In a society, leaders are not necessarily those that occupy elective or appointive positions; sometimes they are in the crowd, with the people. DR. OBIAGELI EZEKWESILI, the co-founder of Berlin-based Transparency International, is in the latter category. The Allied Congress Party of Nigeria presidential candidate in the 2019 election, in this interview with IMA-ABASI PIUS, explains how the #FixPolitics initiative can disrupt the country’s present democratic paradigm:
As a prominent stakeholder in Nigeria’s socio-economic development, what would you identify as the major setbacks to the enthronement of genuine democratic culture?
I recently completed research on this issue as a Richard Von Weizacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, Germany. As a candidate for the office of the President of Nigeria in the 2019 elections, I directly witnessed the absurdity of our politics and it naturally awakened my intellectual curiosity. What I observed in politics at that short time set me off on a journey to reflect and better understand the challenges of our democracy, politics and governance.
My research, #FixPolitics, has some interesting findings that specifically address your question. There are three interconnected factors that hinder democratic development in Nigeria and the rest of our continent: absence of a productive and politically-literate, empowered and engaged voting population; dominant culture of a political class (politicians and their allies across society) that subordinates the collective good of the society to their personal interest without any consequence; and weak constitutional, political and electoral institutions and context, which lead to an ineffective regulatory context for politics.
What essential features should define the ambitious project of fixing politics in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, the most populous black country?
My #FixPolitics research findings concluded that every democracy, including that of Nigeria, can function well when it stands on the triangulated pillars of: empowered and engaged citizens who vote rationally for candidates that can effectively run government on their behalf; ethical, competent and capable politicians who compete for votes by presenting citizens with alternative plans of how they will govern on their behalf; and credible institutions that include constitutional, political and electoral bodies to regulate the relationship between citizens and politicians.
The #FixPolitics research evaluated how well these three pillars are doing in Nigeria and Africa more broadly. We have five major findings:
- Adopting a theoretical model that assumes governance as a product or service in a market structure, we simplified and were able to interrogate what happens between the demand side (electorate), the supply side (political class who run for elective offices) and; the institutional and regulatory context (constitutional, political and electoral environment) in which both sides interact.
- Our politics is structurally challenged with unequal power relations between the people and a political class that is unaccountable in the exercise of the public mandate. We named the phenomenon, “monopolistic democracy.” Like all monopolies, society is endangered by the distortionary effect it has on social outcomes.
- If we do not fix politics urgently, politics will disintegrate and destroy Nigeria permanently because our ruling class has entrenched a corrupted political culture that stunts the common good of citizens and their society without any consequence.
- The corrupted political culture undermines citizens, families, communities, society at large, businesses and the economy as well as government, public institutions and the governance processes.
- The corrupted political culture is invasive and pervasive and thus constitutes a major obstacle to economic development of Nigeria and Africa. This inhibitive effect on development is the reason for extreme poverty in Nigeria despite the huge endowment of human and natural resources.
The good thing is that the solutions to these problems were also identified by the research.
Where should the effort to fix politics begin and what could be a probable timeframe to evaluate progress?
The research found that any effort to fix politics has to begin with the Citizens pillar of the democracy triangle. It is only the Citizens pillar that retains the credibility to fix the broken political system and corrupted culture that is to be fixed. The Political Class pillar cannot fix politics because it is the primary beneficiary of the anomaly in our politics. The Regulatory pillar, unfortunately, lacks the independence, strength, capability and the credibility to check the excesses of the political class in particular. It therefore leaves only the Citizens pillar as the only credible option.
What makes the research unique is how it uses evidence to sequentially guide citizens that are persuaded to act. Fundamentally, the citizens, who step out to fix politics, must act on all three pillars concurrently. The solutions highlighted that each pillar must be systemically launched at the same time as others. Citizens have to execute the political structural transformation agenda in a systematic, coherent, coordinated and collaborative way. It is the only way citizens’ effort will gather the systemic momentum and create political structural shifts that correct political culture and outcomes. A silo approach at addressing the problems identified for each of the triangulated pillars will fail for lack of integrative impact.
