Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped


Here is the second part of my episode with Chris Ogunmodede. We continued the discussion on Nigeria’s political economy. We touched on institutional memory in the legislature and why we need a stronger civil society. Chris is insightful as always.

listen from your favourite app

You can rate us here. If you want to support our efforts in bringing you the thoughts of brilliant thinkers through these conversations, you can be a patron here.


TL: This is Ideas Untrapped and my guest today is Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede. He's a foreign policy analyst, a writer, editor and political risk consultant. His work centres on political institutions and foreign policy of African countries, particularly in the West African region, and he has extensive experience working across Africa, Europe, and the United States. He's an editor at the Republic, a Pan-African global affairs publication. You're welcome, Chris. It's a pleasure to have you here.

CO: It's a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on your podcast. I'm glad to be here.

TL: One detour, quickly, that I want to take listening to your answer, is the role of ideas in all of this and messaging from the top or the centre, so to speak. President Buhari has a bit of a perceptive reputation, I would say, as inflexible. Inflexible, he is set in his ways, he has his idea. I mean, we just talked about the cabinet, I remember I think it was his first and probably the only media chat that he had where he said permanent secretaries are the ones running the government.

CO: Yes. I remember.

TL: We don't need ministers. And exchange rate was so and so in 1983, how come it is so and so in 2016. So what is the role of ideas in how the transmission mechanism of governance really really works? So, if the man at the centre, if the leader, if the visionary, so to speak, have some of these funny, archaic ideas about things, is there really any hope for governance? So that's one.

Secondly, which is one other thing you touched on in your answer, you talked about how PDP was found, the experience with succession and governance. And I'm leaning a lot on Carl LeVan here. Talking about how the post-colonial governance, especially after the civil war, has always worked in Nigeria by different veto power structures, exacting influences, pushing each other. But in that same process, I see someone like president Buhari, even right from his days in the military and even afterwards, as a bit of an outsider to that process.

So he does not come with all the governing credentials, so to speak or should I say experience. So how much do these two things - ideas and experience in actual governance and the influence with the governing structure behind power, how much do these two things influence the way the APC evolved as a ruling party?

CO: Yeah, I think a lot. As you pointed out, this is a president who you could charitably call incurious about a lot of things, and he relies on a very small circle of advisers, the cabal as it were. You know, that's the sort of colloquial description for his advisors. Many of them share his views on economics, on security, on practically everything that's important. This is also not a...president Buhari is not particularly gregarious, he is not particularly outgoing, he's something of a loner, he's a quite austere person. You contrast him with former president Obasanjo, for example, who couldn't be any more different even though they were both military heads of state.

President Obasanjo is something of an intellectual. He's written so many books. I mean he ran for UN Secretary-General at one point. He's someone who you will find on panels all over the [place], even to this day. Like, this is a person who has a worldview, he sees himself as an African intellectual statesman and has behaved that way. Not even just today, as far back as when we left the armed forces when he handed over in '79. This is someone who has engaged himself in African affairs, in particular. He's been a peacekeeping envoy to this person, to that person. You know, whether it's Charles Taylor, whether it's in Togo, this is someone who is often dispatching himself to be at the centre of [things], especially things that have to do with Africa.

He's someone who relies on a number of young [people]. One thing people don't know and just in the interest of disclosure, he's someone I know somewhat well, you know. President Obasanjo is someone who relies on a lot of scholars, academics, thinktanks. You know, he has a presidential library now. He's long had a Foundation, you know, these are things he uses to project not just his influence, but his willingness to learn so much about the world. When he was president, he was the kind of person who if you went to see him about something about a policy issue and you felt it's something that was worthy of his attention and he got the sense that you knew so much about [it], he was ready to offer you a job right there, that he would say to you things like OK, why don't you come and take this position and that.

President Buhari is not like that and this is where intellectual curiosity as a leader is consequential. But like I said, President Obasanjo had all of his flaws and you know, there isn't enough time to go through all of them, but he had that ability to one: spot ideas or at least listen to ideas if he'd never heard of them before. He was even willing to be pushed on his idea. You know, when you read The Accidental Public Servant by elRufai where he talks about his time working for OBJ, you get the sense that that's the kind of [relationship]. It was a somewhat combative relationship, but it was one of begrudging respect because he felt elRufai was someone worth listening to, he understood so much about governance, about public policy, public administration and all of that. So that's the kind of person president of Obasanjo was.

