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Popular Acceptance and Social Currency: Why Have Certain Political Opinions Prevailed in Nigeria?

Popular Acceptance and Social Currency: Why Have Certain Political Opinions Prevailed in Nigeria?

Popular Acceptance and Social Currency Why Have Certain Political Opinions Prevailed in Nigeria - Afrocritik

There is usually no attempt among Nigerian leaders to form a lasting ideological core that aligns with the concerns of the masses, except in specific instances. Sometimes, too, what we find is a piecemeal continuation of a historical view expressed by an earlier political leader decades ago. 

By Chimezie Chika

The success of conventional political systems, in the reckoning of preeminent philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is an illusion, since they are antipodal to human nature whose “natural state” is anarchy. The best hope of mankind, he argues, is to place all political power on an “unaccountable sovereign” who would ensure a regime of peace. Hobbes’ political philosophy is predicated on a grim view of human nature. In this, Hobbes errs greatly on the side of pessimism; though it must be acknowledged that he had come to this conclusion during the Reformation, a time of great upheaval and civil unrest. Chaotic as humans can be, we are supremely aware of the importance of order and representation, and how government and people-participation keep these constant. It is the particular integrity of people-participation that Hobbes overlooks – or rejects. Regardless, Hobbes’ opinion has been widely rejected as unworkable on a human level.

The sustenance of the world order today is mostly based on systems that are, on the surface, the very antithesis of Hobbesian philosophy. What cannot be denied is that philosophy is important in the development of political systems or in charting the direction towards which politicians and political parties tilt their agenda. One place where Hobbes’ opinion may materialise today is in the role that social situations play in how the opinions espoused by leading politicians of the day are received. One wonders whether this is wholly the reason why some politicians have gained more currency and visibility at certain times more than others; why, to put it squarely, the opinions of certain politicians have had a strong pull on the social and political environment of Nigeria, or how prevailing situation helped to project them to the limelight. From the earliest years of political agitations in the country, Nigeria’s political leaders have provided an instructive window into the nature of this phenomenon.

The Politics of Colonial Nigeria and the Independence Struggle

In the 1940s, Nnamdi Azikiwe emerged as the leading voice of his generation, speaking so eloquently against colonialism at a time when much of Africa was riddled with independent movements. Azikiwe’s politics wrested on his uncompromising nationalism and Pan-Africanism, a personalised philosophy he called “Zikism”, which he encapsulated in his 1937 book, Renascent Africa, and his later autobiography, My Odyssey. Much of “Zikism” began to develop during Azikiwe’s sojourn in the United States where he had gotten his education. While working menial jobs to fund his education at Howard University, he came across intense racism and privation as an African immigrant in the postbellum United States. These, and his other experiences — in addition to being influenced by Garveyism and the African-American press with which he was involved for a while — at Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania convinced him that black people all over the world needed to form a united front and fight for the freedom of their homelands in Africa. 

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Returning to West Africa in 1934, Zik shortly took up a position as founding editor of the African Morning Post in Accra, in Gold Coast (now Ghana), a position which presented him the perfect platform to disseminate his nationalist views to a wide African audience through the scathing editorials he wrote against the colonial government in Ghana and Nigeria. An early column he wrote in the paper, “The Inside Stuff by Zik”, was so radically nationalist that it constantly provoked the colonial government. He also persistently criticised the African elites of the colonial society who wanted to maintain the status quo since it favoured them. 

Returning to Lagos in 1937 and founding the West African Pilot newspaper and, later co-founding (with Herbert Macaulay) the political party NCNC, Zik’s nationalist activities intensified, much more visibly with his involvement in the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), the country’s first political organisation. The core of Zik’s political philosophy — Zikism — revolved around black freedom, pride, and the oneness of all black people. In his writings and speeches, he talked about what he called the “five pillars” of Black liberation: mental emancipation, social regeneration, economic determinism, Risorgimento nationalism, and spiritual balance. These views resonated thoroughly with the times — especially among the African rank and file and the emerging middle class — mainly due to the growing discontent of the native Nigerian population with the British colonial government and its excesses. 

Nnamdi Azikiwe
Nnamdi Azikiwe

Zik’s desire to awaken nationalist zeal across the country largely succeeded due, in part, to his control of the production and distribution of over ten national dailies across the country. By the mid-1940s, a throng of radical youths within NYM came to call themselves “Zikists”. Their modus operandi sometimes mirrored militant versions of independence struggles elsewhere in Africa, especially in Kenya where the Mau-Mau was causing a lot of trouble for the colonial government. As Zikists spread their ideas throughout the country, the vuvuzela was taken up in several places, and with time came calls for more physical confrontations with the colonial government in Nigeria, since peaceful agitations seemed not to yield much results. In June 1945, as a result of his support for a general strike, the publication of West African Pilot was suspended for a short period by the colonial government and rumours of an assassination attempt on Zik became widespread. This particular event only helped to increase his popularity. 

