Nigeria: Illiteracy, Poverty Undermining Our Democracy - Ezekwesili

14 October 2020

Ezekwesili is a former minister of Education and ex-Vice President of the World Bank for the African region. In this interview with journalists, avers that low level of literacy is hampering Nigeria's democratic progress. HENRY TYOHEMBA brings the excerpt

As a stakeholder in Nigeria's socio-economic development, what would you identify as the major setbacks to genuine enthronement of democratic culture?

I recently completed research on this issue as a Richard von Weizacker Fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. As a candidate for the office of the President of Nigeria in the 2019 elections, I directly witnessed the absurdity of our politics and it naturally awakened my intellectual curiosity. What I observed in politics in that short time set me off on a journey to reflect and better understand the challenges of our Democracy, Politics and Governance. My research #FixPolitics has some interesting findings that specifically address your question. There are three interconnected factors that hinder democratic development in Nigeria and the rest of our continent. These are The absence of a productive and politically literate, empowered andengaged voting population; The dominant culture of a political class (politicians and their

allies across society) that subordinates the collective good of the society to their personal interest without any consequences; and, the existence of weak constitutional, political and electoral institutions and context which lead to an ineffective regulatory context for politics.

What essential features should define the ambitious project of fixing politics in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, the most populous Black country?

My #FixPolitics research findings concluded that every democracy including that of Nigeria can functions well when it stands on three triangulated pillars of Empowered and Engaged Citizens who vote rationally for candidates that can effectively run the government on their behalf; Ethical, Competent and Capable Politicians who compete for Votes by presenting citizens with alternative plans of how they will govern on their behalf; and Credible Institutions that include constitutional, political and electoral bodies to regulate the relationship between citizens and politicians. This means there are three key factors that determine the quality of political culture and outcomes in democracy; the engagement of the citizens as informed and active electorate; the quality of the political class and politicians who vie for elective offices; and the institutional integrity of the political regulatory system and context. The #FixPolitics research evaluated how well these three triangulated pillars are doing in Nigeria and Africa more broadly. We have five major findings. First is adopting a theoretical model that assumes Governance as a product or service in a market structure, we simplified and were able to interrogate what happens between the demand side ( that is, the electorate or voters), the supply side (that is, the political class who run for elective offices) and; the institutional and regulatory context ( that is, constitutional, political and electoral environment) in which both sides interact.

Second is, our politics is structurally challenged with unequal power relations between the people and a political class that is unaccountable in the exercise of their public mandate. We named the phenomenon, "monopolistic democracy" and like all monopolies, society is endangered by the distortionary effect it has on social outcomes.

The third finding is that if we do not #FixPolitics urgently, Politics will disintegrate and destroy Nigeria permanently and that is because our ruling class has entrenched a corrupted political culture that stunts the common good of citizens and their society without any consequences.

Number four is that the corrupted political culture undermines citizens, families, communities, society at large, businesses and the economy as well as government, public institutions and the governance processes.

And lastly, the corrupted political culture is invasive and pervasive and thus constitutes a major obstacle to economic growth and development of Nigeria and continent. This inhibitive effect on development is the reason for a high incidence of extreme poverty in Nigeria despite the huge endowment of population and natural resources. The good thing is that the solutions to these problems were also identified by the research.

Where should the effort to fix politics begin and what could be a probable timeframe to evaluate progress?

The research found that any effort to #FixPolitics has to begin with the Citizens pillar of the democracy triangle. It is only the Citizens Pillar that retains the credibility to fix the broken political system and corrupt culture that is to be fixed. The Political Class Pillar cannot #FixPolitics because they are the primary beneficiaries of the anomaly in our politics therefore inherently lack the incentive to correct it. The Regulatory Pillar, unfortunately, lacks the independence, strength, capability and the credibility to check the excesses of the political class in particular.

What makes the research unique is how it uses evidence to sequentially guide citizens that are persuaded to act. Fundamentally, the Citizens who step out to #FixPolitics must act on all three pillars concurrently and simultaneously. The solutions highlighted each Pillar must be systemically launched at the same time as the others. Citizens have to execute the political structural transformation agenda in a systematic, coherent, coordinated and collaborative way. It is the only way citizens' effort will gather the systemic momentum and creates political structural shifts that correct political culture and outcomes. A silo approach at addressing the problems identified for each of the triangulated pillars will fail for lack of integrative impact.

It is why the Work-Study Group- WSG is made up of a diverse group of Nigerians from all regions of Nigeria, works of life and political persuasion. The members of the WSG are bound in the common vision, mission and core values of transforming Nigeria's deformed politics and governance by rallying behind the #FixPolitics research findings.

The WSG members work together to design and execute the programs under each of the three pillars while collaborating on cross-cutting issues in an ecosystem-building approach.

On evaluating the progress of #FixPolitics, it is important to clearly convey that this initiative is not a dash but a marathon. This initiative is not about 2023. #FixPolitics is about designing Nigeria's and Africa's way out of the trap of underdevelopment occasioned by our faulty political foundation. It is not partisan. It is about building a new political culture of taking responsibility through participation and empowered engagement by citizens and providing service and public accountability by public leaders.

More specifically, the work-plans developed for each pillar have specific and easy-to-measure actions that are of short, medium and long-term delivery and impact. For example, in the emerging of a new and value-based political class pillar, we are establishing an Unconventional School of Politics, Policy and Governance which will fully commence in 2021 and annually produce at scale a new class of value-based politicians on a mixed curriculum of theory and practice of ethical politics, design of sound economic, social, sectoral and structural policies and building strong, open, accessible, transparent and accountable institutions, regulatory and legal contexts. We are aiming to graduate 500 such people twice each year.

Our school is unconventional because it is designed to disrupt the mindset of the 500 citizens that will have the privilege of being admitted into each class cohort every six months. Since the current marketplace of supply of politicians is holding the country hostage to a destructive political culture, we can upend their dominance by producing a new political class of public leaders with the requisite character, competence and capacity.

A complex mix of challenges, including low literacy level and economic deprivation has thrown up what could be described as crisis of democracy in Nigeria, is it possible to inject sanity into the country's politics?

You are spot-on in identifying the adverse impact of low literacy level and poverty on our democracy. In my research, there is a conclusion that these two factors inhibit the quality of voting decisions of our electorate that are within the low-income class.

First, the illiterate are likely to be poor. The daily financial worth of the productivity of poor people in our country is extremely low and so whatever is offered them by unscrupulous politicians on Election Day is hugely attractive. For them, Election Day is simply another day of struggles to eke out a living. Election Day is not a decision about the next four years for most poor voters. They have concluded that since governance did not improve their wellbeing in the previous years, nothing in the future would change. They therefore rationally make a decision to sell their vote and "earn an income" for each time they do so.

In my conclusions, I wrote it this way: "The Price of the Vote of the low-income voters in Nigeria is extremely low and corrupted politicians can easily pay for it." Second, the poor who are illiterate will also likely lack political literacy and so do not realize the power of their constitutional right to vote. In the power relations between the electorate and those they vote into office, the former have failed to take their primacy in our democracy.

What the #FixPolitics research recommends to these two issues are one, design a bundled and simultaneous program of economic empowerment and political literacy for low-income voters. The economic empowerment component of the program raises their productivity. The political literacy component raises their political consciousness and awareness of their self-interest in elections and governance that follows afterwards.

Also, Organizations and groups interested in emerging an empowered and engaged electorate then work together to use technology to identify, connect, combine and scale up existing and new programs of economic empowerment for women and young people who together make up more than 70% of the voting population. Remember that women and young people are also the voting constituencies that actually turn up to vote on Election Day to vote. Imagine that in-between our electoral cycles (that's four years between one election and another), some organizations and groups collaborate to design a new economic empowerment initiative that is bundled with political literacy sessions or that they redesign existing programs in an intentional way to raise the productivity and political knowledge of say, Akara sellers across Nigeria. Imagine that currently, Akara sellers toil for just a daily net income of say, N1000- N2000. Imagine that the programs succeed such that their average daily financial output double or triple, rising above the "price that politicians will offer for their vote in elections". Now imagine that four years later, the now more productive, empowered and more politically-conscious Akara seller is faced with the offer to sell their vote. What do you think will happen in their decision-making? It is more probable that they would resist the offer and rather vote for candidates that will govern to improve their wellbeing because they have experienced improvement from a thoughtful and effective intervention. Now they know why choosing the right candidates in elections can further improve their households and communities.

Also, design and launch an innovative data-based nationwide political literacy campaign using community organizing modules to awaken and engage the over 60% of low-income registered voter-population that has never participated in elections by voting after being registered to vote. That only 15 million out of 84 million registered voters elected a President into office in 2019 is a risk that can be transformed into an opportunity to bring in new voters without the distorted incentives of repeat voters to sell their vote.

With a faulty constitution that opens with a lie, questionable census figures and pliable institutions, do you think Nigerians can repose confidence in the country's political system and participate effectively?

The faulty foundation of our constitution is way deeper than even those issues you raised in that it was never the product of a citizens' process. The military and some civilians collaborated to write a constitution which they handed to our 4th republic democracy at the transition of 1999. The tone of the constitution is militaristic and the content, unitary for a country that parades itself as a Federation. It is not "The People's Constitution" that it portends to be. The 1999 constitution does not reflect any form of negotiated common identity, values, vision, aspirations, political and governance structures of a country with a complex spectrum of ethnic, language, regional, cultural, religious and other diversities like Nigeria. Nigerians have never had the privilege of determining their choices of what kind of Union they wish to have as we enter deeper into the 21st Century.

One of the findings of the #FixPolitics research is that credible citizens- led constitutional process and the consensus provisions the people agree to, are key to helping transform (even) countries with multi-ethnic nationalities into nations. There is a big difference between a country and a nation. Sadly, because of many factors that end up in elite failure, Nigeria remains a mere country and not a nation, sixty years after our independence in 1960. Worse is that even now there are credible threats to its existence as a country. The tragic failure of our political class to successfully mobilize our citizens behind a commonly agreed identity while at the same time respecting our multiple uniqueness happened at least twice in our history. The Nigerian people could have at the end of colonial rule in 1960 and after the Biafra war ended in 1970 confronted their fractured and factional union in open and honest dialogues designed to agree on key rules and terms of remaining one people.

As a result of those failures to build consensus, Nigeria has hobbled along as a country of people who are not unified around common aspirations and shared principles. How different the outcomes would be if we were a country guided by aspirations like equal opportunity, inclusive growth and prosperity, social cohesion and stability. These are proven from our #FixPolitics research as some of the building blocks on which other countries transformed their societies. We found countries like Botswana, Singapore and South Korea to have prioritized human development, merit, productivity and healthy competition among constituent parts as well as their citizens. The results show up in their economic performance and the vastly improved wellbeing of their citizens in contrast to Nigeria all three countries gained independence in the 1960s from Britain.

However, the reality is setting in now. For after many decades of ignoring the obvious, it is becoming clearer to all discerning and reasonable compatriots that our Union is facing the severest threat to its existence now. All is simply not well with Nigeria and Nigerians. Our country, Nigeria is on the brink of a break-up despite the protestations of federal government officials and their sycophants.

Our ethnic and religious divides and differences have never been sharper and deeper than now. And this is all because of the irresponsible, clannish, provincial, incompetent and ineffectual management of our diversity by President Buhari who simply does not know how to nor have the temperament to learn how to lead a diverse society like Nigeria. The totality of factors that threaten the existence of Nigeria is expressed in the consistent and unabashed ethnic bigotry of President Buhari.

That President Buhari - who was elected by a representative section of the Nigerian people in a protest vote against his failed predecessor-has, in turn, dug Nigeria deeper into the trenches of humongous failure, will remain a wonder of historical proportion.

Nigeria's failures under President Buhari have become profoundly unsustainable. It is perplexing to watch our political leaders carrying on with their pretence that Nigeria is currently being governed. How can the political leadership of a country which is practically insolvent, terribly brittle on all fronts of national security and lost its diplomatic leadership and influence even in West Africa keep acting as if everything is normal.

Such imperviousness was the same attitude exhibited by the previous government of the current opposition party. Most Nigerians are fed up with the Siamese Twins-type syndrome of our politicians, regardless of whether they belong to the All Progressives Congress (APC) or the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Their party acronyms may differ but the people in our politics today are of one embryo and exhibit a common and dominant political culture that places the narrow interests of our politicians over and above the wellbeing of the people they govern.

Nigerians have experienced and now openly express frustration at the "hand-down" and "turn-by-turn failure " of the political leadership class in Nigeria at federal, state or local government levels. They are designed by the environment that enables them to act without consequences and the incentive they respond to, to govern in ways that do not produce results for citizens.

The finding from #FixPolitics research on countries which similarly came to the precipice because of ethnic and other tensions in the last few decades is that the citizens are the block with the credibility and legitimacy to push society toward fruitful dialogues and agreements which become translated to a new constitution. Conduct of a Citizens-Referendum is an innovation that was used in some countries

to commence the national dialogue process with the first phase of deciding the key issues to be discussed and negotiated in a constitutional process. In the case of our country, there is no doubt that Nigeria cannot carry on for much longer under a bumbling political class and grossly weakened bureaucracy. The centre is no longer holding because the Nigeria-State, its institutions and political operators have lost their credibility with the people. There are no known social contract binding citizens to their governments. The social capital that once minimally existed among members of society is now vastly eroded and depleted.

More From: Leadership

AllAfrica publishes around 800 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.