Whereas with President Buhari, it's only his inner circle and well, everyone, get lost. That lack of curiosity shows. That's why their policy responses in the administration on every issue is quite predictable. You can spot from a mile away what the administration would do on any issue. It's either to band this thing or to regulate that thing. Or, you know, they're a hammer that sees nails everywhere, the administration. And that's because that's the tone that's set from the top. The ministers and other members of the cabinet don't have a close relationship with him, they don't have any real influence. They certainly don't have any power, and that's by design. These were people who in some ways were foisted upon him and he just had to accept them. You know, like you pointed out, he said something about how ministers don't really the government and Perm Secs are. He only picked ministers, frankly, because he had to. He was more than happy to, you know, roll with the people he was rolling with. So the Ministers he selected are essentially part of the spoil system to him.


Now broadly, that's Democratic politics as a rule, but you know, like you pointed out that there's a constellation of forces as far as governance is concerned, but with him, none of that is there. And because like I mentioned, APC as a party consist of several different moving parts with very little in common, the internal mechanisms of the party are not that strong, and it became very evident with all of the parallel congresses and fighting factions. At one point, the party chairman was fighting with the governors and they eventually got him removed (I'm referring to Oshiomole). They got him removed. There is so much reliance on the personality of President Buhari. So when he set the tone, everyone simply just falls in line with it. Now, of course, that generally tends to happen in many democratic systems.

In many democratic systems, especially ones with weak political parties, that's what tends to happen. Where the President or Prime Minister, depending on the system, becomes like a sort of patrimonial figure where what he says is essentially an edict. You know, I would say APC is a weak party by virtue of the fact that they have no real means of resolving internal disputes without making them turn into something else, and it had to require the intervention of Buhari to resolve the issue with Oshiomole and the NEC and the governors and all of this stuff. So, apart from the fact that many of the governors and other elite in APC already agree with him on several policy issues, those who don't [agree] have no incentive but to fall in line.

Now, you contrast with PDP where especially under Yar'adua who was basically an old-style Marxist, for all intents and purposes, you know. The fact that he was that type of person succeeding a president who I would regard as a neoliberal president, Obasanjo, tells you the kind of diversity of thoughts inside PDP. People always say oh, there's no ideology in Nigerian politics. There is nothing that differentiates [the parties], that's actually not true. There are ideological differences. Clear ones, actually. PDP has something of a sort of free markets, at least it used to anyway, a free-market orientation towards, certainly, economic matters. Had the privatisations, the deregulations of the Obasanjo years, and then the Jonathan years.

Whereas with APC, they are much more of a Social Democratic/Democratic Socialist Party. You know, at least the people who formed the core of APC when they did. The Bisi Akande and all these other people. These are old-style union, you know, student's union, teacher's union types, farmer and labour groups. Those are the elements that became, at least in Southwest APC those are the elements that became the elites in the party. And you know, many of them came from the ACN and before that AC, and before that Alliance for Democracy, and then before that, whether it was SDP or Action Group cause some of these guys are that old. Somebody like Bisi Akande has been in politics since the days of Action Group under Awolowo.

That's the genesis of their political worldview, so there are clear differences between the parties. What I think people are referring to is the fact that parties are weak. So like I said, internal democracy is nonexistent, party discipline is nonexistent. So it means that the party is as strong as a couple of dominant figures who can come in and exert their will. For example, in a party primary, you can come in and essentially buy the nomination under some circumstances ignoring what the rest of the party might want. Governors are known to exert so much influence on parties, especially in the states. Because there is very little that binds the parties together, in political science they refer to it as party system institutionalization. That means the parties aren't really regarded as legitimate across society. They are not wedded to the society. Yes, people vote for them, they exist and they're registered and all but, for one thing, the low turn out in the election tells you that the overwhelming majority of voters do not regard them as legitimate.

So at the end of the day, because they are the only ones who participate and can exert their will because internal party dynamics are so weak, it now makes it easy to move from party to party. One minute you're in PDP. One minute you're in APC. One minute you're in Labour Party. One minute you're in APGA. So people conflict the fact that the parties are so weak that people can come and go with the fact that there is no governing ideology. There are clear differences when it comes to ideology. It's just because the parties are so weak, any dominant figure can just come and impose his will on the party, and everybody goes [along]. For example, Wike is basically the leader of [the] opposition in PDP and it's something I talked about a few weeks ago on Twitter after the Edo election. Wike has basically been PDP's leader since 2015. Because the national party is so weak and redolent, at this point, Wike is the most dominant of all the PDP governors. He governs a wealthy state, at least relative to the rest of the country. He's basically the leader of the opposition in real terms. Yes, you know, they have a PDP chairman and all these other stuff. But, Wike is the most dominant PDP figure in Nigeria and that is because he has been able to exert himself on the party.

