Monday, August 27, 2012

The Science of Success

The reactions of Nigerians to our country’s dismal performance at the just concluded Olympics have been instructive. Nigeria has no medal to its name. Blessing Okagbare valiantly reached the women’s 100 meters final but placed eighth. The U.S. Dream Team beat Nigeria 156 – 73, the highest ever margin of defeat in Olympic basketball history. Many Nigerians have been caustic about our athletes’ performances perhaps because they had hoped for a sporting triumph abroad to punctuate the seemingly interminable cycle of dreary news back home. Yet, both the Nigerian showing and the domestic reaction reveal widely varying attitudes and beliefs about success.

For successful countries, success is a science – an outcome empirically determined by rational systems and structures based on the consistent application of effort and resources and the cultivation of habits of excellence. For unsuccessful countries, success is a miracle – a stroke of outrageous fortune; a whimsical gift from capricious deities; in short, an act of God. To this mindset, success can be no more predetermined than an earthquake can be choreographed. Excellence is a magical occurrence originating not from human exertion but from the realm of the unknown. This outlook explains why our sports teams customarily show up at international tournaments ill-prepared, banking on talent and prayer to clinch victory, only to be duly mauled by better organized teams.

Spain’s dominance of international football since 2008, to Nigerian eyes, is down to exceptional luck and a fortuitous surfeit of talent. We forget that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Spain was a perennial underachiever. We forget that Nigeria beat Spain in the France 1998 World Cup. A comparative study of Spain’s recovery from that low point and the decline of Nigerian football from that moment will yield empirical data that explains Spanish supremacy and Nigerian decline. Success is the product of systems established to operate a culture of excellence. The Olympic medals table is an index of long term strategic preparation, discipline, research, constantly refined techniques and tactics, enacted on a systemic and institutional scale.

We have built no structures to entrench excellence but we demand results that are completely at variance with our investments. The more our athletes flounder, the more obdurate we are in our belief that we are entitled to success and the more biting our critiques of their failures to meet our utterly unrealistic expectations. In truth, our athletes deserve commendation for even reaching the Olympics – a feat achieved largely on the strength of their own individual efforts with minimal or negligible institutional support. Indeed, a Nigerian medal would only have been a deserved crown for the individual athlete’s hard work not an achievement to be claimed as a national triumph because it would not have been the product of any intentional systemic effort.

As our society has grown more individualistic, we have come to see success as the product of individual talent and effort alone. But the sheer precociousness of gifted individuals is not enough. Many prodigies are roaming the streets, denied the space for self-actualization. It takes institutions to create spaces for their prodigious gifts to bloom. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are supremely talented athletes and their personal exertions have surely been justly rewarded. But they are also symbols of systems that work. They are examples of success by design just as Chidi Imoh, Innocent Egbunike, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, Yusuf Alli and Falilat Ogunkoya represent an earlier epoch when structures existed that, at least, made Nigeria competitive. That epoch also produced the Super Eagles that won the African Cup of Nations in 1994, stormed sensationally into the second round of its World Cup debut that year and won Olympic soccer gold in Atlanta ‘96.

Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta may be superbly gifted individuals but they represent the cultural excellence of La Masia, Barcelona’s highly-rated youth academy. England is launching an U-21 youth league because it has realized that good old English grit and “getting stuck in” are not enough. If she is to truly compete with powerhouses like Spain, Germany and Brazil, then young British footballers have to become technically savvy and tactically aware. This action shows both the humility to recognize the footballing weaknesses of the “home of football” as well as the intelligence to mount an institutional response. A decade from now, when a generation of technically astute English players emerges, it will not be a product of fortunate happenstance but of strategic preparedness.

In Nigeria, a culture of planning and strategy is often seen as tantamount to playing God. But surely, the real folly is arrogantly presuming the certainty of a miracle to compensate for our habitual negligence, when God is certainly not a Nigerian.  Our conception of success carries inevitable implications for public life and politics. We persist in looking for messianic figures to perform miracles in spite of the dysfunctional environment while resisting the need to actually challenge the dysfunction itself. We erroneously focus on stumbling upon exceptional individuals rather than building sustainable institutions. To be sure, exceptional individuals exist but they are rare. This is why they are exceptions by definition. The specific historical factors that throw up a Nelson Mandela or a Lee Kwan Yew cannot be simulated. Institutions are the golden mean between the undistinguished normality of the masses and the extraordinary gifts of exceptional geniuses. They enable societies to function admirably even when they are not led by political prodigies.

