Affirming Democracy amid Insecurity and Uncertainty

“Until Nigerians find a way to create institutions which…can remain part of the state…and not become instruments susceptible to being captured by factions of civil society which win (temporary) control of the state, any hope for a constitutional democracy is likely to be regularly frustrated.”

Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria, 1987


“Nigeria must move to the forefront in the region, in the continent, and globally in interwoven ways: building effective state institutions, advancing democracy, and democratizing development. Why can Nigerians build and operate mega-churches but not quality public transport, public universities, public energy utilities and other service organizations?”

“State, Governance, and Democratic Development: The Nigerian Challenge,” Guest Lecture, The Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy, 2016


We have entered a period of global insecurity and uncertainty. The certainties of the immediate post-Cold War years have dissipated. As champions of illiberalism gain prominence, democracy advocates are forced to respond to the challenge. In the United States, proponents of democratic construction can be found, as would be expected, among liberals and progressives, but moderate Republicans such as Condoleezza Rice and John McCain are also speaking out. The latter recently wrote:

We are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral conscience must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it. We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values…More of humanity than ever before lives in freedom and out of poverty because of those rules. Our values are our strength and greatest treasure…an ideal of liberty is the inalienable right of all mankind. [1]

Liberal policy scholars such as Jessica Mathews have expressed sentiments similar to those of Senator McCain: “The dominance of the West,” she writes, “has been driven as much by values, ideas, and political attraction as by economic and military power.” [2] Confidence in these values and ideas, however, has been shaken by post-Cold War geopolitical shifts, especially the resurgence of Russia, the economic expansion of China, and the resilience of illiberal political systems in these countries and post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Confronted by dysfunctional government and social distress in their own countries, exponents of western liberal democracy have grown cautious and rebalanced their critiques. [3]

A widening gap between advocacy and action in western foreign policies recalls the Cold War experiences. As a consequence, scholars such as Alexander Cooley suggest that “Western representatives charged with public diplomacy and regional engagement must resist the urge to decouple normative from geopolitical issues.” “If the West were to reduce its support,” he writes, “for liberal norms and a rule-based international order for the sake of political expediency, it would only hasten the erosion of its normative standing.” [4]

Former president Barack Obama was a strong exponent of the views expressed by McCain and Mathews. As his presidency unfolded, however, the need to balance “normative” and “geopolitical” issues blurred his message. This was evident in July 2015 during a visit to Addis Ababa. On two occasions, Mr. Obama declared that the governing coalition in Ethiopia, having just swept 100% of parliamentary seats in national elections, was “democratically elected.” Such a declaration was not only contradicted by widely available commentaries but also by extensive documentation of human rights abuses and political repression in the annual reports of the U.S. State Department.

At a conference on the Ethiopian crisis at Stanford University on January 21, 2017, the title of my presentation was the same as it is today: “Affirming Democracy amid Insecurity and Uncertainty.” [5] Professor Larry Diamond, who shared the plenary panel at that conference, reminds us that “the affirmation of democratic principles” was given a different meaning by America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams. In a major address in 1821, then a congressman, Adams contended that the United States should abstain from “interference in the concerns of others” even when conflicts involve “principles to which she clings.” He continued:

Whenever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s heart], her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. [6]



President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Guinea and African Union Chairman Alpha Conde, President of the African Development Bank Akinwumi Adesina, acting President of Nigeria Yemi Osinbajo, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn with US President Donald Trump at the May, 2017 G7 Summit.
Photo: Reuters

This view has echoed across two centuries in the positions now expressed by President Donald Trump, most notably during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. This debate will intensify. As authoritarian leaders such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines are invited to the White House, John Quincey Adams’s version of “affirming democracy” is further diluted, marking a significant departure from the position taken by most American presidents since President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).    


Affirming Democracy: The Nigerian Narrative

As one of the largest constitutional democracies in the world, and by far the largest in Africa, the Nigerian experience is highly relevant to this debate. During a week of talks in four Nigerian cities – Abuja, Lagos, Ibadan, and Kano – various aspects of Nigeria’s democracy will be discussed. These engagements follow a forum series earlier this year on Democracy and Insecurity in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois. Commentaries from these events are available on the website AfricaPlus. Moreover, a large volume of my writings on Nigeria since March 1977 will be made available later this year by Arch Library, a new online entity of Northwestern University. These documents will contribute to collective reflections on “affirming” democracy, focusing on how the word is commonly understood to mean assertion as well as confirmation, endorsement, and encouragement.  

In one of my recently concluded classes, students read with interest a 1983 article entitled “The State and Ethnicity: Integrative Formulas in Africa,” by Henry S. Bienen. [7] Professor Bienen, a former president of Northwestern University, earlier taught at the Universities of Ibadan and Nairobi. His discussion of the importance of formulas and narratives devised by elites and governments in post-colonial Africa, and how these shape political behaviors, is particularly pertinent to today’s disordered world and security challenges.

Alexander Cooley, mentioned earlier, reflects on the rise of an “authoritarian value system” and “how language about democracy is used to advance anti-democratic values.” This is an argument familiar to scholars of African democracy: the use of democratic formulas to justify the reversal or impeding of these very systems. In a 1998 essay, I showed how the Ethiopian government exemplified such actions and behaviors. [8]

Following the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, a signatory to the new constitution, Benjamin Franklin, was asked whether the U.S. will be a republic or a monarchy. He replied, “a republic, if you can keep it”: simple yet profound words. They are relevant to our deliberations on Nigeria since the resumption of a constitutional government in 1999. While the designing of a constitutional republic is a major endeavor, defending and preserving it may be an even greater challenge.

At the midway point in the fifth presidential term since Nigeria returned to constitutional rule in 1999, the question will be posed “Will the Fourth Republic endure?” While writing my 1987 book on Nigeria, it was doubtful that the Second Republic would survive. [9] The traumas of 1983 were reminiscent of 1965, when the country became engulfed in a paroxysm of political violence and electoral mayhem. These developments culminated in the first military seizure of power and a catastrophic civil war. On May 25, at the end of a lament about the ills confronting Nigeria, Prof. Ayo Olukotun declared: “To end on an optimistic note, there is the good fortune that in spite of all, democracy, however tattered, survives.” [10]

Franklin’s seven words have morphed into Olukotun’s eight: “in spite of all, democracy, however tattered, survives.” Some Nigerian scholars and analysts, such as Prof. Wale Adebanwi, vehemently critiqued the nature of the current democracy. In his recent address at Northwestern University, he was acerbic on this topic. “Why,” Adebanwi asks, “has democracy in Nigeria not resulted in greater transparency, less corruption, a greater supply of public goods, and reduced insecurity?” “Nigerian rulers,” he continued, ”have arrogated to themselves the right to act in ways counter to the public interest.” Although office-holders since 1999 have come to power via elections, voting, Adebanwi claims, “provides a route, just like a military coup, to take control of the resources of the state via the capture of prebends for self-settling.” [11]


A protestor holds a banner during an Occupy Nigeria demonstration in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: AP

These are troubling assertions.This same lament is voiced in other African countries, including some held up as exemplars of democratic progress. In a visit to Ghana in 2014, I was surprisingly challenged on this issue by several participants in a seminar in Accra at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development. Citing the disappointing outcomes of two decades of renewed multiparty democracy, they queried the pertinence of this governmental system. Similar questions were raised by Professor Martin Ajei and his associates of the University of Ghana, Legon, in a conference in April 2017 at the University of Chicago. Ajei proposed an alternative to the competitive party system that he called “consensual democracy.” [12]

These misgivings recall a 1983 letter, “Who’s ‘in love’ with Democracy?,” cited at length in Democracy and Prebendal Politics. It was written by B. Olusegun Babalola, who lambasted “the dishonesty, the numerous acts of embezzlement, that now characterize the country’s governmental as well as social institutions.” [13] Mr. Babalola cited Major Kaduna Neogwu’s sharp January 1966 critique of “the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men (and women too!) in high and low places who seek bribes…those that have corrupted the Nigerian society and put its political calendar back by their words and deeds.” In the five decades since Nzeogwu’s declaration and the January 1966 coup, how far has Nigeria moved forward its “political calendar”? The obvious answer is that it has moved forward and backward in some ways but stagnated in many.

During a May 19, 2017 conference at Northwestern on “Governance and Security in the Sahel,” several presenters cited the iconic case of Mali. The democratic gains of that country were still lauded in 2012 on the eve of the shoving aside of its eroded government by militant insurgencies in the north and by army mutineers in the south. The country was rescued from disintegration and the takeover by radical Islamists by a French military intervention that began in January 2013. The Mali government, led by President Ahmadou Toumani Touré, had been hollowed out by cronyism and clientelism, all the while receiving generous democracy- and state-building assistance. Also striking was how often the presenters at the Sahel conference raised the issue of the weakness, frailty, or absence of state institutions in Mali and elsewhere in West Africa.

