Friday Sermon: Elites from Hell

By Babatunde Jose

When thou lookest at them, their exteriors please thee; and when they speak, thou listenest to their words. They are as (worthless as hollow) pieces of timber propped up, (unable to stand on their own). They think that every cry is against them. They are the enemies; so beware of them. The curse of Allah be on them! How are they deluded (away from the Truth)! Quran 63:4

In modern African politics, terrorism and failed state syndrome have become prevalent and a challenge to democratic values and virtues of good governance, posing great threat and stress to the survival of domestic political systems, attenuation of economic wellbeing, impoverishment and pauperization of the people; and the creation of unbridgeable fault lines in the fragile political structures: Threatening the already tenuous post colonial nation state with its bundle of contradictions. This increasing political stress is a product of competition and unbridled struggle for power and supremacy among the political elite, which has reduced elected representatives to a rubber stamp of power seekers as well as the use of electoral violence as instruments of regime change.

‘Intra-elite competition is one of the most important factors explaining massive waves of social and political instability, which periodically afflict complex, state-level societies.’  This idea was proposed by Jack Goldstone nearly 35 years ago. Goldstone tested it empirically by analyzing the structural precursors of the English Civil War, the French Revolution, and seventeenth century’s crises in Turkey and China. It defined the fall of such diverse societies as Ancient Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia; medieval England, France, and China; the European revolutions of 1848 and the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917; and the Arab Spring uprisings. Closer to home, recent research indicates that the stability of modern post colonial states is also undermined by excessive competition among the elites.

Elites are a small proportion of the population (on the order of 1 percent) who concentrate social power in their hands. They include (but are not limited to) elected politicians, top civil service bureaucrats, and the owners and managers of the economy. As individual elites retire, they are replaced from the pool of elite aspirants. There are always more elite aspirants than positions for them to occupy.  Intra-elite competition is the process that sorts aspirants into successful elites and aspirants whose ambition to enter the elite ranks is frustrated. Competition among the elites occurs on multiple levels.

Moderate intra-elite competition need not be harmful to an orderly and efficient functioning of the society; in fact, it’s usually beneficial because it results in better-qualified candidates being selected. Additionally, competition can help weed out incompetent or corrupt office-holders. However, it is important to keep in mind that the social effects of elite competition depend critically on the norms and institutions that regulate it and channel it into such societal productive forms.

Excessive elite competition, on the other hand, results in increasing social and political instability. The supply of power positions in a society is relatively, or even absolutely, inelastic. Masses of frustrated elite aspirants become breeding grounds for radical groups and revolutionary movements.

Another consequence of excessive competition among elite aspirants is its effect on the social norms regulating politically acceptable conduct. Norms are effective only as long as the majority follows them, and violators are punished. Maintaining such norms is the job for the elites themselves.

Intense intra-elite competition, however, leads to the rise of rival power networks, which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition. Instead of competing on their own merits, or the merits of their political platforms, candidates increasingly rely on “dirty tricks” such as character assassination (and, in historical cases, literal assassination).

The rivalry between elite groups has created tremendous problems of governance and the desires of incumbent presidents to elongate their tenure by using the legislature to amend the constitution as Obasanjo attempted in Nigeria.

The elites have abandoned purposeful governance and rendered the fragile political structures perpetually damaged.

In Nigeria, the unwholesome behavior of the elite led to the Western Nigeria crisis and consequently the fall of the 1st Republic and thereafter our slide towards mismanagement of both the economy and the political system. Today, 60 years after independence, we have become a laughing and pitiable stock in the comity of nations: A nation once flowing with milk and honey has become the poverty capital of the world and the most terrorized nation. How did we get to this pass? Before the advent of these ‘Elites from Hell’, the keynote of our political development was towards a unified whole based on unity in diversity and the realization of common nationality howbeit where each regional nationality developed on its own and at its own pace; but with their tinkering with the political superstructure, corporate values and norms, the tendency towards even and sustainable socio economic development was not only attenuated but today stands arrested.

Even the call for restructuring has become a ‘hurrah word’ like democracy: It is mouthed when it suits the political players. The elites of yesterday who were at the commanding heights of the nation for 16 years and who opposed the notion of restructuring and  true federalism are today the chief proponents of the concept while its erstwhile proponents are now its opponents, in a game of elite madness and musical chairs.

Among the various ethnic nationalities, this tendency towards partition and dissection is noticeable. We see it among the Igbo, Yoruba and Niger Delta irredentist movements; group against group and clans against clans all sounding cacophonous in their demands. The so-called fault lines being notices in the wider polity is reflected at the micro level among the various ethnic nationalities. The competing nature of elite struggle for power is what Claude Ake described as the ‘democratization of disempowerment’, which in our course in political behavior we characterize as ‘politics of departicipation’: a process whereby multiparty parliamentary elections in Nigeria allow for the rotation of self-interested political elites of different parties, while the majority of the population remains disempowered from the legislative processes and benefits.

The result is the derailment of the hopes and aspirations of the common folks. As Prof Wole Soyinka, recently put it: “Inequity reigns, and solutions are trivialized. Again and again voices are raised to urge the dismantling of a crude, militarized centralist contraption – repeatedly exposed in illegalities — and substitute a more efficient governance system, decentralized, providing broader access to opportunities. All such efforts are turned into opportunities for legislative junketing and budget padding. Legislators watch with indifference in this day of human advance, as individuals are sentenced to hang for expressing their views on the relative apprehension of religious avatars, not a squeak emerge from such lawgivers. Pedophiles and cross-border sex traffickers are honored in the act, granted immunity on cooked-up alibis of religion. Is this nation a theocracy? Nigeria is a suppurating slaughter slab, and it boggles the mind that supposedly wise and lettered men, sheltering under any religious mandate, would go into a solemn huddle to ‘legitimately’ augment the toll of mindless killings that now plague the land.”

The political behavior of Nigerian elites draws its core values from the legacies of the colonial state whose political culture was embedded in traditions of political totalitarianism. At the time of independence, Nigerian elites were less interested in the development values of modern democracy but more focused on promoting the paraphernalia of liberal democracy such as written constitution, independence of the legislature, multi-parties, separation of power and rule of law.

It is obvious from all the flash points all over Nigeria that the time to salvage Nigeria is fast running out. Unfortunately, there’s no leadership with a vision or demonstrable will to salvage the sinking boat.

The dissolution of countries is nothing new. Most of the federations which existed at the time of Nigerian independence all over the world have been dissolved. So what makes the Federation of Nigeria sacrosanct?

“Show us the straightway, The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, Those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.” (Quran 1:6&7)

Barka Juma’at and happy weekend


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