Politics in Nigeria is largely transactional. Nigerians who want to hold political positions look for and invest millions of naira in purchasing the endorsements of godfathers and distributing rice, bread, and cash to fellow citizens to vote for them.
The process is extremely expensive and attracts mostly those who see politics as a very good way of dramatically multiplying investments, much like drug smuggling.
Nigerian politics rarely attracts people who have the intention to use political control of state institutions to transform the lives of fellow citizens. Building a base of political power in Nigeria is similar to establishing 100 per cent ownership of a bank.
You acquire control of a political office and convert all levels and institution of government that fall under the control of this office into something like bank branches.
You select all the “managers” of the institutions and agencies – local governments, tax authorities, ministries, broadcasting services, state-owned enterprises, land management bureaux etc. – who deliver a chunk of their budgets to you in addition to using their resources and responsibilities to generate funds and opportunities for you.
The objective of generating funds for the political machinery of the “political lord” becomes the significant if not primary aim and consistently erodes their statutory roles (delivering quality education or healthcare services or durable roads).
First, this intensely anti-democratic process concentrates power permanently in the hands of a very few people. Anyone seeking to enter Nigerian politics must be ready to divert public resources to these political godfathers.
It also weakens the ability of state institutions to deliver services that are essential to fostering investment, creating wealth and lifting people out of poverty – durable infrastructure, high quality public school and health system, etc.
The process locks out Nigerian youths and professionals from politics. In the first 20 years of independence, people between 28 and 40 years of age were governors, federal legislators and ministers, and even President. Now, a 50 year old is considered a very young person in Nigerian politics.
The few “young” important players in politics today owe the positions to older godfathers rather than their achievements or the number of voters or party members attracted to their economic ideas or their personalities. They are also committed to the methods of the godfathers i.e. converting the resources and functions of state institutions to their personal and political uses.
Kanu, leader of the Independent Peoples of Biafra (“IPOB”) has in the last five years disrupted the method of constructing political leadership in Nigeria. Kanu has managed to fire up and win the support of millions of people in South East Nigeria across socio-economic classes.
This support also extends outside Nigeria. In major western countries, Nigerians hold rallies to passionately champion the ideas of the young man they see as a political leader. He has not purchased their allegiance; rather Kanu’s supporters have invested money in promoting his cause and ideas. Many have even risked their long-term economic well-being.
Very importantly, Kanu has garnered a large following through the strength and appeal of his ideas and personality. Rather than riding to fame on the “structure” of a political godfather, his rise threatened the hold of godfathers on regional and national politics.
Of course, Kanu has built a political following on an illogical and dangerous idea – the notion that the solution to Nigeria’s political, social and economic dysfunction is to break up Nigeria.
The only thing this would achieve is to create a lot of mini “zoos”, each with much diminished economic potential. There is little to prove that Igbo or Tiv politicians are more ethical than Yoruba and Ijaw ones and would hence transform their smaller “zoo” into Switzerland once they break away from Nigeria.
Hence, Kanu chose an old and wrong idea, “ethnic grievance” rather than “institutional performance,” to mobilise citizens. Ethnic grievance is built on the emotional but mostly erroneous claim “they are cheating us” whilst institutional performance messages emphasise the delivery of economic goods (quality education and healthcare, good roads, efficient policing etc.).
Traditional politicians use ethnic grievance to deflect attention from their monopolisation of resources in their regions, state and constituency while Nnamdi Kanu has used it in a radical way to build a following that could be employed to get personal access to monopolised resources.
Just like the politicians, Kanu had no plan to deliver economic goods to the people. IPOB would have triggered a revolution in Nigerian politics if it had mobilised citizens to demand action on institutional weaknesses to delivering economic goods to Nigerians in the South East – the poor state of infrastructure, the tendency to build statues rather than roads, the lack of support for the region’s abundant talents in technology and entrepreneurship etc.
Nigerian politicians have a pact never to seriously campaign or challenge each other on the basis of institutional performance; rather they use the strategy of “ethnic grievance” which is a cover for their common inadequacy.
Yet, the achievement of Kanu demonstrates that it is possible for young Nigerians to mobilize citizens on the basis of ideas and build independent political following that could break the monopolistic hold of godfathers on politics and government.
Nigerian voters respond to “ethnic grievance” mobilisation because it has been the only way traditional politicians have wooed voters. It is apparent even to, or perhaps especially to the poorest voter that this mode of political mobilisation has only impoverished Nigerians.
They must have noticed how politicians who tell them that the Ijaw, Fulani, or Idoma are their problems have kept growing rich. Aspiring politicians and new political parties and movements should develop capacities to craft messages based on institutional performance and the delivery of economic goods to the masses.
Restructuring the Nigerian Federation will create incentives for performance messages and also make them more effective because ethnic grievance messages will become less effective as the resources and policy responsibilities for development is transferred from Abuja to lower units of government.
When teaching hospitals lack diagnostic equipment and regional roads are dilapidated, it becomes very difficult to blame wicked politicians who don’t like your region or ethnic group because the funds and responsibilities for building and maintaining them have been taken away from Abuja. Everyone will have an incentive to develop their zoos.
Chukwudi, a lawyer, wrote from the Peter Bauer Foundation.