The post-1989 democracies, similar to their post-colonial counterparts, have generally failed to build government institutions that incorporate the three fundamental democratic values famously enunciated by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: “of the people, by the people, for the people.” [14]  We can deconstruct this familiar phrase. “Of the people” means that electoral mechanisms ensure that the people actually choose their representatives, and can hold them accountable in various ways, including removing them from office. “By the people” means that office-holders remain representatives of the voters and are not captured by special interests. And “for the people” means that the populace is the principal beneficiary of the activities of the work of the country’s political institutions.

In his cri de coeur of 1983, Mr. Babalola contended that the three core values of democracy had been traduced: “Democracy appears to have been subverted into its opposite,” he claimed, “Its legitimacy is increasingly questioned…Democratic rights give cover to so many evil things…Many people have stopped bothering themselves with classifying African regimes as democratic or otherwise. They instead keep asking how much do the regimes address themselves to the needs and aspirations of the people? I am one. I tell you, all these noises about democracy and democratic are mere luxuries to the sufferers.” [15]

On the evidence of his March 7, 2017 address at Northwestern, Professor Adebanwi clearly believes that Nigerian democracy has once again been “subverted into its opposite.” His remarks recall reflections on the Second Republic by the astute American scholar of Northern Nigeria, Sylvester Whitaker three decades earlier. Whitaker spoke of the “moral incapacity of the state” under Shehu Shagari. While acknowledging the president’s generally good intentions, he felt that Shagari had “lent himself to the purposes of a rogue government.” [16] As these remarks suggest, the Nigerian political calendar keeps being turned back by political elites. What I wrote in 1983 can be restated virtually unchanged today: “a serious dilemma of Nigeria’s Second Republic derives from the fact that individuals who accede to positions of state power are often adept at milking the very source which they are expected to strengthen and fructify.” [17]


Firming-Up Democratic Institutions

How can democracy be affirmed beyond restating well-known tributes? Nigeria is certainly not as dysfunctional and hollowed out institutionally as Mali was in 2012, or any number of other African countries such as the chaotic Central African Republic and ravaged Zimbabwe. But that is obviously not a reassuring assessment. Nigerian democracy has survived, but in how “tattered” a form? Can it be repaired? [18] In addition to failing the crucial test of improving the general welfare of the populace, many core state institutions have been compromised, perhaps most tragically the judiciary. Nigerians can look with dismay at the upheavals and fierce struggles in two countries with long democratic (and military) pedigrees: Venezuela and Brazil.

An argument I made about institutions a decade ago can be repeated today:

Democracy will not flourish in Africa until public institutions perform their most fundamental duties in a reasonably efficient and predictable manner…Africans are still overwhelmingly denied basic public goods … because the institutions required to provide them are …constantly being eroded from within….How can African countries build institutions that maximize the supplying rather than the pillaging of public goods? Collaboratively, answers must be sought to this fundamental question. [19]

The limit of available time will only allow me to reflect on two core institutions of Nigerian democracy and society, the media and the electoral system. With regard to the media, I will draw on an insightful presentation by Professor Ayo Olukotun. [20] The media, as is well-known, reflects much that is unsettling about Nigerian enterprises: entities that are primarily vanity outlets, the doling out of material benefits to procure special coverage or to cover up events, extravagant salutations via full-page advertisements commemorating simultaneously the same person or event in many newspapers; and indifferent production qualities.

Yet, the critical importance of the Nigerian media as an arena of largely open commentary is one of the fundamental dimensions of the country’s vibrant and competitive democracy. The courageous and resourceful journalism displayed during the prolonged era of resumed military rule, 1984 -1999, showed that the Nigerian media cannot entirely be cowed, despite the many hardships endured. The resolute building of a consensus, notably via the media, as Olukotun argues, against the threatened removal of constitutionally-mandated term limits is another striking example. These achievements contrast with the elimination of such constraints by many African governments following the restoration of multiparty politics.

The media also reflect one of the unique aspects of Nigerian nationhood and democratic inclination: the voicing of regional, ethnic, and cultural diversities. Ambitious politicians find it necessary to create and finance media vehicles to advance their political agendas. This is a practice that can be traced back to the colonial period, as the well-known exploits of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and their respective media instruments demonstrate. Politics, business, and media in Nigeria are inextricably wedded, but that is little different from what takes place globally. Such aggregations of interests do not prevent independent voices from emerging and being heard. This factor has become even more significant with the explosion of internet-based media and the capacity to conduct investigative reporting, as has been shown by Sahara Reporters and other enterprises.

I will end this brief commentary on the media by highlighting an aspect that deserves special attention. This is the need for a high-quality publication that can play the role of a New York Times, a Washington Post, or one of the other two or three major newspapers in the United States. The Guardian in Lagos has performed this role for many years, and so did The New Nigerian with a more limited circulation in northern Nigeria. Dele Olojede’s Next succeeded brilliantly in this regard before its untimely demise. Olukotun recommends the fellowship approach as a way of meeting this challenge. Nigeria possesses entrepreneurs with the capital resources to create such an entity, but they must forego the temptation that has fragmented the academic landscape with dozens of new universities and other entities of indifferent quality.

One striking statistic in Olukotun’s treatise is the ethnic diversity of media proprietorship. He cites the intriguing fact that 9 of 11 of the major newspapers have non-Yoruba owners, although most are published in Lagos. Many Nigerian professionals, as Professor Eghosa Osaghae pointed out in a recent lecture on ethnicity at the University of Chicago, function in trans-ethnic arenas where they are imbued with these values. [21] The media, in short, simultaneously reflect Nigerian sectional diversities while helping forge a national perspective and identity. At a time when several governments in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are narrowing the space permitted for the free expression of ideas and opinions, Nigeria’s experience represents a powerful countervailing narrative.

The electoral sphere is one in which Nigeria had been minimally successful during much of the country’s independent history, despite the expenditure of enormous funds and energies. In the March 2017 forums on Democracy and Insecurity, Ambassador John Campbell described how South Africa, in contrast to Nigeria, conducts elections reliably and fairly. Francis Fukuyama reminds us that we do not fully understand the mystery of institutions: where they come from and why they persist. [22] When public or private/public institutions work, as they often do in countries where drinkable tap water, electricity, and sanitation are usually available and affordable, few citizens ask why that is the case. At the core, their provision depends on institutions, or a complex of institutions, that are constantly being improved.

India efficiently conducts elections with only sporadic acts of violence. In South Africa, electoral integrity appears, paradoxically, to be a legacy of the pre-democratic era, perhaps similar to India’s from its colonial past. Closer geographically to Nigeria is Ghana, where the construction of a fair and efficient electoral system has proceeded relatively smoothly since the restoration of constitutional government in 1992. Can Nigeria emulate the Ghanaian, Indian, and South African experiences? Can a Nigerian institutional legacy of elections with integrity, to use Professor Attahiru Jega’s formulation, be fostered and entrenched?

Available to Nigerians as they contemplate this great challenge is the distillation of a presentation by Professor Jega on March 7, 2017. [23] Based on Nigerian elections since 1979, and Prof. Jega’s summary of what was achieved under his stewardship, the following assertions can be made regarding the 2011-2015 experience:

  1. Transforming a dysfunctional and discredited major institution into a functional and creditable one.
  2. Acquiring, in a democratic context, institutional capabilities often attributed to “developmental authoritarian” states.
  3. Raising and disbursing significant sums of money in a transparent and accountable manner.
  4. Fostering an “esprit de corps”, cultivating an institutional culture, and having officials of a large organization uphold these tenets.
  5. Creating a plan and a strategy and having them guide operations during a multi-year period.
  6. Adjusting to, while not being derailed by, intense partisan and other pressures.
  7. Transcending sectional, ethnic, religious and other divisions in Nigeria so that INEC regained integrity as a national organization committed to its public responsibilities
  8. Enabling Nigerian citizens, in contexts of high insecurity, and displaced persons in the northeast, to exercise their franchise however constrained.
  9. Serving a complete term of office at the head of a major institution in the Nigerian state system and leaving with reputation enhanced.
  10. To have advanced the “Nigerian political calendar” in regard to a key dimension of democracy, something that cannot be said for many components of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Will INEC replicate in 2019 the achievements of the 2015 elections? This will be the theme of a meeting on June 12, 2017 at Mambayya House, Kano. Professor Jega admits to the huge cost of the reforms instituted after 2011, especially the introduction of specially-designed technology and equipment. It may be difficult to replicate this level of investment in a resource-strapped era. Was the reform strategy implemented under his tenure maintained after his departure? Looking forward to 2019, can it be further strengthened? A more daunting question is whether Nigerian politicians have altered their behaviors in conformity with a rule-governed electoral system. Conversely, will the deplorable practices return in full force in the run-up to the 2019 national elections? These and similar questions must be urgently asked and honest answers sought in the run-up to the 2019 elections.


Biometric Permanent Voters’ Cards (shown above), along with Smart Card Readers, were used for the first time to accurately identify voters in Nigeria’s historic 2015 general election. Photo: Getty Images

In Conclusion: “Affirming democracy” requires more than verbal affirmations. Just as important is the “firming up” of core institutions and practices. While recognizing the trenchant critiques of Prof Adebanwi and others, I remain persuaded by Prof. Suberu’s call for incremental enhancements rather than revolutionary transformations of Nigeria’s federal democracy. This topic will be taken up in my talk at the University of Lagos on June 9th. While some institutions require drastic revision, the greater majority can be “firmed up” by strong, innovative, and accountable leadership.

I believe the needle of Nigerian democracy can be moved several notches ahead and will require the “firming up” a multiplicity of state, civic, communal, and faith-based institutions. During a time of global turmoil, and with leaders of major nations aggravating rather than alleviating insecurity and uncertainty, Nigeria’s federal democracy is too important, too vital, too essential to fail. All hands should row towards the same destination: an inclusive, prosperous, and democratic nation.


Copyright © AfricaPlus 2017


[1] John McCain, “Why We Must Support Human Rights; Condoleezza Rice, Stories from the Long Road to Freedom (New York: Hatchette Book Group, 2017).

[2] “Can China Replace the West,” The New York Review of Books (May 11, 2017).

[3] Thomas Carothers, “Look Homeward Democracy Promoter.” Also pertinent are several essays by Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University.

[4] Alexander Cooley, Countering Democratic Norms


[6] Cited in Diamond, “Promoting Democracy: Enduring tensions and new opportunities,” In Search of Democracy (London and New York, 2016), p. 419.

[7] Published in Donald Rothchild and Victor A. Olorunsola, eds., State Versus Ethnic Claims: African Policy Dilemmas (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983).

[8] “Is Ethiopia Democratic? Oldspeak vs Newspeak,” Journal of Democracy (October, 1998).

[9] Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic (Cambridge University Press, 1987), (Ibadan: Spectrum Books, 1991). The Republic imploded faster than the book could be completed and published.

[10] “Buhari: A Midterm Report,” The Punch, May 25, 2017.


[12] The conference, “Thinking Across Borders: Engaging Western Political and Philosophical Thinking,” took place at the Neubauer Collegium on April  27-28, 2017. Prof. Ajei drew on the work of the Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu.

[13] Democracy and Prebendal Politics, p. 158.

[14] Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

[15] Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria, p. 159.

[16] Democracy and Prebendal Politics, p. 159.

[17] “Class, State, and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria,” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, vol. 21, no. 2 (1983).

[18] For comprehensive indictments, see Wale Adebanwi, Authority Stealing: Anti-Corruption and Democratic Politics in Post-Military Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2012) and Biodun Jeyifo, Against the Predators’ Republic: Political and Cultural Journalism, 2007-2013 (Carolina Academic Press, 2016).

[19] “Challenges of a ‘Frontier’ Region,” Journal of Democracy (April 2008), p. 103.

[20] “Governance and the Media in an Emergent Democracy: A Study of the Role, Record and Changing Profile of the Nigerian Media 1999 – 2017.” Inaugural Lecture, The Oba (Dr) Sikiru Adetona Professorial Chair of Governance, Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ijebu Ode.

[21] See Neubauer conference, April 27-28, cited earlier.

[22] See his superb two-volume opus, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011 and 2014).

[23] I will comment further on this vital summary in a talk in Mambayya House, Kano, on June 12.




Corruption, Democracy, and Insecurity in Nigeria

As a part of a Forum Series on Democracy and Insecurity in Africa, Professor Wale Adebanwi made a presentation on March 7, 2017 on “African Labyrinths: Corruption, Democracy, and Insecurity in Africa.” He is the noted author of several books on this topic. [1] In September 2011, Prof. Adebanwi and Prof. Ebenezer Obadare convened a conference on Prebendalism and Democracy in Lagos which led to a well-received edited book. [2] On the eve of assuming the prestigious position of Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at Oxford University, Prof. Adebanwi shared with the audience his insights into the issue of corruption, which is impeding the building of democracies and inclusive economies in Nigeria and elsewhere.



Professor Wale Adebanwi

Why, Prof. Adebanwi asked, has democracy in Nigeria not resulted in greater transparency, less corruption, a greater supply of public goods, and reduced insecurity? Nigeria is an interesting case to examine. The country has little to show for its abundant natural resources and its large population.

Despite having the largest economy on the continent, Nigeria scores poorly on world indices for poverty, standard of living, and corruption. African countries that place highest on the corruption index are also lowest on the standard of living index. 112 million Nigerians live at or below the poverty line. The country ranks 156 out of 166 on the human development index. The dominant motif in Nigerian politics is corruption, and that is why the country is still floundering.

Why has political venality increased? Anti-corruption efforts of all kinds have failed. A popular term used to describe the endemic corruption in Nigerian life is “settlement.” This practice soared under the regime of military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, 1985 – 1993, and was further entrenched under his dictatorial successor, Sani Abacha. It became a central vector of statecraft. Democracy scholar Larry Diamond contends that corruption should be made a crime against humanity. During his term as head of the military government in 1984-85, then General Muhammadu Buhari sought to prosecute the entire corrupt political class. 

There have been two key responses to corruption in Nigeria. The first is a technical approach that seeks a technical/governmental solution. From this perspective, the problem can be solved by good leadership and governance. In 2016, no highly-placed Nigerian was convicted of corruption despite multiple seizures of assets. The second key response is to regard the problem as structural and systemic in nature. A compositional defect of Nigeria itself has fostered more corruption and incompetence. There is a fundamental flaw in Nigeria that requires a radical break from the past. The whole apparatus of political rule needs to be reconstructed. The Nigerian system is unsustainable.

The privileged have incentives to retain their privileges through corruption. The oil economy has been cited as the sole reason for Nigeria’s continued national existence. The current government is again a “government of settlement,” of patrimonialism. Nigerian rulers have arrogated to themselves the right to act in ways counter to the public interest. This makes it impossible for regular people to enjoy the benefits of the oil industry. The government is therefore obliged to “settle” them.

In the case of the Niger Delta conflicts, as settlement has become the core element of statecraft, institutions such as OPADEC and NNDC are intended to “settle people,” rendering these organizations “cesspools of corruption.” [3] The revenue-sharing formula has allocated 13% of the distributable pool of oil revenues to the Delta states. The consequence has been the emergence of governors such as James Ibori of Delta state and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa state, both ensnared in mega-corruption and money-laundering.

Former president Umaru Yar’Adua offered amnesty for the combatants in the Niger Delta. The settlement involved led to the emergence of multi-millionaires. One mechanism was the giving of contracts to militants to protect the pipelines. In 2015, a new group, the Niger Delta Avengers, resumed the insurgency. The Niger Delta problem has been treated as a technical problem requiring a technical solution. The fundamental problem, however, is the poverty in the region. Boko Haram could morph into another insurgency, similar to how it evolved from an earlier one, the Maitatsine uprisings of the 1980s.  

The Nigerian state is no longer seen as legitimate. The poverty rate in the country’s northeast– the center of Boko Haram– is 76%, while that in the Northwest is 80%. Armed insurgencies have become contractors of the state. Each successive president approaches what are really brain tumors as if they are migraines. The war against Boko Haram persists. It has not been defeated and probably will not be in the next couple of years. The inability of the government to deal with this challenge is telling. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, “Boko Haram has overtaken ISIS as the deadliest terrorist group,” responsible for more deaths than the latter in 2015. [4]

Elections provide a route, just like a military coup, to take control of the resources of the state via the capture of prebends for self-settling. If Boko Haram and other insurgent groups did not exist, the Nigerian government would have had to invent them. They become means of looting the treasury in the name of “national security challenges.” The fundamental rationale is extracting resources. International anti-corruption agencies have ignored the interwoven dynamics of corruption and social inequality. The higher the corruption, the lower the degree of social inclusion, and hence the greater the insecurity.

