Prebendalism and Dysfunctionality in Nigeria

By Richard Joseph

In the summer of 1977, I tried to make sense of what was amiss in Nigeria. The outcome was an article, “Affluence and Underdevelopment: the Nigerian Experience”, published a year later. That same year, as the transition from military rule to the Second Republic was fully underway, I arrived at another understanding about a fundamental flaw in Nigerian politics, economy and society which I termed prebendalism. Thirty-three years later, an international group of scholars was convened by Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Ekiti State, for a conference in Lagos organized by Drs. Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare entitled, “Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: Critical Reinterpretations.” In early 2013, they published an edited volume of papers described by one commentator, Nicolas van de Walle, as “essential reading to anyone who wishes to understand why a country with so much potential remains mired in poverty.” [i]

Following the September 2011 conference, many commentaries appeared in the Nigerian print and online media. Bankole Oluwafemi in his blog told his fellow Nigerians: “you’re very familiar with this concept [prebendalism], you just might not know it.” Segun Ayobolu provided an apt explanation: “occupants of public office at all levels in the second republic felt that their positions entitled them to unbridled access to public resources with which they not only satisfied their own material needs but also serviced the needs or wants of subaltern clients… This kind of criminal diversion of public resources for selfish private ends starved the polity of funds for development, increased poverty and inequality, and intensified an unhealthy rivalry and competition for public office that triggered pervasive instability… Two and a half decades after, Professor Joseph’s postulations remain as valid as ever.”[ii]

The crippling consequences of dysfunctional governance are experienced in all areas of life in Nigeria. There is a fundamental contradiction between prebendalism and the provision of efficient public services. Can prebendal attitudes toward governmental office ever change and, if so, how? Cambridge University Press, which published my book, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic, in 1987, is reissuing that volume later this year. As I contemplate these publications thirty-five years after arriving at the essential “postulations”, I am reminded of Karl Marx’s injunction: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” The next phase of this vital project is to go beyond critical interpretations to concerted action.

To prompt such exercises, I am making available for further dissemination the epilogue I wrote for Adebanwi and Obadare’s excellent book which includes my suggestions for countering prebendalism. As the renowned scholar Crawford Young stated, this book “is an invaluable guide to postcolonial Nigeria [and] a major contribution to understanding African politics more broadly.”


Ebenezer Obadare, Richard Joseph, Wale Adebanwi Lagos, September 2011

Ebenezer Obadare, Richard Joseph, Wale Adebanwi
Lagos, September 2011

The Logic and Legacy of Prebendalism

My country faces one of the most trying periods in our 52-year history: terrorist attacks; calls for splitting the country along ethnic lines, insecurity, inhumanity and alarming decay in our medical and education systems. It is now the children’s turn to follow in our parents footsteps, to take on the challenges of our time.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani[iii]

We African we must do something about this nonsense.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti[iv]

The convening of an international conference in Lagos, Nigeria, in September 2011 to reassess the conceptual framework, prebendalism, formulated three decades earlier, reflected deep anguish over the misuse of public resources, the failure to establish a stable democracy, widening poverty despite renewed economic growth, and unremitting physical insecurity. With the support of Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Nigeria’s Ekiti state, two U.S.-based Nigerian scholars, Drs. Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare, organized the conference and this edited volume. It is appropriate that this project is Nigerian in conception and direction since the theory of prebendal politics was nurtured within Nigeria during an earlier attempt to establish a sustainable democracy.

I began formulating this theoretical framework while teaching political science at the University of Ibadan, 1976-1979, and completed it as a member of the Department of Government of Dartmouth College. The research and writing were made possible by institutional resources of several institutions.[v] In the book, Democracy and Prebendal Politics first published in 1987, an acknowledgement was made of the sources for the “ideas and information” it contained.[vi] They included “individuals who were actively involved in the politics and political debates in Nigeria which the author was able to observe at close hand between 1976 and 1979, and for brief periods in 1983 and 1984”; and “Nigerians with whom he interacted on a personal and professional basis while lecturing at the University of Ibadan”. The final sentences of the 1987 book can also be recalled:

Consensual politics, government efficiency, economic resiliency and public ethics must evolve via a process of dynamic interaction. Such a process requires of political actors and commentators a long view of the contemporary historical period. There are no ‘quick fixes’ for Africa’s postcolonial predicament in all its ramifications. This study of the political travails of Africa’s most populous nation ends, therefore, on a note of moderate optimism. After the completion of the current cycle of political rule by military officers, perhaps some author will have good reason to write of the political triumphs and temporary travails of the Third Republic.[vii]

The “author” I foresaw could not write the “triumphs and travails” sequel because the “Third Republic”, contrived during the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida, 1985-1993, was still-born. The “current cycle of military rule”, to which I referred, started in December 1983 with the overthrow of the Second Republic. It lasted until April 1999, in other words, even longer than the first military era, January 1966 to October 1979, which included a 30-month civil war. The “long view” I proposed for considering “the contemporary historical period” has, a quarter-century later, no end in sight. Also awaited is the process of dynamic interaction to achieve the goals of “consensual politics, government efficiency, economic resiliency and public ethics”.