It is why the Work Study Group is made up of a diverse group of Nigerians from all regions, walks of life and political persuasions. Members of the WSG are bound in the common vision, mission and core values of transforming Nigeria’s deformed politics and governance by rallying behind the #FixPolitics research findings. They must work together to design and execute the programmes under each of the three pillars while collaborating on cross-cutting issues in an ecosystem-building approach.
On evaluating progress of #FixPolitics, it is important to clearly convey that this initiative is not a dash, but a marathon. This initiative is not about 2023. #FixPolitics is about designing Nigeria’s and Africa’s way out of underdevelopment occasioned by our faulty political foundation. It is not partisan. It is about building a new political culture of taking responsibility through participation and empowered engagement by citizens and providing service and public accountability by public leaders.
More specifically, the work plans developed for each pillar have specific and easy-to-measure actions that are of short, medium and long-term delivery and impact. For example, in the emerging value-based Political Class pillar, we are establishing an unconventional school of politics, policy and governance, which will fully commence in 2021 and annually produce at scale a new class of value-based politicians on a mixed curriculum of theory and practice of ethical politics, design of sound economic, social, sectorial and structural policies and building strong, open, accessible, transparent and accountable institutions, regulatory and legal contexts. We aim at graduating 500 such people twice each year.
Our school is unconventional because it is designed to disrupt the mindset of the 500 citizens that will have the privilege of being admitted into each class cohort every six months. Since the current marketplace of politicians is holding the country hostage to a destructive political culture, we can upend their dominance by producing a new political class with the requisite character, competence and capacity.
A complex mix of challenges, including low literacy level and economic deprivation, has thrown up what could be described as crisis of democracy in Nigeria. Is it possible to inject sanity into the country’s politics once again?
You are spot on in identifying the adverse impact of low literacy and poverty on our democracy. In my research, there is a conclusion that these two factors inhibit the quality of voting decisions of our electorate that are within the low-income cadre. First, the illiterate is likely to be poor. The daily financial worth of the productivity of poor people in our country is extremely low and so whatever is offered them by unscrupulous politicians on election day is hugely attractive. For them, election day is simply another day of struggle to eke out a living. For most poor voters, election day is not a decision about the next four years. They have concluded that since governance did not improve their wellbeing in the previous years, nothing in the future would change. They, therefore, rationally decide to sell their vote and “earn an income” for each time they do so.
I wrote my conclusions this way,
“The price of the vote of the low-income electorate in Nigeria is extremely low and corrupted politicians can easily pay for it.” Second, the poor who are illiterate will also likely lack political literacy and so do not realise the power of their constitutional right to vote. In the power relations between the electorate and those they vote into office, the former have failed to take their primacy in our democracy.
What the #FixPolitics research recommends to these two issues are:
- Design a bundled and simultaneous programme of economic empowerment and political literacy for low-income voters. The economic empowerment component of the programme raises their productivity. The political literacy component raises their political consciousness and awareness of their self-interest in elections and governance that follows afterward.
- Organisations and groups interested in emerging an empowered and engaged electorate should work together and use technology to identify, connect, combine and scale up existing and new programmes of economic empowerment for women and young people who together make up more than 70 per cent of the voting population. Remember that women and young people are also the voting constituencies that actually turn up to vote on election day. Imagine that in between our electoral cycles (that’s four years between one election and another), some organisations and groups collaborate to design a new economic empowerment initiative that is bundled with political literacy sessions or that they redesign existing programmes in an intentional way to raise the productivity and political knowledge of say, akara sellers across Nigeria. Imagine that currently akara sellers toil for just a daily net income of say, N1,000 to N2,000. Imagine that the programmes succeed such that their average daily financial output double or triple, rising above the “price that politicians will offer for their vote in elections.” Now imagine that four years later, the now more productive, empowered and more politically-conscious akara seller is faced with the offer to sell their vote, what do you think will happen in their decision-making? It is more probable that they would resist the offer and rather vote for candidates that will govern to improve their wellbeing because they have experienced improvement from a thoughtful and effective intervention. Now they know why choosing the right candidates in elections can further improve their households and communities.