Structural change is blocked by the ruling party because it would upend their exploitative mechanisms and allow for the redistribution of resources. Nigeria will not endure much longer unless there is a rethinking of the nature of the state. A new system must be built in which there are incentives for people to comply with desired ethical norms. Structural transformation will require changing the constitution of Nigeria. Prebendalism is part of the fundamentally flawed logic. Right now, electoral politics are impossible without corruption.


Nigerians protesting over the rising levels of corruption in the country.  Bublbe


Responses to Adebanwi

John Campbell

Only with a thorough analysis of what is going can we get to where we want to be. Corruption keeps Nigeria going; it is what makes the country work. Without corruption, Nigeria would collapse. Like Adebanwi, I see a distinction between a technical problem and a systemic one.

The standard response in Nigeria is: “we need another national conference.” But none has worked so far. The entire elite is complicit in the system. How do you prosecute an entire elite? Its members control the instruments of power. How do you move against an elite with such power without a revolution?

We can discuss Boko Haram and the Niger Delta insurgency in that framework. If either is eliminated, it will re-emerge in a different form under a different name. How do you solve the Niger Delta problem? You pay everybody off. But then, civilian task forces will ask for an even bigger payoff. The question becomes: how does Nigeria escape from this labyrinth? How can its friends help, and not hurt, in the process?


Juliet Sorensen

There does appear to be a correlation between lower levels of corruption and democracy, but it is not a super strong one. What are the causes of corruption? Patrimonial relationships between government and societies have continued for generations. We can distinguish grand from petty corruption. Street-level corruption is just as common as shakedowns and handouts at higher levels. They are sustained by culture and tradition and low public sector wages.

The costs of corruption must be noted. Economic growth is stifled as corruption acts as a tax, deterring potential foreign investments. It generates an entangled bureaucracy. For the average person, corruption reduces morale; it is seen as a way of cutting ahead in the line. As corruption spreads, it widens income inequality. In many cases, legal and enforcement mechanisms exist on paper but frequently do not work.


Richard Joseph

Ghana celebrated yesterday its 60th anniversary of independence. Even after sustaining its constitutional democracy for almost 25 years, however, many Ghanaians believe that their political system is failing them. Corruption and poor service delivery is as much an issue there as in Nigeria.

Economic progress usually involves removing hurdles and barriers. I have described Nigeria as a “tollgate” society. Tollgates appear in many forms. Policemen shakedown vehicle drivers. Airport workers ask for bribes. In whatever agency or operation an individual is inserted, a tollgate is erected, to temporarily impede rather than facilitate transactions.


Q & A

Is there one action that can move the needle just a bit?
    • Campbell: Nigeria is a profoundly religious society. Issues can be framed in religious terms. Events open and close with a prayer, given by persons of different religious denominations. Perhaps this religiosity can be harnessed to attack corruption.
    • Adebanwi: There was a time when the solution was seen in finding the right leader. Now people realize that finding such a leader is impossible. Before it was building a democracy, but that hasn’t worked. Now, we must rethink the ideas and ideals that led to independence.
    • Sorensen: An independent media and free press can play an important role in this process.


Have there been attempts made elsewhere from which lessons can be drawn?
    • Adebanwi: Nigeria had one of the most efficient bureaucracies in the 1960’s and 70’s. Its institutions were vibrant and free, but dictators destroyed them, one by one. There needs to be a recomposition of power. The people in charge of oil, for example, are simply stealing it.
    • Campbell: A successor to the view that good leadership and leaders can lead to salvation has been replaced by a hope for free and fair elections. But that hasn’t resulted in good government. Self-censorship is the dictator’s goal. Religious sentiment is genuine. It is shared by many people and can be used.
    • Adebanwi: We should not overlook how Nigerian religiosity is manipulated by preachers for their material benefit, and how it is spurred by widespread economic distress.
    • Joseph: Corruption and oligarchy are global phenomena today. The world seems to be moving further along the path Larry Diamond described in a 2008 article, “The Democratic Rollback: The Resurgence of the Predatory State.” [5] The more predation in government, the less the supply of public goods and services, the greater individual and group insecurity, and the more intense the conflicts. This vicious cycle is undermining prospects for democratic development in Nigeria and much of Africa.


Copyright © AfricaPlus 2017

[1] Two such books are Nation as Grand Narrative: The Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning, University of Rochester Press, 2016 and Authority Stealing: Anti-Corruption War and Democratic Politics in Post-Military Nigeria, Carolina Academic Press, 2011. 

[2] Democracy and Prebendalism in Nigeria, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

[3] The Oil Mineral Producing Area Development Commission (OMPADEC) and the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), established in 1992 and 2000 respectively, represent the most notable official responses to the poverty, infrastructure decay, and ethnic conflict in the Niger Delta of Nigeria.

[4] See the Institute for Economics and Peace 2015 Global Terrorism Index.

[5] “The Democratic Rollback: The Resurgence of the Predatory State,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008






Enhancing Electoral Integrity: Attahiru Jega and Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission

On March 7, 2017, a forum on Electoral Democracy in Nigeria was convened as one of a series on Democracy and Insecurity in Africa in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois. The keynote address was delivered by Professor Attahiru Jega who, as Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), oversaw national elections in 2011 and 2015. In the address entitled, “Building a Fair and Resilient Electoral System: Nigeria, 2010 – 2015,” Prof. Jega emphasized the importance of electoral integrity. As INEC chairman, he oversaw extensive improvements in the country’s electoral system.



Attahiru Jega

As a consequence of these efforts, Nigeria had one of the most fairly-conducted elections in its history despite the persistence of the Boko Haram insurgency, severe infrastructure challenges, and the usual intense disputes among parties and contestants. A new party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), competed in the 2015 elections and won the presidency and most legislative and gubernatorial contests.
Prof. Jega’s detailed presentation at the forum was preceded by interventions from several Northwestern faculty and a graduate student, in addition to Ambassador John Campbell, Senior Fellow for Africa Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Provided here is a summary of the proceedings. Prof. Jega’s book-in-progress will be a great resource for the promotion of electoral integrity in democracies worldwide. [1]


John Campbell

In local government elections in South Africa in 2016, the ANC lost control of several constituencies, including Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town. The quality of elections in South Africa differ significantly from those in Nigeria, especially with regard to electoral infrastructure. Unlike Nigeria, the results of elections are almost never contested in South Africa. Electoral institutions are well-established, independent, and well-funded. After the first fully non-racial elections occurred in 1994, they have continued to be conducted efficiently.

Nigerian elections are often treated as “do or die” matters as they are a pathway to wealth and power. A premium is placed on state capture through occupying political offices or building relations with persons holding them. In South Africa, however, there are still many ways to get rich. Nigerian elections are beset with infrastructure difficulties such as inadequate roads and electricity.


Moses Khisa

Under Yoweri Museveni, president since January 1986, Uganda has failed to make progress in advancing electoral integrity. Key challenges are the creation of competent electoral institutions, fair access to the media, and the impartiality of the armed forces. Failures in this area contrast with successes in others. With the exception of the northern region, Uganda has experienced relative stability and economic growth during Museveni’s presidency. These are major achievements considering that the country endured decades of rebel activity and civil war. Museveni’s tenure also included one of the most effective national responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa.

There is no succession plan, however, for when Museveni steps aside. There has been a decline in the integrity of core institutions such as the judiciary, parliament, and the electoral system. Democratic progress is steadily being rolled back. It can be said of Museveni that, after three decades as the country’s leader, he is trapped in power.


Salih Nur

The January 2017 elections in Somalia have been described as an “election-like event,” using a term Ambassador Campbell applied to Nigeria’s 2007 elections. Media accounts emphasized the extensive corruption that took place in the presidential contest won by Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo. The electoral system is not yet openly competitive, and seats in parliament are allocated on the basis of clan identities. Despite their inadequacies, however, these elections should not be categorically dismissed. With the exception of Kenya, Somalia’s elections were the most competitive in the region.

Most countries do not experience fully democratic elections without going through undemocratic ones. The highly touted 2015 election in Nigeria would most likely not have occurred without earlier corrupt elections.  Despite the corruption, democracy and state-building are taking place in Somalia. As many scholars have recognized, democracy-building is not possible without state-building.


Richard Joseph

In his widely disseminated address in Accra, Ghana, in July 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a stirring endorsement of that country’s democratic progress. Often cited is his declaration that what Africa needs is not strongmen but strong institutions. One of these institutions, especially since multiparty democracy was restored in 1992, is the Election Commission. Since that date, seven successive national elections have been held, and presidential power has transferred from an incumbent to an opponent on three occasions.

In contrast, after several advances and retreats, electoral integrity in Ethiopia reached a new low in the June 2015 exercises. Incremental opposition gains in previous elections were decisively halted as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its allies wrested all 546 parliamentary seats. During his visit to Ethiopia the following month, contrasting starkly with his remarks in Ghana, President Obama called the government of Ethiopia “democratically elected.” While the U.S. president had boosted the cause of African democracy in 2009, in Ethiopia six years later he appeared to sanction the very opposite.