Behind the Veil of Affluence

The conceptualizing of prebendalism can be traced to reflections that began in Oxford, England, during the summer of 1977. To make sense of what I had observed since my arrival in Nigeria in February 1976, I wrote an article entitled “Affluence and Underdevelopment: The Nigerian Experience.”[viii] After the Nigerian civil war ended in January 1970, abundant oil revenues flowed through the institutions of federal, state and local governments. Countless infrastructural projects were launched, especially for the construction of major roads. International companies responded to the shopping spree and imports flowed in. The Nigerian currency, buoyed by oil revenues, commanded high exchange rates. Some skeptical observers, including myself, did not perceive a developmental process in the spending craze. In my 1978 article, I compared the behavior of many Nigerians to that of individuals who acquired sudden wealth. “After a few years of dissipation,” I wrote, “the money has been squandered, the physical and mental health of the nouveau riche broken, and the glorious future of unlimited possibilities constricted into a bleak vista of regret and recrimination.”[ix]

By 1979 I had realized that, beneath the veil of affluence lay an intricate set of political and social dynamics. I first wrote about these dynamics in an essay, “Class, State, and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria”, published in the special issue of a journal edited by my Dartmouth colleague, Nelson Kasfir.[x] In Democracy and Prebendal Politics published four years later, the theoretical framework was carried forward. The Fayemi-Adebanwi-Obadare project has inspired me to revisit this work. During a moment of growing national discord, and gruesome violence amidst the hardships, the bleak vista I foresaw in Nigeria has become more foreboding. This edited book project has therefore assumed greater significance that when it was first conceived.

The Logic of Prebendalism

Lasisi Akinbi, a Nigerian commentator, expressed succinctly the central reason for the September 2011 conference when he described the participants as having been brought together by a “living book”.[xi] Another writer, Bankole Oluwafemi, told Nigerians about prebendalism: “you’re very familiar with this concept, you just might not know it.”[xii] He then quoted the Wikipedia page on prebendalism. This “wiki” has been steadily expanded by contributors and now represents an important introduction to the topic. Several excerpts therefore deserve citing:

Richard A. Joseph… is usually credited with first using the term prebendalism to describe patron-client or neopatrimonialism in Nigeria. Since then the term has commonly been used in scholarly literature and textbooks. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines a prebend as the “right of member of chapter to his share in the revenues of a cathedral.” Joseph used the term to describe the sense of entitlement that many people in Nigeria feel they have to the revenues of the Nigerian state. Elected officials, government workers, and members of the ethnic and religious groups to which they belong feel they have a right to a share of government revenues.

Joseph wrote: “According to the theory of prebendalism, state offices are regarded as prebends that can be appropriated by officeholders, who use them to generate material benefits for themselves and their constituents and kin groups…” As a result of that kind of patron-client or identity politics, Nigeria has regularly been one of the lowest ranked nations for political transparency by Transparency International in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

Prebendalism has also been used to describe the nature of state-derived rights over capital held by state officials in parts of India in the early 18th Century. Such rights were equally held to be of a patron-client nature and thus volatile. They were thus converted where possible into hereditary entitlements. Max Weber discussed the prebendalism of India in the early Middle Ages in his book “The Religion of India”:

The occidental seigneurie, like the oriental Indian, developed through the disintegration of the central authority of the patrimonial state power — the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire in the Occident, the disintegration of the Caliphs and the Maharadja or Great Moguls in India. In the Carolingian Empire, however, the new stratum developed on the basis of a rural subsistence economy. Through oath-bound vassalage, patterned after the war following, the stratum of lords was joined to the king and interposed itself between the freemen and the king.

In India, as in the Orient generally, a characteristic seigniory developed rather out of tax farming and the military and tax prebends of a far more bureaucratic state. The oriental seigniory therefore remained in essence, a “prebend” and did not become a “fief”; not feudalization, but prebendalization of the patrimonial state occurred. The comparable, though undeveloped, occidental parallel is not the medieval fief but the purchase of offices and prebends during the papal seicento or during the days of the French Noblesse de Robe. Weber had previously discussed the prebendalism of China in the early Middle Ages in his book “The Religion of China”.

Feudalism in medieval Europe is usually the central reference point for discussions of patrimonialism. As the last two paragraphs cited above show, India and China provided significant models as well. Max Weber drew widely in his writings on patrimonial systems: “The office-holders in Weber’s decentralized patrimonial administration – feudal knights, Indian jagirdars, Egyptian Mamelukes – were able to exercise many of the powers which accrued to the patrimonial order as a whole.”[xiii] The appropriation of state offices as prebends in several countries parallel administrative systems that emerged separately in Europe. It is appropriate that Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia, makes it possible for many individuals to continue elucidating these systems of state administration that are ancient, early modern, and contemporary. It therefore parallels the exercise represented by this book.

Here are some key observations:

  1. Prebendalism, as I conceptualized it regarding Nigeria, reflects shared expectations about the appropriation of state offices, and the use of revenues accruing to them. As Oluwafemi stated: many Nigerians may not know the term, but they know the practices and attitudes to which it refers.
  2. To understand prebendalism, it is necessary to grasp what is a prebend. The dividing line is when the office holder is able to appropriate the office, that is, convert it into his or her piece of the state. In contemporary Nigeria, and other peripheral capitalist countries, there is a short time-horizon in which resources accruing to the office can be diverted for personal and related uses, or for the capital accumulation which it facilitates. “The prebendalization of the patrimonial state”, in the Wikipedia excerpt, is therefore an apt formulation.
  3. Prebendalism is not necessarily Nigerian. What I perceived was its entrenched and pervasive nature in that country; and how prebendal attitudes were woven into what Ken Post and Michael Vickers had earlier described as a “conglomerate society”, i.e., a nation composed of cultural sections defined by ethnicity, language, region and cultural practices.[xiv] Patron-client mechanisms were fundamental features of a dynamic system that linked the appropriation of state offices in Nigeria to the material and other aspirations of cultural sections of the population.
  4. A key consideration is what happens to the state itself. A patrimonial order, under the authority of a king, feudal lord, or chieftain can be a stable one. A prebendalized system, however, is inherently unstable. Aspirations to build a capable state, a democratic system, and a coherent nation are ultimately foiled by prebendal practices. One of the questions addressed by contributors to this book, and others who should conduct the needed empirical research, is to what degree prebendal attitudes and behaviors are changing in Nigeria? I find particularly instructive in this regard Francis Fukuyama’s notion that institutions tend to be layered onto pre-existing institutions.[xv]