Miracles are permissible metaphors in personal narratives but they are unknown in nation-building and development. There was nothing at all miraculous about the so-called Asian Miracle. Asian nations simply married Confucian rigour with western modernity. China’s ascent is the most compelling example of this dynamic. Just as the rise of nations is traceable to institutional and cultural engineering, so too is our decline rooted in the decay of our systems and values. The youth sports federations that oversaw the sporting successes of yore have withered away from lack of funding, corruption and inertia. The inter-school sports contests which nurtured athletes have disappeared replaced by the heroic but sporadic efforts of a few corporations and individuals to sustain sports.

But how much can we really extrapolate from a poor Olympic showing which, let’s face it, has become customary anyway? Nigeria’s youth bulge carries both the potential for powering a developmental leap forward as well as the peril of delinquency, crime and conflict in the face of severely constricted economic opportunities. Sports harnesses youthful exuberance and energies and can provide youths with gainful employment, while enabling them to bring honour to themselves and their country.

Secondly, in the 21st century, nationalistic belligerence has been replaced by sporting nationalisms. Countries send their gladiators to duel in the sports arena rather than the battlefield. Victory boosts national pride and provides a feel-good factor, the sense of creative optimism societies need to grapple with the future. A vestige of the prehistoric tribal instinct requires the reality or fiction of an external adversary against which nations measure themselves and strive for excellence. The great sporting rivalries between nations derive from this. Just as Olympics medals tables of the Cold War era reflected the great power rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR, and between Western Europe and the Eastern bloc, recent tables reflect the emergent Sino-American polarity. Nigeria’s decline in sports and other areas is perhaps also down to the fact that despite our size and natural wealth, we have no conception of strategic rivals or adversaries. It is also conceivable that investing in sports and creating theatres of athletic competition will help defuse the aggressive micronationalisms and militant religiousities captivating youths across Nigeria. Sports show us that the natural competitive instinct that undergirds civilization need not be lethal.

In the final analysis, success in any field is generated by design. It is neither a miracle nor magic. It is ultimately a choice that we make when we adopt a culture of excellence. In our beleaguered society, where mediocrity has assumed a normative presence, the key to receiving excellence is to respect and reward it. As a first step, this means enthroning a meritocracy; selecting the best of us to lead regardless of their ethnicity, religion or gender. Only competent people can build competent institutions.   

(All Images sourced from Google Images)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Democracy in a Glass House

The moral imperative that confronted President Goodluck Jonathan at the inception of his administration was clear. At the time, public debate revolved around the outsized remunerations of members of the National Assembly. President Jonathan was expected to challenge the culture of unbridled acquisition and unhinged entitlement that is ballooning the cost of government. Had he done so, he would almost certainly have ignited a civil war within the Peoples’ Democratic Party since he would be endangering the party’s sacred cult of patronage. But Jonathan could then have rallied the people behind him and served as their knight in the battle to deepen accountability and probity in governance.

Instead, Jonathan took the opposite course of action. His decision early this year to abolish subsidies on fuel amounted to raising taxes of poor and middle class Nigerians in order to fund a broke government – a government that is being bankrupted by the uninhibited appetites of avaricious politicians. Rather than cutting the waste and extravagance of his co-travelers, Jonathan elected to increase the burden of the people. That decision provoked a weeklong strike action and nationwide protests that assumed the shape of a public inquisition into the character of governance.

Sensing the potential for a broader anti-government backlash, federal legislators, have since then, undertaken a series of high-profile investigations of the executive branch. These probes have had public support because they assuage a popular desire to see a cleansing of the Augean stables of the state. They have also enabled the federal legislators to outflank the president, deploy populist rhetoric and deflect attention from their own misdemeanours. Theatrics aside however, the House of Representatives investigation of fuel subsidy payments uncovered a festering edifice of fraud. The representatives’ report indicted senior administration officials and placed the onus on the president to cleanse his government of compromised figures. In some other climes, the scale of fraud uncovered would have led to mass resignations, the prosecution of indicted officials and would certainly have ended the administration.

It is a measure of how much grief the representatives caused that the chair of the investigatory committee, Honourable Farouk Lawan became the target of a sting operation involving the oil baron Femi Otedola and the State Security Service. Honourable Lawan now stands accused of soliciting and receiving a bribe from Otedola. In recent weeks, news of his alleged corruption has displaced the urgency of implementing his panel’s recommendations from the news cycle. The probe report brimming with scandalous disclosures of how government officials and their business cronies defrauded the country to the tune of billions of naira may not be completely discredited but it risks being forgotten even as we are titillated by the salacious renderings of Lawan’s alleged escapades.      

Lawan’s travails, now dubbed “faroukgate,” correspond with a culture of political intrigue that can only be described as the doctrine of mutual incrimination. The most pungent dramatization of this principle came in 2006. President Olusegun Obasanjo accused Vice President Atiku Abubakar of corruption, tried to evict him from the presidency and ultimately disqualify him from contesting the presidential elections in 2007. Atiku’s response was not to exonerate himself, but rather to discredit Obasanjo by arguing that he was equally complicit in the theft of public funds. The former governor of Plateau State, Joshua Dariye’s riposte to being charged with money laundering was to argue that he had funneled much of the loot into the PDP’s campaign treasury thereby effectively incriminating the top hierarchy of the party including Obasanjo.