Attahiru Jega

Since the “third wave of democracy” in the 1990s, the formal trappings of democracy, such as regularly-conducted elections, were often installed in Africa without the substantive attribute of electoral integrity.

Elections are now routinely held in most African countries. However, the aspiration to make them “free and fair” has been undermined by gross irregularities with negative consequences for stability, regime legitimacy, and governance. There is little doubt that increasing electoral integrity is central to democratic consolidation, security, and stability in Africa.

Important factors to note:

  1. In the Democracy Index of The Economist Intelligence Unit, only one African country is ranked as a full democracy, while the rest are classified as flawed, hybrid, or authoritarian. [2]
  2. Despite regularly conducted elections, the overwhelming majority of African countries are ranked as moderate to very low in the Perception of Electoral Integrity Index (PEI). See the Africa report here. [3]


Regime type No. of countries globally No. of African countries Index Category
Full democracies 19 1 8-10
Flawed democracies 57 7 6-9
Hybrid democracies 40 14 4-5.99
Authoritarian regimes 51 21 Less than 4.0


The Governance Deficit

It is increasingly recognized that, without quality governance, democratic regimes will not improve the welfare and wellbeing of citizens.

  • In Africa, electoral integrity should be seen as essential to good democratic governance.
  • Without electoral integrity, public officials will continue to ignore good governance and the satisfaction of the welfare and wellbeing of citizens. These failures will have negative consequences for stability and security.

Between June 2010 and July 2015, I had the rare privilege and opportunity of contributing to the building of a resilient electoral system in Nigeria that can address the overriding concern of conducting elections with integrity.



Nigerians voting in the historic 2015 general election. 


The Nigerian Context

  • The Nigerian context, while not unique, was exceedingly challenging.
  • Nigeria is a country in which, whatever could go wrong, will. From the experiences of military rule to civil war; from oil boom to oil curse; from ethno-religious and communal conflicts to militant insurgencies in the Niger Delta and the Northeast; from a high ranking on the global index of corruption to a very high ranking on poverty amidst plenty.
  • Linked to its diversity, Nigeria has a highly polarized political environment, characterized by ethno-religious mobilization and poorly-conducted elections.
  • With the resumption of civilian rule in 1999, elections became formal democratic rituals, lacking in integrity. Although the 1999 elections were barely acceptable, the major concern then was to get the country out of military rule.
  • The 1999, 2003, and 2007 national elections were increasingly flawed, with the latter considered the worst in Nigeria’s history.
  • I assumed responsibility for INEC in this chaotic context in 2010.
  • In the 2011 election, we gave it our best shot despite the inadequacies. We resolved to build a fair and resilient electoral system with integrity in successive voting exercises.


Building a Fair and Resilient Electoral System

The numerous challenges to be overcome included the following:

  1. Strengthening INEC, cleansing its bad image, and making it more efficient and effective.
  2. Overcoming persistent electoral fraud. Election results often went in favor of the highest bidder.
  3. Ensuring the integrity of the electoral roll
    • The register of voters for the 2011 election lacked integrity. A new register was needed that would be purged of false names.
    • A technology-smart card (contactless chip) and card reader were deployed on election day to authenticate voters.
    • With the card reader, only authenticated persons were able vote in 2015.  
  4. Making election-day logistics and procedures transparent, accountable, and efficient.
  5. Creating a level-playing field for all political parties and contestants and removing the perception that INEC functioned at the bidding of government and powerful individuals.
  6. Safeguarding and strengthening the autonomy of INEC in its relations with all stakeholders including political parties, the legislature, and government executives.
  7. Reorganizing and restructuring INEC to improve management.
  8. Achieving these objectives required financial autonomy. A key provision was the appropriating of funds to an account in the Central Bank over which INEC would have full control.
  9. There was an emphasis on planning and meticulous implementation. A strategic plan was prepared which showed what had to be done, day-by-day.
  10. A Citizen Communication Center provided a platform for mobilizing traditional rulers and others to conduct dispute resolution and enhance stability and security.
  11. We had open-source software designed to our specifications. Although expensive, such investments were essential if we wished to stay ahead of the politicians bent on fraud.
  12. We had to become agents of change in a context in which corruption permeated many aspects of the electoral process.

While meeting these challenges was difficult, it was not impossible.  Ballot papers were color coded and numbered. Political party agents had access to results sheets posted at polling stations. Civil society organizations were encouraged to conduct parallel vote tabulations. Technology was successfully used to compile a Biometric Register of Voters despite the discomfort of some development partners about the hurdles to be overcome. International election standards were adapted to Nigeria. Permanent voter cards were distributed that guaranteed the correct identification of voters. Card readers for voter verification and authentication were made available at polling booths. Therefore, politicians were prevented from moving voters around constituencies. In 2015, Nigeria took a major step forward in electoral integrity. We learned from the experiences of others and lifted the bar.


Rachel Riedl

I want to follow up about the integrity and quality of the electoral process. How was citizens’ understanding of  democratic processes enhanced? How were their vigilance and awareness heightened? There were many logistical and technical details to be grasped. What made this possible? How did INEC overcome complacency among Nigerians about the elections?


Attahiru Jega

President Umaru Yar’Adua, after his election in 2007, acknowledged the problems in that election. He set up an inclusive committee to suggest reforms. I was one of the members. A constitutional amendment, based on its recommendations, and a new Electoral Act, created the environment for reform. My services on the Election Reform Committee increased my understanding of the challenges.

INEC kept civil society organizations informed. A coalition emerged of these organizations devoted to electoral reform. Nigeria’s public institutions are weak. This was also the case with INEC, which lacked the competence and capacity even to reform itself. Drivers of reform had, therefore, to be nurtured within INEC. We encountered resistance within the organization based on the usual tendencies of Nigerian bureaucrats. A small team was put together to drive change in the functioning of the organization. It was important also to work with outsiders. We focused on sustaining the capacity for reform and preventing reversals. The public bought into the changes because of the transparency of these efforts and our vigorous outreach.

Copyright © AfricaPlus 2017


[1] Special thanks to Mike Curtis and Northwestern University Information Technology (NUIT) as well as Matt Treavis, Phil Leonard, and the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Team of the Blavatnik School of Government for bringing Prof. Jega’s live remarks from Oxford to Chicago via video-conference.

[2] The Democracy Index is an index compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit that measures the state of democracy in 167 countries.

[3] The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) is based at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the University of Sydney’s Department of Government and International Relations.


The United States and Nigeria’s Struggling Democracy

On March 6-8, 2017, a Forum Series on Democracy and Insecurity in Africa took place in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois. The featured speakers were Professor Wale Adebanwi, Ambassador John Campbell, and Professor Attahiru Jega. [1] At the time of these forums, uncertainty was growing in Nigeria. President Mohammadu Buhari had been away in London on medical leave for several weeks and the nature of his illness remained undisclosed. [2] The plunge in global oil prices had further depressed the economy, and a misguided currency policy had benefited select individuals while fueling inflation and aggravating other problems.


A few months before the midway point in Buhari’s tenure, Africa’s largest democracy and economy seemed adrift. The rise of illiberalism and autocratic nationalism, endless conflicts in the Middle East, and the upsurge in cyber and other unconventional warfare were generating a sense of global disarray. Moreover, the United States, Nigeria’s most important external partner, had embarked on an uncharted course. Its new president, Donald Trump, had recently come to office with minimal policy commitments towards Africa. Meanwhile, the oft-announced victories against Boko Haram were undermined by continuing atrocities, attacks on the teeming camps of impoverished displaced persons, and revelations of massive pilfering of counter-insurgency funds by senior government officials.

In an interview with Prof. Adebanwi and Amb. Campbell on March 7, Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ/NPR’s Worldview program raised many issues discussed in the forums and among Nigerians themselves. They highlighted leadership concerns and group dynamics evoked by an ailing president and his dynamic deputy from different nationality groups. [3]

Listen to the Interview


McDonnell: There are several forums concerning Democracy and Insecurity in Africa taking place in Evanston and Chicago. Professor Richard Joseph of Northwestern, whom we talk to frequently on this program, is in the middle of all of them. You can find details on his AfricaPlus blog. We are going to talk with two of the participants with a focus on what’s happening in Nigeria. Wale Adebanwi is a professor at the University of California-Davis, and one of his recent books is Nation as Grand Narrative: The Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning. He is also the author of Authority Stealing. Thanks for joining us, Wale.

Adebanwi: Thank you very much.

