Nigerian Elite: On the Path of Reconciliation or of Mutual Assured Destruction, (MAD)?
It is certain to be such a mighty and welcome entertainment were it to happen that any two of Generals Obasanjo, T Y Danjuma, IBB, Buhari, Aliyu Gusau or Atiku Abubakar, Bola Tinubu and so on to gather in Abuja or Lagos and engage themselves in a fight to finish without it degenerating into an all-comer war. After all, motor park touts do that to each other nearly every day across the country. But it doesn’t happen that way. Every major quarrel between any two out of the above list has the potential to degenerate into anything between and among their faithfuls, followers and foot soldiers. And it would reverberate across the country. Only those who can imagine what the Obasanjo-Atiku political fist cuff since 2003 has cost this country might appreciate this statement.
The point that any two of these persons cannot fight without intended as well as unintended consequences for the larger society calls to mind the aphorism ‘He who says organisation says oligarchy’. The saying may not spark at the level of the folks but it has been about the most powerful reality in history. Even where a revolution occurs during which a subsisting oligarchy is smashed, it is always another small clique of players that gather themselves and sneak their way into a fresh conclave of power. In academic Sociology, they are called the elite, that caste of few in the society who link up with each other to shape the destiny of nations, military formations, transnational corporations, social clubs and just about any such social unit where power is at stake.
The three egg heads who first alerted the world to this reality added that elite are successful in inserting themselves in the engine room of power because they are better organised than the masses when it comes to the acquisition and utilisation of power. They are few in number compared to the masses who are many, they have attended schools which gave them a basically same type of socialisation, they have converted their interaction in such schools into networks that works for them, (Kings College, Barewa College, UI, NIPSS and now, the much speculated emergent BUK mafia, just to give a few examples of such in the history of Nigeria). So, the proponents told us about their “nobility of character, broad horizons from enlarged faculties… of foresight and prevention” and which they claim makes them to become the only class which “will feely sacrifice a present good in order to avert a future evil”.
Worry less about the propaganda in the last sentence or, in fact, in the whole argument. Every theory, we have been told since 1981, is always for someone and for some purpose. Theory is about constructing reality, not really about explaining anything. What is important for the purpose of this piece is that the theorists have successfully constructed a powerful reality called the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” or the elite thesis which forewarns us to the inevitability of the Obasanjos, T Y Danjumas, IBBs, Buharis, Atikus, Akinrinades and so on but also to the danger of when they are quarrelling among themselves. When they do, it is a legitimate area for the people to poke nose into because it would be a classic case of two elephants fighting!
However, ask the average Nigerian today why the country is in turmoil, the likely answers would be ethnicity, corruption, Islamisation/Fulani militia, military intervention in politics, north-south dichotomy, religion, climate change, poor leadership, imperialism, etc. It is, tragically, unlikely that anyone would mention the elite. Yet, it is only the failure to mention that word that made Chinua Achebe to fail to get it 100 right when he said that the trouble with Nigeria is leadership. If he had said the trouble with Nigeria is the elite, he would have made the most radical statement about nation building Nigeria. Even if this critique of Achebe were informed only by the disputation on the concept of leadership at the Third Awolowo Foundation Dialogue which was on “Nigeria: In Search of Leadership”, it suffices. It is doubtful Nigeria can better confront that topic anytime soon than the Mokwugu Okoyes, Claude Akes, Omafume Onoges, Bola Iges, Bala Usmans, Kyari Tijanis, Akinola Aguda, Chukwudifu Oputas, Obaro Ikime, among many others who took the centre stage at the dialogue.
The Nigerian elite has been the butt of some of the harshest criticism thinkable in history, both from outside and from within. Recall Wole Soyinka’s before Achebe’s. Those who might have problems with those two might recall Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singaporean leader’s dismissal of the Nigerian elite. It is not about whether they are right or wrong but about the fact that the Nigerian elite is also highly commended for being ahead in putting averting the sort of conflict that was tearing other African countries apart by the post war reconciliation proclamation; putting in place mechanisms for managing access, (federal character principle, quota, NYSC, etc) and achieving transition from dictatorship to civilian rule in the late 1970s when it was not the vogue.
Today, they are in disarray, totally lost, leaving almost nothing for the country to hold onto. Someone wondered publicly not too long ago what would happen if an asteroid were to falls down somewhere in Nigeria. He was sure this country hasn’t got the crane facility to lift it without begging and waiting for Julius Berger. This is a country where the people are multiplying uncontrollably, yet, there is no central set of people peering into the future strategically, thinking about their housing, educational, health and transport needs beyond concepts and models grafted from World Bank’s statistical wonderland. Public-private partnership has been invested with the capacity to solve all problems, making the country to perpetually respond to demands instead of thinking ahead of them. Does Nigeria have enough doctors, nurses and other professionals upon whose expertise is that which the country can count on in its most crucial moment? Anyone can answer the question. Can Nigeria feed itself? No. Instead, the ground is being prepared for war over food when the population hits 400 million or thereabout, something which should, in itself, make Nigeria the crown Black state in the world.
There is nothing radical in stating all these because even members of the elite are saying the same things. There was something instructive in this direction recently. Senator Ben Murray-Bruce got up in the Senate to say, among other interesting things that “what is happening here is lack of imagination, creativity by those who serve government”. A lot of the people in government are not qualified to do the job they are employed to do, he said, insisting that is why Nigeria cannot man her border posts or why Murtala Mohammed Airport (1) which he compared to a mall is dysfunctional. It is dysfunctional because the place is not clean and the escalators are not working in a space of how many square meters? He might have sounded hair-raising to those he was calling on the president to fire but he did have a message, notwithstanding that it was radicalism in reverse gear because Bruce was speaking in defence of the private sector which doesn’t quite exist as such yet in the country.
For Nigeria, the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ has been more of a risk rather than the blessing of the class promoted to have the will to “freely sacrifice a present good in order to avert a future evil”, the collective nobility of character and the deliberate incubation of merit for national progress. Instead of that, the society is rumbling from their fragmentation. If they were united, nobody would talk about ethnicity, corruption, Islamisation/Fulani militia, military intervention in politics, north-south dichotomy, religion, climate change, poor leadership, imperialism, etc in the form in which they are talked about in Nigeria now. True as they may be, there is none of them that is not a derivative of elite preferences in their fractiousness. First of all, where the elite have made certain behaviour out rightly unacceptable for their members, the members of the elite who become presidents, governors, ministers or whatever would never try going against it because they know there will be consequences for such infractions. In any case, no proper member of the elite even tries to go against elite ethos because he or she knows that doing so will put the ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ in danger from non-elite groups in the middle class and politically advanced groups among the working class.
The fear is that the bell might be tolling for the Nigerian elite if they cannot find the indigenous junior Mandela who can bail them out by coming in, saturating the system with extra-ordinary virtues, high culture, political wisdom and morality appropriate to getting a deeply divided society going again.