In 2008, Honourable Ndudi Elumelu, who chaired the House of Representatives probe of the Obasanjo administration’s power projects was himself subsequently prosecuted for contract fraud by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, along with Senator Nicholas Ugbane, the chair of the Senate Committee on Power. Honourable Herman Hembe who chaired the Representatives’ investigation of the Stock Exchange Commission earlier this year was removed after the commission’s director-general, Arunma Oteh accused him of soliciting a N40 million naira bribe from her.

The logic of mutual incrimination is not only that politicians who live in glass houses should not throw stones; it is that our democratic institutions are glass houses. In an equal opportunity kleptocracy, it is the height of moral arrogance for a politician to presume to invigilate his brethren. As Obasanjo once put it, “There is honour among thieves.” At the time, the then president was explaining why Anambra Governor Chris Ngige should turn over the state’s treasury to his political godfather, Chris Uba, who happened to be Obasanjo’s aide. By this understanding, the political consensus under which Nigeria is governed is a pirates’ covenant which requires “fair” and “just” distribution of plunder. Those who question the piracy itself are vilified as traitors or spoilers. It is no surprise that government increasingly resembles a criminal consortium.

Democracy rests on the principle of checks and balances yet the executive and the legislature, paralyzed by mutual incrimination, cannot check each other. The net effect is the delegitimization of our institutions. A presidency crippled by its equivocation in fighting corruption has shrunk; while the National Assembly is seen as a citadel of sleaze. This has resulted in a widespread public loss of faith in civil institutions that makes our young democracy extremely vulnerable to extra-constitutional shocks.

The senate’s deliberation on the recently uncovered multi-billion naira pension fraud was revealing. The senators cursed the perpetrators and their descendants and committed them to eternal damnation in the hottest part of hell. Not one senator raised his voice in favour of prosecuting the perpetrators of the fraud right here on earth. The pseudo-spiritual histrionics disclosed the bankruptcy of a political class so morally paralyzed by its own indiscretions that it cannot summon the will to address crimes against the Nigerian people.

It is often the case that when political elites cannot regulate themselves and lose legitimacy, new agencies of political sovereignty emerge to do the job. We are in a familiar and treacherous historical environment. Three decades ago, public faith in the Shehu Shagari administration plummeted as the entire government became synonymous with unfettered graft. The military struck terminating that democratic experiment. While there is currently no potential for similar military intervention today, there are other threats. Consider the deepening hold of cynicism on the national psyche. Young Nigerians are observing the shenanigans of politicians and internalizing a nihilistic view of life and politics as a Machiavellian domain where high values and ideals do not apply. This is not the sort of outlook that will raise the quality of governance or prolong democracy. The rise of non-state violence and anti-state militancy in recent years is an index of public nihilism and loss of faith in government.

Politicians who are customarily preoccupied with their own ends should care enough about the institutions they presently inhabit to realize that they cannot survive popular apathy. Should President Jonathan find the courage to vigorously and unequivocally challenge the strongholds of graft, he would be saving not only his presidency from opprobrium but preserving Nigerian democracy as a whole. But can he? 

All images sourced from Google Images

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Tyranny of the Majority

Since the return to civil rule in 1999, ethnic and religious conflicts across the Nigerian federation have claimed an estimated fifty thousand lives. These conflicts have not just been inter-ethnic or inter-religious; they have also been intra-ethnic and intra-religious. They include clashes between the Ife and the Modakeke in Osun State, the Aguleri and Umuleri in Anambra and the Ezza and Ezillo in Ebonyi State. Sectarian clashes between Christian and Muslim partisans dominate the headlines because they cohere with a popular mythical narrative of Nigeria as a nation embroiled in a clash of civilizations. Less reported is the intra-sectarian animosity that has seen Sunnis and Shiites clash in Zaria and Sokoto, or the war of attrition waged by Boko Haram and allied extremist sects on other Muslims who oppose them. 

The escalation of conflict suggests a correlation between democratization and violence. After the long decades of military dictatorship, democracy was supposed to inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity. Why has it led to so much strife? A major reason is the nature of democracy itself. As Claude Ake once wrote, “The military is a taut chain of command; democracy is a benign anarchy of diversity. Democracy presupposes human sociability; the military presupposes its total absence, the inhuman extremity of killing the opposition. The military demands submission, democracy enjoins participation; one is a toll of violence, the other, a means of consensus building for peaceful co-existence.” Democracy creates greater spaces for self-definition and self-understanding by various groups and interests.

