Who Governs Nigeria? By Ruben Abati

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During the Jonathan administration, and outspoken opposition spokesperson had
argued that Nigeria was on auto-pilot, a phrase that was gleefully even if ignorantly echoed by an excitable opposition crowd. Deeper reflection should have made it clear even to the unthinking that there is no way any country can ever be on auto-pilot, for there are many levels of governance, all
working together and cross-influencing each other to determine the structure of inputs and outcomes in society.
To say that a country is on auto-pilot is to assume wrongly that the only Centre of governance that exists is the official corridor, whereas governance is far more complex. The question should be
asked, now as then: who is governing Nigeria?
Who is running the country? Why do we blame government alone for our woes, whereas we share a collective responsibility, and some of the worst violators of the public space are not even in public office?
The President of the country is easily the target of every criticism. This is perhaps understandable to the extent that what we have in Nigeria is the perfect equivalent of an Imperial Presidency. Whoever is President of Nigeria wields the powers of life and death, depending on how he uses those
enormous powers attached to his office by the Constitution, convention and expetations. Nigeria’s President not only governs, he rules. The kind of
President that emerges at any particular time can determine the fortunes of the country. It helps if the President is driven by a commitment to make a difference, but the challenge is that every President invariably becomes a
He has the loneliest job in the
land, because he is soon taken
hostage by officials and various
interests, struggling to exercise
aspects of Presidential power
vicariously. And these officials do
it right to the minutest detail: they
are the ones who tell the
President that he is best thing
ever since the invention of
toothpaste. They are the ones who
will convince him as to every
little detail of governance: who to
meet, where to travel to, and who
to suspect or suspend. The
President exercises power, the
officials and the partisans in the
corridors exercise influence. But
when things go wrong, it is the
President that gets the blame. He
is reminded that the buck stops at
his desk. We should begin to worry about these dangerous officials in the system, particularly within the public service, the reckless mind readers who exploit the system for their own ends, and who walk free when the President gets all the blame. To govern properly, every
government not only needs a good man at the top, but good officials who will serve the country. We are not there yet.
The same civil servants who
superintended over the omissions of the past 16 years are the ones still going up and down today, and it is why something has changed but nothing has change. The reality is terrifying.
The officials at the state levels are no different, from the Governor down to the local government chairman and their staff. They hardly get as much criticism as the folks in Abuja, but they are busy every day governing Nigeria,
and doing so very badly too. Local
government chairmen and their
officials do almost nothing. The
Governors also try to act as if they are Imperial Majesties. The emphasis one ceremony rather than actual performance is the bane of governance in Nigeria. Every one seems to be obsessed with ceremony and privileges.
A friend sent me a picture he took
with the Mayor of London inside
a train, in the midst of ordinary
citizens and asked if that would
ever happen in Nigeria. The
Mayor had no bodyguards. He
was on his own. In the
Netherlands, the Prime Minister
is a part-time lecturer in one of
the local colleges. Nigerian pubic
officials are often too busy to
have time for normal life. Even if
they want to live normally, the
system also makes it impossible.
We need people in government
living normal lives. Leaders need
not be afraid of the people they
govern. They must identify with
them. There is too much royalty
in government circles in Nigeria.
No matter how well-intentioned
you may be, once you find
yourself in their midst, you will
soon start acting and sounding
like one, because it is the only
language that is spoken in those
Elsewhere, ideas govern countries.
People become leaders on the basis of ideas and they govern with ideas. That is why the average voter in Europe or North America knows that what he votes for is what he is likely to get.
Clearly in the on-going Presidential
nomination process in the United
States, every voter knows the difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump on the Republican side. Such differences
are often blurry in Nigeria: our politics is driven by partisan interests; a primordial desperation for power, not ideas . It is also why Nigerian politicians can belong to five different political parties and movements within a decade.
Even when men of ideas show up
in the political arena, they are
quickly reminded that they are
not politicians and do not
understand politics. Gross anti-
intellectualism is a major problem
that Nigeria would have to
address at some stage. Some of the administrations in the past who had brainy men and women of
ideas in strategic positions ended
up not using them. They were
either frustrated, caged, co-opted
or forced to adapt or shown the
door. The question is often asked:
why don’t such people walk away?
