Elite Consensus and  Nigeria Post-Elections

Sam Amadi

Nigeria is at a threshold. The present is terrible. The future can be worse. Nigeria has the highest number of out of school children in the world. That is an estimated 20 million children. With a population of about 200 million people, if we estimate that children are no more than a quarter of Nigerians, this means that about half of those children are not in school and will be illiterates. This is just one aspect of the Nigerian democracy deficits. The human capital crisis of the future is very huge. Couple this with the expected increase in drug addition, pervasive criminality, and extreme poverty that will increase as these hopeless children struggle to survive without social protection. 

This is one small slice of Nigeria’s darkling plain. The economy itself has collapsed and would need more than a team of geniuses to revive and stabilize. Nigeria is spending more than all its revenue to service debts. In 2023, even with the most optimistic scenario, Nigeria will borrow massively to service its growing debt. In the proposed 2023 budget, Nigeria intends to borrow about N8 trillion out of its N20.51 trillion national budget to manage its fiscal deficits. Nigeria’s revenue is fast dwindling. The Nigeria’s Minister of Finance argues persuasively that considering that Nigeria’s debt to GDP is still manageable, Nigeria has a revenue, not a debt problem. Nigeria cannot meet its OPEC allocation of 1.8 million barrels per day. It exports on the average 1.1million barrels per day, losing close to 700,000 barrels a day to oil theft. Nigeria’s fiscal burden is made worse because it is expected to make petrol subsidy payment of about N11 trillion by the end of the year, more than its projected revenue. 

The crisis is beyond economics. It is existential. Some weeks ago, many school and public places were shutting down based on credible alerts by foreign diplomatic missions of terror attacks in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The US and UK governments had asked their citizens on non-essential services to leave the FCT as a precaution. In Kebbi, many hundreds are fleeing their communities in northern Nigeria taken over by ISWAP-Boko Haram terrorists, even as kidnapping and sundry crimes flourish in Nigeria’s southern states. Flooding has devastated 33 states in Nigeria, killing about 700 persons by some counts, displacing about 1.5m, and affecting 2.5million people. Already, 5.1 million more Nigerians will become poor in 2022, according to a report by the World Bank. The flooding will throw millions more into poverty and increase public health crisis. The Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, (NBS) reports a high Multidimensional Poverty Index of 0.663, with about 63%, that is, 133million of the estimated 200m Nigerians, multidimensionally poor. 

So, Nigeria heads into 2023 a very weak and unproductive state, a state terrorized and pauperized, with poor human development indicators. The urgency of a transformative leadership for the country is beyond argument. Nigerian politicians by their glib political talks seem to recognize that the country is in a development trap. The biggest problem is how Nigerians can get out of its dangerous trajectory and make their government focus on development rather than on predation and exclusionary politics. If Nigeria does not fast-track and prioritize economic growth and distributional fairness as quickly as possible, it will submerge irretrievably in state failure. Already, the country is listed amongst the world five most terrorized countries. But getting Nigeria working is easier said than done. What should be done to make Nigeria find a path towards development?

We can borrow ideas from Oxford economist, Stefan Dercon, who argues in his 2022 book, ‘Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose’, that the route to development, irrespective of regime type, is via an elite consensus on development. Dercon thinks that the consensus may not necessarily be on the standard wares of Western-type neoliberal market reforms. But it must be on investment in greater productivity, increase in export and improvement in human development. The challenge he sees is how to craft such elite consensus, especially in societies long divided by caste, religion and ethnicity, so that the ruling elites actually invest knowledge and resources on development rather than having just mere talks. But examples from countries as diverse as South Korea, Rwanda and Taiwan teach that the pragmatism of elite consensus can work in plural and divided societies as long as the focus and strategies are right. What is not clear from these examples is whether it the happenstance of the emergence of a particular type of leaders or the luck of a certain sociopolitical development that makes such consensus possible.  

Elite consensus as a single explanation of economic development may be reductionist and therefore unfit for rigorous social science analysis. But as a complementary analysis, it is faultless. There is no doubt that no country has been able to develop without significant elite consensus. This is true of a democratic or an authoritarian society. For sometimes in the past economists and scholars of development have struggled with the phenomenon called ‘the China-India paradox’. This paradox wondered why democratic India is chaotic and struggling with development while authoritarian China is orderly and bursting through the development highway. Those who are sympathetic to authoritarianism or the so-called Eastern culture, pointed to China as a proof that development requires the purposive and orderly leadership of authoritarianism, or pointed out that the claim of the inevitability of democracy to development is false. 

It is true that democracy is not a prerequisite for economic development. But democracy enthusiasts argued that either development procured through authoritarian method is not real development or it is not sustainable. Amartya Sen argues in this vein that whereas orderly China has experienced famine, chaotic India has never had a famine even as it bungles its politics. Democratic accountability has saved India from the tragedies that China experienced during the Cultural Revolution. In their view, this illustrates the superiority of democracy over authoritarianism. At any rate, he concludes, ‘development is freedom’. 

In spite of our divergent ethical orientations and standings on the freedom versus efficiency debate, it is clear that we can point to democratic and authoritarian societies and governments that have attained dramatic and up-till-now sustainable economic development. No one should argue that China is a democracy. Similarly, no one should argue that China has not attained bewildering economic development since 1978 under Deng Xiaoping. We cannot also discount the strides that South Korea made under less than democratic regimes. The East Asian economic success can be posited as evidence that sustained economic development does not necessarily require the perfection of the Western liberal institutions. We may not agree as to how much of the success comes from the application of universal principles of the free market or the deviation of flawed institutions as Yingyi Qian argues in his How Reform Worked in China: The Transition from Plan to Market. 

What is not arguable is that the leaders of these successful Asian countries build a strong relevant coalition of elites who worked hard to achieve the strategic agenda of development. If it was all about authoritarianism, North Korea would have been the poster child of development, not South Korea. What explains the success of these economies is that their leaders envisioned a path towards development and built a team that accepted the urgency and imperative of the ‘development bargain’, to use Stefan Devcon’s phrase. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of prosperous China, environed a different China that is committed to economic development based on material prosperity. He reestablished economic research so as to improve economic management. That was a remarkable shift from Chairman Mao’s repudiation of economics and the social sciences. 

My own idiosyncratic explanation of the diversity of forms of institutional conditions for development is that the ability to engender elite consensus on a development trajectory that leads society to greater productivity, more and better inclusive in the gains of production, and greater legitimacy in the working of state institutions is the most important factor for economic development in the modern world. In other words, significant and sustained economic development would require a leadership class able to push society towards greater technical efficiency coupled with higher legitimacy and acceptance by the people. Whether we think in terms of Deng Xiaoping or Lew Kuan Yew, the unmistakable fact is that these leaders were able to articulate a new vision and able to commit most of the technocratic or bureaucratic elites to accept the vision and communicate it to the rest of the people in an acceptable form. This persuasion may have differing degrees of authoritarian logic. But the subsequent success does not rest on naked use of force or mere cruelty. There are always legitimacy and acceptance at the heart of the successful implementation of vision.  

From the science of development, it is safe to argue that development would require some degree of commitment by leading technocratic or bureaucratic elites to move their society towards a particular direction. The key elements are the fact of consensus and that the consensus is about changing the society towards a productive economy defined by higher economic growth, more export revenue, and a fairer access to social and economic benefits for citizens. The nuances of the development trajectory and the institutional pathways may differ across societies, according to their historical contingencies and contemporary constraints. But without a consensus on a development agenda, development will not happen with or without democracy.

As Nigeria prepares for 2023 general elections in an environment that is marked by stark development failure, it is important to think about how Nigeria can restart development and sustain it after the February and March elections. Fortunately, all the leading presidential candidates have promised transformative economic development. Their socioeconomic plans of action are built around the notion of restructuring the Nigerian political economy. Nigeria’s future depends on whether, its politicians, no matter the outcome of the elections, can craft a ‘development bargain’ that will stabilize its politics and create inclusive growth. The ingredients of this bargain should be five-fold. It should be about protection or promotion of (1) life and property, (2) the rule of law, (3) functional education that leads to personal and social development, (4) science and technology for social advancement, and (5) fair and just reward system that leads to higher productivity and social justice. The challenge is how we can commit Nigerian leading elites to overlook the conveniences of the moment and the centrifugal forces tearing against political stability and focus on investing resources on these five key drivers of development. The pragmatics of this bargain is that it does not require agreement on any of the contentious and incommensurable differences foisted by our ethnic and religious differences. We can all agree on these 5 issues without losing our religious and ethnic authenticities. 

Normative differences, whether founded on religious or philosophical worldviews, are one of the most intractable obstacles to elite consensus. This is why such consensus is difficult to be constructed in a plural society where identity politics paralyzes commitment to consensus. But in a society like ours, where there are collective suffering and great need for material wellbeing for everyone, the pragmatics of the socioeconomic realities can overcome the ethnoreligious differences to focus elites’ attention on the practical problems of social life. Interestingly, in spite of the seeming overwhelming religious and ethnic differences, Nigerian politicians are united in the pursuit of self-interest, the interest of maximizing personal benefits from a neo patrimonial state. This provides a good lever to refocus their attention to the concretes of economic and social development that could lead to a crafting of a ‘development bargain’. 

An essential nature of the lever that can transform commitment from self-enrichment to a development bargain is that it should be able to converge public good with private interests.; the public good of economic growth and the political success for the elites. It has to be economically positive, in terms of fostering economic growth, and politically feasible, in terms of benefiting the politician. It has to be a win-win. We can take a cue from the success of Deng Xiaoping in China. Deng succeeded in the radical reforms because those reforms led to economic growth while preserving the advantage of the central government and the central bureaucrats. This realism of changing the structure of socioeconomic relationship without damaging the interest of the central bureaucrats is a feature of transformative pragmatism and is recommendable to other transitional and developing countries like Nigeria.

Nigerian politicians can get to an overlapping consensus on the necessity of a focus on practical sides of economic growth and social meritocracy, in spite of cultural differences, if they learn how to turn the terrible economic and social realities into enablers of national elite consensus on development. This requires a cognitive reset that shifts from short-term predation to long-term enlightened interests based on high economic growth. If they can achieve this cognitive reset, if they can develop a narrative that prioritizes these 5 socioeconomic action points, then the 2023 general elections can put Nigeria into the path of development. At that point, it may not matter who actually won the election because there will be a strong commitment to move in the direction of higher economic growth, protection of rule of law, and fair and just reward. If we do not craft such a national consensus, free and fair elections will be insufficient to put Nigeria on the development path.       

•Dr. Sam Amadi is Director, Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts

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