ideologically, Nigerian elite remain essentially centrist in political positioning; they are neither liberal nor conservative extremists; and neither truly socialist nor truly democratic, which leaves ample room for carpet-crossing, political maneuvering and elite shifts, mainly “a little to the left and a little to the right” as need be. The absence of ideological leanings meant that for Nigeria’s elite, patriotism, national interest and history ended well before Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history.”

Analysts and those knowledgeable about Nigeria, generally regard her political and developmental challenges as a problem of leadership. That conceptualization while understandable is rather narrow. Inasmuch as most Nigerian observers continue to anchor their developmental assessments of Nigeria on Chinua Achebe’s declaration that “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely the failure of leadership,” such observers and symbolic analysts, unwittingly gloss over the more pertinent component of Achebe’s assertion, to wit; “… [T]he Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility of personal example, which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” This latter contention, albeit an adjunct, points to “lack of a self-conscious leadership;”principally, a recognized trait of the “hollow elite” and the “narrow elite.” The latter category consists of “Those who have risen to jobs that directly affect the nation’s culture, economy and politics,”whilst the former, consist of those for who there already exist discernible disconnect between them and the communities they represent.

Nigeria’s political and economic elite, which comprises the political class are distinct and cannot be classified as representative of Nigeria’s political community, even as they hold unbending sway on national politics. Nigeria’s political community – a pyramidal structure – includes the national elite as well as the massive swathe of grassroots mobilizers and stakeholders, comprised mainly of the disenfranchised and marginalized. As has been rightly observed of national elite, “These representative figures often live financially successful lives, but are dysfunctional in relation to their social responsibilities.” As Charles Murray also noted of such elite, “They have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards. The most powerful and successful members of their class increasingly trade on the perks of their privileged positions without regard to the seemliness of that behavior.”

Apropos Nigeria, its hollow elite and narrow elite rarely self-censure; they also do not self-abase no matter the circumstances, not even to make amends, when it is established that they have failed. Simply, Nigeria’s elite are not self-aware or self-critical and as such, do not take responsibility for personal or national failings. Incidentally, this seems to be a challenge that dog most democracies in the post-truth era. Nils Gilman offers concrete validation in observing that “Perhaps the most insidious threat facing Western democracies has been the progressive decline of elite accountability and responsibility.” Gilman is echoed by German foreign minister Heiko Maas, who cautioned that the “erosion of liberal, rule-based democratic order that we believe in has gone further than we thought possible five years ago..We have to defend things that we took for granted until now.” By extension, this observation may explain why presently in Nigeria, we may find ex-convicts and criminally indicted persons holding or seeking public offices. The rich and powerful protect each other, while the powerless and disenfranchised suffer the ill-consequences of an affectless society.  

As it is with the hollow elite elsewhere, so it is in Nigeria. Inevitably, the possible remediation measures are similar. Therefore, “We cannot have a just society that applies the principles of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful.” Comparative analysis of politics and situations, indicate recorded public trials and convictions of members of the political elite in the U.S. involved scandals such as Watergate, Abscam, Iran-Contra, Lehman Brothers, Drexler Burnham or those involved U.K.’s Barings Bank collapse. By contrast, those elite involved in the Malabu, Halliburton, Siemens, Dasukigate, NIMASA, PEMCOM and NHIS scandals and the collapse of banks like Societies General, IMB, Coronation Bank, WEMA, Bank, Manny Bank, etc. in Nigeria have hardly faced any trial talk less of conviction. The sum is that Nigerian elite do manage consistently to insulate its cadre from due process and the rule of law.