Patrimonialism, Predation, and Prebendalism

There is wide usage of the terms patrimonialism, neo-patrimonialism, and predation but less so of prebendalism. I expect that will change in coming years. Of the many authors who have made important contributions to these topics, I will focus on the work of three authors: Francis Fukuyama, Nicolas van de Walle and Peter Lewis. Patrimonialism is one of the central concepts in Francis Fukuyama’s major study, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Fukuyama, basing his analysis on the classic writings of Max Weber, distinguishes patrimonial from modern state systems. “Impersonal modern states,” he writes, “are difficult institutions to both establish and maintain, since patrimonialism – recruitment based on kinship or personal reciprocity – is the natural form of social relationship to which human beings will revert in the absence of other norms and incentives.” “The most universal form of human political interaction”, he continues, “is a patron-client relationship in which a leader exchanges favors in return for support from a group of followers.”[xvi]

Michael Bratton and Nicolas van de Walle, in their seminal study, Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transition in Comparative Perspective, also placed patrimonialism (neo-patrimonialism in the contemporary context) at the center of their analysis.[xvii] They provide a helpful description:

In patrimonial political systems, an individual rules by dint of personal prestige and power; ordinary folk are treated as extensions of the ‘big man’s’ household, with no rights or privileges other than those bestowed by the ruler. Authority is entirely personalized, shaped by the ruler’s preferences rather than any codified system of laws. The ruler ensures the political stability of the regime and personal political survival by providing a zone of security in an uncertain environment and by selectively distributing favors and material benefits to loyal followers who are not citizens of the polity so much as the ruler’s clients.>[xviii]

In my study of Nigeria, I had earlier argued that patrimonialism did not fully capture the practices and behaviors I observed. Of the many formulations of prebendalism I advanced, the following can be quoted here:

In my adaptation of this concept to Nigerian politics as well as many peripheral capitalist nations, the term prebendal refers to patterns of political behavior which reflect as their justifying principle that the offices of the existing state may be competed for and then utilized for the benefit of office-holders as well as that of their reference or support group. To a significant extent, the ‘state’ in such a context is perceived as a congeries of offices susceptible to individual cum communal appropriation. The statutory purposes of such offices become a matter of secondary concern, however much that purpose might have been codified in law or other regulations or even periodically cited during competitions to fill them.[xix]

From Prebendalism to Predation?

The reflections of Peter Lewis, Nicolas van de Walle, and Francis Fukuyama complement those included in this volume. In a comprehensive essay, rich in empirical detail, Peter Lewis discussed the governance of Nigeria during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, 1985-1993.[xx] He contends that under Babangida, and his successor as head of a military regime, Sani Abacha, a “special form of political and economic domination”, predatory rule, was consolidated:

The economic adversities fomented by the Babangida regime draw attention to a more fundamental change during this period, the shift from prebendalism, or decentralized patrimonial rule, towards predation, the consolidation of avaricious dictatorship. The personalization and concentration of power under Babangida reflected a new tendency in Nigeria’s political economy… State economic tutelage moved from a pattern of diffuse clientelism under comparatively stable (though weak) institutional auspices, to more arbitrary and debilitating control by a single ruler. [xxi]

Lewis contends that predatory rule “should be distinguished from that of prebendal relations” which has the following features: “widespread appropriation of nominally ‘public’ resources for personal or parochial gain”; allocations “patterned by ethnically-delineated patron-client networks”; and a “distributive arena” that was “largely decentralized” and in which “clientelist relations were diffuse.” Under Babangida, according to Lewis, “political authority and economic discretion” were concentrated “to an unprecedented degree…fostering the emergence of predatory rule.” The predatory order he posits had three essential features: “concentration of power under coercive auspices; the augmenting of repression “by material inducement, requiring close discretion over public resources”, and “an enormous diversion of public resources for discretionary use” by “an elite stratum of loyalist officers, civilian cronies, and acquiescent politicians”. Is predatory rule, we should ask, a distinctive political system? Larry Diamond has written pertinently about the rise of the predatory state in many post-colonial and post-Soviet countries. Much of his formulation is consistent with that of Lewis.[xxii]

Under Babangida and Abacha, Lewis contends, a “more personalistic and predatory control of the state” emerged, reflecting developments in other peripheral capitalist nations. One of the key questions is whether the consolidation in Nigeria of a “purely avaricious dictatorship, or predation” ended the salience of prebendalism. The evidence, I would argue, suggests otherwise. Helpful in this regard, as earlier mentioned, is Fukuyama’s idea of the layering of institutional systems. Under Babangida and Abacha, Nigeria remained a conglomerate multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. It is still one today. After serving for decades in the ruling echelons of military governments, these military officers were astute manipulators of prebendal attitudes. Predation was always a feature of Nigerian prebendalism. Babangida and Abacha carried the personalizing of supreme power – which they had benefited from as junior members of the military regimes of Yakubu Gowon, 1967-1975, and Olusegun Obasanjo, 1975-1979 – to an extreme level using the control over, and selective distribution of, petroleum-derived resources. Yet, under them, and at all levels of the federation, the prebendal use of offices, and the ethno-regional clientelism that sustain it, persisted.[xxiii]