Under military dictatorships, political identities are necessarily constrained by the code of totalitarian uniformity that permits only two actors – the state and the citizenry. Democracy opened the flood gates of expression and activism. Repressed identities and resentments surged to the surface. For example, during the military era, the notion of Arewa – northern Nigeria as a political monolith – was an article of faith in the media. One of the most important political developments since 1999 has been the fraying of northern identity. The ecumenical regionalism of Ahmadu Bello, and the dubious provincial cronyism propagated by some northern elites during military rule has collapsed into the chaos of self-determination and cultural and political rediscovery.

Since 1999, the previously plain canvas of northern homogeneity has fractured into sharp colours of resurgent ethnic identities. New narratives that involve the Sayawa, the Adara, the Nupe, the Berom and the Bajju have become prominent revealing the ethnically heterogeneous and fairly fractious reality of the north. Democracy offers opportunities for various flags of identity to be hoisted in the sun. This is precisely what is happening. Democracy is conducive for diversity in a way that totalitarianism cannot be. This is why Nigeria’s diversity has become troublingly thematic in recent times. It is all part of the renegotiation of political realities that is promoted by democracy.

However, the fundamental problem is that in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic polity where democracy is still primitively defined as a game of numbers rather than a contest of ideas, it is bound to generate the tyranny of the majority. Most of the conflicts in Nigeria revolve around the relational dynamics between ethnic and religious majorities and minorities. This is compounded by a rentier economy in which numbers are used to corner resources, economic advantages and social opportunities to the detriment of minority groups. This accounts for the extant apartheid system in which certain groups define themselves as indigenes and landlords and classify other citizens as settlers and tenants. Most states entertain discriminatory policies in employment practices and admission into public schools that make nonsense of Nigerian citizenship.

In such circumstances, where an illiberal democracy sustains restrictions on the civic status of citizens, the tyranny of the majority is countered by the rage of the minority. Conflict is inevitable. Where majorities can hijack the apparatus of the state and direct its machinery of coercion against perceived opponents, minorities resort to anti-state violence. The structural violence of majoritarian tyranny is equalized by the actual physical violence of minoritarian terrorism. Militancy and aggression, in this sense, constitute the eloquence of those rendered voiceless by the system.

The biggest factor in the escalation of conflicts since 1999 has been the inability or unwillingness of the federal government to act as a neutral arbiter of contending provincial passions to prevent them from erupting into interminable cycles of strife and vengeance. This governmental function includes the protection of minorities from victimization and the prosecution of sponsors and perpetrators of violence. The simple truth about cycles of violence is that they are perpetuated when crimes go unpunished. In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity, these derelictions of duty by the federal government constitute an invitation to communities to devise their own means of defence – which can only mean higher levels of sectarian violence. In some of our theatres of conflict, we have already witnessed ugly scenes of unpunished violence and retributive aggression. The wanton slaying of innocent Muslims has been defended as “reprisals” for the atrocities of Boko Haram and ostensibly “legitimized” by the negligence of the state. But to accept that it is permissible to target people for the sins of their supposed kin is an invitation to mutual genocide. 

Therefore, a new national security doctrine must have as its cornerstone the sanctity of citizenship. This means protecting the rights of Nigerian citizens everywhere in the federation from discrimination and violence. It also means recognizing ethno-religious violence and political terrorism as the most potent threats to the union. During the 1970s and 1980s, armed robbery assumed epidemic proportions in Nigerian cities. The federal government recognizing that it was dealing with a new security threat, established special anti-robbery squads and tribunals to speedily and decisively address the spate of violent crime. The proliferation of bomb-making technologies and the sophistication of Boko Haram, allied terror groups, and sundry militant gangs represent an escalation of violence. In addition to all other measures, special anti-terrorism tribunals should be established to deal speedily and thoroughly with these crimes against Nigerian humanity. Terrorism, in this sense, should not just be limited to Boko Haram’s outrages but expanded to include political violence and all crimes that are currently categorized as ethno-religious violence. This would also cover hate crimes and hate speech, particularly in religious, political and media rhetoric that encourage prejudice and bigotry. This is the way to restore dwindling civic faith in the state’s capacity to protect citizens’ lives and property.   

The federal government must also recognize the adverse national security implications of the majoritarian hegemonies thrown up in a young democracy. It must commit to protect ethnic and religious minorities everywhere in the federation, not merely as “minorities” or endangered species but as citizens with equal rights. Polemicists who see chronic conflicts as an opportunity to dissolve the union are wrong. The issue is not our diversity. It is how to guard against the tyranny of the majority in a democracy. And there is no possible post-Nigerian configuration in which there would be no ethnic, religious or political minorities. 

(All images sourced from Google Images)