The answer that is well known in
official corridors is this: doing so
may be a form of suicide. Once
inside, you are not allowed to
walk out on the Federal
Government of Nigeria, and if you
must, not on your own terms. So,
governance fails even at that level
of values: that other important
element that governs progressive
nations. Partisan interests are major factors in the governance process. These seem to be the dominant factor in Nigeria, but
again, they are irresponsibly deployed. The crowd of political parties, religious groups, traditional rulers, ethnic and community associations, professional
associations, pastors, priests, traditional rulers, imams and alfas, shamanists, native doctors, soothsayers and traditional healers: they all govern.
They wield enormous influence. But they have never helped Nigeria and they are not helping. All the people in public offices have strong links to all these other governors of Nigeria, but what kind of morality do they discuss?
Those with partisan interests, including even promoters of Non-governmental groups (NGOs) all have one interest at
heart: power and relevance.
The same priests who saw grand
visions for the PDP and its
members over a 16-year period
are still in business seeing visions
and making predictions. Those
who claim to be so powerful they
can make the lame walk and the
blind see have not deemed it
necessary to step forward to help
the NNPC turn water into petrol.
If any of these miracle-delivering
pastors can just turn the Lagos
Lagoon alone into a river of
petrol, all Nigerians will become
believers, but that won’t happen
because they are committed to a
different version of the gospel. As
for the political parties: they are
all in disarray. The private sector also governs Nigeria. But what is the quality of governance in the corporate sector? The Nigerian
corporate elite is arrogant. They claim that they create jobs so the country may prosper, but they are, in reality, a rent-seeking class. They survive on government patronage, access to the Villa and its satellites, and claims of
indispensability. But without
government, most private sector
organizations will be in distress. The withdrawal of public funds into a Treasury Single Account is a case in point. And with President Muhammad Buhari not readily available to the eye- service wing of the Nigerian private sector, former sycophants in the
corridors are clandestinely resorting to sabotage and blackmail. A responsible private sector has a duty in society: to
build society, not to donate money to politicians during elections and see patronage thereafter. And if it must co-operate with government, it must be for much nobler reasons in the public interest. The military are still governing Nigeria too. They may be in the background, but their exit 16 years ago, has not
quite translated into a loss of influence
or presence. In the early years of their
de-centering, many of them chose to
join politics and replace their uniforms
with traditional attires. Their original
argument is that if other professionals
can join politics, then a soldier should
not be excluded. They failed to add that
the military class in politics in Africa has shown a tendency to exercise proprietorial rights and powers, which delimit the democratic project. In Nigeria such powers and rights have been exercised consistently and mostly
by, happily for us, a gerontocratic class, whose impact, I believe, will be determined by the effluxion of time. And it is like this: the President that emerged in 1999 was a soldier: the received opinion was that only such a strong man could stabilize the country. His
successor was the brother of
another old soldier; he and his
Deputy were personal chosen by
the departing President. He died
in office, but for his Deputy to
succeed him, it helped a lot that
he was also a favourite of the
General who chose his own
successors. When this protégé fell
out with the General, in retrospect
now, a miscalculation, the General turned Godfather swore to remove him from office. And it happened. In 2015, another former soldier and strong man, had to be brought back to office and power. When anything goes wrong, a class of old Generals are the ones who step forward to protect and guide the country.
The only saving grace is that they
do not yet have a successor–class
of similarly influential men with
military pedigree. But when their
time passes, would there be
equally strong civilians who can
act as protectors of the nation?
The media governs too. But the media in Nigeria today is heavily politicized, compromised and a victim of internal censorship occasioned by hubris. Can the media still save Nigeria? It is in the
same pit as the Nigerian voter, foreign interests, the legislature and the judiciary. But when there is positive change at all of these centres of power and influence, only then will there be change, movement and motion, and a
new Nigeria.

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