Transcript of my debate with Demola Olarewaju at the #ELPDebate in Abuja on Saturday the 14th of May 2022
I summarize the entirety of my core argument this way: Nigeria’s progress cannot be attained through reforms solely because the fractured state of Nigeria’s socio-political foundation almost always renders reforms useless, instead, a total reboot of Nigeria’s socio-political foundation into one that is truly people-driven and builds inclusive public institutions would get Nigeria working.
What does a working Nigeria mean to you?
What do we mean when we say the phrase: “A working Nigeria”?
What does a ‘working Nigeria’ mean?
I have been trying to answer these questions for over half a decade now — heck, trying to answer these questions has formed the foundation of my unpublished book. Once, I tried to ask people around me what they envisioned about a “working Nigeria” — a few said “jobs” — we have a very high unemployment rate (some data sources say 33%, some say 35%, and there are few that pose higher percentages). A few said functioning public services — like uninterrupted electricity supply, uninterrupted flow of clean/drinkable water, access to the internet, mass transit, uninterrupted cooking gas supply, and public healthcare. One, in particular, mentioned the ease of doing business which makes a lot of sense — in fact, I rephrase that by saying, the ease of economic reproduction.
Let us for one second imagine that these responses from my minuscule sample size broadly represent what Nigerians envision as what would constitute a “Working Nigeria”.
Another question to find an answer to would be what the framework for enabling a “Working Nigeria” would look like?
Conventionally, we get these highlighted things done through an organized or semi-organized socio-political community that you can refer to as a state, right?
(Supposedly, a state enables an efficient tax system, clean water, sewage management, public sanitation, paved roads, good schools, and hospitals)
The state can be centralized, and/or decentralized. As is in Nigeria’s historic background; we had people groups and civilizations that were organized into socio-political communities that were either tightly knit or loosely formed.
These states; be it centralized or decentralized demonstrated some traits of effective delivery of public goods and administration — The Sokoto Caliphate delivered efficient public tax management, pre-18th century Igbo populated areas were awash with decentralized states that enabled shared prosperity, according to early Portuguese explorers and traders in 17th century Benin kingdom, the city of Benin had well-paved streets with oil-lamp street lights and fractal columns — in fact, once, Portuguese Captain Lourence Pinto in 1691 said this about Benin: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.” To corroborate Captain Lourence Pinto, a Dutch visitor to the kingdom in the 17th century, Olfert Dapper, described Benin city as a city with houses where the kingdom built wells for the supply of fresh water.
What am I trying to convey here with these factual tellings of our history? To wrap up my preamble, I believe that an organized group of people can get things done to enable a conventionally functional society. So, in the context of Nigeria, to be able to enforce our collective visions of a Nigeria that works, we will need a functional state — but my argument is largely based on completely rebooting how the state is currently organized.
Firstly, getting Nigeria to work is now beyond reforms because the socio-political and legal (constitutional) foundations on which Nigeria is built are fractured beyond repair. To rephrase this, ‘The sickness is the system’ — the current system is too flawed beyond reforms, it requires a complete reboot.
