The Nigerian State: PS 101, By Jibrin Ibrahim

Jibrin Ibrahim

I am so depressed by the ambient literature and statements on the Nigerian state that I need to find solace in political science 101. State collapse in Nigeria first entered the literature between the botched census of 1962 and the fraudulent elections of 1964.

Some of us have therefore lived through fifty years of a dead state and yet some forms of governance continue. Nonetheless, we cannot say there is no basis for the excessive struggle in the search for adjectives to describe the dead Nigerian state since 1962-63, scholars and pundits have moved from simple ones such as corrupt and authoritarian to prebendal, patrimonial, sultanic, predatory, rentier, praetorian and even rogue state.

Today, the most frequent appellation that is used is that of the collapsed state. And yet, at the beginning was optimism. It was John Oyinbo who recalled in his book that “When in the first minutes of October 1, 1960, the Union Jack was hauled down and the Nigerian flag of green, white and green broken in its stead, there were few men of goodwill, whether British or Nigerian, who did not have the highest hopes for the success of Africa’s newest nation… It would have been hard on that joyful and elaborate celebration to have found anyone, both involved in the present and committed to the future, prepared to predict coup, counter coup, massacre, secession and civil war within the decade.” Yes, it did not take a long time for the optimism to turn to pessimism.

I recall that in 1986, my own department of political science in Ahmadu Bello University published a book entitled Nigeria: A Republic in Ruins. The book was an outcome of a National Conference on the State of the Nation, which was hosted by the Department and concluded nineteen days before the fall of the Second Republic.

The book adequately reflected the intellectual mood in Nigeria in the dying days of our second experiment with democracy. There is trepidation in the land because the date 2015 has entered the literature as the last year for the Nigerian state. As we witness the growth of insurgency, rural banditry and mass atrocities in contemporary Nigeria, shouldn’t we start saying that the state must not die?

There is a problem with the Nigerian state because it has become a structure of alienation that cannot provide basic health care, potable water, electricity and even more important, security. These are however pointers to the fact that we need the state because these services are desperately needed and have to be provided. The modern state has legitimated itself as an instrument that produces necessary public goods and the crisis of the Nigerian state is that with each parting year, it is less capable of providing for the public good. This cannot continue for the simple reason that the Nigerian people cannot guarantee their future without guaranteeing a future for the state.

The Nigerian nation-state project is in disarray and successive political leaderships have been unable to respond effectively to the numerous challenges that have confronted it. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to give up on the Nigerian state. We all know what is necessary for a viable state project. We need to negotiate a new social and national bargain that takes full cognisance of our ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. We also have to pursue a vigorous policy of social equity to mend the fractures created by the growing gap between the rich and the poor. We have to rebuild our public institutions and make them effective. Finally, we need to deepen the two things we all agree to, federalism and democracy.

What we know from political science is that two issues play a vital role in the development of state systems. The first is the development of a technocracy, the training and retention of competent individuals in bureaucratic, judicial and educational institutions. The technocracy nurtures norms of efficiency and discipline and provide a conducive atmosphere for the research and training of the national human resources stock. The Nigerian state suffered for a long time from brain drain and during the same period there was a collapse of tertiary institutions making it difficult to remould a qualitative technocracy. The multiplication of states and the huge expansion of state personnel that followed made quality control impossible.

The second vital factor in state formation processes involves a growing capacity by those running the state apparatus to negotiate conflicting interests and pressures from the society. We know from history that authoritarian ways of resolving conflicting interests and silencing pressure groups have largely failed and the only way forward is to build state legitimacy along the democratic path.

This means that there is hope for Nigeria as the people are committed to democracy, even if a significant part of the ruling class is not. Indeed, the Nigerian political class is more committed to the politics of spoils than to democratic ways of political interaction. This is because the cost of corruption is very low or non-existent. It is perfectly normal and it is true of all political classes in modern history that when there are no consequences for corruption, it will continue to fester. Political and economic entrepreneurs turn from rent seeking to productive accumulation and from political thuggery to democratic modes of political action when the costs of those forms of activity become too high. In Nigeria, you can steal be nation blind and only get chieftaincy titles and national honours as rewards.

The critical issue in state formation is how to strengthen the forces of political reform, they exist in large numbers in all countries, and weaken those that seek to engage in primitive accumulation. States are strong when they have legitimacy. In his analysis of State domination, Max Weber posits that there are three bases for legitimacy – traditional, charismatic and legal-rational. Traditional domination relies on the authority of one person, the patriarch. Max Weber would describe Nigeria as running a patrimonial form of traditional authority. The patrimonial office lacks above all the bureaucratic separation of the ‘private’ and the ‘official’ sphere. In patrimonial systems, political administration is treated as a purely personal affair of the ruler.

The major patrimonial elements of the Nigerian state have been that broad and increasingly centralised executive authority have been personalised around a military or a presidential monarch who controls the state. Secondly, personal officials and administrative cadres whose positions rest in large part on political loyalty to him support the personal ruler, in varying ways. The key feature is the disappearance of the distinction between the public and the private domains and the personalisation of power, which is the main source of wealth.

The Nigerian State has undergone considerable transformation over the past five decades. The First Republic had collapsed after a serious political crisis that led to a long and bloody civil war. Paradoxically, Nigeria appeared to came out of the civil war as a much stronger state due mainly to the growth of Federal power, enhanced by the creation of smaller States that could not challenge Federal power and the significant increase in the revenues accruing to the Federal Government, particularly from petroleum. The Nigerian State was placed on the path of centralisation by the multiplication of States from 4 Regions to 12 federated States in 1967, and then to 19 in 1976, 21 in 1987, 30 in 1991 and 36 in 1996. This miniaturization of the federating states enhanced the power of the central State.

In his 101 of the Nigerian elite, General Ibrahim Babangida commented as follows. “The worst features in the attitude of the Nigerian elite over the past three decades or more have included: fractionalism, disruptive competition, extreme greed and selfishness, indolence and the abandonment of the pursuit of excellence… how many new universities or institutions have been created essentially when all window dressing is removed, only because of bad or selfish advice of some persons seeking new ’empires’ over which to preside? … How many new ministries and departments have been created to satisfy personal ambitions?

What is at the bottom of the demands for family sized Local Government Councils? How many false projects have been started to create contracts for importunate canvassers?” (Daily Times 18/3/1989). Of course it was the height of cynicism that Babangida himself was probably the greatest military presidential monarch we had who contributed in no small measure to the creation of “empires” for his friends and cronies. This process must stop and state reconstruction must begin. For all patriotic and reform-minded Nigerians, the time for action is now.

Dr. Jibrin, a senior fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, and Chairman of Premium Times editorial board, writes from Abuja.


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