If indeed the Nigeria’s elite equate to the upper or ruling class, how well have they acquitted themselves in entrenching democracy? Not so well, considering the postulation that “those who occupy high office are almost never the best in an absolute sense, but rather individuals who possess the qualities that are best suited for directing and dominating men.” Not so long ago, it was widely believed that the biggest threat to democracy in Nigeria was military rule recidivism. Hence keeping the military out of partisan politics was considered germane to the survival of democracy in Nigeria, more so after the military truncated the Second Republic in 1983. Contrary to widespread hypothesis, the greatest threat to Nigeria’s democracy is not corruption, nepotism, revert to military rule, and not even leadership failings in the strict sense, but impunity and lack of elite accountability and responsibility. It is both that accounts for lack of ethics, immorality and corruption in governance, which prompts a recall of the admonition by Alexis de Tocqueville about “not so much the immorality of the great as the fact that immorality may lead to greatness.”

Since it is empirically proven and accepted relative to older democracies, that “The failure of accountability is both the proximate and the ultimate cause of loss of faith in political institutions in the United States and also in Europe,” there is no gainsaying that failure of accountability will similarly cause of loss of faith in political institutions in Nigeria, with more devastating impact. Indeed, as General T.Y. Danjuma once observed, “the biggest threat to democracy is the belief by people in authority that they are above the constitution that they can break the law and get away with it.”

Weakness of democratic institutions in Nigeria is neither innate nor pre-ordained. Nigeria’s democracy has however not progressed as it should, not just because it is a young democracy and the practitioners are “learning”, but because of the dearth of support for democratic institutions in order to make them sustainable. Nigerian elite as “leaders have been unable to convert political calculations into norms of accountability.” This is perhaps so, considering Joe Garba’s view that “the intellectual elite on coming into government are often rendered hapless and ineffective, encumbered as they are by statutory limitations and by organizational composition of the leadership.” Increasingly, there seems to be no measure of integrity in Nigeria’s political life. Those who strive for integrity, covet integrity or push for ethics and integrity in public office are deemed naïve and unrealistic. As confirmed by Ben Nwabueze, “to be in politics in Nigeria or even merely to hold a political office and not enrich oneself by it through corruption is seen as a mark of naivety, if not idiocy, and earns for the person concerned derision and mockery by his friends and clansmen.”

Nils Gilman makes two concrete observations in this regard that are pertinent to all democracies, Nigeria included. His words, “Collapsing support for democratic political culture is part of a larger collapse in trust in institutions….it’s not so much the failure to perform that cost institutions credibility as it is the failure to hold leaders accountable when their institutions fail.”Habit-forming excesses of the elite anchored of a culture of protectionism are responsible in most cases for the gutting of national institutions. As observed, “Intra-elite competition, acquisition of both wealth and means is no longer a factor of competence, hard work, or fair play advantage, as it is a matter of sycophancy, lack of qualms, moral turpitude and an inclination to the self-serving syndrome that the end justifies the means.”

When Nigeria’s elite negotiate plea bargains for and among themselves in matters of grand larceny and blatant official malfeasance, the masses observe with deep skepticism; ditto for all corrupt practices, which the elite gloss over. In all such circumstances, there is an indisputable constant, as observed by Vladimir O. Key, “The masses do not corrupt themselves; corruption comes from activists and elites. If a democracy tends toward indecision, decay and disaster, it is their responsibility, not that of the masses.”This and similar conclusions cannot absolve the Nigerian masses of their responsibility, if only vicariously, in derailing democracy from its main trajectory and turning away from its core values. Neither can the populace be absolved of supporting the wrong candidates for public office, mostly on account of primordial considerations.  

Whereas the fate and plight of the masses in different democracies vary, distrust remains a commonly shared value among the masses. “The causes of the turn vary from country to country, but a common element is public distrust of institutions amid a sense that masses have been abandoned.” Contextually, certain assumptions can be made that any purposeful democratic government should be able to conduct credible elections, credible census, creation of states or apportionment and remapping of districts and share national resources equitably. Desirable as these goals are, they create dissonance and distraction in governance, often highlighting elite complicity. Since Nigeria runs an extended family or dependency system, more so in the absence of social welfare safety nets, the elite often pretend that their habitual conducts, are on behalf of their constituents. Unfortunately, “Power holders are also power wielders who create inequality by referring to the family, friends, kith and kin matter and properties that rightly belong to all Nigerians. The public good, unfortunately is converted to the private good. Thus, a culture of corruption has been created and a mockery has been made of accountability.”