Normally [a] political party should be expressions of several different things. A uniting ideology that brings different factions because, you know, there'll always be people with different views and things like that, while you want a broader governing philosophy. For example in the US, the democratic party are regarded as the centre-left, the republicans are regarded as right. In Nigeria, those labels don't quite work as well because, well, first of all, what is left in Nigeria and what is right? And like I said, the parties are so weak that anyone can be one thing today and the next thing he's another tomorrow. It's not that there is no prevailing ideology, it's just that the parties are largely the aggregation of one dominant figure's interest or several dominant figures' interest, so it's very easy to come in and stamp your authority and get your way. So all of this is why governance, as it were, under the Buhari administration has mostly been predictable, and one-way traffic.

Back when Abba Kyari was still alive, people always used to say he was secretly the president, I don't think that was necessarily what was true. What was true was that President Buhari had a set of ideas and Abba Kyari was the enforcer, and that is literally the role of the Chief of Staff. In the US, that is literally what the chief of staff does. Chief of staff is basically the President's number one protector. That's all he is concerned with. There have been lots of books written about White House chief of staff and one thing you will come to understand about that role is that the person thinks from one point of view only: the president. He doesn't think about the Vice President. He doesn't even think about the cabinet, he doesn't even think about himself or, at least, shouldn't. You think about what president wants and you defending it to a T. That's basically what Abba Kyari is.

Of course, because Abba Kyari and President Buhari were ideologically soulmates, all of their prescriptions matched and President Buhari trusted him, respected him so much and he was a very hard working man, so it was very easy for people to say, oh, Abba Kyari is the one pulling the strings. Now, he was a very powerful person, no question about that. I'm not trying to dispute that at all. What I'm saying is that it wasn't nearly as sinister as people thought. Here was a situation where he had been given a lot of free reign to govern by his principal and that's what it is. So that is what governance under Buhari had been like, at least, as far as [the] federal government. President set the tone at the top and Abba Kyari then, and now ambassador Gambari effects what the president wants and that's it. There's no sense of internal meeting. There really isn't one because there's no balance of power of that kind.

In certain governments, you get those kinds of situations where one person feels like oh, this is my view, that person has his view. Obasanjo used to encourage that kind of interaction, even Jonathan too to a certain extent used to, but with President Buhari, if disagreements emerge they're largely spontaneous, largely because people will always have their own agendas, their own interests, but a lot of it is largely going on with the president's total oblivion towards them.

TL: I might actually have to update my priors on ideology in the Nigerian political system because my partner always tells me PDP is capitalist and I remember my consternation on the show when Akin Oyebode actually said APC is centre-left. I was like, Woah! But interesting point of view raised there. Briefly, let's talk about president Obasanjo.

A lot of people still consider him the best president we've ever had...

CO: I would generally agree with that. You know, all things considered.

TL: One thing and the people who know him and different accounts about his time in government will tell you that he's very hands-on, he knows what's going on, there is never really [any] confusion about who's in charge, even though he's open to ideas and dissent and gives the people that he trusts a lot of latitude to be creative with policy. But there's something important that I want to raise and that is the issue of power vacuum.

I mean, you just talked about Kyari. There's this perception that in the current administration there's some kind of power vacuum. And that perception is fed by how much time it usually takes the presidency to react to some issues of national crisis. I remember when the Covid-19 outbreak first reached Nigeria, people both on social media and the traditional media were, for weeks, calling for the president to come out and speak. And we can say the same for a lot of other things, including EndSARS.

There are people who still think today that the signal about the reforms, because now, one of the government's defence is like oh, we were responsive. You guys said you wanted dissolve SARS blah blah blah... But some people are of the view and which I agree that if the dissolution of SARS had been a presidential order or pronouncement, then, it could have calmed a lot of nerves, especially among the protesters. So let's talk about the issue of power vacuum - is it real? Is it not? And how much did president Obasanjo's legacy matter here particularly in the area of succession? Because a lot of people still see the handing over to Yar'Adua, some say maybe rather sinisterly, that it was his last act of revenge for not getting a third term. But we know that president Yar'Adua, for all his good intentions and his good heart, was not really a man of good health.

Give a gift subscription

CO: Yes.

TL: And we had this period where transition, even handling over, constitutionally, to the vice-president became problematic because of the cabal, so to speak. There was some sort of vacuum. So how much does president Obasanjo's legacy matter here in the presidential tradition that have, sort of, been in play since the end of his administration?

CO: That's actually a very useful question because I believe that it's quite under-discussed, and here's why I said that. President Obasanjo is the first civilian democratic president for the first republic, right? He comes in with this wealth of experience - he's been a military head of state. Obviously, he's a career military officer. He was a commander in the civil war and all of this stuff. He was on the Supreme Military Council as number two to Muritala Muhammad and all this stuff. So, here's a person who comes into government and civilian democratic politics practically with a very good sense of what he wants to do.

