Let me start this piece on a reflective note, and then connect the reflection with my concern for the political trajectory of the Nigerian state. And where else to start than with one of the wisdom quotes of Socrates. According to him, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” To be sure, this is not just an advice on marital bliss. It contains a gem of philosophical insight that is both universal and particular, as I aim to demonstrate. Marrying a bad wife is Socrates’ own way of signaling dissatisfaction, discomfort and distress as the key to making sense of life. We then immediately understand the cogent sense in Karl Marx’s reaction to the opiate quality that religion brings to bear on the critical sense the people ought to have. By saying “religion is the opium of the people,” Marx meant to say that religion deadens the emancipatory possibilities that discomfort and distress bring to human existence. And even when Jesus began to espouse the theology of being “poor in spirit,” it points to the same issue of coming to a full spiritual awareness only with the realization that you are first poor in spirit.
Life, and the experience of existence and who we are, revolves around the meaning we ascribe to who we are and how we interpret life and the meaning of human existence. This is where one will recognize, again, the genius of Fela Anikulapo Kuti in capturing the tragic and traumatic rhythm of existence in Nigeria. In “Shuffering and Shmiling,” we come face to face with a realistic assessment of Nigerian life, and especially the complacence we all sit comfortably in while we are getting traumatized. While the Imam, Pope and Archbishop are enjoying, Nigerians are somnolent in suffering. And their enjoyment derives from their capacity to keep Nigerians politically mute about their situation. However, and without slinging any mud, is it not interesting that while those who brought Christianity to Africa have adapted their faith to a capitalist ethos—a la Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—we are still trooping to church, spending our hard earned money, and always looking towards heaven without equally sufficient thoughton how to actively navigate the path towards progress on this earthly plane?
And we can easily see how this reflective path I am taking in this piece leads inexorably into the understanding of what Nigerians have made of their capacity for an active citizenship that vigorously queries the government on what it is making of the commonweal or the social contract which is meant to make their lives qualitatively better than they presently are. And yet, in most instances, Nigerians have often retreated. The recent fuel subsidy and the #EndSARS protests are exceptions from the rule of consistently backing away from a constructive engagement with the government and instead building “local government areas” in communities. In other word, every community takes up the responsibility of government in self-help arrangements where private guards and vigilante groups replace the state security framework, boreholes and wells replace water boards, generators and solar inverters replace electricity providers, private schools take over from public schools, and so on.
The perceptive reader would indeed have preceded me to the point I have reached in this reflection; the point of asking what the nature of politics really is. Let me return to the Greek philosophers. Plato once said that until philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers, cities will never have rest from evils. The reason for his insistence is simple: political greatness and philosophical wisdom ought to meet in one person. And yet, even the great Athenian city-state could not make that aspiration of a philosopher-king possible. Plato wanted to become a great politician, like Solon and Pericles. But then Athens was rapidly declining, and with it also the counsel of justice. And this was exactly the reason Socrates, Plato’s teacher, was judicially murdered, and Plato’s aspiration of becoming a philosopher-king summarily aborted. With Solon and Pericles, there was a progressive and increasingly successful attempts at rehabilitating the Athenian constitution to make it better able to serve the Athenian citizens.
The unfortunate thing is that the understanding of the nature of politics, or who a politician is, is still very crucial till today, and especially in a postcolonial state like Nigeria. And unfortunately, still, the trajectory of the decline of ancient Athens and her struggling to regain her democratic antecedent has remained my perception of the failure of politics in Nigeria since 1966. Nigeria’s governance experiment has birth series of false starts, wrong moves, uncritical governance models as well as an evolving political class that kept undermining the hope of an emerging political culture around which the Nigerian project can be finally and fully resolved. All these coalesce into the terrible dynamic we have grown to call the “Nigerian Factor”. Permit me to highlight just four dimensions of that enigmatic dynamic that has constrained Nigeria’s progress and national development since independence.
The first, for me, is the lack of a coherent vision of national well-being by a clueless political class that points at a blueprint for a better future for Nigeria and Nigerians. This is to say that the elite nationalistic framework that has served as the pathway for enlightened reflection on development for other countries is still floundering in Nigeria. On the contrary, the elite has been rather preoccupied by an extractive logic that operationalize primitive accumulation to the detriment of the commonweal. The second dimension, and a logical corollary of the first, is the incapacity of Nigeria’s political parties to serve as the framework for defining the ideological deployment of power that condition governance models and development direction. Capturing power, the fundamental objective of all political parties, is in this case not aligned with a purposeful transformative agenda which makes the party a change agent and also ensures legitimacy for those the parties are fielding for political positions.
The third issue comes from the inevitable listlessness of the development agenda that has not yielded any headway for transforming the lives of Nigerians. And hence, Nigeria has been benchmarking the failureof her development planning for sixty-three years. An extractive political class, riding on political parties that just want to capture power, could only lead to a development agenda without any content. And lastly, we see how the epileptic development agenda would fail to backstop the rehabilitation of the Nigerian national projectof integrating the diverse constituents of the Nigerian state around a civic nationalism—making ethnic nationalities believe in one Nigeria.
The great lesson, which sixty-three years of Nigerian attempt at making a headway of politics and governance, is that the task of making Nigeria great—and politics a vehicle for good governance—can no longer be left for professional politicians alone. It is this same conclusion that led to the institutional expansion of the concept of governance to bring non-state and non-governmental actors within the same confines with government officials, functionaries and apparatuses in making governance work for the citizens. now, it is time to expand the field of politics, and make it a mechanism for taking Nigeria more seriously that the politicians and the political class in Nigeria has taken. I am arguing that the idea of the “elite” in elite nationalism now needs more genuine and patriotic coalition of professionals and intellectuals, including the civil society organizations and other professional associations. The revolutionary task is that of tempering the opportunism that has characterized the trajectory of the Nigerian polity from independence till date—the opportunism of a greedy political class that has compromised Nigeria’s greatness.
And this is the message I took to the keynote responsibility at the annual workshop of the Association of Professional Bodies of Nigeria (APBN) in September. The message is that the Nigerian professionals and professional bodies have a redemptive responsibility to weigh in on Nigeria’s survival as a nation with potentials. Nigeria needs the critical insertion of professionals with the proper brew of patriotism and professionalism into the policy architecture. The professional sees herself as being involved in a calling—a vocation, rather than just seeking for self-gratification. This is the first responsibility of a professional body like the APBN: the responsible gatekeeping of professionalism in Nigeria’s professional life. And given where the professional is mostly coming from, the private sector, there is an immediate and urgent need to instigate the institutionalization and functional optimality of the public-private partnership around which most government and their policy initiatives in the world take their strength. This is the kind of partnership that distinguishes the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) as one of the nation’s leading think-tanks
To be able to make the Nigeria government serve Nigerians, professionals and intellectuals need to invigorate the trajectory of policy making in Nigeria in ways that assist in fashioning a direction for governance and making elite nationalism more fulfilling as a pathway to an ideological understanding of politics. This way, Nigeria’s professionals have a hand in rescuing the Nigerian state from a headlong descent into meaningfulness and anomie. At least, they owe that to Nigerians.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa
Retired Federal Permanent Secretary
& Professor of Public Administration