The elusive critical mass: Why change doesn’t happen in Nigeria

The elusive critical mass: Why change doesn’t happen in Nigeria

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Cass Sunstein, the renowned American legal scholar, has just written a new book, titled Why Change Happens.  Professor Sunstein explains the different ways that social and political change occurs. But While his theories have general application, they don’t apply to Nigeria. Truth is,Nigeria simply defies the theories of change. It is difficult, extremely difficult, for any structural change to happen in this country. But why? Well, we need to understand how change happens, and why it won’t or doesn’t happen!

First, political economists argue that crisis is a trigger for change. When a country faces a serious, existential crisis and reaches the TINA (There Is No Alternative)point, it would replace the existing failed order with a newone that works. But the crisis theory doesn’t apply to Nigeria. How many times has Nigeria reached the TINA moment, be it in its economy or its politics, and yet, instead of rejecting the status quo, it sticks withit?Crisis simply doesn’t jolt Nigeria out of its sclerosis. Which brings us to the Sunstein theory.

Professor Sunstein argues that change happens when people are willing to challenge a status quo and that resistance becomes a movement, which then reaches a tipping point. His point is that until a critical mass or threshold is reached, and the dam bursts, social or political change will remain elusive. As Professor Sunstein puts it: “What is needed is some kind of movement, initiated by people who say that they disapprove the existing norm and succeeding when some kind of tipping point is reached”. Once that happens, he adds, “change is inevitable”.

But, again, Nigeria defies this theory. Tipping points are a rarity in this country. Of course, Nigerians are always angry about the status quo; of course, suppressed outrage often gets ventilated and, of course,movements for change often emerge. But that tipping point, that critical mass, which must precede any change, is never reached. The dam never bursts. And, as a result, positive, structural change never happens. But why is a critical mass unreachable?

Well, that takes us to Professor Sunstein’s “law of group polarisation”. That polarisation is underpinned by prejudices. Racial prejudice or, in the Nigerian context, tribal or ethnic prejudice, is a powerful force against building a consensus for change. However, while racial prejudice is strong, Professor Sunstein argues, citing the US, that political prejudice, which he calls “partyism”, is a stronger force against the emergence of a consensus or a critical mass for change. Politicians simply don’t want to work or cooperate across party lines.

Sadly, both ethnic prejudice and political polarisation are deeply entrenched countervailing forces against the emergence of any consensus for change in Nigeria. If the South supports a proposition, the North is bound to oppose it, however sensible the proposition may be; if a major political party favours a particular change, another major party is likely to reject it. And that’s not even mentioning intra-ethnic and intra-party schisms that make reaching a consensus virtually impossible. Then, of course, powerful individuals hide behind the polarisations to frustrate any change that affect their vested interests.

Now, nothing illustrates the above better than the clamour for political restructuring. For nearly 20 years, since Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999, the agitation for political restructuring has been vehement and insistent, and no government or ruling party has been able to ignore it. Indeed, there have been three significant political interventions to date on the issue. Yet, all to no avail. But why? Well,ethnic and party polarisations have not allowed any movement for change to reach the tipping point, the critical mass, for a breakthrough.

In 2005, President Olusegun Obasanjo inaugurated the National Political Reform Conference. His administration spent over N1 billion on the conference, attended by about 400 delegates. Yet, Obasanjo effectively binned its report. The truth is that, the North, even though it participated in the conference, regarded the agitation for a sovereign national conference and political restructuring, which led Obasanjo to convene the conference, as a South West or, more broadly, Southern agenda. Of course, Obasanjo, who was not interested in any political reform, exploited the ethnic polarisation to dump the report of the conference. Thus, a potentially significant political change was frustrated.

About ten years later, faced with similar calls for restructuring, President Goodluck Jonathan Setup the 2014 National Conference,attended by about 500 delegates and believed to have gulped up about N7 billion. But the then opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) rejected the conference and did not participate in it. Jonathan lost power in the following year’s general election and, so, we will never know whether he would have implemented the report, if he had been re-elected, although without the APC’s support that would have been difficult. Muhammadu Buhari came to power and immediately vowed that he would not read the report of the national conference, let alone implement it. That was not surprising. First, he was pandering to the prejudice of the North, his ethnic group and political base, which is not enthusiastic about restructuring. Second, he was indulging in “partyism”, reflecting his party’s opposition to the Jonathan conference.

But, then,the restructuring issue did not go away. Agitations for political restructuring became so strong that the APP couldn’t ignore them. In 2017, the party inaugurated a restructuring committee, headed by the Kaduna State governor, Nasir el Rufai. Although some its governors, such as Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State, supported the el Rufai committee, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) itself refused to endorse it but, instead, questioned the APC’s motive for inaugurating the committee. Nevertheless, in January 2018, after nearly six months of gathering evidence across the country, the el-Rufai committee submitted a four-volume report to the party’s National Working Committee.

So, what has happened to the report of the el Rufai committee? Truth is, the APC has no intention of implementing it. And it’s the same ethnic and political polarisations again! The Northern faction of the party which doesn’t want any form of political restructuring, which it regards as a Southern agenda, is preventing the adoption of the report by the party.

Recently, Kayode Fayemi, the Ekiti State governor, advised the Yoruba to be “more tactical” if they wanted to actualise their restructuring agenda, adding that “There are those who entertain fear on this issue of restructuring, whether this fear is legitimate or not”. He was referring to the North, of course. But the North participated in the Obasanjo and Jonathan conferences and a Northerner, el Rufai, was the chairman of the APC’s restructuring committee. The reports of all the three consultative bodies were approved by all their delegates or members, which included Northerners. So, what fears do the North have about restructuring that were not addressed by the consultative bodies? Of course, at the heart of any polarisation is a “we-they” attitude that allows divergent positions to be entrenched and vested interests to be fiercely defended and protected. The North would simply not support anything that remotely looks like conferring an advantage on the South Or reducing in any way the privileges the North currently enjoys.

Of course, where there are visionary and competent leaders that can articulate and drive change as well as a critical mass of well-informed citizens that can demand and push for change, the effects of ethnic and political polarisations can be counteracted. But, in Nigeria, leaders and citizens themselves fuel and exploit the polarisations. Hence a critical mass for change can not emerge, and hence change cannot happen!


Olu Fasan


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