And, of course, he brings his own personal traits and all of these stuff into governance and politics. He's a very towering, some might say, overbearing figure and he exerted a lot of hard power. You know, Obasanjo, frankly, with an authoritarian. If we are going to be frank. And because, like I said, he's the first one of the fourth public. So he has framed for Nigerians what a president should be like. Because don't forget before him, the last president we had was in 1983. So many Nigerians before Obasanjo don't have any recollection of what a civilian president is like. So in real terms, Obasanjo is the first civilian president for millions of Nigerians ever. Ever.

TL: True.

CO: Because many of them weren't born. And like you pointed out, many people regard him as the best leader, broadly, postindependence that Nigeria has had. The things he did on the economy and all of this other stuff. Along that came with, frankly, a lot of political baggage. You know, we don't talk enough about how many of the problems that befell PDP were things that he put in place, were problems he started to create. Whether it was handpicking candidates for PDP, whether it's muscling out PDP chairmen who disagree with him, whether it's instigating issues with governors that eventually lead to their impeachment.

You know, a lot of this aggrandising behaviour started with Obasanjo. So a lot of what we've come to understand as far as the mythology of the Nigerian president is of him. That colours everything we’ve now come to understand about the way a president should be like. So the president must always be seen. He must always speak. He must always this. He must always that. So that is why if you remember during the Jonathan years and people always said oh, he was weak, he was indecisive and people were running roughshod over him and this and that, that's because he chose to be hands-off. There's no right or wrong way to administer government. The devil is always in the details of the decisions you make or don't make.

So in that sense people always looked at Jonathan through the prisms of Obasanjo and to a large extent, people continue to look at Buhari through the prisms of Obasanjo. Forgetting, one: times are different, times have changed. Buhari and Jonathan are different people. There's never been this sense of allowing the institution to grow. You know it's not the Nigerian Presidency, it's the Nigerian President if that makes sense. In the US they talk about the modern American Presidency. It's this grandiose king-like office. In fact, there's a book by a guy called Arthur Schlesinger called the Imperial Presidency talking about how the American Presidency is essentially a king, and how the president, in real terms, is beyond the authority of Congress and the constitution and all of this stuff. You know, if you think the American President is an imperial one, I would argue the same is true about the Nigerian president. Even more so because in the Nigerian Constitution the structure of the distribution of power favours the Nigerian president even more so than the contextual equivalent in the US where what has happened is that the American President has assumed a lot of powers for himself... Oh, well, yes, "him" because there's only been male presidents. The American President has assumed a lot of powers for himself and when and they have gone to the courts, the courts have sided with the executive branch. You know, the American Presidency, at least as far as the Constitution goes, is quite a weak one.

The enumerated powers of the American president are quite specific, and they're quite minimal, but political developments over the last century, in particular, have granted the American president so many powers where at this point, especially on matters of national security and foreign policy, the president can frankly do whatever the hell he wants and everything else will be after the fact. I would say in Nigeria, the enumerated powers of the President are even much more pronounced and the political powers that the President has assumed more so. So that colours how people view the Nigerian presidency and then when you look at the fact that the National Assembly has so much turnover, I think the eighth National Assembly had a turnover rate of I believe, I may not be exact here, about 66 percent. That means 66 percent of the members of the eighth National Assembly did not come back. That's a terrible development if you care about the separation of powers. The institutional memory of the National Assembly is lost, basically. Not when you have two-thirds of the class gone, and then the president stays. But two-thirds, including by the way the senate president.

Let's not forget, the senate president was among those who departed. That is a loss of not just institutional memory of governance, but also the understanding of inter-government relations. And then the fact that you have to bring up all these new people up to speed on how governance works and how to be a good legislator. One of the most important lessons I learned as a young student was during an internship on Capitol Hill. I spent some time in the constituency office of a US Senator and one of the most valuable lessons I learned was how much time US Senators put into learning the procedural rules of the Senate. And how much powers they have institutionally, collectively and individually. That's how much power does one senator have, whether you're in the majority or minority? But especially when you're in the majority where you can actually get things done. How much power does his caucus or her caucus? And then, what are the powers of the Senate? Some senators spend a whole year learning this stuff because it's so important. It literally affects everything they do from the passing of the budget, the reconciliation process, parliamentary rules as far as presiding in the Senate. Back then when they still used to have what they call earmarks, which are basically senators reserving certain pet projects for their constituency.

There's a million and one thing Senators have to learn, basically, when they take office. So there are a hundred US senators. Imagine 66 of them are gone and a new set... now granted all hundred seats aren't up at the same time but imagine such a scenario where 66 go and another 66 have to come back. That gives the advantage to the executive branch. That's exactly what we have in Nigeria where two-thirds of every senate, every National Assembly class is gone and the new ones have to come and start learning how government works. Meanwhile, the president has been there the whole time. If you care about authoritarianism, that's something you should want to fix.

A lot of political science literature talks about the fact that legislatures need a period of 20 years post-transition - that's this period when they are coming out of authoritarian rule, whether it's a military dictatorship or something like that. But you know, legislatures need about 20 years to become really strong and capable enough to enforce the principle of separation. It gets harder to do that when two-thirds of your class is gone every time. And these are the things that I think much of the commentariat don't discuss enough. Like you know, we talk so much about restructuring, things like that, I've always made a point that personally, I think the National Assembly needs more former governors are not fewer. And this is a very controversial point because we all talk about how governors turned the senate to a retirement home, blah blah, blah. But there is actually a good sense of how former governors, having done a lot of the hard work of negotiating, understanding how especially public finance works, how to allocate certain benefits towards your constituency, how parliamentary rule work, Governors tend to know these things very well. Governors tend to also understand the informal side of legislative politics. You know, agenda-setting and all of that. How to build alliances in the Senate, how to work across party lines, Governors tend to know how to do that stuff very well because they've done it when they were Governors. Whereas with people who aren't Governors, they haven't been executives, they haven't had to deal with budgets and things like that, it's quite a learning curve. And these are some of the reasons why the Nigerian Presidency remains as outsized relative to the National Assembly, even though it's not supposed to be that way. You know, the National Assembly, one of its powers is oversight over the executive branch, over the presidency.


But in real terms, especially in this current dispensation, that's why people talk about it as a rubber stamp, because in real terms the political power is an unequal one. All of the power has been situated in Aso Villa and the National Assembly simply just rubber stamps. They go with the flow of the Villa. It's not supposed to be that way. And all of these developments largely stem from the Obasanjo years where Obasanjo was meddling constantly in the National Assembly's business. If you remember, there were five different Senate Presidents when Obasanjo was president. Five.

TL: Yeah.

CO: I mean I remember...Enwerem

TL: 2 or 3 speakers.

CO: Exactly, exactly. Okadigbo, Wabara...

TL: Ken Nnamani.

CO: Ken Nnamani, that's it. So, you know, those years were very tumultuous and those were very crucial years. Because like I said, that's the first democratic dispensation of Fourth Republic. So the groundwork that was laid back then is one that continues to still affect the Nigerian political dispensation, obviously, over time there was a bit more stability. David Mark was Senate president for eight years and all of that stuff. Some stability came over time, yes, but it didn't change the fact that...and this is how institutions work, going back to what we discussed, you know it's not a straight line. The signs of decline of institutional quality are often very apparent long time ago but you know, sometimes they move forward, they receded again, they move forward and they recede even further, you know, life doesn't move in a straight line. And that's essentially the point we have gotten to right now where, because of a number of and, these are mostly political development. They are not strictly constitutional ones. They're largely structural and political... Because of the things Obasanjo did, so much has come to be normalized.

Now if you remember when the National Assembly had all those fights about who would be principal officers during that interregnum where APC won the election, but we're waiting to be sworn in? If you remember President Buhari said something about oh, he didn't want to get involved in their matter and he wanted them to sort this out themselves and many, at least, much of the commenting class found that to be strange, that's an example of what I'm referring to. Because we were so used to, in the Obasanjo years, him meddling in the National Assembly's business, the idea that a president would not want to get involved in the selection of the National Assembly's business, seems so strange. So these are some of the changes over time that if people, especially in civil society say they want to see as far as good governance, better governance, these are some of the issues we need to address. It can't always be about the presidency, the presidency, the presidency. To me, restructuring has got to be about all of these ideas. What kinds of powers, authority do you want the National Assembly to have? What kind of authority do you want state governors to have? What should the relationship between state governor's and the House of Assembly be? Do you want them to continue to be appendages of the governor? Or do you actually want them to be functional? These are the kind of iterative conversations that we don't have enough of and if you want a proper restructuring, whatever restructuring means to you as a Nigerian, these are some of the things you need to consider.

TL: Those are very interesting thoughts, Chris. My final question, so to speak, on Nigeria, our beloved country, is that here we are. A lot of young people, they came out about an issue they are passionate about, they largely conducted themselves peacefully, they spoke their hearts, they expected their government to hear them and they are not asking for too much. But here we are. It has ended exactly the way Nigeria handles things. Lots of violence. Lots of denial. No one is really taking responsibility or leadership.

CO: Yes

TL: What is the way forward? A lot of people are talking about elections. Yeah, we just have to vote these people out, is it really as simple as electing the right people? Is it restructuring? What exactly does that mean? You know a lot of the conversations we have about restructuring is about constitutional reforms, rewriting the constitution and big conferences and some of this processes that makes consensus very, very difficult to get to, you know? Are there quick gains right now that you think can be delivered to Nigerians?