Ibrahim Babangida, as Olusegun Obasanjo during his tenure as an elected president, 1999-2007, had the opportunity to move Nigeria towards a modern political system in which state offices would gradually cease to be prebends exploited to generate material resources for office-holders, their sectional clients, and their cronies. In a modern system, as described by Fukuyama, they would be principally used to conduct public business in accountable and transparent ways, and in accordance with legal stipulations. This has not occurred.[xxiv] The greater concentration of power, the repressive use of the state apparatus, the consolidation of an oligarchy of military and business persons, and the further erosion of state institutions, as Lewis asserts, did take place under Babangida and Abacha. Their regimes may have been more repressive and predatory, and their systems of rule more centralized, than those of their predecessors, but the fundamental logic of the Nigerian system of revenue allocation, appropriation, and legitimation persisted.[xxv]

A dozen years after the end of both the Babangida and Abacha regimes, Rotimi Suberu could write in this volume: “the Nigerian federal system operates almost exclusively as a mechanism for the intergovernmental distribution and ethno-political appropriation of centrally collected oil-revenues.” And, as another political scientist, Sam Oloruntoba, contends, predation in Nigerian is undiminished: “The politicians across the political divide are united in the rapacious looting of state treasuries, the result being the continued pauperization of the masses.”[xxvi]

As the once excluded minorities of the oil-producing states of the Nigerian Delta and contiguous areas corral central positions in the federal government, contemporary descriptions of the political economy echo what I wrote three decades ago: “The pervasive normative expectations…that the struggle for a share of public goods will be conducted and assessed along ethnic and other sectional lines…Such expectations…do not preclude egoistic appropriations by individuals or mutual exchanges among members of the dominant class.”[xxvii] Under Obasanjo, in his second tenure as Nigerian head-of-state (1999-2007), and his successors Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, senior legislators have wrested a larger share of the enormous revenues accruing to the federal government – and the same is true at the level of state governments. Prebendal mechanisms keep the system going because there is always a queue of political aspirants for whom the path to personal wealth goes through the temporary command of state resources. Lewis’s essay captured what took place in many sectors of the Nigerian political and economic system during the Babangida and Abacha era. A complete analysis of this period, however, would show the layering and imbrication of predatory and prebendal practices.[xxviii]

From Prebendalism to Patronage?

An important effort to explore the logic of prebendalism in post-colonial Africa was made by Nicolas van de Walle. What renders his discussion of particular significance is that he earlier made, as mentioned above, important contributions to applying patrimonialism, and neo-patrimonialism, to the study of African politics. In a series of articles, and a major book chapter, van de Walle discussed the unique features of prebendalism within the general framework of patrimonialism.

In his essay, “Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss?”, van de Walle distinguishes patronage, which prevails in modern states, from prebendalism.[xxix] He describes patronage as “the practice of using state resources to provide jobs and services for political clienteles”.[xxx] Prebendalism, on the other hand, “refers to the handing out of prebends, in which an individual is given a public office in order for him/her to gain personal access over state resources.” In postcolonial Africa, van de Walle contends,“certain structural factors” led political leaders “to rely more on prebends than patronage.” One of these factors was the need for “intra-elite accommodation in young, multi-ethnic and poorly integrated political systems”. Cross-ethnic accommodation was facilitated by providing access to state resources through the prebendal use of public offices. Van de Walle shows the logic of an authoritarian ruler forging alliances among the political elite through the doling out of prebends; and the use of these offices, in turn, for “the mobilizing of ethnic constituencies”. Although the lion’s share of material benefits went to members of the political elite, ethno-clientelistic systems encouraged citizens “to vote for members of their own ethnic group, particularly in ethnically divided societies.”

Van de Walle’s delineation of the dividing line between prebendalism and patronage is worth noting:

Prebends and patronage overlap, but I wish to emphasize their fundamental difference. Hiring a member of one’s ethnic group for a senior position in the custom’s office is an example of patronage. Allowing the customs officer to use the position for personal enrichment by manipulating import and export taxes is an example of a prebend. Patronage is often perfectly legal, though it is frowned upon and constitutes a “gray area” of acceptable practice; it remains present in the bureaucracies of the most advanced economies of the world. Prebendalism, on the other hand, invariably entails practices in which important state agents unambiguously subvert the rule of law for personal gain.

As post-independence competitive party systems faded, so also did legal constraints on the misuse of offices. Eventually, van de Walle argues, “the salience of prebends came to exceed that of patronage in most of post-colonial Africa.” His framework is helpful in distinguishing among African governments. In many cases, “regimes in Africa proved too weak to prevent clientelist systems from fragmenting and escaping any semblance of central control.” In Mauritius and Botswana, he states, there was little prebendal activity. Relatively effective public sectors could therefore be established while party organizations were “well-oiled with patronage.” Similarly, in the early years of the Ivory Coast under Houphouët-Boigny, greater institutionalization was achieved through the fostering of “rule-based administrative behavior.” Ahmadu Ahidjo in Cameroon “kept a tight control of both patronage and prebends during his rule from 1960 to 1982”; while in Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko, “state resources were almost entirely privatized”.

Van de Walle applies this framework to the first decade of resumed competitive party politics after 1989. In the initial wave, the modal party system of a large dominant party and many small and volatile parties reflected “the continuing importance of prebendal dynamics.” Individual politicians knew that “they are more likely to get access to state resources if they are in the president’s party.” On the basis of his analysis, we can expect that as legislatures wrest a share of power from executives, and as some countries (e.g., Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia) evolve from single-dominant party systems, we are likely to see varying combinations of prebendal and patronage dynamics.

