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Nigeria at 62: Reflections on Oladapo Afolabi’s independence anniversary lecture

By Tunji Olaopa  Nigeria clocked sixty-two years of independent statehood. And it is time for more sober reflections. We have indeed come a very long…

By Tunji Olaopa 

Nigeria clocked sixty-two years of independent statehood. And it is time for more sober reflections. We have indeed come a very long way since 1960 when all Nigerians were filled with a deep sense of expectations of what this new state could make of its independence and self-determination. However, in 62 years, the bubbles have burst on that euphoria. After 15 administrations, from the first to the fourth republic, Nigeria still remains in the woods in terms of national integration and real development. Its biggest challenge remains not only socioeconomic listlessness, but the inability to convert the ethnic loyalty of its numerous ethno-nationalities into civic patriotism. And for 62 years, we are still struggling with the basics of nation-building – insecurity, bad governance, national value crisis, less than professional civil service, dysfunctional education system, and a gloomy infrastructural gap. At both the governance and institutional levels, the gap between the government and the governed keeps widening alarmingly. 

As should have been clear to all by now, when Chinua Achebe diagnosed leadership as being the bane of all that is wrong with Nigeria, he set the focus on the challenge of the elite and elite nationalism. All across the world, from the United States to Singapore, and from China to Rwanda, the elite has always played a leading role in transforming the trajectory of nation-building. The rise or fall of any state has a lot to do with the decision-making capacities, competences and commitment of its elite. It has to do with whether the elite believes in such a state and works strenuously and self-sacrificially to uphold it; or it is a set of greedy undertakers who do not mind bringing a great state low by the logic of self-aggrandisement. 

It is significant for the Nigerian civil service that one of our own, Professor Oladapo Afolabi, Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), delivered the 2022 independence anniversary lecture in Abuja on September 29, 2022.  The lecture was titled “Elites and National Unity”, and it speaks to the recognition by the elites of the role of the elites in Nigeria’s political morass. Prof. Afolabi dedicated quite a portion of his lecture to a conceptual clarification and understanding of who the elites are, and the dynamics of power relations that circumscribe their political actions.  

Elite theory insists that a small minority of the people hold enormous power and influence that could set a nation on a trajectory of failure or success through the dynamics of decision-making. This is the famous iron law of oligarchy—whether in a democracy or an authoritarian regime, only a few make the most significant decisions that determine the fate of any organisation or entity. It is, therefore, the elite that hold all the elements of governance together, and harness all the resources, to facilitate good governance that transform the quality of life of the citizens. Unfortunately, theory is always differentiated from practice. The elite theorisation of the Nigerian State has only yielded bad results. Whatever has been harnessed has been to the advantages of the elite themselves.  

One way to read the malaise of the elite and political class in Nigeria is to lament the absence of a political and sociological imagination that could enable a proper channeling of power and resources into governance conundrum. The sociological imagination requires the capacity to connect personal experiences with one’s social realities and the larger issues involved in it. Once connected with a political imagination, we are targeting the political class and their ability to see the political challenges of the Nigerian state from the perspectives of their personal trajectories.  

The different elites in Nigerian political history have all benefitted from the best that Nigeria could provide. In one sense or the other, these generations have all been a product of the Nigerian sociocultural context. We all were groomed here to become what we have become. The second point about generational capital is that we all have been blessed, by providential good fortune, with immense endowments. What is then left is the sheer act of class-will to put competences and endowments to use in harnessing a vision adapted to strategies that could transform Nigeria. Generational capital should be matched with sociological and political imagination. That is where the power of political leadership lies. But as Prof. Afolabi brilliantly outlined, what we rather have is “counterfeit leadership” that is not only preoccupied with dominance and prominence, or intent on getting people to keep following, even when there is no concrete example or vision to follow. Even the same leadership corps would want to set false tasks for those it wants to make followers, and is fixated with an orthodox paradigm of governance without any hint of innovativeness. Real leadership, Prof. Afolabi argues, shifts the people’s attention to the sociopolitical reality, and then commences a process of cultural adjustment programme that demands a shift in attitude, norms and values. Good leadership must be willing to ruffle the waters and rupture the paradigms.  

Thus, it is the fundamental task of elite nationalism in Nigeria to change the Nigerian postcolonial realities. The first means is to provide adequate and firm leadership that undermine Nigeria’s decision deficiency. One way to do this is through a conscious effort to undermine bad politics by differentiating between democracy and demagoguery. This implies that the elites and the political class cannot always play to the gallery in pushing their selfish interests through at the expense of genuine democratic initiatives. The social contract insists that the political class hold power in democratic trust. And that stewardship demands that politics must be about sound political judgments that orient policy directions. This immediately sensitizes Nigerians to the imperative of holding the aspirants for offices and posts pre-2023 to demand those policy directions—blueprints, that are backed by sound political reasoning. The vigilance required by democracy derives from a politically sophisticated citizenry that is not easily swayed by frivolities. The values of democratic governance cannot be left to the elites alone.     

This leads to the second means of undermining decisional deficiency—policy initiative that is backed by a strategic force of competences and skills. This calls for a solid framework of engagement and collaboration between the political class, the private sector and the civil society. It is the function of the civil society to aggregate democratic demands in ways that could make for transformational politics that affects the well-being of the citizens. A transformational elite cannot ignore or undermine the civil society as a cohort of democratic governance. On its own, the private sector complements the state’s search for competences. 


Alaopa is a retired federal Permanent Secretary 


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