I mean, there's a lot to suggest that a lot of progress can be made even in the immediate. The judicial panel in Lagos is a good example. Today, I was reading the news that they made an unannounced visit to the military hospital to examine bodies, they had pathologists trying to test the system and hold it accountable within the powers that you have as a state government. Those are examples of quick gains, so why are we not doing these things? Why are we not testing the system and examine the fault lines, so to speak?

Also, there's the issue of apathy. A lot of people say parties win elections in Nigeria by largely relying on their political base. You have state elections where you barely get 200 thousand total votes. So a lot of people don't vote, mostly young people. So is voter apathy part of the problem? And if they come out and vote for their preferred candidate, how are they sure that their preferred candidates are going to be on the ballot to begin with? You know, so many other issues. The issue of money in politics is also an example. So many research as pointed you need a billion naira to become a senator in Nigeria, 3 billion to become a governor and you have young people who want to go into politics and try to change the system, are they not disempowered by default with the way we have designed the system? So, so many questions, but what is the way forward in the long term, in the medium term and the short term?

CO: Those are very important question because right now, at least as of this moment, the large scale demonstrations have practically ended, at least in Nigeria, you know, there's still lots of marches abroad and things like that, but in Nigeria, at least in the big cities anyway, the large scale marching to this place and that place is over. But there is a bit of uncertainty about what's next. Now, as you mentioned, there's been a lot of oh, 2023 and PVC, youth party...I did a bit of a thread last week talking exactly about this that, first of all, we have agreed that EndSARS, one of the subtexts of it is that the status quo is not working, how we're going to have to reconfigure the way we go about civic engagement, right?

OK, so when we look at the last inflexion point in Nigerian politics, I would say it was the end of the military regime when Abacha died and the transition. What was the, at least in my view anyway, what was the mistake that was made? They were several but one of the key ones was that many of the activists, you know, whether they were NADECO, campaign for democracy or whatever else, everybody ran to politics. Not literally everybody, but much of the muscle behind all of those campaigns, whether it was Bola Tinubu, Bisi Akande, everybody ran to electoral politics, let me be specific. They ran into electoral politics. That's not a problem in and of itself, but in building institutions, you don't put all your eggs in one basket.

Imagine a scenario where people like Gani Fawehinmi, for example, built up legal aid organizations, built up the judiciary, public defenders, their mandates and prestige was strengthened. Civil society organizations across a variety of policy issues were built up. Professional associations were built up. Religious organizations took on more of a civically responsible role as opposed to what they're doing right now, which in my view is not any of that. So the point I'm making is that imagine if there were a much larger constellation of forces, of social forces in the political space, as opposed to political parties and electoral politics alone? what would likely have happened is that the political class would have been forced to compete better.

Simply because, for example, you come up with one policy idea or the National Assembly takes one bill up for consideration, there's civil society push especially if it's a really unpopular one. There is civil society pushback, you know, professional organizations like the NBA and all of that stuff. Writers groups, creative groups, trade unions and the likes, everybody came up in arms, expressing their opposition, their collective civic opposition to certain things. That would have spelled, for one thing, the ability of countervailing forces in the political system to make their own voices heard. But because all of the muscle from the democracy campaigns, everybody ran to politics. Some people didn't. People like Alao Aka, Bashorun and the likes, they didn't go into politics. But a large number of the activists from the 1990s they went to politics, including, of course, Gani himself.

So that made electoral politics the, you know, crown jewel of civic participation. So when I start to see all this stuff about PVC and [2023], it just seems to me like a repetition of all of that. Like, I've seen so much oh, FemCo should be turned to a structure. FemCo should be turned to a party. Oh, FK should run for office and I'm thinking to myself, is that the only way that any of these people or these organisations have to make [a] change in Nigeria? If you are telling me that's the only way, then we're in bigger trouble than I thought. Because as far as I know, there are people who are still locked up in prisons across the country with no one to get them out. There are schools that are still crumbling. You know, there are a variety of policy issues across the board that we could address now. Those problems will not wait for 2023.

TL: Sorry to interrupt you, Chris. This is such an important but underrated point you're making. I mean, it's such an important one I can't possibly amplify enough. During this whole protest and all, I pointed out to a couple of friends about the decline of civil society. I don't know how that came about, but you talking about everybody going to electoral politics now seems to be connecting the dots. Look at SARS, for example, and this menace. Someone Like Chief Gani, God rest his soul, by now would have buried SARS in an avalanche of lawsuits.

CO: A long time ago. A long time ago. Are you telling me people like Gani, Alao Aka, Bashorun who took on the armed forces could not deal with a problem like SARS if given the institutional environment to work with? Please.

TL: Exactly, I mean, one of the empowering precedences, even for state judicial panels today, and I've seen a couple of lawyers cite this to me on social media is Fawehinmi Vs Babangida in 2003. Someone did that. Someone took the initiative to do that. So like you, I'm also quite worried about this narrative of we all have to go into politics as if there are no other instrumentalities of the society...

CO: It honestly confuses me when I hear it. Everyone has been saying, oh, Feminist Coalition should run for...and when I say this, it's an agnostic position I'm taking that, they may be good political leaders, they may not, I don't know but what I am pushing back against is the inherency of the fact that because they have demonstrated such brilliance in political organizing in one area of civil society, that it's necessarily going to translate to political office, I don't think that's necessarily true. And it's worth interrogating because when you say you want to vote for somebody, you should ask yourself why is it that you want that person as opposed to however number of other candidates. There ought to be something you're voting for. How do you know that because somebody was a good organizer in a social movement or a protest movement, they would necessarily make a good policymaker or a political leader? You ought to ask yourself those questions and when you don't, you are simply repeating the mistakes we made in 1998/99. Where, frankly, a lot of people who shouldn't have been in politics got into politics and, well, you know, here we are.

TL: That's a brilliant point. Needs to be said over and over and over again. I mean, I even tell people that ordinary protest they are bringing thugs...

CO: Exactly. [Laughs]

TL: Imagine what they would do to win an election? You know? So, I know I sort of derailed your answer, but, I mean...

CO: No, not at all. I think, no, it's very much part of the point in that we cannot simply think voting the "right people", I think it's very connected. First of all, what is the right people? You've got to ask that foundational question. Who are the right people? What ideas are you looking for? And even if you get the right people, the educated class in Nigeria likes to bang on about institution and I've explained, sort of, why I find that to be counterproductive. You know, you talk about institutions well, what kind of institutions are you going to build if you think all it takes is that you get in the right people? Well, people change.

You know, I did a tweet two days ago talking about how Alpha Condé, the Guinean president. So here's this guy who spent four decades in opposition, right? He gets sentenced to death in absentia by Sékou Touré. He's actually jailed by Lansana Conté, the successor of Sékou Touré. So he's basically suffered a whole lot as an activist. Here's this guy now as president, slaughtering people just because he wants the third time.

TL: We can say the same of Ouattara.

CO: Exactly. Exactly. This is literally Africa story all over, across the board of people who spend years in opposition, fighting this person, that person, docking bullets, running abroad, you know, living in exile, only for them to get into power and do at the very least exact same thing. If not worse. So to me, all these ah, yes, get the right people...there is no way, if you want the right people, they've got to be backed up by the right set of institutions, the right norms and countervailing forces that ... you see, politics fundamentally is about creating rival power structures. That's why, for example, the principle of separation of powers exists, so that one arm of the government doesn't become too powerful.

Even in the electoral realm, it ought to exist. That's why, for example, there are wings in a party, right? So in one party, there might be left-wing, there might be [a] moderate wing, there might be right-wing. You know, you need countervailing forces to keep each other honest. To constantly make you compete, not to get drunk on power. But when you say, oh, get in the right people, but you don't create that environment, they are not going to be the "right people". It's just not going to happen because power is a corrupting influence. If you put in the "right people", first of all, what do you know they're going to do in office? Who are they going to rely on as advisers? What do they intend to achieve in 100 days? Six months? A year, and then four years? What is it that they consider to be their priorities? What do they understand governance to be? You know these are the sets of questions that when you start to ask will give you a sense of the kind of environment you want to design for this so-called "right people" to go in there. Because when you start asking certain questions you recognize they cannot do it alone. They cannot read alone because governance is a collective effort.

But when you simply leave it at oh, the right people, you know, because, ah, during EndSARS, he was an organiser or she was an organiser, yes, and that...that doesn't necessarily mean they know anything about governance. It doesn't. And I feel it's still early days, we're still mostly reeling from that horrible killings. You know, this stuff is iterative and old habits die hard, right? So I get that for the most part, people are going to fall back on what they know. But at the same time, we should be willing to challenge even the things we consider to be settled knowledge. And one of those things that I really think we have to challenge is this idea that electoral politics and running for office is the only way to make [a] change.

When you get to a situation where even people, celebrities, now think the next game in town is to run for office, I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing, but ultimately it's for you as the voter to determine if you want such people representing you. Because you liked an album they put out 10 years ago does not mean you want them representing you in the State House of Assembly or the National Assembly, or someplace like that. And I feel like too much...

TL: Just look at Desmond Elliot.