Several years after writing “Meet the old Boss”, van de Walle revisited these topics in a conference paper, “The Democratization of Political Clientelism in Sub-Saharan Africa”.[xxxi] He considered the possibility that competitive election systems in Africa will “shift the locus of clientelism away from the executive branch towards political parties and the legislature.”[xxxii] Several other issues he raised are worth noting by future researchers. Van de Walle provides another statement on the logic of prebendalism that is insightful. It provides the conceptual clarity required for the much needed empirical work on the degree of persistence, or mutation, of these institutional and behavioral dynamics:

Political clientelism was often prebendal in nature, linked to illegal acts and undermined property rights…Officials of the state earn a low nominal official salary, but their position gives them discretionary access to resources because of the rules, regulations and policies of the state, from which they are expected to profit. The selective implementation and manipulation of their own policies can allow custom officials to gain considerable revenues, ministerial officials can take a cut on state procurement contracts, or the officials of regulatory bodies can abstract bribes from the companies they are supposed to regulate. In Africa, following independence…most of the political clientelism took the form of prebends for top state elites.[xxxiii]

The comparative study of prebendalism, within the universe of African political systems that now includes an array of regime types from liberal democratic to neo-authoritarian, deserves attention. Van de Walle’s essays should encourage other scholars to take up the key questions and distinctions he raises, and also inspire them to apply the empirical research tools now available.

Prebendalism and the Modern State System

Francis Fukuyama’s magisterial study, The Origins of Political Order, makes a strong case for patrimonialism, and its various sub-types, as the default form of state administration in ancient, early modern, and contemporary political systems.[xxxiv] “Impersonal modern states”, as was earlier cited, “are difficult institutions to both establish and maintain,” because “patrimonialism – recruitment based on kinship or personal reciprocity – is the natural form of social relationship to which human beings will revert in the absence of other norms and incentives.”[450] As was earlier cited, he contends that “the most universal form of human political interaction is a patron-client relationship in which a leader exchanges favors in return for support from a group of followers.”[453] Even when impersonal state systems are introduced, “…there is constant pressure to repatrimonialize the system.”[453] Fukuyama does not use the term prebendalism as I, and others scholars of post-colonial Africa, do. He writes, for example, that “contemporary measures of corruption do not…distinguish between patron-client ties within a bureaucracy and prebendalism in which officials simply appropriate public resources without any obligation to take care of citizens.”[xxxv] As understood by Africa scholars, patron-client ties are intrinsic to prebendalism and the misuse of public resources.

A significant dimension of what Fukuyama describes as patrimonialism in ancient China, pre-revolutionary France and 16th century Spain, fits the designation of the “prebendalization of patrimonial states” mentioned earlier. In preparing the second volume of The Origins of Political Order, which will cover developments since the French Revolution, Fukuyama should ponder the important comment in Wikipedia:

In India, as in the Orient generally, a characteristic seigniory developed rather out of tax farming and the military and tax prebends of a far more bureaucratic state. The oriental seigniory therefore remained in essence, a “prebend” and did not become a “fief”; not feudalization, but prebendalization of the patrimonial state occurred. The comparable, though undeveloped, occidental parallel is not the medieval fief but the purchase of offices and prebends during the papal seicento or during the days of the French Noblesse de Robe.

Of the country experiences analyzed by Fukuyama, I will focus on China and France. Fukuyama makes a case for what would appear paradoxical, namely, that in ancient China a modern state was created “in Weberian terms.” [135]China, he claims, “invented a system of merit-based bureaucratic recruitment.” [113]Fukuyama’s focuses on the use of offices, which is also the central feature of prebendalism. “The hallmarks of the modern office”, he writes, “are a separation between the office and the officeholder; the office is not private property; the officeholder is a salaried official subject to the discipline of the hierarchy within which he is embedded; offices are defined functionally; and officeholding is based on technical competence…All of these were…characteristic of the Chinese bureaucracy from the time of the state of Qin” [270]and repatrimonialized during later dynasties in the second century BCE.

Eventually, “the Qin effort to eliminate feudalism and create an impersonal modern state was undone; kinship returned as the primary avenue to power and status in China, a situation that lasted until the later years of the Tang Dynasty in the ninth century.”[140] Interestingly, for students of Africa, “kinship and patrimonialism reinserted themselves as the organizing principles of Chinese politics.” [140]To a remarkable degree, Fukuyama delineates the dynamics of a prebendalized patrimonial order familiar to students of post-colonial Africa, including the role of kinship ties “as the primary avenue to power and status”.[140] Two millennia after the Qin era, a prebendalized system emerged in France. Fukuyama’s use of the terms, “patrimonial officeholding” and “venal officeholders” are similar, in many regards, to how I, and the contributors to this book, use the term prebendal. His interpretation of what happened to the state in pre-revolutionary France depicts, I would contend, the extreme prebendalizing of a patrimonial order: “…the actual purchase of small pieces of the state, which could then be handed down to descendants… Government offices …sold to the highest bidder…Government …was privatized down to its core functions and public offices turned into heritable private property.”[339]

In post-colonial Africa, it is only at the very summit of the political system, and notably that of the head-of-state himself, that efforts have been consummated to render the office heritable. This can be seen in such countries as Gabon and Togo. It is also instructive to be reminded by Fukuyama of the French coinage of such terms as the rente – to refer to “the selling of public offices to private individuals, entitling office holder to a revenue stream that the officeholder controlled” – and the paulette, entitling a rente holder to “convert his office into heritable property by bequeathing it to his descendants in return for a fee”. [340-341] When Nigeria and other African countries are looked at through the prism of pre-revolutionary France, the challenges appear utterly daunting: “The system created by the French government was an absolute nightmare. It virtually legitimized and institutionalized rent seeking and corruption by allowing agents to run their public offices for private benefit…” “If modern public administration”, Fukuyama wrote, “is about the observance of a bright line between public and private, then the ancien régime represented a thoroughly premodern system.”[339] In reading Fukuyama, I was reminded of the key insight that came to me in Nigeria in 1978-79: that a vibrant pre-modern system was operating behind the paraphernalia of a modernizing state.