- Design and launch an innovative data-based nationwide political literacy campaign using community organising modules to awaken and engage the over 60 per cent of low-income registered voter population that never participated in elections by voting after being registered to vote. That only 15m out of 84m registered voters elected a President into office in 2019 is a risk that can be transformed into an opportunity to bring in new voters without the distorted incentives of repeat voters to sell their vote.
With a faulty constitution that opens with a lie, dubious census figures and pliable institutions, do you think Nigerians can repose confidence in the country’s political system and participate effectively?
The faulty foundation of our constitution is way deeper than even those issues you raised, in that it was never the product of a Citizens process. The military and some civilians collaborated to write a constitution, which they handed to our Fourth Republic at the transition of 1999. The tone of the constitution is militaristic and the content unitary for a country that parades itself as a federation. It is not “The People’s Constitution” that it pretends to be. The 1999 Constitution does not reflect any form of negotiated common identity, values, vision, aspirations, political and governance structures of a country with a complex spectrum of ethnic, language, regional, cultural, religious and other diversities like Nigeria. Nigerians have never had the privilege of determining their choices of what kind of union they wish to have as we enter deeper into the 21st Century.
One of the findings of the #FixPolitics research is that a credible citizens-led constitutional process and the consensus provisions the people agree to are key to helping transform (even) countries with multi-ethnic nationalities into nations. There is a big difference between a country and a nation. Sadly, because of many factors that end up in elite failure, Nigeria remains a mere country and not a nation, 60 years after our independence in 1960. Worse is that, even now, there are credible threats to its existence as a country. The tragic failure of our political class to successfully mobilise our citizens behind a commonly agreed identity, while at the same time respect our multiple uniqueness, happened at least twice in our history. The Nigerian people could have, at the end of colonial rule in 1960 and after the Biafra war in 1970, confronted their fractured and factional union in open and honest dialogues designed to agree key rules and terms of remaining one people.
As a result of those failures to build consensus, Nigeria has hobbled along as a country of people who are not unified around common aspirations and shared principles. How different the outcomes would be if we were a country guided by aspirations like equal opportunity, inclusive growth and prosperity, social cohesion and stability. These are proven from our #FixPolitics research as some of the building blocks on which other countries transformed their societies. We found countries like Botswana, Singapore and South Korea to have prioritised human development, merit, productivity and healthy competition among constituent parts as well as their citizens. The results show up in their economic performance and the vastly improved wellbeing of their citizens in contrast to Nigeria. The three countries gained independence in the 1960s from Britain.
However, reality is setting in now. For after many decades of ignoring the obvious, it is becoming clearer to all discerning and reasonable compatriots that our union is in facing the severest threat to its existence now. All is simply not well with Nigeria and Nigerians. Our country, Nigeria, is on the brink of a break-up despite the delusional protestations of Federal Government officials and their sycophants.
Our ethnic and religious divides and differences have never been sharper and deeper than now. This is all because of the irresponsible, clannish, provincial, incompetent and ineffectual management of our diversity by President Muhammadu Buhari, who simply does not know how to nor have the temperament to learn how to lead a diverse society like Nigeria. The totality of factors that threaten the existence of Nigeria are expressed in the consistent and unabashed ethnic bigotry of Buhari.
That Buhari, who was elected by a representative section of the Nigerian people in a protest vote against his failed predecessor, has in turn dug Nigeria deeper into the trenches of humongous failure and will remain a wonder of historical proportion.
Nigeria’s failures under Buhari have become profoundly unsustainable. It is perplexing to watch our political leaders carry on with their pretence that Nigeria is currently being governed. How can the political leadership of a country, which is practically insolvent, terribly brittle on all fronts of national security and lost its diplomatic leadership and influence even in West Africa, keep acting as if everything is normal?
Such imperviousness was the same attitude exhibited by the previous government of the current opposition party. Most Nigerians are fed up with the Siamese twins-type syndrome of our politicians, regardless of whether they belong to the All Progressives Congress or the Peoples Democratic Party. Their party acronyms may differ, but the people in our politics today are of one embryo and exhibit a common and dominant political culture that places the narrow interests of our politicians above the wellbeing of the people they govern.
