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Nigeria’s skin-deep political system?

Analysis

Nigeria’s skin-deep political system?

President Muhammadu Buhari has announced that, following pressure, he will stand for elections next year. But what has his administration achieved – or failed to achieve so far? To gauge the mood, Tom Collins spoke to Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Diocese of Sokoto, who regularly holds the government to account as a voice of the people.

For two years Nigeria – like many other predominantly single-resource economies – felt the brunt of a global commodity downturn and entered a deep recession. During that period, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari came to power with the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and promised diversification in the economy and unity and security for the 180m-strong population. 

Yet three years into office, many of the searching recommendations made by Buhari in his election campaign have been left undealt with. Although rising oil prices have steered the country back on the path of growth and development, many of Nigeria’s skeletons are still in the closet. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Diocese of Sokoto, argues that only by interrogating Nigeria’s political infrastructure can we begin to understand the country’s constraints. 

Kukah believes that many of Nigeria’s problems find their origins in a broken political infrastructure, which systemically encourages the wrong type of leader. 

He points to the country’s long history of party defections and short-lived political groupings as evidence that long-term strategy and vision give way to ego-politics, in which influential individuals seek state capture. 

Atiku Abubakar, leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate in next year’s elections, has frequently oscillated between the ruling party and the opposition. In November last year, he quit the APC, which he had been a member of since 2014, to re-join the PDP in a bid for the presidency. 

Buhari himself ran for President under three separate political parties. What this suggests, says Kukah, is that Nigerian political parties lack an ideological raison d’être. “We don’t have a political class in Nigeria. We don’t have political parties in the real sense of the word,” he says. 

“All you have are conveyer vehicles to enable people to get to power.” In other words, Nigerian parties are rarely formed through ideological convictions; there are scant economic or political goals – they are formed as a platform for their leaders to gain office and share wealth within the party. 

Realpolitik and identity politics 

The fallout, for Kukah, is that Nigeria’s youth have nothing to aspire to in politics except personal aggrandisement. Worse, they have begun to replicate the system laid before them. “In other countries, youth politics is driven by a culture of volunteering; of being ready to work for nothing because you admire someone’s ideology and convictions,” says Kukah. “These things are totally absent in Nigeria. Young people have made peace with the system and instead end up doing the dirty work of powerful politicians to pick up a few crumbs.” 

This ideological dearth means politics has been unable to supersede Nigeria’s multiple and often clashing identity affiliations. 

The country is divided along regional, ethnic and religious lines and ideas of nation and politics have thus far struggled to provide an umbrella sense of identity. “The government has never offered a sense of direction; an idea of where we are going,” affirms Kukah. 

This leads to the type of identity politics so often tied to patronage and patrimonialism. The system then lends itself to state capture by certain identity-bound groups who promote members to positions of power.

Kukah laments the missed opportunity that Buhari now represents. The APC was formed in 2013 as an alliance of opposition groups going up against the beleaguered incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan.

Buhari, a Muslim northerner, managed to bring a diverse range of politicians with different backgrounds into his fold. He brokered an alliance with ex-Lagos State Governor Bola Tinubu, who held sway in the South West to secure an electoral victory, and then offered a cabinet with an equal mix of Muslims and Christians. 

Yet very little of the gains made in the APC’s symbolic formation have been translated into governance. Buhari has allegedly only once been to Lagos during his presidency; staying instead in the country’s administrative capital, Abuja. 

“One of the great tragedies of Buhari’s time in power is the way the presidency has never come to terms with the fact that politics is a contact sport,” continues Kukah. After winning the election, Kukah believes, the President missed a trick by failing to visit troubled spots, failing to offer olive branches to groups like the Niger Delta Avengers, Biafra activists and Boko Haram. 

Kukah attributes these failures to a lack of capability among Nigeria’s leaders, both past and present. Indeed, rather than military men, Kukah is looking for a leader with vision enough to overcome the country’s divisions and establish a Nigeria proper. “Due to the poor capacity of those in power, it has not been possible for our leaders to forge an identity which can diminish the salience of ethnicity,” he states. 

So too can a similar argument be levelled at Nigeria’s economic woes. Buhari is frequently criticised for failing to properly understand the way the country’s economy works. “There is no Nigerian President that can tell you where they stand from an economic point of view, because they don’t understand the issues,” insists Kukah. As Nigeria continues its dependency on oil, the economic uptick may be related to little other than healthy crude prices. 

Symptoms of failure 

Nigeria’s continuing insurgencies and conflicts – most recently, with Fulani herdsman clashing with farmers in Benue State – are symptoms of a broken political and economic system. 

In terms of Boko Haram, an ongoing Islamic insurgency in the country’s North East, Kukah points once more to a conceptual failure of government. Thus far the government has responded largely by force; yet, Kukah believes such a response is a by-product of an executive failure to understand the group. “No attempt in Nigeria has been made to answer the question of where Boko Haram came from. You have a government that doesn’t understand the history of Nigeria,” he says.  

The Northern Region, in fact, has deep Islamic roots dating back to the Sokoto Caliphate, which governed the area from 1804-1903. The Caliphate brought decades of economic growth to the region and was known as a centre of Islamic scholarship and thought. 

With very little on offer from the central Nigerian government, in terms of services and development, Boko Haram use the region’s deep history as a basis to protest against extreme marginalisation and neglect. Seen in this light, the group’s violent ideology could be overcome if the region felt it were part of Nigeria’s future and if a leader was better able to articulate a more inclusive vision of Nigeria. 

Kukah sees many issues within this framework of government failure. Both Nigeria’s migrant crisis in Libya and the country’s separatist Biafra are by-products of Abuja’s shortfalls, he says. “They are metaphors for the failure of leadership. A house with an absent and drunk father has to face the consequences of an unruly bunch of children. There are no shortcuts.” 

Sadly, the disenfranchisement of Nigeria’s youth vis-à-vis politics has meant there is no party or politician that represents a break from business as usual in the country’s 2019 elections. Buhari, although heavily criticised, still holds special status in the north and is a favourite at the bookies.  

Yet Nigeria will be the world’s third most populous country by 2050 and the old-hat politicians face an ever-growing youth segment. While Nigeria’s political system is still beholden to its provenance, many like Kukah look forward to a new genre of leader and management.

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