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Discourse 323: A Day With Fukuyama

July 19, 2011

Nigeria is today counted among failed states. Early in his tenure, President Obama was said to privately dismiss the country as a failed state, an assessment that prompted his preference for Ghana as the venue to declare his short but eloquent prescription for the largely failed African continent: “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong leaders.”

Nigeria is today counted among failed states. Early in his tenure, President Obama was said to privately dismiss the country as a failed state, an assessment that prompted his preference for Ghana as the venue to declare his short but eloquent prescription for the largely failed African continent: “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong leaders.”

On a more impersonal level, the Failed States Index published by Foreign Relations of the United State Department of State has been listing Nigeria among failed states since its debut in 2005. In 2011, Nigeria maintained its 14th position as in 2010 largely as a result of its whopping deficit in provision of basic public services that a state should deliver to its citizens.

However, our notorious position is beginning to be hailed even in academic circles, beyond the political environs of foreign offices. Nowhere was I alerted to this fact than in the latest publication of the renowned American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order (2011). In the early pages of the book, the reader finds Fukuyama listing Nigeria along with Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, as failed nations that “everyone would like to figure out how to transform…into ‘Denmark’… stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and has extremely low level of political corruption.” (Pg. 14).

Only two paragraphs earlier, Fukuyama has described sub-Saharan African countries as libertarian paradise, “The kinds of minimal or no-government societies envisioned by dreamers of the Left and Right.” The region as a whole region, generalized the author,

“is a low tax utopia, with governments often unable to collect more than about 10 percent of GDP in taxes compared to more than 30 percent in the United states and 50 percent in parts of Europe…basic public services, like health, education, and pothole filling are starved of funding…”

The two best illustrations of those “kinds of minimal or no-government societies that Fukuyama could find among the failed states in the region were Somalia and – again – Nigeria.

Fukuyama’s voluminous The Origins is a must read. From his thesis, one understands that Nigerians’ retrogression into primordial cleavages of tribe and religion is a standard reaction of humanity wherever political decay has set in as the society gets stuck in “dysfunctional institutional equilibrium.” Our preference to members of our tribes and families than to the wider interest of the Nigerian nation is precisely the expected response of people living where higher social institutions fail:

“Inclusive fitness (kin selection) and reciprocal fitness…may be regarded as default form of social organization. The tendency to favor family and friends can be overridden by new rules and incentives that mandate, for example, hiring a qualified individual rather than a family member. But the higher-level institutions are in some sense quite unnatural, and when they break down, humans revert to the earlier form of sociability.”

Nigeria has inarguably returned to that primitive level of sociability. I doubt in the near future the good old days of merit would return. Our preference today is clearly for the family or tribe member (nepotism), a person we are indebted to in one way or another (reciprocal altruism) or a member of our religion.

The retrogression plague has eaten deep into our psyche. Today, not a single issue would be raised without beneficiaries of our state of decay infusing it with those primordial sentiments. We fail even to see crimes against Nigerians as crimes so long as they do not touch our own. When the military evidently stepped beyond their bounds and carried out atrocities that resulted in the depopulation of Maiduguri early last week, many people sounded not only indifferent but were eager to ridicule the rationale of any protest against the atrocities.

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The debate over Islamic Banking also smacks of the same depressed psyche. An American friend whomisman expert on Nigeria told me that his heart sunk after reading the press release against the interest-free banking by leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria. Also, it was not quite a while when we saw during the last presidential election how the country was sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Credibility was thrown away in favor of religion and ethnicity. This sad trend, unless checked, is likely to remain for generations to come.

We daily lament on our decay but evidently we deliberately work to entrench it. We may continue on this road but we cannot avoid its consequences. Under such circumstances, violence in form of ethnic and religious crises – including Boko Haram – will continue to be commonplace. It represents the symptoms of our accelerating decomposition. At the same time it is the manifestation for the need for institutional change. Fukuyama:

“Politics emerges as a mechanism for controlling violence, yet violence constantly remains as a background condition for certain types of political change. Societies can get stuck in a dysfunctional institutional equilibrium in which existing stakeholders can veto necessary institutional change. Sometimes violence or the threat of violence is necessary to break out of the equilibrium.” (Pg. 45)

Toeing this line, many concerned Nigerians have at various times expressed the desire for structural change. They see the diminishing return in governance to be as a result of the tragedy of the commons. If only the Nigeria is disbanded into new nations based identities of tribe or religion, its people would be better governed.

Thus, the nostalgia of reverting to life under the former three regions has dominated the debate. Biafra, representing Igbo interest, was and is still the voice to reckon with in the Southeast. The passion for its reincarnation remains high. The Afenifere cultural group lays claim to a separate government for Yoruba ‘race’ in the Southwest.

Recently, the South-south has found a voice in MEND for the control of its resources to the exclusion of the remaining ‘parasites’ in the country. Its intention to secede is widely speculated. From the North is the Middle Belt movement representing the non-Muslim minority groups there who would live happily once emancipated from the dominance of their Muslim Hausa-Fulani neighbors. Finally, the araba sentiment of the 1966 has been rekindled in the Muslim North itself as rising increasing religious influence and feeling of its political alienation from the rest of the country in the aftermath of last elections. The voice of unity and progress from the nationalist that echoed loudly in the 1970s seem to be lost by the cacophony of these agitations.