Fukuyama advances perspectives for which equivalents could be found regarding Nigeria: “The French state was thus a curious and unstable combination of modern and patrimonial elements.” [339] Eventually, a “market in state offices” was consummated [370]. Unlike pre-revolutionary France, where “property rights in public offices” became legitimized [353], prebendalism in Africa, as van de Walle emphasizes, is mired in illegality. Fukuyama puts forward the important notion of “the bright line”. [371]There is a bright line, he claims, in modern state systems between the public and private use of offices. The following statement about France conveys what is a major challenge to be overcome in post-colonial Africa: “The authority of the state had been built by empowering a broad coalition of rent-seeking elites and entrenching them in tradition and law…A modern France could not arise until venal officeholding was replaced by impersonal, merit-based bureaucracy.” [349]

As van de Walle showed, state authority in post-colonial Africa was tied to the practice of accommodating rent-seeking elites. There are some cases, such as Kenya, where political barons have established a firm hold on public offices, informally rather than formally as in pre-revolutionary France.[xxxvi] How, in such cases, will venal officeholding be replaced by an impersonal, merit-based bureaucracy? How did that transformation occur, according to Fukuyama, in France and elsewhere in Europe? Invariably, it involved a revolutionary process executed, in some cases, by force of arms:

The French Revolution was able to reestablish a bright line between public and private interest by simply expropriating all of the old venal officeholders’ patrimonies and lopping off the heads of the recalcitrant ones. A new political system in which recruitment into political office was to be based on merit and impersonality – something the Chinese had discovered nearly two millennia earlier – was then brought to the rest of Europe by the man on horseback…The nineteenth-century German bureaucracy that became Max Weber’s model for modern, rational public administration did not evolve out of patrimonial officeholding, but rather styled itself as a conscious break with that tradition. [371]

How will this “conscious break” in conducting public business be achieved in Nigeria and other African countries? Fukuyama does not consider how “venal officeholding” represents a qualitative alteration of a traditional patrimonial order in which the king, lord, or chieftain retains control of both the allocation and utilization of offices of the realm. But his dissection of what we would call a prebendalized patrimonial system casts a powerful light on a core challenge in Nigeria and other African countries. The “absolute nightmare” in pre-revolutionary France of “rent seeking and corruption” is familiar throughout post-colonial Africa.[xxxvii]

The Legacy of Prebendalism

Wale Adebanwi drew the title of his important book on corruption in Nigeria from a popular song by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti entitled Authority Stealing. Adebanwi quotes one of the stanzas of the song: Authority people dem go dey steal…/Authority people no dey pick pocket/ Na plenty cash dem go dey steal…/Authority man in charge of money/e no need gun, im need pen… And he cites the song’s concluding lines: Authority stealing pass armed robbery/We African we must do something about this nonsense…[xxxviii] I could think of no more succinct way to describe the essence of prebendalism than as “authority stealing”. It is the authority entrusted to state offices that is stolen by those appointed or elected to fill them. The consequences, as Fela sang, exceed “armed robbery”.

My central aim three decades ago in exploring the dynamics of prebendalism was “to see what paths can conceivably lead from them to a more stable, efficient and democratic polity”.[xxxix] Those paths are more obscure today. The contemporary Nigerian polity cannot be described as stable, efficient or substantially democratic. Will the current “democratic dispensation”, to use a common Nigerian expression, succeed where all previous regimes have failed? Rising poverty rates in Nigeria, severe infrastructural blockages, and a demographically-skewed population with tens of millions of “futureless youths” accentuate the levels of insecurity. Nigeria’s lacks a national railway system, a secure and expanding road network, adequate electricity supplies and sanitation facilities, potable water for most of its citizens, and satisfactory provision of other public goods of modernizing countries. Currently, dedicated public servants in some federal institutions such as the Central Bank and the Ministry of Agriculture are seeking ways to overcome these deficiencies. The same can be said of several state governments such as that of Lagos state, first under Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 1999-2007, and now his successor, Babatunde Raji Fashola. Nigerians in government, civic, corporate and religious bodies are fighting back; but the challenges are overwhelming. One of the hoped-for consequences of this book is that it will provoke even wider waves of transformative action.

Reversing the dismal legacy of prebendalism involves uprooting prebendalism itself. But how can this be done? Nigerians are inveterate innovators. It is they who will have to design ingenious responses. States and local governments in India are constantly devising policies and institutions with the aim of generating transparent, accountable and efficient public authorities. In Nigeria, federal, state and local governments, and non-governmental institutions, should similarly sponsor activities aimed at promoting non-prebendal attitudes and behaviors. Could the difference between prebendal and non-prebendal administrative systems be taught in Nigerian schools, and other institutions? Could other accessible living books be produced and audio-visual methods devised? What role can Nigeria’s dynamic Nollywood industry play in this process? In sum, how can the people of Nigerian be incentivized to dislodge prebendal practices?

