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.

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]


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.


Copyright © AfricaPlus 2016

[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.

Listen to the interview

Continue reading

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]

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading