Stefan Dercon, ‘Elite Bargain’: Can Nigerian Ruling Class Be Born Again?

By Tunji Olaopa

The “again” in the title of this piece is of course, in a manner of speaking, evangelical, but it indeed signals a repetitive necessity that the issue of leadership has generated in Nigeria’s governance and political discourse. The reason is remote and proximate. Since independence, Nigeria has struggled with getting good governance right in ways that would have transformed the quality of life of Nigerians, far beyond the colonial denigration and devaluation of their lives. And in the next few months ahead into 2023, it will be another opportunity to make a momentous decision again about the fate of Nigeria, in the hands of the new set of leaders that would be elected into various offices. Thus, as Chinua Achebe said long ago, and as the entire world now knows, leadership is key to governance and development. 

Chinua Achebe was very emphatic in his diagnostic simplicity: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership…. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which are the hallmarks of true leadership.” With the recent publication of Gambling on Development (2022), Stefan Dercon (and thanks to Aighoje Aig-Imoukhuede’s AIG and Patrick Okigbo’s Nextier seminal events that brought the Oxford economics professor to Nigeria’s discursive space) has brought a rather ingenious and seminal twist to the understanding of Achebe’s fundamental diagnosis, and a new depth to the discourse on leadership in Nigeria and Africa. This volume is coming on the heels of three significant discursive insights that have animated our understanding of leadership and development in Africa. The first derives from Max Weber, and his conviction about the role and place of values—religious, cultural, social—in transforming societies and achieving sustainable progress. From Jeffrey Sachs, we began contending with the idea of lifting Africa out of underdevelopment through the infusion of foreign aid and technical support aimed at lifting poor countries out of extreme poverty. By the time Acemoglu and Robinson got into the discourse, the attention has changed from geography and climate to institutions and institutionalism as the sine qua non for development and progress. 

With Gambling on Development, we reach another fundamental discursive height. Prof. Dercon’s argument is simple but fundamental: development will only occur if and when the Nigerian elite take a risk and gamble on it. Gambling on development implies that the elite will deliberately overlook any other variables that could distract from that fundamental objective, especially in a postcolonial context. Mariano Grondona, the Argentine sociologist and political scientist, renders this in terms of temptation. For instance, the political class with the 3rd and 4th national development plans was deeply tempted, and fell into the temptation, to neglect development objectives and instead squander the overflowing petrodollars on white elephant projects, hence the state failure of the ‘70s. In response to the question of why some countries prosper and others fail, Dercon insists that the answer cannot be found in the right or wrong development policies alone, but rather in what he calls “development bargains”—the willingness of a country’s elites—political and economic—to commit elite suicide (be ‘born again’ in a manner of speaking) and bet on economic growth and development. Committing elite suicide means that the elite will deliberately make the decision not to feather their own nest with the enormous resources that the country has to instigate growth. We can look from Singapore to China, and from Botswana to Malaysia. Elite bargains, argues Dercon, must give way to development bargains. 

This analysis implicates the Nigerian political and economic class that is always the most vociferous when it comes to their commitment to national development, but whose talks becomes just that, mere talk, when it comes to a proactive commitment to development dynamics, commencing from personal example that Achebe alluded to. Gambling on Development speaks about the urgent need for a critical mass of elite game changers, in the mold of a leader like Lee Kuan Yew, propelled by the insistent vision to create a change space for development bargains, and to deploy a bridge-building strategy that rally others to that vision based on a national consensus. This is the personal example provided by Nehemiah as recorded in the OT of the Christian bible. When he heard about the state of the wall of Jerusalem, Nehemiah had a choice to make between elite bargain (after all, he was a respected elite in the court of King Artaxerxes of Persia) and development bargain. He chose the latter, and then went on to create a broad national consensus around the vision of rebuilding the wall, and strategically going about it. 