Alongside the myriad challenges now confronting the Nigerian state and nation, a broad movement is needed aimed at developing modern administrative systems. The central theme has already been quoted from Fukuyama: “The hallmarks of the modern office are a separation between the office and the officeholder; the office is not private property; the officeholder is a salaried official subject to the discipline of the hierarchy within which he is embedded.” There is a chasm between such a politico-administrative system and what, to a significant extent, prevails in Nigeria. It is not the case that Nigerians are incapable of building and operating institutions that function according to a different set of norms. This is seen in the operations of mega-churches that efficiently provide an array of services for their congregants. And Nigeria has an untapped reserve army of millions in its Diaspora who thrive on building enterprises and pursuing professional careers that adhere to “the bright line”. Can they take back to Nigeria what they have learned abroad and, if so, how? Alongside the remittances to family members and local communities, there is something even more valuable to be re-invested: the knowledge of how to build, operate and sustain modern law-abiding, transparent and efficient institutions. In such a grand venture, Nigerians could call on all the necessary human and material resources. Existing models worldwide can be copied and adapted. Expertise can be contracted from any nation in which prebendalism is not the default administrative system.

In my 1983 article, I wrote that the self-destructive tendencies of this system must be thoroughly understood if ways can ever be devised to escape its debilitating cycle of renewal and decay.”[xl] It is hoped that this book will advance that process of understanding. When I asked Sani Umar, one of the contributors to this volume, how did local and state governments in northern Nigeria use the resources available to them to try and reverse the downward slide of the region, he responded that most of them operated as did their counterparts elsewhere in the federation, namely, along predatory/prebendal lines. Aspirants to office, after garnering the votes of their constituents, proceeded to use their offices largely to serve themselves, their families, members of their identity groups, and cronies. From their researches in Kenya and Uganda, Bo Rothstein and his colleagues report on interviews that could have been conducted in Nigeria. They reflect the bottom-up dynamics which make prebendalism so difficult to transform:

If you have an office but have not stolen – if you have not helped your family – they are actually going to curse you…So there is pressure from everybody that you should take as much as possible…You eat on your behalf but also let some crumbs fall on those who are with you.People are seeing their relatives and friends in high offices and they don’t care how they get the money as long as the money is going to the village and they benefit.If the State is allowing people like this [high-level public officials] to continue with looting, why should I be stopped from giving a clinical officer a hundred shillings to get faster heath care service.[xli]

How to engage not just political elites but citizens at all levels in the process of system transformation is the challenge confronting virtually all African countries. Three decades ago, I declared that “ways must be found to protect the state-power…from being prebendalized and then squeezed of its resources to satisfy the unceasing struggle among massed communities and their (self-serving) patrons for access to the public till.”[xlii] Sadly, there is no different message to be shared today. At the heart of the development process in Africa must be a revolutionary transformation in how state offices are perceived and used.[xliii] What can be added, following Fukuyama, is how profoundly difficult a goal this is to accomplish.[xliv] It took a very bloody revolution to transform the highly prebendalized system of monarchical France. No responsible person would call for such a cataclysmic event in Nigeria today. The country is currently wracked by terrorist violence that is provoking inter-communal and inter-religious warfare. Is it possible for the equivalent of the French revolution to take place in Nigeria via open, transparent, and democratic means? The technology is available today to make publicly known virtually every sum that is allocated to every office in the Nigerian federation (with the exception of “security votes” for federal and state executive officers). A powerful weapon against prebendalism is the cellphone in the hands of many Nigerians. The great creativity of Nigerians, and other Africans, in using and adapting communication technologies, means that they possess some of the key instruments to effect the necessary transformation.[xlv]

During the prolonged global economic recession, accompanied by a crisis in governance, media revelations of corruption in many countries appear daily. Nigeria, which has become infamous for corrupt practices, is in a position to play a leading role in reversing them. Will Nigerians, especially the younger generations, knowing all they do about their own country’s experiences, and the upheavals in many countries worldwide, take ownership and responsibility for engineering this transformation? I ended the 1987 book on a note of “moderate optimism”. Sadly, I can no longer use the term “optimism”, even with qualifiers. In my March 2012 lecture at Brown University on the topic, “Can the Nigerian Project be Salvaged”, I said, using the metaphor of a sporting match, that Nigeria was now in “injury time”.[xlvi] In his remarks to the September 2011 conference on democracy and prebendalism, Governor Kayode Fayemi stated: “We have failed as a people to confront the fundamental structural challenges of our national togetherness and collective political life. Unless we…reorder the fundamentally flawed logic on which Nigeria has operated until now, we will not be able put the national state in the service of the diverse people who constitute it.” Prebendalism is part of this “fundamentally flawed logic”. Those who were children when I first wrote about prebendalism are now adults. To paraphrase Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, they cannot wait for their children to take on “the challenges of our time”. By then, there may be no Nigeria to be salvaged.

[i] Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare, ed., Democracy and Prebendalism in Nigeria: Critical Interpretations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

[ii] “Between ‘prebendal politics’ and the ‘two publics’, The Nation, November 21, 2012.

[iii] “Reform in the Name of the Father”, The New York Times (June 17, 2012). Ms. Nwaubani is the author of the novel, I Do Not Come to You By Chance (Hyperion, 2009).

[iv] From his song, “Authority Stealing.” This is also the title of Wale Adebanwi’s book, Authority Stealing: Anti-Corruption War and Democratic Politics in Post-Military Nigeria (Carolina Academic Press, 2012).

[v] In addition to the University of Ibadan and Dartmouth College, I was the recipient of a Fulbright grant, a research grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, both for 1978-79, and a research grant from the Ford Foundation. The latter supported a sabbatical at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University in 1981, where some of the writing was done.

[vi] Democracy and Prebendal Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic (Cambridge University Press, 1987). A Nigerian edition was published by Spectrum Books in 1991.