However, there is no guarantee that even if the new entities that would emerge after the de-amalgamation of the country would be different from the present. If separation is based on the primordial instinct of kinship, further instability as a result of lineal differences is very likely to stage a comeback. In short, Nigerians should not trust kinship. Fukuyama, once more:

“While segments can aggregate at a high level, they are prone to immediate fissioning once the cause of their union (such as external threat) disappears. The possibility of multilevel segmentation is seen in many different tribal societies and is reflected in the Arab saying, “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger.” (Pg. 58)

Learning from the studies of E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s studies of the Nuer people of Southern Sudan which Fukuyama cited to illustrate this point, one can easily see how our present hope is not founded on better basis than the kinship basis that drove our African independence movement. 'Africa for Africans' was the common 'nationalist' dictum throughout the continent against the ‘white’ colonialists.

However, immediately after the departure of the British from Nigeria, for example, as in all other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the ‘fictive kinship’ of the anthropologist overtook national interest, leading to civil wars in many countries, many of which are still claiming lives unabated. One would need some thinking before counting 15 African countries that have not gone through the hell of civil war. Nepotism became the order of the day, resulting in the gross underdevelopment of the continent to the extent that many people, including many scholars, today lament the departure of the 'white' man. Given our failed state, only an undeserved self-pride would prevent us from welcoming the 'white man' were he to knock on our doors today. Or is he here already in hue name of privatization and aid agencies?

In the same vein, the presence of other regions in today’s Nigeria may serve as a catalyst for de-amalgamation. But it is utopian to think that more stable nations will emerge there from. The risk of failure cannot be ruled put even in the homogenous Southwest and Southeast. "Me against my brother..." As for the Northern part of the country – the Middle Belt and the North – their catalysts cannot be kinship but a compound of different chemistry: religion.

Though Christianity and Islam has helped to forge social cohesion at levels higher than the tribe in Europe and Muslim World respectively, they woefully failed to protect such societies against the primordial instincts once institutional structures they built became dysfunctional. Europe cannot count its inter-faith wars until it decided to shut religion entirely from its politics. The same thing with the Muslim World. No sooner did the initial four caliphs passed away than the Ummah became divided and continued fighting civil wars until the caliphate was abolished by Attaturk in the early 20th Century.

So religious harmony would not guarantee stability among people given to decay due to the strong sectarian nature of religion. Thus Somalia, the consistent gold medalist on the Failed Nation Index, is not only struggling with clannish differences but also, most recently, with sectarian ones between Sufis and the Wahabbi al-Shabab. The Muslim North in Nigeria would likely be prone to instability from such differences too. Boko Haram is here as an undeniable example. There will be many similar puritanical organizations in the new North that may launch a ‘Jihad’ against other Muslims whom they already declared infidels. "Somalia", in the words of a contributor in one of the Northern Internet fora, "is not distant from my sight."

The would be emancipated Middle Belt nation will have both factors – tribe and religion – to contend with. There is no end to its diversity. The differences could be an advantage in forming a pluralistic society or a disadvantage that would engulf the state into ceaseless inter-ethnic crisis similar to the ones the region has witnessed during the past two decades - including the one fought just last week between Mumuyes and Jukun in Taraba State that has left many dead.

Agitation of the South-south is based on its oil - its sharing and environmental impact. Unless its leaders acquire wisdom superior to the one they portray today, differences between various tribes and the capriciousness of its elites may become the ingredients for instability. The scramble may produce the worst case scenario.

I am not a prophet of doom. Citizens of the different nations to emerge may show a propensity for mutual tolerance and transparency better than what they exhibit presently as Nigerians. They may prove both the anthropologists and the political scientists wrong in the absence of ‘the other Nigerian’, when the tragedy of the common disappears. That notwithstanding, personally, I will not squander my hope.

If there are sufficient Nigerians ready to make the present nation work as it is I will not hesitate to join them rather than consigning my fate to the unknown, a priori. At least I have a feeling of the problems of the present and there is a consensus that what is needed is a credible leadership that will oversee the overhauling of our institutions. Our differences are not insurmountable. They could be addressed to the reasonable satisfaction of all under the tutelage of a charismatic and competent leadership, a Gorbachev if necessary. Though the probability of such a leadership may not be high especially if we insist on its emergence through the present counterfeit democracy, the pain of waiting for it is mild compared to the long suffering in conflict ridden new nations.

How that vanguard would emerge and compel the necessary reform of political institutions remains a serious challenge to well-meaning Nigerians who, though many, are yet to cross the borders of their ethnic and religious divides, catalogue the grievances of each section, brainstorm over their solution and submit it to Nigerians for adoption through the most effective means possible. Thus, our problems of scale and its diminishing return on governance can be addressed without resorting to primitive cleavages that guarantee further suffering in most of the emerging entities.

This is my distillation of our situation as informed by my one day companionship with The Origins. It has provided me with sufficient reason for caution against the consequences of breaking up our country based on tribal and religious sentiments. It has instigated the desire in me to look for Nigerians with whom I would partner for the emergence of a future Nigeria, perhaps of different configuration, that would be quickly expelled from the league of failed states.

I am ready to be a foot soldier of any commander to this cause.


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