Nigeria’s Political System: Where We Are And Road to Better Days | By Sonny Ogulewe


Letters & EssaysOpinion

When, in 1965, my father was elected a councilor into the Local Government council, a new chapter was opened in my family. His involvement in politics for many years later rubbed off on my childhood. As a result of the influence my father’s role in politics had on me, I went ahead to study Political Science; earning a Bachelors degree, a Masters and a PhD in the process. More so, I have been in the service of various political leaders for the past twenty years. As such, I have an experiential knowledge of the issues that can be raised in such a discourse.

This discussion is both mundane and monumental. Mundane, because we have arrived at a stage in our country’s history where we are beginning to regret the choices we have made or not made. Monumental, because we can look forward with optimism, counting on the mileage and traction we have gained from our experiences, both good and bad. More recently, the political arena has been a focal point of the media, campaign organizations as well as religious bodies due to the 2019 general elections. One is moved to ask the pertinent questions: Have we gotten it right with our polity as a nation? My answer is in the negative.

As a nation we are faced with the menacing challenge of ethno-religious fragmentation, the challenge of nepotism, poverty, insecurity, unemployment, poor infrastructure, intellectual poverty, corruption, weak leadership recruitment process, poor national image, the commoditization of religion, decadent public institutions, and lack of faith in the country, among other things.

This is the picture you get, not only in the media from the pages of newspapers to blogposts on the internet, but of course the reality that stares us in the face. What factors impede our move towards global best practices in our leadership recruitment process? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

Politics is a universal necessity

It is a common notion in Nigeria that ‘politics is a dirty game’. This opinion, pedestrian as it may be, has been informed by the ills of political leadership and the flaws of the electoral process. But does this make politics a pariah system to be completely avoided? Can we really function without an all important process of democratically selecting leaders? Renowned leadership experts seem to disagree!

‘‘Leadership is always the lid for personal and organizational effectiveness” says Maxwell (1991). Strong leadership produces strong organisations. He further justifies the need for the right political leadership in a country like ours with a teeming population of young people: ‘‘Wherever you look, you can find smart, talented, successful people who can go only so far because of the limitations of their leadership”

Why worry about Nigerian politics?

Chinua Achebe was certain that “the trouble with Nigeria is leadership”. Scholars, market women, artisans and even school children are in agreement with this notion. I was indeed ashamed when my 8 year old daughter watched Prof. Innocent Ibeawuchi narrate how he was forced to declare someone a winner in an election he adjudged grossly flawed. How will my little girl build her love for a country whose leadership recruitment process is akin to a civil war? The recent violent and barbaric malpractices seen during recent elections as well as the militancy of political parties and factions seem to corroborate this view. We are all witnesses to the charade in the Orlu senatorial elections on the 23rd of February and the militarization of elections in Rivers state on the 9th of March. These are bad signs that our democracy is under threat.

In his biography of Dr. Akanu Ibiam, Nwafor (1998) quotes him from a private letter written 13th July 1959 as having lamented:

‘‘Some of us have withdrawn from politics because the Nigerians are not even prepared to listen to the truth. One must make a lot of false statements and vilify and abuse other people to be accepted as a true nationalist’’.

Dr. Ibiam’s frustrations are not different from the ones being faced in the nation’s polity sixty years later. This is to say nothing about the poor quality of leadership resulting from wrong choices in elections fraught with different malpractices that tend to evolve and worsen by the day.

Very many challenges

In Portrait of a new Nigeria: Selected speeches of IBB, a clear picture is painted:

‘‘Our national crisis has many aspects – economic, political and social- which interact’’

This interplay manifests under three themes: absence of sustainable systems, peculiar polarizing agents and interference by foreign powers.

On the absence of sustainable systems: Firstly, the advent of democracy in 1999 presented the nation with an avalanche of challenges. Firstly, there was no electoral body to midwife the emergence of a new government. The military had to set one up. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has not metamorphosed into a modern electoral system in comparison with those of other middle income economies, twenty years after the change-over to civilian rule. Intimidation of the electorate by the Military, snatching of ballot boxes, vote buying, defection of candidates between parties of different ideologies, toothless or oftentimes compromised election tribunals are pointers to an ineffectual system. Nigerians have had to endure the huge sums wasted in the budget every four years to execute a task with little or no electronic presence that furnishes a long list of inconclusive processes.

Secondly, the military had been ruling as absolute authorities by use of decrees. So, a constitution became necessary. Imperfect as it is, the 1999 constitution cobbled together by the military still subsists. The details of the constitution have made politics very lucrative while actual leadership declines. Sections that have to do with immunity from prosecution have transformed political leaders into absolute authorities. This is the vivid picture one readily sees in the power of incumbency displayed at various levels in the 2019 general elections.

More so, the subjugation and apparent emasculation of the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary into mere tools in the hands of the executive arm of the government has predicted ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in elections. All of this present a clear interplay of tacit submission of the majority poor to the whims and caprices of the minority bourgeoisie and the existence of a disposable, albeit reusable electorate whose roles are determined by economic power and whose votes do not need to count.