But while it is true that Zik’s ideals were widely popular and the man himself became the face of Nigerian nationalism in the period leading up to independence, he met substantial oppositions: first, from anti-nationalist elites who wanted to retain the colonial status quo since it favoured them (though these group of people, for obvious reasons, had no popular support); second, from tribal and ethnic tensions about leadership in the incoming independent Nigeria. Ever the nationalist, Zik’s failure to take Nigeria’s already volatile ethnic tensions seriously partially led to the final demise of his political views in a country that needed more urgent, and ultimately malleable, approaches to politics. Another reason was that Zikism no longer seemed relevant after independence, especially as the hydra of ethnic tensions began to rear its heads more violently. Tensions like these precipitated political principles and philosophies that are based on the tenets of provincialism, ethnicity, and religion. Much of the political opinions of Zik’s political rival, Ahmadu Bello — and the actions that followed them — are based on these. 

Sir Ahmadu Bello’s immense influence in early Nigerian politics rode strong on unanimous support from the Muslim Hausa-Fulani-dominated Northern Nigeria. He preached, for the most part, the leadership of the North in Nigerian affairs. The clear line he toed in his speeches was a rhetoric that privileged the continuation of the Northern oligarchy that has been in place in precolonial times, while the rest of Nigeria must supposedly play subordinates. Though this politics of ethnic and religious hegemony went against Zik’s popular nationalism, it is its kind of nationalism, though scrupulously provincial in its insistence on representing only the interests of one region. 

An analysis of Bello’s provincial nationalism could begin with the geographical limitations of the nomenclature of his political party (which he headed), Northern People’s Congress (formerly Jam’iyyar Mutanen Arewa), a party which, by design, is limited to the North and its major ethnic groups. Contrarily, the names of other parties of the independence and immediate post-independence Nigeria mirrored more inclusive nationalist ideals without geographical limitations: Action Group (AG), National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), or the less influential United National Independence Party (UNIP). Observing this phenomenon, critic and historian Max Siollun noted that the three main political parties in Nigeria at independence — AG, NCNC, NPC — more or less represented the ideological approaches to politics of the three regions of the country. In practice, party politics in colonial Nigeria were gradually dichotomised into regional tribalism. 

Also known by his traditional title, Sarduana of Sokoto, Bello’s traditionalist approach to Nigeria’s independence was felt in the deliberateness of his actions, which is in essence influenced by the interests of his Sokoto Caliphate heritage — a powerful connection that plays a historical role in the ethos of power and its control in postcolonial Nigeria. In one instance, just after independence in 1960, Bello stated blatantly that it was a pity that the British halted the southward march of Usman Dan Fodio’s jihad in the 19th century: 

“The new nation called Nigeria should be an estate of our great grandfather Othman Dan Fodio. We must ruthlessly prevent a change of power. We use the minorities in the north as willing tools and the south as conquered territory and never allow them to rule over us and never allow them to have control over their future”

In 1950, during negotiations for the numerical makeup of the Nigerian legislature, Bello threatened the secession of Northern Nigeria. He felt that independence at that point would undermine Northern Nigeria since the region trailed far behind the South in every index of development, this no doubt being a result of the slow pace of the region’s acceptance of Western education. Bello, ever egregiously pursuing Northern representation on every front, championed Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as the North’s contribution to Nigeria’s independence leadership. As Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Balewa, a mild-mannered and dignified teacher, pursued a political view that closely aligned with the interests of the British and the West, though some of his policies at home reflected Bello’s regionalism. Bello was especially concerned with how the North could catch up to the South in development and education. As Premier of the Northern Region, he began a policy of regionalising the Northern Region’s civil service, replacing positions occupied by people from the south with Northern peoples. Beginning in the late 1940s, scholarships were given to Northerners who were qualified to attend university. 

Ahmadu Bello
Ahmadu Bello

Personally, Bello did not believe that his policies were problematic, as long as they served his people. “I am not unaware that I have often been a controversial figure. I have been accused of [a] lack of nationalism and political awareness because I considered that independence must wait until a country has the resources to support and make a success of independence. I have been accused of conservatism because I believe in retaining all that is good in our old traditions and customs and refusing to copy all aspects of other alien civilisations have been accused of many things, but the views of others have never made me deviate from the path which I am certain is the one which will benefit my people and country. I have always based my actions on my inward convictions, on my conscience and on the dictates of my religion.”