CO: Exactly. I mean, yesterday, Twitter Nigeria gave this guy hell. They give him hell, and deservedly so. I mean, look at how much of a fool of himself he made. And, unfortunately, he's already in there and he's going to be there until 2023. So not unless you can recall him or something, you are going to have to live with, at least his constituents anyway will have to live with the fact that this guy doesn't know what he's doing. And those are the kinds of lessons we ought to start learning now. Start to tackle people in office now. Start to think about who you want representing you now. Start to familiarise with your local representatives now. Start to sensitise your neighbours, your association members, your church or mosque members now. There are a million and one things you can do now that don't have to wait till 2023. The problems that exist today will not wait for 2023, so why should you?

TL: Those are powerful, powerful insights, Chris. But finally, before I let you go, regarding Nigeria, and this is sort of a tradition on the show, what is the one idea that you would like to spread? That you'll like to see people adopt? An idea that you'll like to see rise in status, so to speak?

CO: It's very simple. We've got to develop a culture of critique. I think what we need in Nigeria is foundational ideas and notions that are at the heart of everything we do, everything we believe, and everything we desire as Nigerians because they will inevitably seep into politics and that's a culture of critique. One of the good things I've taken away from this EndSARS protest is that the young people have zero respect for any appeals to authority. They don't care if you went to Harvard, you're a perm sec or you're a general, they don't even care if you are the president, as a matter of fact. You have to make sense. And for me, that's what I find so instructive about that phrase "sorosoke". It's not just a little phrase saying "speak up", they're also telling you to make sense. It's not just about speaking up, you have to make sense. What you are saying must tally with what the average person understands intuitively. So you know, I say this because for so much of our past, especially older generations like ours, and we have simply given to authority blindly. Whatever they say, shut up, shut up and you sit down. Especially for we Yoruba people, there's a saying in Yoruba "won ki n sope agblagba n paro" you don't say an elder is lying. We've got to change things like that, I'm sorry.

Those kinds of beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with a knowledge-seeking society. This idea that someone's ideas are untouchable because of their status or their age, we've got to get rid of things like that, you know. And this extends across society. We've got to be able to critique, and I said this because so you've seen all these videos of these Lagos State House of Assembly members saying, oh, they're on drugs, blah blah blah. Well, one of the reasons every one of them is reacting this way is they're simply not used to being challenged. It's as simple as that. They are not used to so-called children on Twitter calling them out, saying things about them. And don't forget that what is on Twitter is no longer even within the domain of Nigeria alone. This is stuff all over the world. So it's being fed back to them, and they can't control it. That is why everyone is up in arms and saying oh, all these social media people are doing this and that. Because these people cannot deal with the fact that people they don't even regard as anything useful are pushing back at them, challenging them.

They do not see people on Twitter as a constituency of voters. They see them as children. These kinds of ideas have got to go. It does not matter whether you are the president or whether you are a pauper, you should be able to have your ideas challenged. You know, I didn't go to University in Nigeria, in fact, I didn't go beyond JSS 3, so, one thing I've heard from so many people is how in Nigerian universities you can't challenge your lecturer, you can't say this and that. That's absolute nonsense. Why can't you challenge your lecturer? Why can't you critique the ideas of somebody who claims to be teaching? That's the entire essence of pedagogy, of classroom education. That you bring up ideas, of course with reason, not every single idea deserves to be debated in my view, but for the most part, most topics within a scholastic framework can be debated.

Be a Patron

So this idea that oh, if your lecturer says something, or that if you don't answer a test question the way your lecturer wants it to be answered they mark you down. These are things I've heard so many times and I have no reason to doubt. I'm sure they're true. These things sound absolutely insane to me, and it stems from this culture of suppressing the ingenuity of young people. You know, people are not allowed to challenge ideas. You say something, then, shut up! What do you know? Do you know who you're talking to? He's is the professor. He's a minister. Who cares? Who cares? Like, we have got to be able to critique ideas and a lot of our political cultures, a lot of our social interactions, a lot of our economic interactions stem from the fact that whenever there is perceived to be a power imbalance, the person on the lower totem of the power pole has got to remain there and shut up. That's not how societies progress. Ideas have got to be challenged. They've got to be critiqued and they've got to be revised sometimes. And it doesn't matter who is saying what. You know it's not always black and white to be sure. It's not always a case of right versus wrong, but that's all the more reason why ideas contested. We do not contest ideas in Nigeria collectively, we don't. Like, Daddy G.O said, the governor said, Prof. said. Who cares? You've got to be able to challenge ideas.

Yeah, so if I had one thing to pick, it would be that. We need to develop a culture of critique of everybody around us, including ourselves. Even you, you should be open to critique and others should be open to critique from you. Yeah.

TL: Thank you so much, Chris Ogunmodede, it's been fantastic talking to you.

CO: Likewise, it's been absolutely a pleasure. Thank you so much for hosting me.

Ideas Untrapped
Ideas Untrapped
a podcast about ideas on growth, progress, and prosperity