“Across Africa, we’ve seen countless examples of people taking control of their destiny, and making change from the bottom up…. History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” These were part of the remarks by Barack Obama, President of the United States, on 11 July 2009, to the Ghanaian parliament at the Accra International Conference Centre, Accra, Ghana. Some months earlier Obama had been elected the first ‘Black’ President of the United States of America in an epochal election that carried emotional resonance in many parts of the world, especially Africa. Since then the phrase ‘Africa needs strong institutions, not strongmen’ has become a sort of mantra among politicians and other commentators on public affairs. Obama was of course not the originator of the phrase. He merely popularized it among non-social scientists. But what do people really mean when they brandish this new mantra?
Like most concepts in the social sciences, there is no consensus on what ‘institution’ means. What is easily discernible when people brandish the new mantra is the tendency to equate ‘institutions’ with structures, organisations or public bodies such as the civil service, the police, the parliament and contraptions that fight corruption like the EFCC. This manner of understanding ‘institutions’ is at best only partially correct because institutions are also rules, conventions, ethos that have endured over time. Even individuals, to the extent that they purvey a certain brand, which is consistent over time, can also be called institutions. I think this is what the late K.O. Mbadiwe had in mind when he talked grandiloquently about ‘men of timbre and calibre, caterpillar institution and juggernaut’.
Institutions are crucial in any system because they help to structure social interaction, allowing for predictability or stable expectations by imposing form and consistency on human activities. For instance an electoral law which fixes election into public offices every four years and which requires those defeated to bow out honourably means that such law, if it has been observed for a sufficiently long period of time, has become ‘institutionalized’. This is another way of saying that the law has been so consistently observed that it has become rule through habituation.
It is important here to make a distinction between ‘laws’ and ‘rules’. For laws to become rules, they have to become customary and habituated over a relatively long period of time. There are several laws in every country which are ignored, meaning that such laws have not acquired the status of rules or that they have not been consistently observed over a period of time for them to be regarded as customary. In other words such laws have not become ‘institutionalized’.
Another important thing to mention here is that ‘institutions’ both constrain and enable behaviour. For instance traffic rules, where they are consistently observed over a long period of time could be regarded as being ‘institutionalized’. Such rules could constrain behaviour because they will for instance prevent a driver from driving over a red light – even if the driver is running late for an appointment with the President. The same rule that constrains the behaviour of the driver however overall enables traffic to flow more easily.
Many people believe that our electoral system has improved under Attahiru Jega’s INEC. Does it mean that the system of organizing fairly transparent election has become ‘institutionalized’? The answer is ‘no’ because for now it is not clear whether the improvement in the conduct of elections (compared to what was obtainable under Maurice Iwu) was because of the integrity of Professor Jega or because the body language of President Jonathan does not so far suggest that he sees elections as a ‘do or die’ affair. For us to say that we now have an effective institution for conducting elections will mean that the observance of the electoral law has become so habituated that irrespective of who is the INEC chairman or the President of the country, the expectations and outcomes will remain pretty much the same. In this sense, even if you have someone of less than average intelligence as INEC chairman or a rambunctious President, it will not make much difference because the laws have become so institutionalized that they will be obeyed.
Since I have argued that institutions are not just mere structures or public agencies as they too often are misconceived to be, the next logical question is how do we create ‘institutions – public bodies whose rules are observed as a matter of habit and not just because of the fear of sanction? It is obvious from the above discussions that building institutions is not just the work of the leadership or a ‘strongman’ but also of the willingness of the citizens to consistently obey the law or to habituate the observance of a particular set of rules.
Chinua Achebe in his slim booklet, The trouble with Nigeria, believes that the trouble with Nigeria is ‘squarely that of leadership’. For him if we get the right type of leadership, such a leader will be able to make the citizens form the habit of observing rules, laws and regulations. Others will argue that the problem with Nigeria is ‘systemic’ rather than leadership, meaning that they believe that there are dynamics in the larger Nigerian environment that pose obstacles to the observance of rules and which often swallow good men and women who try to change too quickly the way the system works. Some of those hurdles in the larger environment could be the manipulation of ethnicity, religion and other primordial identities by the elites.
So do Nigerians need ‘strongmen’ or strong institutions? Some definitions here will not be out of place. I believe that many of those who brandish the new mantra of ‘Africa do not need strong men but strong institutions’, will not like to be drawn into the conceptual issue of what they mean by ‘strongmen’. But we cannot make much progress unless we know precisely what they mean. If by ‘strongmen’ they mean leaders, who are firm, just and act out of conviction, then it is obvious that Africa certainly needs such people just as it needs good citizens who privilege the nation over their other identities. ‘Strongmen’ can also be used to describe people in leadership positions who are narcissistic about the positions they occupy and like to throw their weight around or want everyone to fear them. Certainly Africa can do without such people as they try to habituate the process of rule observance or institution-building. My feeling is that most of the people who brandish the new mantra of mistake charismatic individuals or autocrats with ‘strongmen’. While the autocrat thrives on cowing the citizens and wants to be feared, charismatic leaders draw people to themselves because of the personal magnetism they possess. One of the major pitfalls of charismatic leadership, however, is that it is inherently unstable because loyalty is given to a person and not to any known institution. Therefore while charismatic leadership could be useful in some circumstances, it often creates problems of routinization and institutionalization of behavior. In other words, we cannot rely on charismatic leaders to build effective institutions for us. So what is the way out?
My personal opinion is that building effective institutions in the country will be difficult under the current climate of crisis in the country’s nation-building. I have always believed that the key problem of the country is not economic underdevelopment, but politics. Unless we can resolve the crisis in our nation-building so that people will start privileging their Nigerian identity over the mosaic of other identities that they bear, I don’t think that there will be sustained observance of the laws governing public bodies because there is no strong, emotive attachment to such bodies in the first place. Rather because virtually everyone and every ethnic nationality has one grouse or the other against the Nigerian State and its organs, there is an institutionalized memory of hurt in which the Nigerian state is the enemy. Everyone attacks the state and its organs with whatever instrument they can muster: those entrusted to guard the country’s common patrimony steal it blind; law enforcement officers look the other way at the offer of a little inducement, students riot and cheat in examinations, organized labour, including University lecturers go on prolonged strikes on a whim while government workers drag their feet and refuse to give their best. The sum total of all this is a massive de-Nigerianization process, as people retreat into primordial identities. Nigeria is at the risk of being a country without Nigerians.
The first step to building effective institutions in my opinion is to create true Nigerians. And you cannot create Nigerians without resolving the crisis in our nation-building process. The country needs a strong leader, a father figure in the mould of the late Nyerere of Tanzania or Mandela who can command legitimacy across the main fault lines to begin the process of rebuilding trust among the constituent parts of the country.