Policy Briefs

Nigeria – Governance in E Major


Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari

E is for Expectations.  In Nigeria, E is huge and roiling. Nothing defines governance now, more than expectations and at all levels. The level of expectation is so high, it has become burdensome.  The concern is that if there is a letdown, it would be equally huge. Interestingly, such post-traumatic expectations have direct correlation to unmet needs, missed opportunities, bogus campaign promises, and for older Nigerians, residual knowledge of what good governance and governmental responsibilities were in the so-called good old days. Can Nigeria return to those superb days?  There is no promise.  There is no guarantee.  What is left is that governance is now premised on major expectations.

In April 2014, I wrote an op-ed titled, “Absurdities of society’s clichés and their illuminating or subjugating powers”.  That piece dwelt on how our national discourse and language has been subsumed in clichés. That was well before President Buhari handed us his idiosyncratic aphoristic caveat: “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody.”  He went on to top that with his “ministers are noisemakers” salvo.  What are Nigerians to expect and make of the evolving governance pace and temperament? In a simple sentence: Nigeria is witnessing a great political fugue worthy of Bach.  Indeed, it is Prelude and Fugue in E major. Taken musically or in its psychiatry context, Nigeria has entered an era of governance remarkable for its contrapuntal character and indeed, “a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria.” All these arise from illusory expectations. Change is here. Everything is changing. The stark reality, however, is that erstwhile power brokers are at a loss.  Aspiring power brokers are diffident. Hitherto highflying and highbrow personalities are mellow. Affluent special interests are suddenly docile. Scofflaws are on the run. The policymakers are at their wits end; and the masses are nonplussed. Meanwhile, Nigeria and the world behold an assertive government, remarkable for its inertia, pragmatism, and already some discernible presidential mistakes arising from a tunnel vision approach to governance.

The reality is that nascent democracies are fraught with such dichotomies, especially where a divided party controls the government or where the new government is fixated on the activities of its predecessor, instead of governing. That seems to be Nigeria’s fate.  It’s no wonder that many Nigerians and foreign observers seem confounded by such seeming complexities, especially what many see as directional policy shifts, lacunas, policy rollbacks, and erosion of democratic norms and circumnavigation of constitutional dictates.  As some rightly allude, the quest for probity despite its high value, cannot be a substitute for purposeful and practical governance. Still some argue that democracy is about venting publicly, at times boisterously. And for others, the point is made that regimentation no matter how attractive is not the remit of democrats. These dichotomies pile on, eliciting quandary, conundrums and introspective reevaluations. Is this what we signed on for? Is this the character of change?  But such worries to some might be precipitate.  As Jessica Garrison once observed, “Democracy isn’t easy.  It isn’t logical, straightforward, fair or natural in practice.”  That, exactly, is the point. Great democracies did not leapfrog.  They changed and evolved. They followed trajectories where precepts, hubris and dissonance were part of the evolution, even as they dogged governance.  Yet in the end, such democracies survived by allowing public will of what is democratically acceptable to become the norm, the values and hallmark by which such democracies are judged.  Something else happened along the way also.  Changing and evolving democracies carried the people along. After all, it was a government of them, by them and for them.

Impolitic as it sounds, Nigeria may have hit a political conundrum. The honeymoon may have ended before it started.  Regardless of the three tiers of government, regardless of the separation of powers between the three arms of government and regardless of the fact that we have a popularly elected democratic government, its seems that everything points to the contrary.  Counterintuitively, governance at all tiers and branches seem halting at best.  The only shared commonality is “expectation”: a huge burden for the governed and much more so, for the leadership.  Paradoxically, the nation cannot begrudge those who sought power, found it and seem awestruck by its overwhelming scope. The unspeakable and inconvenient truth is that President Buhari and the ruling APC may have won the democratic right to lead Nigeria, but it is becoming glaring that they were ill-prepared to lead Nigeria or as has been suggested, are constrained by limited “practical preparations for governing”.  Moreover, in-house APC jigsaws are not yet all fitted and there may be some missing pieces. In circumstances like this, leadership and governance can’t be forged. What the situation calls for, is non-partisan collegiality in leadership. Government is not in the business of wealth creation. That is the remit of the organized private sector.  But government must not embark on idiosyncratic policies that muzzle free enterprise.

What is comforting is that the emerging label and clichéd political neurosis is not peculiar to Nigeria. When Russia was transiting from a regimented government to a democracy, with the two top positions being routinely swapped by two national figures playing musical chairs, Western democracies shuddered.  In response, President Vladimir Putin proclaimed, “ours is a managed democracy.”  What is Nigeria’s label for the emerging epoch? What will be a befitting sobriquet or the post-transformational suffix and epitaph? Confronted with Russia’s beguiling political novelty, Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, voiced the concern so many harboured: “I get nervous when people put labels in front of democracy. Sovereign democracy, managed democracy, people’s democracy, socialist democracy, Aryan democracy, Islamic democracy – I am not a big fan of adjectives. Managed democracy doesn’t sound like democracy. Sovereign democracy strikes me as meaningless.” Are we unto something similar in Nigeria?  The answer may lie somewhere between known facts and the heady question posed by John Campbell, a keen Nigeria observer, in his non-irreverent satiric piece titled, “Is President Buhari Making ‘the Perfect the Enemy of the Good?’  The Buhari government is still untested. Surely, there will be tests. Yet Nigeria cannot advance its democracy meaningfully in the interest of the commonweal, with precepts and policies that derive from a “deficit of democracy.”

As elsewhere, “the federal government is built upon a purposeful fragmentation of power, a method of representing diverse local interest against the concentration of power in the hands of the president and his partisan congress, but it’s also not without its frustrations.” Democracy is about codified norms, conventions and acceptable best practices. This is not to say that democracies are perfect. Far from it!  Yet, the essence of democracy is about ownership – both in its theoretical sense and practical realities.  Democracy is about striking a balance, even painful and senseless balance. Read accommodation. Whereas our sense of decorum may cause us to ridicule legislators who engage in physical fights in the National Assembly; they in a turn, may be convinced that they are fighting physically for their constituents, for their rights and their beliefs. The freedoms to believe, to express, to act and even to dissent are all tenets of democracy. But there are acceptable limits. What happened in the senate recently, with the so-called vote of confidence for the leadership is an affront.  It smacks of faux institution-building. It does not meet our expectation of good governance.

When party supremacy turns to domination it becomes tyranny. Tyranny is bad, be it cloaked in an individual, minority or majority. Tyranny is also anthetical to democracy. In grappling with things that make government ineffective, government must not turn 360 degrees to do things that make government repugnant. Thus, government cannot become reprobate in its quest for probity. Nor should it lose sight of its governance mandate. Also, as Mohammed Bala cautioned, “Buhari should not allow his integrity to be diluted by sectionalism and people who would try to settle scores using his platform and pedigree.” The bane has been that “instead of a democracy where all citizens have an equal say in the governing process, some organizations and individuals have a disproportionate and unfair influence over what the government does. The result is that the power and greed of the few too often win out over the needs of the many.” Governance in a true democracy – big or small – is not a ‘family affair’. A small inscrutable cabal in government, even if masked as most trusted allies are as bad as a large unwieldy and boisterous cabal in government.  Ask PDP leaders. In seeking out those who must serve in this administration, it is to be assumed that such people will be good before they come in, not that coming into government will make them good or cleanse them of any past misdeeds.  Membership of the ruling party ought not to confer absolution. That is the expectation of the majority owners of Nigeria’s democracy – the people – as they watch governance in E major, hoping that in due course, the political fugue won’t turn into E minor. Be it known that years of bad governance made Nigerians skeptical but discerning people. During the evolving political symphony, they can readily detect when the piccolo inadvertently falls silent, or when the maestro fumbles his cue.

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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