[vii] Ibid, p. 198.

[viii] Published in the Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 16, no. 2 (1978), pp. 221-239.

[ix] Ibid, p.1.

[x] “State and Class in Africa,” The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, vol. XXI, no. 3 (November 1983). This collection was also published as a book: Nelson Kasfir, ed., State and Class in Africa (Frank Cass and Company, 1984). My essay was re-issued in other publications, such as Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o ed., Estado y Sociedad en el Africa actual (El Colégio de Mexico, 1989), and Peter Lewis, ed., Africa: Dilemmas of Development and Change (Westview Press, 1998).



[xiii] Democracy and Prebendal Politics, p. 65.

[xiv] Ken Post and Michael Vickers, Structure and Conflict in Nigeria, 1960-1965 (Heineman Educational Publishers, 1973). It is pertinent that chapter 5 on “Clientelism and prebendal politics” in my book is preceded by the chapter on “Politics in a multi-ethnic society.” Also pertinent is the analysis and extensive information in Larry Diamond, Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria: The Failure of the First Republic (Syracuse University Press, 1988).

[xv] The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). This is the first of a projected two-volume series.

[xvi] Ibid, pp. 450 and 453.

[xvii] Cambridge University Press (1997). See also by the same authors, “Neo-Patrimonial Regimes and Political Transitions in Africa,” World Politics, vol. 46, no. 4 (July 1994), pp. 453-489.

[xviii] Democratic Experiments, p. 61.

[xix] “Class, State, and Prebendal Politics,” pp. 30-31.

[xx] “From Prebendalism to Predation: The Political Economy of Decline in Nigeria”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 34, no. 1 (1996), pp. 79-103.

[xxi] Ibid, p.80. The other citations from Lewis are drawn from this article.

[xxii] “The Rollback of Democracy: The Resurgence of the Predatory State”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 87, no. 2 (March-April 2008), pp. 36-48.

[xxiii] A challenge to be taken up by a new wave of scholars is the need for empirical studies, especially at state levels, on how prebendal practices were modified or distorted during the wrenching upheavals, especially since 1990, from militarized to more civilianized systems.

[xxiv] This assessment is based on several visits to Nigeria during the second Obasanjo era, many personal interviews, and participation in numerous group meetings. Two collaborative research programs, the Consortium for Development Partnerships (CDP), funded by the Foreign Ministry of The Netherlands, and the Research Alliance to Combat HIV/AIDS (REACH), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, made possible many of these trips during the 2004-2011 period.

[xxv] Case studies could be conducted of the new level of synthesis of predation, as described by Lewis, and prebendalism. For example, by examining the political and economic networks of former governors such as Depreye Alamieyeseigha in Bayelsa State, or James Ibori in Delta State, it can be explored how predation was linked to ethno-clientelist attitudes and practices, from the summit of the federation to their local communities.

[xxvi] Personal communication.

[xxvii] Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria

[xxviii] For substantial information on how these practices are sustained by Nigerians, while decrying them, see Daniel Jordan Smith, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria (Princeton University Press, 2008). The extraordinary scale of predation, and its embeddedness in prebendalist attitudes and behaviors, is conveyed in Wale Adebanwi’s Authority Stealing.

[xxix] Published in Herbert Kitschelt and Steven I. Wilkinson, Patrons, Clients and Policies: Patterns of Democratic Accountability and Political Competition (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 50-67. I briefly referred in Democracy and Prebendal Politics to the difference between a patronage and a prebendal system, pp. 66-67. Van de Walle has fully explored that distinction.

[xxx] Ibid, p.51. All citations from van de Walle, unless indicated, are from this book chapter.

[xxxi] Third European Conference on African Studies, Leipzig, Germany, June 4-7, 2009.

[xxxii] Ibid, p. 4.

[xxxiii] Ibid, p. 7.

[xxxiv] The page numbers to citations from Fukuyama’s book will be inserted in the text.

[xxxv] “The Pattern of History,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 23, no. 1 (January 2012), p. 18.

[xxxvi] As shown by Jacqueline Klopp, the power of these barons often rest on vast landed properties obtained through the control of state offices. “Kenya Struggles to Fix Itself,” Current History (May 2012).

[xxxvii] I raised these questions in a preliminary way in my talk, ”Beyond Prebendalist Systems: State, Democracy, and Development in Africa”, at Stanford University on April 25, 2012. See

[xxxviii] Op. cit, p. 153.

[xxxix] Democracy and Prebendal Politics.

[xl] “Class, State, and Prebendal Politics,” p. 22.

[xli] Anna Persson, Bo Rothstein, Jan Teorell, “Why Anti-Corruption Reforms Fail – System Corruption as a Collective Action Problem,” The Quality of Government Institute (University of Gothenburg, Sweden, 2012, p. 16. For similar commentaries in Nigeria, see Daniel Jordan Smith, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria (Princeton, 2008).

[xlii] “Class, State, and Prebendal Politics,” p. 34.

[xliii] See Richard Joseph, “Smart Partnerships for African Development: A New Strategic Framework,” Special Report, United States Institute of Peace, May 15, 2002.

[xliv] Anne Persson et al., op. cit. explain why most anti-corruption programs fail, and why the system we have described as prebendalism require a collective action approach quite different from the usual panoply of reforms.

[xlv] Sahara Reporters, an internet media company began by a former student activist in Nigeria, Omoyele Sowore, is an example of the capacities that can be tapped by committed and innovative Nigerians.

[xlvi] See my lecture, “Can the Nigerian Project be Salvaged? Growth, Democracy and Security”, delivered at Brown University on March 13, 2012:

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