Why reforms in Nigeria don’t work
Nigeria currently is heavily centralized; this means that the key decision-making powers are concentrated within the coffers of the central or in Nigeria’s case, the federal government; and to some extent, the respective state governments. This is an anomaly of what a federation should be. Think of our national security architecture, our electricity generation and supply architecture, our logistical infrastructure with the outside world, and our public works’ framework. This structure has prevailed regardless of whether colonial, civilian, or military governments have been in power. The model of governance in Nigeria promotes a system in which the federal government has overwhelming power in all areas of political, economic, and financial affairs, while the subordinate levels are tasked with implementing federal government policies and programs. This is a distortion of the usual practices of a conventional federal system in which the fundamental and distinguishing characteristic is that neither the central nor the regional governments are subordinate to each other. Rather, the two are coordinated and semi-independent. This model of overtly centralized governance has hindered Nigeria from working by disempowering bottom-to-top growth due to a dearth in local governance, limiting democratic participation to the mere casting of votes during elections, and incentivizing corruption in government. This governance model is largely why reforms do not succeed in Nigeria, as brilliantly thought-out and as effectively executed as they suffice. I’ll make an example — back in the day, I read Joseph Ishaku’s argument on medium on how things get done in Nigeria through SPEs (Special Purpose Entities that is). I agree wholeheartedly with his argument; for me, it is still one of the best pieces of public opinion that is concerned with Nigeria that I have ever read. He used the SPE framework which is largely finance and business management based to mirror Nigeria’s public administration practices. The crux of his argument is that Nigerian governments throughout history have deployed SPEs to deliver on key public service priorities. The problem however is that these SPEs get usurped by the overly centralized and heavily fractured model of governance that we adhere to at the federal & state levels. I end my synopsis of Joseph’s argument by quoting this bit from his article, and I quote “soon enough, these public SPEs become part of the government structure and embody the challenges that warranted their existence in the first place.” A topical example of Joseph’s SPE codification is that of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC). Prior to 2004, Nigeria had a public education crisis (I mean, it still does — mention the strike and the out-of-school children data). Primary school attendance was not compulsory, and on average, more than 70% of primary school pupils and secondary school students in Nigeria had to spend more than 30 minutes in transit from their homes to their schools (according to the 2003 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey conducted by the National Population Commission) — basically, our mean walking distance and time to school numbers were incredibly high even by African standards. Because accessible public education was a political priority of Obasanjo’s government, the Universal Basic Education act was passed quite easily and the Universal Basic Education Commission with its underlying state-level boards was set up in 2004. Did they fix these glaring problems? Absolutely. Did they manage the severity of the highlighted problems? Obviously, but like with a vast majority of reforms in Nigeria’s political history, the fractured socio-political structure and the centralized governance model don’t enable these reforms to actually make Nigeria work. Using the SPE example, we can say that SPEs in the Nigerian governance space are a thought unit of public reforms. These reforms however inevitably fail to make a long-lasting impact.
The Reboot Manifesto
I strongly believe that a non-violent total reboot of Nigeria’s socio-political foundation into one that is truly people-driven and builds inclusive public institutions would get Nigeria working. Here’s a pragmatic demonstration of how to execute this ambitious idea:
This total reboot would entail the concurrent combination of people power, third force electoralism, and the building of democratic alternatives with mutual aid. Since I believe that the Nigerian status-quo is unreformable, a decentralized socio-political movement that deploys democratic alternatives strong enough to finally institute a completely new constitutional framework that entrenches inclusion, growth and direct democracy in Nigeria would be sure to get Nigeria working. Let me explain further — I understand people power as a tool for Nigeria’s reboot to be the strategic radicalization of Nigeria’s working class to be anti-establishment and committed to complete upstaging of the political status quo. Nothing works until the people are well re-sensitized on just how the system is cut out against them. Currently, the easiest set of Nigerians to get riled up, and educated, are the working class Nigerians. They are literate at the base level, they can organize within themselves easily, and have a little bit of socio-economic security, unlike the pauper class. It is through them that the large pauper class also attains needed consciousness. Hence, by educating & radicalizing the working class which is the crux of any reboot, class proximity ensures that the consciousness trickles down to the lowest but largest social strata in Nigeria’s societal pyramid. The component of this people-led panacea to get Nigeria working is the deployment of third-force electoralism — Nigeria currently doesn’t have a nationally accepted electoral machinery outside of those of the APC and PDP. It is with this in view that while radicalizing working class Nigerians and wielding