How did the people of Northern Nigeria receive Bello’s political opinions? To say that Bello’s opinions and approach to politics were popular would be an understatement. Bello deeply understood the religious, cultural, historical, and economic context of Northern Nigeria in the colonial period and the period immediately following independence, and shaped his political opinions around them. Because of this understanding, his ideas seem to have remained relevant among contemporary politicians from Northern Nigeria and — it should be added — contributed to the unique divisions that mark the country’s policies today.

The Military and the Dilemma of Legitimacy

Altogether, military rule in Nigeria lasted more than three decades, beginning from January 1966 to May 1999, during which time the country went through a decimating civil war, and leadership passed through the hands of eight different military Heads of State. Due especially to the violent nature of their ascension to power and the autocratic policies that attend their rule, military politics and its political outlook have a certain humdrum uniformity that marks them out regardless of the figurehead who heads each successive junta. However, if any particular military rulers in Nigeria could be said to have a sort of working ideology or philosophy, we could point to Gen. Murtala Mohammed (in power 1975-76) and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (in power 1983-85).

While Mohammed’s short-lived military rule sought legitimacy through its civilian-leaning policies  (a commitment continued by his successor, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, which finally led to the return to civilian rule as the second republic in 1979), Buhari’s military rule was marked a pointed draconian ethos represented by his War Against Indiscipline (WAI) agenda which led to increased military brutality, with soldiers routinely carrying out public floggings, organised shootings, and other forms of state-sanctioned cruelty. Whether we choose to talk about Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida’s rule and his Structural Adjustment Programme, Yakubu Gowon’s indecisive period at the helm, or the darkest years of Sani Abacha’s iron-handed dictatorship, political opinion and ideology during the long years of military rule is submerged in the murky waters of extreme and unaccountable corruption, strident use of coercion, and unbridled authoritarianism. 

(Read Also: Despite Africa’s Illustrious Political Past, Why Are African Countries Failing?

And of course, Nigerians rebelled against this stifling atmosphere. The politicians whose views gained notoriety and popularity among Nigerians in this period were those who declaimed or expressed views that were contrary to those of the ruling juntas. The most prominent and widely televised of these individuals was Chief Moshood K. O. Abiola, who is widely regarded as the winner of arguably Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential elections in 1993. His supporters were made up of the Nigerian masses who were convinced that as a very wealthy man — one of Africa’s richest at the time — Abiola was insulated from the motivations of corruption in the Nigerian government. Running his campaign under the Social Democratic Party, Abiola’s political views were decidedly tailored towards the tenets of social democracy, which puts the needs of the poor first and aims to achieve social equilibrium of some level in wealth distribution. It was agreed that a man of such astute business acumen was best placed to achieve this. Unfortunately, the 1993 election results were annulled by Babangida’s military government and once again, Nigeria was plunged into violent tensions. 

The unpopularity of military rule, and whatever their guiding philosophies might be, is evident in the many restive activities that marked the period, ranging from open protests which resulted in dozens of arrests and shootings, to trenchant newspaper articles by such figures as the intrepid journalist Dele Giwa (who was later assassinated) and music by the likes of Fela Anikulakpo Kuti, to numerous international sanctions. Nowhere did the military find any lasting support and that, indeed, contributed to how temporary each of its violent putsches continued to be. Legitimacy is given by the people based on how political leaders can appeal to their sensibilities, and because the military constantly trampled on the basic human rights of Nigerians, it struggled for legitimacy until its final moments.

Contemporary Politicians and the Democracy Scramble

Since the return to civilian rule in 1999, the most recurrent feature of political opinions and how they are accepted or received by the people is found in the agency of the democratic process. Increasingly, Nigerian politics has become locked in an attritional struggle for popular votes, which has led to all sorts of unethical practices. Much of what we see is either a conscious syndication of populist rhetoric to coerce people into hasty action or reported cases of electoral malpractices. There is usually no attempt among Nigerian leaders to form a lasting ideological core that aligns with the concerns of the masses, except in specific instances. Sometimes, too, what we find is a piecemeal continuation of a historical view expressed by an earlier political leader decades ago. At length, what many of them have failed to realise in such a case is that a particular political opinion that was relevant in a given historical moment may no longer be so at present.

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Olusegun Obasanjo’s ascension to the Nigerian presidency in 1999 officially marked the final return to civilian rule, which has prevailed to date. While not expressing any ideological position in his politics, Obasanjo has strong views on how Nigeria can move forward and the legacy of his presidency proves this. Coming to power at a time when the country was enervated by years of military domination, his political agenda tried to reflect the plans and trajectory which he wanted to establish as the means to put the country on the right path. One of such legacies was his desire to restore the country’s image internationally. Obasanjo’s efforts in this direction make for compelling reading; not since the 1960s had Nigeria had such robust foreign policy, and foreign policy after his presidency has proven dispiritingly ineffectual. One of those efforts was the cancellation (with the help of the Finance Minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) of a big part of Nigeria’s international debt profile worth about $18bn by the Paris Club and the IMF in 2005. Another was the attraction of huge foreign investment and the reconsolidation of Nigeria’s leadership role within the ECOWAS sub-region and Africa.

Olusegun Obasanjo - Afrocritik
Olusegun Obasanjo

Notwithstanding these strides, and more at home, Obasanjo had his faults, one of them being accusations of acute corruption, electoral fraud, and an inordinate hankering for power, evidenced in his unconstitutional desire to pursue a third term as president. The best way to describe Obasanjo’s approach to politics is “nationalism”. His political views, as expressed in interviews and speeches, show that his interests are purely tailored toward national development rather than political systems or ideology. Recently, he implied that if democracy proves to be a hindrance to Nigerians, then perhaps Nigeria can establish its unique democracy, so long as it serves the interests of the people and the nation. Because of the allegations levelled against his government, despite his relative success, the reception of Obasanjo’s political opinions has been mixed, establishing a sharp divide between those who see him as one of Africa’s best statesmen of the 21st century and those who see him a corrupt megalomaniac. 

Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, Nigeria’s 14th president, found great support among the teeming masses of the country at a time when the problems associated with the global stock market crash of 2008 were still being felt. Having spent time as Vice-President during Umaru Musa Yar’adua’s administration between 2007-2010, he assumed the position of president in 2010 when Yar’adua died in office. While running for the office of president during the 2011 presidential elections, Jonathan managed to appeal to the sympathy of the vast majority of Nigerians through autobiographical rhetoric that many Nigerians identified with — represented by his “I had no shoes” mantra, which told the story of his humble beginnings and led to his victory in an election that was widely adjudged to be free and fair. Much of what he said during that campaign charted the locus of his political perspective and vision, which, in essence, is a form of loose welfarism. During his chaotic tenure as president, his policies reflected that welfarist approach, which purchased a lot of support for his government in its early years.  

Goodluck Jonathan - Afrocritik
Goodluck Jonathan

Jonathan’s administration introduced programs such as the Almajiri scheme and the Fadama farming scheme in the North, successfully containing a deadly Ebola outbreak in 2014, reforming the power sector, and awarding contracts for major railway schemes in the country. Not all these achievements were successful, however; more often than not, Jonathan’s administration was usually caught in messy entanglements involving massive corruption and blatant malfeasance by members of his government. During his tenure, Nigeria’s insecurity problems escalated to unprecedented levels, especially the Boko Haram terrorist attacks in the country’s northeast, leading to a high death toll and internal displacement. Particularly irksome is that amidst the many troubles and buffetings his administration was facing, he chose to sign the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law in January 2014—a populist move aimed at buying more time for his deteriorating image. Among the general populace, the reception of Jonathan’s approach to politics has been very polarising, with much of it leaning towards criticism of what was usually termed his “weak” and underwhelming presidency.

Muhammadu Buhari, who won the 2015 presidential elections (his second time as a Nigerian Head of State), promised “change” on the back of Jonathan’s failures, which only escalated the problems of Jonathan’s government to greater proportions in his eight forgettable years in power. Based on speeches and actions, his political philosophy was more or less an extension of Jonathan’s welfarism; but, in addition, Buhari was accused of running a government that was deeply and openly tribalistic, cushioning most of the top positions of government with people from the Hausa-Fulani ethnicity. In a country as linguistically and ethnically diverse as Nigeria, the mark of a true leader would be prime sensitivity and understanding of the ethnic and religious allegiances that continue to divide the country. Instead of assuaging these, Buhari’s actions multiplied them. In all his policies, there was a clear sense that he favoured things that catered to his tribal and Islamic fealty. 

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Part of the reason why Buhari was voted into power was his reputation for strict forthrightness and “incorruptibility”. It was thought that a man of such character would turn Nigeria’s endemic corruption problem around. But Buhari’s hubris remained his demonstrable insistence on viewing everything parochially through a tribal and religious perspective. He did make half-hearted attempts to solve the Fulani-Herdsmen problem that plagued the country throughout his administration. Then there was also the terrorism and banditry problem in the North and the unknown gunmen attacks in the Southeast and even Southwest. An exponentially increased military budget did not effectively translate to the total decimation of terrorist groups in the country. Cases of corruption and financial misconduct were a routine fixture, even though he had attained the presidency on the back of a consistent promise to fight corruption (many of the stolen money recovered from previous Nigerian leaders, especially Abacha and some functionaries in the Jonathan government, were not accounted for). Amidst these compounding exigencies, his government faced intense public excoriation and scrutiny.