McDonnell: Ambassador Campbell is also with us. He is a Senior Fellow in Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations where he oversees the “Africa in Transition” blog. Amb Campbell was a senior American diplomat in South Africa and U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. He is the author of Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink and Morning in South Africa. Thanks for joining us.

Campbell: Pleasure to be with you.

McDonnell: I wanted to ask first about leadership in Nigeria because the President, Muhammadu Buhari, left the country on January 19 for treatment for an undisclosed illness. He has been in London since then. There have been rumors about this. It strikes people in the United States as strange for a country’s leader to leave for such a long time and not disclose his health problems. Ambassador Campbell, I noticed on your blog a list of African leaders who had done the same thing in recent years. It seems to be the modus operandi.

Campbell: That’s right. Certainly in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa, there is not the cultural requirement that you make public the illnesses from which you suffer, and the treatment you are undergoing. When you combine this with the practice of going overseas—normally the UK, France, or South Africa—for medical treatment, what President Buhari did is not that unusual. What is unusual is the length of time that he has been gone.

McDonnell: This is something that also happened recently in Nigeria’s past. Umaru Yar’Adua, one of the previous presidents, went to Saudi Arabia and didn’t disclose a lot about his health, and then he passed away. [4] Prof. Adebanwi, since Nigeria has such a delicate balance among its political and ethnic groups, could you address what is going on now with Muhammadu Buhari, and what could happen if he were to leave the scene?

Adebanwi: Yes. It would certainly affect the balance of things. For now, we do not know his condition. His spokesmen assure us that he will return to the country soon. When he left, a date was given for his return. Certainly, there is a lot of tension in the system. As you mentioned, there is the geopolitical, regional, ethnic balance that comes into play regarding power. This time we have a northern Muslim as president and a vice-president who is a southerner, a Yoruba, and a Christian. [5] So, if something were to happen to affect this balance, new alliances will be made. There are maneuvers taking place among those interested in the highest office in the land.

McDonnell: It is interesting that Muhammadu Buhari is someone who ran repeatedly for office. He was a military leader and was elected president on his fourth try.

Adebanwi: Yes.

McDonnell: His vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, is someone who has never been in politics. He has been an academic, a law professor, and someone who has not had a lot of experience in politics.

Adebanwi: Actually, he served as Attorney General of Lagos State, a very important state, so he has had experience in public office. For most of his life, Mr. Osinbajo has been an academic. In his legal practice, he rose to the position of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. Although he is not a typical politician, he has actually had experience in government.

McDonnell: Ambassador Campbell, can you tell us a little more about Osinbajo? It was stated in Foreign Policy that he should stay around because he is more energetic than Buhari. Buhari has been notoriously slow in decision-making. Osinbajo seems active, going places that Buhari didn’t visit, and he’s trying to boost the economy.

Campbell: Agreed. He has a reputation of being highly competent. In terms of keeping the trains running on time in the absence of the president, he appears to be doing a good job. An important difference between his circumstances, and that of Goodluck Jonathan as vice president during Yar’Adua’s illness, is that when President Buhari went to London, he formally signed over authority to the vice president for the period of his absence. This is now mandated by Nigerian law so the situation is legally regular.

McDonnell: Do you think that the economy needs some more attention and more focus at the top? Is that something that is vital right now in Nigeria? The country is experiencing its biggest recession in twenty-five years.

Adebanwi: Absolutely. And this has not been done in the nearly two years that Buhari has been in power. There is need for an economic commission that can address this fundamental crisis. As you will notice, another matter that was flagged in a Financial Times story is how Nigeria’s currency, the naira, has appreciated in the weeks since President Buhari left. The many reasons for this have been publicly discussed. But there are also important reasons less in public view. The important fact is that the economic crisis has not been seriously addressed by this administration. Some people are hoping that in this interim period, while the president is away, perhaps the vice president can tackle it.

McDonnell: Why is it important that the Nigerian currency increase in value?

Adebanwi: There are speculations that the absence of the president has affected networks of persons who benefit from a weak currency. Nevertheless, there is a consensus among prominent economists, and the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank, that the fiscal side of the economy has not been managed well. President Buhari has ignored calls for change in the leadership of the Central Bank. Perhaps if the acting president is there long enough, he might be able to make that change. Or, if Buhari returns and notices the improvements during his absence, he might be persuaded to move on this front.

McDonnell: Ambassador Campbell, what do you think about the leadership issues in Nigeria? A lot of time, it seems that they are focused on one person, and what this single person can do. Some people might think: “Wouldn’t it be great if the vice president took over?” Or is there too much emphasis on: “This guy will get us out of it?”

Campbell: Leadership in Nigeria is very much a matter of personality. Politics is highly personalized in Nigeria and it has been so for a very long time. I would also point out that it is difficult in any country to move politics from being a matter of personality to being a question of principle and policy. That’s a hard transformation to make.

McDonnell: Wale, do you want to weigh in on that?

Adebanwi: Yes, I think what Ambassador Campbell says is true for much of Nigeria’s political history. In the First Republic (1960-66) —and to some extent the Second Republic (1979-83) —we actually had a few parties that sought to be based on certain principles or core ideas. But the general history has been that politics is largely organized around the person who becomes president. Of course, the American presidential system gives a lot of leverage to the president. The difference in the U.S. is that institutions put limits on presidential power. In the case of Nigeria, where there is low institutionalization, the power and leverage of the president is magnified. Everything is organized around the presidency. The challenges we faced in the past two years are largely defined around the nature and limitations of the president.

McDonnell: I wanted to turn our attention to the United States and Nigeria. President Obama seemed to raise Nigeria, and Africa in general, to a higher level of attention in his administration. He seemed focused on the security relationship with Nigeria in view of Boko Haram, and he brought significant resources to the area. He also seemed interested in leveraging foreign aid to produce better outcomes. Ambassador Campbell, how would you assess the Obama administration’s record in Nigeria?

Campbell: Historically, Washington has viewed Nigeria as our most important strategic partner in Africa. While I was ambassador there, we were importing one million barrels of oil a day from Nigeria. Nigeria was very active in peacekeeping operations in West Africa. Further, Nigeria was following a trajectory towards democracy, which was very much in accordance with our own values. In the present crisis, set off essentially by the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, Nigeria’s international role has diminished. The government’s focus has been much more on internal challenges than what is going on in West Africa. Under these circumstances, I think the Obama administration has followed a calibrated policy that promoted U.S. interests in Africa but was also aimed at strengthening the country’s democratic trajectory.

McDonnell: Professor Adebanwi, do you have reflections on how the U.S. went about its business in Nigeria?

Adebanwi: I agree with the Ambassador. What’s important is the kind of changes we might witness during the Trump presidency in attitudes toward Nigeria. There has been talk about giving greater assistance to Nigeria in fighting Boko Haram. If you remember, when the U.S. announced its intention to assist Nigeria militarily during President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, there were serious problems regarding how to deal with the Nigerian Armed Forces and the country’s security apparatus. The U.S. took a cautious approach. As the Ambassador mentioned, interactions have improved under President Buhari. But I think that situation could change now. There has been some success in the fight against Boko Haram in recent times.

McDonnell: You are referring to the fact that the U.S. was tying some of its military aid to standards on human rights and making sure the military did not commit abuses in its campaigns against Boko Haram.

Campbell: It was not a question, really, of military aid. It was a question of whether or not Nigeria would be permitted to buy, to purchase, U.S. military equipment, and concerns about a persistent pattern of human rights abuses by the Nigerian security services. These raised cautionary flags, both in Congress and the administration.

McDonnell: One thing that the United States does offer is fairly significant foreign aid to Nigeria. I was going over the foreign aid numbers. The U.S. offers assistance on things like education and to improve electricity on the grid. If you were cutting the State Department budget by 30 percent, you might end up cutting some of these aid programs?

Campbell: Indeed, you almost certainly will be. By far the largest portion of U.S. assistance to Nigeria is in the area of health, particularly HIV/AIDS. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) actually dates from the George W. Bush administration. If the State Department’s budget is cut by between 30 and 40 percent, most of these assistance programs will dry up.

McDonnell: How would that affect Nigerian attitudes towards the U.S.?

Adebanwi: It will mean that the U.S. will have less leverage in Nigeria, and by extension, the rest of West Africa, Central Africa, and the continent. It would affect how the U.S. can draw Nigeria and the rest of the continent towards democracy, and the expansion of the civic space. It would not be a good development.

Campbell: Even beyond foreign assistance, there is immigration policy. The Nigerian Government issued a travel warning, just a few days ago, advising its citizens not to travel to the United States until American immigration policy is clarified.