Then, there are the peculiar polarizing agents. Although Nigeria has numerous political parties, only two parties can be said to have a national spread. Even so, there are easily observable geographical ‘catchment areas’. The ideologies of the major parties also appeal to different strata on the social pyramid. The presence of an apparent ethno-religious divide in the politics of the major parties worsens the age long mistrust and mutual suspicion among the ethnic nationalities within the Nigerian space. This has led to a phenomenon the BBC refers to as ‘the politics of envy’. Unfortunately, desperate politicians have climbed on the back of this peculiarity into ‘juicy’ offices.

Crucially, we are in the age of a neo-imperialism by foreign media outlets. The average Nigerian has developed more confidence in the foreign media than the local media. Even when the local media is first to break a news, it has to be verified and validated by BBC, The New York Times, VOA or Al Jazeera. As a result, it has become possible to subtly remote-control what features in the national space. Opinion polls by such news outlets oftentimes sway voters or validate mileage. The resultant effect is that the Nigerian politicians shuttle between Buckingham palace and Chatham House prior to elections to curry the favours of the imperialist western powers whose backing is a show of political might and ‘integrity’. Unfortunately, the independence and sovereignty of the Nigerian people is undermined in the process.

On the threshold of hope

Given the present state of the Nigerian political landscape, many Nigerians are more likely to give up on the system. It is however imperative that we lay emphasis on the future of the country. Every country passes through a convalescence period after political turmoil. The twenty years of democracy in Nigeria is a period of recovery. The increasing loss of the power of incumbency and the seeming resurgence of the electorate in the last two general elections are early signs of things to come. Deriving inspiration from Pope St. John Paul II’s ‘Crossing the threshold of hope’; we have reasons to be optimistic. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. These steps must be calculated, intentional and consistent.

Sustainable systems will take us far

Building on the foundations of a stable, informed electorate, we are heading for a future powered by information technology where votes would be electronically polled, collated and declared; no ballot boxes, no police, no military no rewriting of figures. The use of ATM machines or bank verification numbers (BVN) in voting could be the next big thing. We are approaching there gradually. Our democracy would become indeed a government of the people by the people. However, a lot needs to be done to set up an informed and willing electorate.

Strengthening political will of the electorate

One cardinal step that must be taken to increase the political value of the electorate is to encourage participation. The level of voter apathy in the 2019 general elections is appalling. This mirrors the nonchalance with which the masses have treated important national obligations while insisting on rights. Unfortunately, the informal structures for national orientation such as the churches, the mosques and traditional rulers have not been completely committed to this role. While being non-partisan, the religious institutions should not limit involvement in politics to an observer status. Borrowing from the Catena Legionis, there should be a conscious effort to ‘inflame those who are lukewarm’. Citizenship education should be in church as it is in school. This would counter the carefree attitude popularized by the explosion of new churches in which the excessive belief in miracles leaves nothing to the contribution of sincere efforts. Ejekwumadu (2011) paints a clearer picture:

‘‘No one seems to attribute failure to lack of a plan to succeed. Wishful thinking has replaced the spirit of hard work in a new ‘Theology of Prosperity’ as many now believe that faith alone would feed them by miracles and take care of social problems that require the input of human efforts. The list is endless; the situation pathetic’’

Praying for a good government or credible elections is good, but working for it is better. Laborare est orare, to work is to pray!

The politics of a philosopher king

The foregoing suggestions cannot be implemented without leaders who possess the intellectual capacity to comprehend the impact of such foundations. There is the need for ‘philosopher kings’ who are constantly striving for the common good. We need leaders who can tackle headlong, the challenges of our democracy without fear or favour. The entry barriers to our political class should now be raised on the basis of track record, integrity and traceable achievements and not on the indices of Naira and Kobo. The politics of ‘stomach infrastructure’ should now be jettisoned.

This seems a good time to remember the words of the Nigerian president of the Second Republic cited by Aminu Tijjani & David Williams in Shehu Shagari: My Vision for Nigeria:

‘‘We must see ourselves as partners in the service of our country. And for the period that we are players on the stage, let our performance be worthy of emulation by those who will come after us’’.


Excerpted from a keynote paper ‘The Nigerian Political System: Hopes and Impediments’ presented by Dr. Sonny Ogulewe at the 2019 weekend symposium of the National Association of Philosophy Students (NAPS) at Seat of Wisdom Seminary Umuahia on Saturday 23rd March, 2019
Ejekwumadu, J. N. (2011). Philosophical Foundations of Igbo Numerology: An ancient recipe for modern leadership in Africa. Lagos, Felikson Ltd. p10.
Maxwell, J. (1991). Ultimate Leadership: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville Tennessee, Thomas Nelson Publishers, p18.
Nwafor, D. C. (1988). Born To Serve: The Biography of Dr. Akanu Ibiam. Lagos, MCMillan Publishers, p163.

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