Elite theory does not often sit very well with democratic aspirations. And the simple reason is that the political elites often define their interests in ways that are antithetical to the demands of the people on whose behalf they are often called upon to make political judgments that orient national policies. Hilary Clinton puts it as bluntly as she could: “It is a fact that around the world the elites of every country are making money.” This statement is meant to signal the enormous doubt that attends the character of the political class across the world.
- We won’t allow people denigrate Buhari — Kwara gov
- Kidnapping: FCT community decries withdrawal of policemen
This essentially is the angst against the national elite in Nigeria. All across the world, elite nationalism has a fundamental role to play in not only the birthing of a nation but also in keeping that nation together, stable and progressive. The emergence of the state in Africa was accompanied by the hope that it would become a capable democratic developmental state that could deliver the strategic framework to (a) implement sound macroeconomic policies that could alleviate poverty, create employment and grow a strong, sustainable and competitive economy that could facilitate the well-being of the citizens, (b) promote popular participation that can lead to the indigenous ownership of the development agenda, (c) build a sound institution of public administration that is professional, citizen-friendly, technology-enabled and meritocratic, with a capability readiness to efficiently achieve service delivery, and (d) mobilise state resources, administer budgets and manage public finances productively, transparently and accountably.
This was the task that was faced by Singapore, as a third world country. An apocryphal quote is often ascribed to Lee Kuan Yew that signaled the direction he decided to take, that eventually led to the transformation of Singapore from a third to a first world country. He was alleged to have said: “There were two options for me. Either I get corrupted and put my family in the Forbes list of the richest people in the world and leave my people with nothing. Or, I serve my country, my people and let my country be in the list of the best 10 economies in the world. I chose the second option.” The first option is then often left to symbolically denote the options taken by the political elites of countries that failed to go the path of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. Is this not the path that the Nigerian political elites took since independence?
But this supposed response must be contextualised. No one will fail to recognise some commendable but significant nation-building efforts of the political elites from independence that we like to conceptualise in discourse today as ‘pockets of effectiveness’. I can signpost a few that readily come to mind. First, I take it that no politically conscious Nigerian, with a deep sense of Nigeria’s administrative history, will doubt the huge political inputs that went into the infrastructural transformation of the regions after independence. Regionalism and the regional competitiveness that were supervised by Awolowo, Bello and Azikiwe defined the very essence of Nigeria’s federalism post-1960.
But then the civil war turned out to be an occasion for administrative dexterity and clear-headedness that was still dedicated to the developmental progress of the country even though the war was still raging. And then, when the military became the norm, we can still reference the Murtala-Obasanjo and Buhari-Idiagbon regimes and the determined war of the political class against corruption and indiscipline. With the Babangida administration, there was a clear-cut governance template that gave concession to talents, professionalism and meritocracy in using world-acclaimed technocrats and the very best Nigerian intellectuals in the policy space. And when democracy dawned in 1999, there has been a series of governance efforts at institutionalisation through consistent reform initiatives from Obasanjo to Buhari.
Unfortunately, the narrative has remained that of perpetual transitioning in quantum paces that never added up to any critical boiling point that crystallises into genuine national transformation. And this becomes more frightening because our national dynamics are getting more complicated, complexified and seemingly irresolvable. This line of thought points us back to fundamentals. For instance, what is the meaning and objective of political power? Essentially, political power is meant to be deployed as a significant transformational, rather than transactional force that gets a state or a people from one alpha point to another and better omega point. Political power becomes therefore the critical motivation for social change and reconstruction in a state. When politicians win political power, it is meant to be deployed, on behalf of the people, to achieve democratic aspirations and developmental imperatives.
But then political power corrupts and often absolutely. Politicians, even those who understand what power could achieve, have bent it towards nefarious and selfish interests that undermine the transformational capacities of power and made it a transactional framework for limiting the well-being of the people. The most fundamental misuse of political power in Nigeria is the palpable absence of a strong and coherent ideological framework around which political power can then serve as a firm machinery for getting the objectives of nation building and development working. And the ideological differences between two or more parties within a democracy ought to serve as ideational alternatives that demonstrate different but focused ways to a state’s future greatness. When one political party wins election, and hence the legitimate use of political power, the ultimate beneficiary of that victory ought to be the people on whose behalf the political power ought to be deployed. All ideological roads ought to lead to the empowerment and flourishing of the citizenry.
Alas, the political elites in Nigeria lack an ideological coherence that ought to motivate party politics. This is one essential lesson we learnt from the early nationalists in the First Republic. The question is: what are the reigning ideological fault lines along which we can begin to recalibrate Nigeria’s development? The absence of a serious ideological dynamic could only mean that political power would fail to orient the political class to its fundamental responsibility on behalf of the people.
This brings me to another fundamental issue that has undermined the capacity of the Nigerian political elite to become a force for nationalist transformation. This is the issue of progressive engagement and collaboration. The nationalist capacity of the political class anywhere is often attached to the fervent heroism of the people to believe the agenda of the political parties and to run with it. This means that the imperative of transformational politics demand that the political elite, to achieve a nationalism that will capture the imagination of the people, need to be in progressive collaboration with those elements of the democratic space, especially the civil society, that could be drawn into the ideological discourse on how political power could be used and deployed for the betterment of the state. Nationalism is founded on the developmental agenda that the political elite is able to put together that will transform into infrastructural development and the provision of public goods, which then serve as the basis for the sense of belonging that the citizens begin to feel for one another and for the leadership of the state.
If elite nationalism will save the Nigerian state, it must have a populist cum patriotic self-justifying dimension that will submit the development agenda of the political elite to the parliament of the citizens through an ideological salesmanship in the political agora.
Professor Oloapa is a Directing Staff, National InstituteFor Policy and Strategic Studies Kuru, Jos