McDonnell: And there are already around a million Nigerians in the U.S.

Campbell: We don’t know the exact number. The estimates range from one million to two million.

McDonnell: So there’s a lot of travel back and forth?

Campbell: A huge amount.

Adebanwi: It is also significant that this is the first time in Nigeria’s history that Nigerians are warned about traveling to the United States. It has always been the reverse.

McDonnell: Well, what goes around comes around. What is the wording of the statement? Is the government worried that Nigerians could be hurt here? Or that they could be expelled?

Campbell: There have been a series of high profile episodes in which prominent Nigerians, holding perfectly valid visas, were turned away at American ports-of-entry and sent back to Nigeria without explanation.

McDonnell: We’ll have to keep an eye on this. It goes down to the personal sometimes in these matters.

Campbell: It does indeed.

McDonnell: Thank you very much for joining us, Ambassador John Campbell, Senior Fellow in Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can read his “Africa in Transition” blog—it is quite informative—former U.S. Ambassador in Nigeria. Thanks for being with us. And Wale Adebanwi is a Professor at the University of California Davis. I understand that you are moving to Oxford University.

Adebanwi: Yes.

McDonnell: You’ve got an interesting position. You are going to be the Cecil Rhodes…

Adebanwi: …Chair on Race Relations.

McDonnell: And you’re the first person from Africa to be the Cecil Rhodes Chair at Oxford?

Adebanwi: No, actually the first black person. There has previously been a white South African in the position. So I’ll be the first black person, not the first African.

McDonnell: Rhodes is known as a big-time colonialist? And you are going there to assume that position?

Adebanwi: Yes, a very challenging thing. There’s a whole debate on that.

McDonnell: All right. Wale Adebanwi is a professor at the University of California, Davis, and moving to Oxford University. Thanks for joining us and talking about Nigeria and the United States.

Copyright © AfricaPlus 2017

[1] These were held at Northwestern University’s Department of Political Science, Transportation Center, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Institute of Politics of the University of Chicago. Support was also provided by the Center for International Human Rights of Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Program of African Studies, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Prof. Jega’s presentation was conducted by video from the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.

[2] President Buhari returned to Nigeria on Friday, March 10, three days after this interview. He resumed leadership of the government from his Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo. Since Buhari’s return, Osinbajo has been accorded wider responsibilities, especially in the faltering anti-corruption drive.

[3] A panel discussion took place the evening of March 7 at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The speakers were Prof. Adebanwi, Amb. Campbell, and Prof. Funmi Olopade of the University of Chicago, with Prof. Joseph moderating.

[4] In late 2009, Nigerian President Yar’Adua left for Saudia Arabia to seek medical treatment. He returned to Nigeria on February 24 and died on May 5, 2010.

[5] Yoruba-speaking Nigerians constitute the country’s second largest ethnic group, largely residing in the southwest. The largest is President Buhari’s, the Hausa-Fulani.

Buhari’s Nigeria: John Kerry’s Tough Love Message

By Richard Joseph

In a bold move, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a major address in an event hosted by the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, during his August 23 visit to Nigeria He congratulated the Sultan, the country’s pre-eminent Islamic leader, for his promotion of interfaith tolerance and the education of girls. He also commended the nation’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, for the military advances achieved against Boko Haram and the efforts made to reduce political corruption. His tough love message included a critique of socio-economic inequities, the low level of trust in government institutions, the parlous state of public services, especially electric power, and persistent human rights abuses by security forces.

At a time when several multi-ethnic and multi-religious nations are fracturing, and counter-terrorist wars have become increasingly complicated, sectional ramparts are again emerging in Nigeria.[1] The country is experiencing a deep economic recession while insistent questions are posed about its federal model. Moreover, renewed complaints are made about the alleged “hegemony” of the predominantly Islamic North, exacerbated by President Buhari’s mode of governing via a small circle of associates.[2] In an interview with Richard Joseph during John Kerry’s visit, Alexandra Salomon of NPR’s WBEZ explored issues raised by the Secretary of State. She asked, pertinently, why a nation which possessed such abundant human and natural resources has been so dysfunctionally governed.

Listen to the Interview

Salomon: Let’s start with Boko Haram. Most people probably remember the Chibok school girls who were kidnapped in the middle of the night, the majority of whom are still missing. That story received a lot of attention. But there’s also a humanitarian crisis that seems to be getting worse in Nigeria’s northeast, where millions have been displaced and food production has been disrupted. Can you paint a picture of what is happening in that part of the country, in terms of the government’s military response to Boko Haram as well as the humanitarian situation?

Joseph: It is correct to describe it as a great humanitarian crisis. This is a zone of Nigeria that has been in prolonged decline. The insurgency has added to it. As you mentioned, Boko Haram has been pushed back and a lot of territory retrieved.  Left behind, however, is tremendous disorder with many people displaced and traumatized. Of course, educational and health services have plummeted so this is a massive disaster area. While the insurgency has been degraded, Boko Haram still causes considerable destruction and loss of human life.

Embed from Getty Images
Secretary Kerry and the Sultan of Sokoto


Salomon: Secretary of State John Kerry came to Nigeria to focus on the government’s response to Boko Haram. Let’s listen to a clip of his Sokoto speech:

Secretary Kerry: To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure that military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to the values this region and all of Nigeria have a long legacy of supporting. Values like integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights. Values that the terrorists don’t just ignore, my friends, but values that they desecrate at every turn.

Salomon: According to Secretary Kerry, the military response is not enough to combat Boko Haram. How would you assess the job the government is doing regarding other issues such as the needs of young people?

Joseph: Secretary Kerry drew not only on what is taking place in Nigeria but also the struggle against extremist and terrorist groups worldwide. He did a number of things during his visit. First, he gave a boost to the Nigerian government (which is struggling on many fronts). US-Nigerian relations hit a low point a few years ago, but it has improved since Buhari took over as president in May 2015. The Secretary of State promised enhanced military cooperation, but also assistance to combat corruption and reverse the distress of youth.

Secondly, he delivered a message that the Nigerian government has been hearing repeatedly, namely, that it will be held to a high standard in observing humanitarian law while combating Boko Haram. Nigeria’s security forces (as domestic and international civic groups contend) must improve respect for human rights in the dragnets carried out, end summary punishments, and so on. A third focus was anti-corruption which Buhari has made a priority of his government. Kerry used language not often employed by senior American officials. He not only spoke frankly about corruption, but referred to theft and crooks in government, and to the “embezzlement of futures”.[3]

Salomon: With regard to young people, I saw one statistic that the country’s is adding 13,000 people a day. A lot of Kerry’s speech focused on youths. If they are not provided jobs and other outlets, they can become attracted to extremist groups. You mentioned that the northeast was already the poorest region in the country, even before Boko Haram. What has Buhari done specifically to address the needs of young people?

Joseph: There has been a number of programs put in place, but the extent of the challenge exceeds what the federal government and state governments can do, especially during a time of such diminished financial resources. The country has a very youthful profile. Many young people are getting either an inferior education or no education at all. One concrete initiative I heard from the Secretary of State was the creation of informal education centers to enable displaced youth to get some schooling. But that is a sliver of what is needed.

Obviously, Secretary Kerry belongs to an administration that is leaving power in a matter of months. What is needed in Nigeria is a grand plan, a grand international plan, for the upliftment of the northeast zone, and also in the northern region which has been economically stagnant. The Nigerian government and several aid and civic organizations are doing what they can; but the needs are so great that you need a multi-year plan with significant international support.[4]


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Secretary Kerry and President Buhari


Salomon: One of the other things Secretary Kerry mentioned is that there is not electricity everywhere in the country. I saw one statistic that just over half of Nigerians have access to electricity. It is difficult for businesses to get power from the grid. For many people, it would seem mind-boggling that, with the amount of oil wealth Nigeria has had, this has not been achievable. It seems symbolic of the kind of struggles this country has experienced. Can you explain why this problem has been so difficult to resolve?

Joseph: Along with electricity I will add other basic services, for example clean water and adequate public transport. Nigeria has fallen behind in providing such services over many years. When former President Goodluck Jonathan met with President Obama in the White House in June 2011, he emphasized the need for assistance with electric power. Well, the US subsequently established a major program called Power Africa. In the case of Nigeria, you have to go from having a policy idea, even funds, to effectively implementing programs. This is why it was important that Secretary Kerry kept returning to the issue of governance, the question of institutions. This has been central to my work over a number of years.