It’s worth ending as I started. The paradox of plenty and deprivation reflects the imbalance between the elite and the masses. Curtailing elite induced uncertainties in Nigeria’s Democracy is now imperative. However, mapping adverse and consequential elite influence on Nigeria’s democracy requires understanding how elite whims mesh with Nigeria’s blurry political landscape, to create dysfunctional institutions and an illiberal democracy. First, it helps to be cognizant that negative norms that threaten struggling democracies elsewhere have manifested fully in Nigeria. “Elites have succeeded in insulating themselves from personal consequences when they fail. In the case of political elites, this is typically by avoiding getting fired when things get screwed up on their watch.” Hence, ways and means, including coercive methods, must be found to make elites accept responsibility for their failure or face dethronement. The call for elite dethronement should however not be mistaken as a call for a revolution.  

While collective indictment and criminalization of the national elite may backfire, the polity must nevertheless be assertive and seize the moment and make the long overdue push. Along with voting out underperforming and non-performing elected officials, the provisions already exist for impeachment of elected officials and the recall of legislators. Perhaps, it is only by asserting these prerogatives will the national electorate get public officials to engage in self-censure, and reclaim the badly eroded political space. In August, 2005 the attempt in Plateau State to recall Simon Lalong, then the Speaker of the Plateau State Assembly was unsuccessful. In 2017, the Kogi State electorate commenced the process to recall Senator Dino Melaye. Although several governors have been impeached since 1999, there has never been a successful recall in Nigeria. Yet “it is abundantly clear that merely directing the people’s anger and frustrations at the politicians (who are not accountable to the people) is not effective.” It has thus been suggested that direct democracy (initiative, referendum and recall), “which seems a better method of controlling politicians, should be a regular part of Nigeria’s political process.”

There comes a time in every political cycle, when the consequences of inaction outweigh the consequences of action, thus compelling urgent action from a select few of hitherto reluctant players. It is common knowledge that some Nigerian elites are sufficiently worried of the growing restiveness and pushback against the elite class. As such they are willing to strike out, even if alone, to sensitize others and compel needful action. Such may have been the case of Senator Shehu Sani (APC, Kaduna), who in March 2018, revealed that N13.5 million was paid monthly to Nigerian senators as allowance, without any accountability. His words: “The National Assembly is one of the most non-transparent organs of government. It pricked my conscience and I decided to burst the bubble and open the National Assembly to public scrutiny.”Perhaps more elected officials may be forthcoming in this regard.

Adam Garfinkle may well have been thinking of Nigeria, in asserting that “When elites are perceived as being self-serving, corrupt, arrogant, detached, patronizing, and condescending, it matters because it smashes accumulated bridging social capital between classes.” Democracy is about freedom of choice. Yet rethinking democratic modalities in Nigeria will not alter democracy’s core tenets and values. Indeed, there may be remedial actions that may fit well into Nigerian politics, psyche, needs and narrative. But even if such measures are not readily identifiable, modalities relating to other democracies may still be applicable. Contextually, Nigeria must consider the universal impact of elite unaccountability. Just as wealth separate political classes; a flush of money-in-politics also separate the elite and the masses. Despite extant laws, the influence of money in politics of Nigeria is all-encompassing and overreaching. Hence, curbing elite influence in politics is inextricably tied to the reduction in the use of money to sway nominations, buy votes, induce rigging, and facilitate carpet-crossing or step-downs. As things stand, Nigeria’s elite have shown the lack of capacity to self-censure, self-police and to be accountable. Worse still, they remain in total denial of the deleterious consequences of their unaccountability. This alone places the next line of action squarely on the court of the Nigerian masses; those who the elite claim glibly to represent at all times.  

Obaze is MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult Ltd.


Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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