them into a formidable people power; they are further galvanized into a third-force electorate — thus, a people-led political party will emerge as a third force in Nigeria’s electoral space with the aims of filling local, state and federal public offices in the executive and legislative arms. When this is achieved, the next step will be to push and win the legislative vote to finally craft out a new constitution that meets our collective aspirations for a truly, decentralized, federal, people-inclusive, and growth-obsessed Nigeria. The alternative to this is far worse; I mean, think of it this way, at 62 years of its existence as an independent state and 108 years as an amalgamated political entity, we have been governed as an extractive, overly centralized, corrupt, and parasitic state. Surely, we have to start considering my argument for a people-led solution? What is there to lose? This would be the first time that the aspirations and considerations of a vast majority of Nigerians would be centered on the total reboot of Nigeria. I refer to democratic alternatives as people interventions to the erosion of public trust in public institutions and public services. Already, in the past 40 years in Nigeria, we have seen a vast majority of Nigerians turn to alternatives to government institutions and public services — the average Nigerian produces their own electricity, produces their own water, and contributes towards their own security via private security guards and/or armed vigilante groups and turn to other alternatives that concern conflict resolution and enforcing contracts in business. What led to this? When government institutions grew so inept that they almost completely failed to transmit the influence of public authority to local levels, citizens became skeptical about government and lost their trust in public institutions. When this happens in a country with a vibrant civil society, local voluntary associations or non-governmental organizations may step in to initiate development projects. Resources for such projects accrue to those groups, which are either mobilized at the local level or received from nongovernmental sources higher up, and an unintentional decentralization occurs. I can recall when the Directorate of Foods, Roads, and Rural Infrastructure failed to provide any real results, the military administration of General Ibrahim Babangida in 1986, under the Structural Adjustment Program, urged NGOs, CSOs, and other collectives to provide certain public services. Heck, a part of Nigeria is synonymous with these democratic or institutional alternatives — the south-east of Nigeria that is. We know just how well a vast majority of Nigerians in the south-east have built alternatives to public services and institutions and entrenched private interventions to government failings.
My other argument is that as we galvanize the people-power movement into an electoral force with the view to socio-politically reboot Nigeria, we’d practically be able to do so while building formidable democratic alternatives and providing ourselves mutual aid. I define mutual aid as the voluntary exchange of resources and services between members of a mass movement to empower people and provide material support for those who need it. This mass organization tool is important in that it reduces the risk of the members of the mass movement becoming vulnerable to the machine politics and stomach infrastructure ploys of the political establishment as well as providing a strong foundation towards the end goal of achieving a total reboot of Nigeria. In the 1945 general strike that unfortunately a lot of Nigerians do not know about; we saw the most practical example of mutual aid in a mass movement for better working conditions for all Nigerian workers. Led by Michael Imoudu and Adunni Oluwole, for 2 months, at least 200,000 workers in 17 labor unions halted work in a general strike to demand an increase in the minimum wage and they were able to materially thrive during the period of scarcity and no pay by indulging in mutual aid — house rents were canceled en masse, food sold by local food traders were sold at affordable prices and sometimes given for free, credit (thrift giving) was advanced at scale and door-to-door fundraising was carried out throughout Nigeria to sustain the general strike.
My arguments are simple and practical. Everything I have said here, all the examples I have shared here is proof that as a people (as Nigerians), we have at one point in our collective history attempted and/or deployed these methods. In 1945, we deployed mutual aid throughout the country, we have had people-power since the anti-tax protests of Calabar in 1915 et Women’s war in 1929, we have had unsuccessful attempts at third power electoralism, we have succeeded at class radicalization in Nigeria, especially in the 1940s, and since the 1960s we have seen forms of democratic and institutional alternatives deployed. I think the problem is that in this country of ours, watered by the Benue and the Niger, between the Gulf of Guinea, washed in salt by the Atlantic, and dusted in the north by the Sahara, we haven’t concurrently deployed these reboot methods with ruthless execution and synergy. The other core of my argument is that we can, and we must finally try to deploy them simultaneously in order to finally get Nigeria working.
So here I am not arguing for a Utopia, I am arguing for a bit and parts of Nigeria that have been tried and have somewhat generated some favorable results; from women kickstarting Nigeria’s anti-colonial movement through people power and grassroots organizing in the 1920s to women ejecting an Alake in the 1940s to present day Nigerians finding workable albeit expensive alternatives to failing public institutions and services. I strongly believe that we can finally get Nigeria working through a political reboot that brings governance closer to the people and initiates growth-obsessed frameworks for all structural levels of Nigeria.