If people get into government with the idea of enriching themselves, their cronies, and their ethnic support groups, they are not going to pay the necessary attention to delivering public services.[5] Buhari is addressing this issue by emphasizing – as he did as a military ruler three decades ago – discipline. This notion concerns the behaviors required of office-holders and reducing corruption. But how much of a difference can the stressed Buhari government make? Moreover, here again Nigeria can benefit from external assistance. There can be a greater global effort to improve governance and deeper engagement with Nigeria on improving the performance of public institutions. This is a critical issue. It is a major source of the frustrations that have contributed to extremist movements.[6]

Secretary Kerry rightly stated that you have to get to the root of these issues. Many Nigerians believe that they are operating, to use his word, in a “rigged system” – that a small number of people benefit from it and are able to look after themselves and their families. The large mass of the population is severely deprived.[7] This is nothing new in Nigeria. In light of the deepening economic crisis, there is increasing dissatisfaction with Buhari expressed by spokespersons for segments of the population. His appointments are criticized as biased in favor of northerners.[8] Secretary Kerry did not propose answers for these complex problems. However, he laid out a general framework, especially for the incoming American administration and other Nigerian partners, for working more assiduously to help tackle them.


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[1] Former Nigerian head-of-state, Olusegun Obasanjo, stated just a week before Secretary Kerry’s visit: “At no time in our history, except probably during the civil war, has Nigeria been so fractured in the feeling of oneness and belongingness by the citizenry.”

[2] Also reminiscent of the troubled tenure of his northern predecessor as president, Umaru Yar’Adua, 2007-2010, are concerns about the physical health and stamina of the 73-year Buhari.

[3] Similar points were made, though in less blunt language, by Hillary Clinton during a visit to Nigeria as U.S. Secretary of State in August 2009. To the dismay of the government of then president Umaru Yar’Adua, she delivered her major address to civil society groups. John Kerry acquired personal credit in Nigeria by cautioning strongly against misconduct ahead of the elections of March/April 2015. That vote resulted in an unprecedented transfer of power to an opposition party. He demonstrated that it is possible to speak frankly to an allied nation even while jointly confronting violent extremists.

[4] Pertinent to such a global effort is reversing environmental decay in many regions of Nigeria, a consequence of climate change and the gross misuse of natural resources. See the searing documentary, “Nowhere to Run: Nigeria’s Climate and Environmental Crisis”, a project of the MacArthur Foundation and the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation in Abuja: www,

[5] The concept of prebendalism is now being applied to many other countries, both African and non-African. Although a different terminology may be used, it has been the essential system of distributing public sector jobs, and state-controlled resources and benefits, in many Middle Eastern and North African countries.

[6] Three decades ago, starting in March 1986, I served as a Ford Foundation Program Officer in West Africa with responsibility for governance, human rights, and international affairs. In September1988, I joined the Carter Center in Atlanta to initiate the African Governance Program. Achieving sustainable progress in the governance realm has been very difficult, and the failures costly.

[7] The data on poverty levels by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics confirm this contention.

[8] In view of the highly presidential nature of the Nigerian governmental system, and the importance of sectional identities, such criticisms are not unexpected. If unaddressed, however, greater divisiveness can ensue.

Crime, Jihad, and Dysfunction in Nigeria: Has Buhari an Answer?

by Richard Joseph 


The interweaving of crime and politics is a staple of political studies.[1] Recently, the “Panama Papers” of the law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed the global networks of tax-evasion, fraud, and money-laundering. In the case of Nigeria, criminality and predation have thwarted political and economic progress.[2] A year after the election of Muhammadu Buhari, and the historic transfer of power among political parties, the glow of political renewal has dimmed.

After huge expenditures, and structural reforms by successive governments, the provision of electricity has dropped. Queuing for petrol by motorists has returned, and businesses, hospitals, and universities are hobbled by fuel scarcity. How, it may be asked, can petroleum be scarce in a leading producer of the commodity, and during a global glut in oil supplies and collapsed prices? Deepening the distress is an attempt to stem inflation through currency control. The maintenance of an official price for the Nigerian currency, while the parallel rate soars, facilitates profiteering. The broader economic consequences of this policy are sadly predictable.[3]

Conversations with Nigerians eventually turn to the webs of criminality in which they are mired.[4] Everyone must look after self and family thereby justifying survivalist and institutionally corrosive behaviors. As in other world regions, a toxic mix of jihadism, cultism, and banditry is transforming citizens into suicidal murderers. Boko Haram is an outgrowth of socio-economic decline in the country’s northeast, a deliberately seeded extremist ideology, and decades-long disrespect for lawful governance.

Can Nigeria be extricated from this swamp? Can the Buhari government nurture a developmental rather than dysfunctional state? Answers to these questions have wide implications. As Egypt descends into an authoritarian sinkhole, Brazil succumbs to a quagmire of corrupt governance, and the ANC in South Africa’s drifts from liberation politics to predation, Nigeria’s performance as a federal democracy has global significance. In an April 5 interview with Jerome McDonnell of the NPR/WBEZ program, Worldview, Richard Joseph discussed the acute challenges posed by corruption, cultist jihadism, and dysfunctional institutions.

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The Nigerian Prospect: Democratic Resilience amid Global Turmoil

by Richard Joseph

In a time of global turmoil, democratic resilience has assumed enhanced importance. Africans have suffered disproportionately from terrorist attacks and millions have sought refuge away from their homes. Although many of their countries have experienced sustained economic growth, the benefits have been very unequally shared. Nigeria is at the forefront of these discordant processes. National elections were successfully conducted in 2015 despite the persistence of the Boko Haram insurgency. Years of high petroleum revenues have fueled political corruption while core infrastructures remain deficient. Despite the global authoritarian upsurge, however, Africa’s largest country has reaffirmed its democratic commitments. It is against this turbulent background that I delivered a public lecture – “State, Governance, and Democratic Development” – at a conference to launch the Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy.[1]

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The Growth-Governance Puzzle in Africa

by Richard Joseph

Why did sub-Saharan Africa experience such a prolonged economic downturn starting in the mid-1970s? And why has it experienced such a sustained economic upturn since the mid-1990s? A consensus did emerge that the former trend was caused by bad governance, bad policies, declining investments, and unfavorable terms of trade. But what accounts for the positive growth rates over the past two decades, and why are they seen under such a diverse array of political systems? Finally, will African countries grow out of mass poverty, or will we see a new equilibrium of economic expansion without structural transformation – the latter understood as increased productivity, more and better-paid jobs, diversified exports, and vastly improved infrastructures? While we have become more aware of the growth-governance puzzle, resolving it remains elusive.

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Dilemmas of Democracy and State Power in Africa

by Richard Joseph

We begin the fifth year of AfricaPlus with discussions of two paradoxes in sub-Saharan Africa: the durability of both democratizing and authoritarian governments; and the expansion of economies despite their tepid structural transformation. Such dilemmas suggest the need for vigorous theorizing and debate, and their alignment with efforts to strengthen state capacities, build democratic institutions, promote entrepreneurship, and enhance economic governance.

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New Paradigms and Pathways: Democracy, Development, and the Mitigation of Conflict

The terrorist atrocities in Paris on November 13, 2015 tore through the frayed fabric of global order. A synchronized operation was mounted in the heart of a western democracy with access to the most sophisticated intelligence technologies. Earlier that day, I spoke to a few hundred teenage students in Chicago, Illinois. Following the talk, they asked challenging questions, including: “What did I mean by the ‘sameness’ of all human beings that can be learned during collaborative real world experiences?”; and, simply but poignantly, “What causes conflict?”[1]

Two days later, I read about the program, “Social and Emotional Learning” (S.E. L.), available to thousands of American elementary school students. It has had remarkable results. Participating students “become more aware of their feelings and learn to relate more peacefully with others”. [2]Empathy and kindness, research shows, can be fostered, and school children can imbibe “the concept of shared responsibility for a group’s well- being.” At the end of my talk, I had told the students that they were learning to be “builders of democracy, engineers of shared prosperity, and mitigators of social conflict.” It turns out that these attributes can be more actively cultivated than I had assumed.

Sadly, millions of young people worldwide are being trained differently, to be instruments of autocracy, destroyers of livelihoods, and perpetrators of atrocities. To meet this grim challenge, new paradigms and pathways are needed. The belief that democracy, inclusive development, and conflict mitigation constitute a virtuous cycle that can steadily gain traction is countered today by a vicious cycle in which enmity, violence, and even suicide are extolled.

I wondered if my talk would go “over the heads” of the middle teenagers, and whether it could compete for attention with their electronic gadgetry and playfulness. These concerns were quickly dissipated. The points made in my brief remarks could, of course, be presented in greater depth and complexity. [3] New paradigms and pathways that connect treasured values with real-world experiences, and which can be clearly communicated to many age groups, are urgently needed. [4] We must redouble our efforts to meet this challenge.

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