It is so difficult to quarrel with Prof. Dercon on such an irreducible argument that a country like Nigeria needs to escape from the development determinism undergirding such historical causalities like slavery, colonialism, dependency dynamics, or structural imperialism. And of course, contrary to Sachs, foreign aid can only achieve any modicum of development if and only if the national elite bets on economic growth through a thorough mustering of intellectual self-confidence and competence that initiate a development agenda founded on local reality and strategies. From Dercon’s perspective, elite bargains must be relocated into an elite nationalism that possesses the surest means of achieving development bargains. It is this nationalism, as the examples of the Asian Tigers have demonstrated, that bind the political and economic class to the goal of activating a democratic developmental state that can harness the creative and entrepreneurial energies locked into a countries human, political and generational capitals. Elite nationalism reformulates the trajectories of a country away from self-destructing to self-recreation. While popular participation remains entrenched as a critical dimension of democratic governance, it is the elite that remains saddled with the crucial responsibility of generating a change space where critical leadership dynamics can be birthed out of the capacity of the elite to rally state and nonstate actors and agents around a development vision, agenda and strategies. 

Gambling on Development therefore demonstrates not only the ideological poverty of the Nigerian elite, as well as its crass mobilization tactic around ethnicity and religion as the basis for strengthening elite bargains, it also fundamentally reveals that this elite bargain is on its last lap. And this is because it is becoming increasingly clear that there are precious few options available to the Nigerian elite if Nigeria will not tip over the precipice. And this is all the more so in the face of the evaporating advantage conferred by the oil revenue as the funding source for the rentier and neo-patrimonial culture that backstops elite bargains, and the nation’s virtual regression into bankruptcy. 

There are however so many significant questions that loom very large in engaging with Gambling on Development. First, what instigates the elite to deliberately commit elite suicide and abandon elite bargains for development bargains? This question ties in with another: if the fundamental focus is on the elite that is already grounded in hierarchical privileges, what roles does the people as citizens play in terms of popular participation and civil society vigilance? How does democratic participation inscribe elite nationalism in a mutually reinforcing collaboration to keep buoying the development bargains? The eventual emergence of a democratic developmental state in Nigeria must be grounded on the complex sociological realities and political dynamics that lock the elite into a frenzy of primitive accumulation and extractive logic that harm the citizens through the debilitating development agenda that fails to transform their lives. A lot of hope is therefore left with the elite—in the forms of the godfathers and national principalities—self-transforming without any popular social forces initiating the elite hara-kiri. 

To achieve development bargains, founded on the demise of elite bargains, there must be a process of sociopolitical revaluation that is hinged on the complex collaboration between elite nationalism and citizen vigilance in spite of the huge burden of stomach infrastructure. The elite, that is, must be forced to reassess its value system. This is the fundamental implication of the “change begin with me” mantra translated into a leadership dynamic that hold every leader up to the rigor of personal example. This brings up again the understanding of a leader possessing the Nehemiah complex—the transformation of a society through an initial and disciplined realignment of the mental, emotional, cognitive, spiritual and cultural mindset of the leadership itself. This is how Carol Pearson, in The Transforming Leader (2012), captures this Nehemiah Complex: “if we want to make significant and long-lasting changes, we must look within before we look without. By bringing our inner world (our thought processes, perspectives, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, capacity for staying centered in the midst of turmoil) into alignment with our outer world (our actions, how we lead, how we live the work, how we work with people), we are better able to transform our leadership and bring about the change we seek.” 

Translated into the legacy framework demonstrated by the Asian Tigers, leadership in the Nigerian contexts must derive from a vision that privileges the local and the national peculiarities as the foundation for development transformations. The leadership of the Asian Tigers, as national thinkers, were very clear about the limited and limiting capacities of the neoliberal economic agenda and strategies as the panacea for Asia already locked into unequal dependency relations with the West. This permits them to subject every international aid and development agenda and paradigm to policy and research interrogation that sift what is beneficial from what is pernicious. This requires upgrading and facilitating the capacities of their national and independent think tanks and policy research expertise, to really think and then to act in collaboration with government development objectives. The Confucian value framework also came in handy in undermining a self-serving politics that and zero-sum logic that kills development initiatives.

But then, Gambling on Development opens up vistas of analyses and insights that refocuses critical attention on elite behavior and politics, and their impact on the difference between prosperity and poverty in national development discourse. When all is said and done, elite nationalism is critical in pushing a state towards redemption, with full consciousness that the time-bomb of possible Rawling Option or Arabs Springs loom. As we approach 2023, Nigeria is in a state that sorely needs national redemption. We cannot even begin to imagine the alternative.   

*Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Plateau State. (

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