Nigerians have experienced and now openly express frustration at the “hand-down” and “turn-by-turn failure” of the political class at the federal, state and local government levels. They are designed by the environment that enables them act without consequences, and the incentive they respond to, to govern in ways that do not produce results for citizens.
#FixPolitics gathered from countries that similarly came to the precipice because of ethnic and other tensions in the last few decades that the citizens are the bloc with the credibility and legitimacy to push society towards fruitful dialogues and agreements which translate to a new constitution. Conduct of a Citizens’ Referendum is an innovation used in some countries to commence the national dialogue process with the first phase of deciding the key issues to be discussed and negotiated in a constitutional process. In the case of our country, there is no doubt that Nigeria cannot carry on for much longer under a bumbling political class and grossly weakened bureaucracy. The centre is no longer holding because the institutions and political operators have lost their credibility with the people. There is no known social contract binding citizens to their governments. The social capital that once minimally existed among members of society is now vastly eroded and depleted.
Are you saying it is impossible to have a qualitative governance system in Nigeria without qualitative and informed citizenry?
I think my previous answer to another question showed that it is impossible to run a democracy of uninformed and indifferent citizens and end up with qualitative governance. If a country’s democracy is lacking in the basic features of democratic ethos, values, principles and institutions, governance will less likely produce good outcomes for the larger number of people. This is what we see in our country. It is why despite all our huge endowment of population, natural resources and geography, we are the world’s capital of extremely poor people with more than 80m Nigerians in that category. Nigeria is ranked one of the most insecure countries in the world, the number three spot on terrorism-ravaged table and 13 on the states fragility index. Sixty years after independence, we have infant and maternal mortality rates that are higher than the average in Africa. We are the country with the largest number of out-of-school children. And by the way, on this matter of out-of-school children, we did prove that there are sound policy solutions that work to reduce it and get children into the classrooms, especially in the Northern states. As minister of education between 2006 and 2007, we reduced the number by 500,000 to 6.5m, within one academic session. Today, the number is a painful 13.5m children growing as illiterate in the 21st Century. It is impossible for our democracy to deliver qualitative governance without informed, active and engaged citizenry who make a deliberate move to take their rightful position in the electoral and governance processes.
What I have said of Nigeria is unfortunately applicable in most of the other African countries. It is why by 2035, if we do not fix politics in our continent, more than 90 per cent of the world’s remaining poor people will be in Africa. That would be a monumental tragedy.
Does #FixPolitics involve holding leaders to account? If so, how could a product of rigged election be held accountable?
Yes it will. Election is not the end game in a democracy. Voting at elections is, therefore, only a part of the duties that citizens have for staying eternally vigilant and demanding accountability from those who exercise delegated authority on their behalf. The political literacy programmes for both the middle and low-income class must be designed to support post-election engagements – that is during the time governance commences after elections – of citizens to hold those they voted into office (or against) to account for the performance of their public responsibility. The #OfficeOfTheCitizen was identified as a credible initiative to empower such citizens’ actions.
When you have more citizens in the constituency that delegated their authority to the kind of lawmaker you described, they will more probably become accountable. Why? They will, because there is a disincentive of the credible threat of recall by united citizens in their constituency, working successfully together to remove the lawmaker. Not even the most perverse National Assembly can survive the pressure from a persistent citizens’ collective action.
Based on this grand agenda of sanitising Nigeria’s democracy, which country serves as a realistic model and is that possible within the social limitations in Nigeria, viz educational attainments and income levels?
First, from my research, no country’s democracy is perfect and taken for granted as having attained. This is absolutely crucial to note by those who assume that democracy has a destination which when a country arrives, the citizens can then rest and “leave the institutions to work.” No, it does not work that way. Constant participation and vigilance is the only way a people can preserve their democracy for their wellbeing.
Second, no country fully resembles Nigeria; not even Indonesia, which shares a significant range of similarities with it. So if we are to learn any lesson at all, it is this. We, the people, the citizens are the ones with the right to gather round the table and design the functional democracy that serves all our people well.
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