Muhammadu Buhari - Afrocritik
Muhammadu Buhari

The highest scrutiny Buhari’s government faced was his military approach to national issues. He routinely detained opposition, including political activists, Omoyele Sowore and Nnamdi Kanu, despite court acquittals. The climax of his militarism and insensitive approach to the concerns of the citizens came in October 2020, during the EndSars protests, when dozens of people were killed by soldiers who opened fire on peaceful protesters in a blatant episode of state-sanctioned violence. After this, nothing could redeem Buhari in the eyes of Nigerians. His welfarism — evident in schemes such as N-Power, CCTP, NHGSF, and others — failed to make much impact on the confidence of a people he had repeatedly treated with dictatorial disdain. If there was one Nigerian president in the 21st century who was regarded with widespread ignominy, especially among the youth and the teeming masses, it was Buhari. 

As Buhari prepared to step down on the eve of the 2023 presidential elections, at a time when Nigeria was in economic turmoil, one of the presidential candidates, Peter Obi evinced strong political opinion on the current issues at hand and how to solve them. Obi is interesting to us in this study because of how he conducted his campaign. The ideological principle upon which he built his campaign is evidenced in the socialist slogan: “From consumption to production”. We find other evidence of Obi’s political opinion in the proletarian principles of his party, the Labour Party, and his speeches on the Nigerian economy. Even with the widespread support his socialism received from his many supporters who saw it as Nigeria’s hope for revitalisation, perhaps Obi’s failure in the elections is a sign of the inability of ideologically advanced politics to succeed in Nigeria’s volatile political environment. This is put in sharp perspective when one considers that Ahmed Bola Tinubu, a man with no distinct political ideals, emerged winner of the 2023 presidential elections and thus became Nigeria’s incumbent president. His campaign reflected the tendency in 21st-century  Nigerian politics to pull material strings

In a final analysis, one is compelled to wonder what effect Nigerians’ support or rejection of the political opinions and ideologies of their leaders have had on the country. What one realises, first and foremost, is that Nigerian politics is marked by the conundrum of its ethnic and religious schisms, between its three major ethnic groups on the one hand and between its two major religions on the other. These factors have sometimes overwhelmed any clear-eyed judgement from the majority of the citizens as the country advanced in age. Ultimately, it has come to a point where Nigerian politicians no longer espouse strong philosophies or ideologies; the system has been twisted into allowing other material factors to purchase the interest of the people based on factional allegiances. Thus propaganda and marginal popularity prevail over genuine political thinking.

Perhaps this is why Nigerian politicians fail so badly in office. That is, the lack of any ideology or the lack of any organising principle in their politics other than tribalism or graft. In the view of journalist and media consultant, Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu, it is a cultural problem which has its roots in colonialism. Quoting French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he argued that “our politicians do not see the state as a social contract between the people and the government. Their view of government is selfish and all about power and wealth. Everything is done chaotically; there is no attempt to approach policies in a scientific and systematic manner.” For poet, Ifesinachi Nwadike, the reason why Nigerian politicians fail is not mainly about their lack of ideology or the presence thereof. The problem, he said, is the docility of their followers. “People are too docile here. It is not enough not to merely accept a politician’s policies or views or whatever it is they say and do, we are not holding these people accountable as vehemently as we should, and that is why there is even a notion of failure in the first place.”

In their essay, “The Myth of Autocratic Revival: Why Liberal Democracy Will Prevail”, Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, gave some of the cogent reasons why liberal democracy will prevail in America as having to do with the social and cultural makeup of the country. This invariably means that the political ideology that prevails in a country is inexorably related to the socio-cultural constitution of the country. The ideologies and political perspectives peddled by Nigerian politicians of different eras are usually responses to the prevailing zeitgeist — in most cases the vast majority of the people go with these ideas or rhetoric because it aligns with their concerns and aspirations at that time. When the zeitgeist changes, the political view and politician who projected it is rejected and falls out of favour — replaced by another politician who appropriates the current zeitgeist into his political rhetoric and so on — and most times this is a result of the politician’s failure to successfully translate these views into tangible developments and policies that benefit the Nigerian people and the Nigerian state. 

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Iskanchi Mag, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.

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