Nigeria continues to be proof that the whole can be lesser than the sum of the parts; we are individually great but collectively poor. This is not just about economic poverty, but also about the general state of our governance. We have some of the most expensive cars being driven on the worst roads. Our people carry around modern gadgets that cannot be powered by the public power supply. Our wealthiest build impressive mansions but they have little or no public security for these. The country with Africa’s richest man is also the country with the highest extreme poverty rate in the world.
It is clear, therefore, that our problem is organisational. Individually, Nigerians can – and do – excel. When we migrate, many Nigerians tend to do very well in functional settings. Our domestic problem is how we can work together for the good of all. And, so far, we have been unable to organise ourselves in a way that harnesses individual abilities and resources for the collective good. When we cannot efficiently organise ourselves for simple social tasks such as elections, censuses, or even bus stop drop-offs and pick-ups, how will we be able to address more complicated social tasks that require oversight on lots of moving parts, such as security and the economy?
There is a tendency for us to blame ourselves – or, rather, other ordinary Nigerians – for this organisational challenge. There are daily examples on social media showing up Nigerians for not using public facilities responsibly, Nigerians jumping queues, Nigerians driving against traffic, Nigerians stealing or vandalising public equipment, and so on. The usual phrase that follows these kinds of post is: ‘Is Buhari also to blame for this?’ Certainly, there is some merit in that argument: Nigerians are often rough, rushed, and rubbish. We lack social discipline and we are definitely not even qualified to buy tickets to watch societies competing for best-behaved in the world.
But, this cannot be the end of the story. We cannot just simply preach at Nigerians to ‘do better’ or ‘be the change’ and expect everything to work out magically. This is the shortcut approach of Buhari’s failed ‘War Against Indiscipline’ and ‘Change Begins With Me’ campaigns. Instead, we have to ask: Why do Nigerians act in this socially unsustainable way? Have we always been like this? If not, what has caused the deterioration and how can we stop this cause?
This kind of root cause analysis takes us back to leadership indiscipline. When our leaders are exempted from complying with rules of social order, then those who are connected to them begin to claim the same privileges until it trickles down all the way to ordinary people. If a minister or commissioner does not have to queue in line or wait in traffic like everyone else, why would anyone else? Nigerian leaders do not behave badly because society behaves badly, society behaves badly because our leaders behave badly.
If this is the case, then why do Nigerian leaders lack discipline? Because our political system – including its laws, policies, and traditions – allows them to be. Our political system confers so much powers, privileges, and discretions on our leadership exempting them from the general application of law or empowering them to act in any way they like without accountability or consequences. And they the majority of them take advantage of these.
These unfettered political powers came with colonialism. The laws made by the British gave Governor-Generals, Governors, and District Officers wide and unsupervised executive powers to control the population and exploit resources. The new political leadership deteriorated our traditional concepts of social order – community and cohesion – and led to unhealthy individualism and competitiveness. When the British left, they did not reform those powers: they passed it on to our leaders. And, since 1960, we have not examined these laws and the administrative systems under them to reduce these reckless powers and put our leadership under control. Instead, the military has expanded and perfected this system of unaccountability. Today, Nigeria has a constitution that, among other problematic provisions, restricts the courts from looking into ‘any issue or question’ on whether the actions or omission of ‘any authority or person’ conforms with the objectives of the Constitution itself. Zero accountability.
The nature of a country’s political system necessarily determines the behaviour of the country’s leadership. And the behaviour of the leaders steers the direction of society. Nigeria uses a highly-centralised, colonially-designed and military-perfected patronage political system that has ensured ‘any howness’ and zero accountability in leadership from top to bottom, while also ensuring hypocritical sycophancy from bottom to top. We cannot expect functional social attitudes at the level of ordinary citizens when the system is rotten from the top. If we truly want to change Nigerian society and shape us into more organised and disciplined society, then we have to start with the fundamental rules of our association: by changing the nature and design of our political system.