Our politicians must be cured of spoilt child syndrome — Saliu, Nigeria’s political scientists’ president

A professor of Political Science at the University of Ilorin and president, Nigerian Political Science Association (NPSA), Hassan Saliu speaks to DARE ADEKANMBI on political developments within the country, the reflection of Nigeria’s past and present and what must be done to get the country on the track of sustainable development, among others.

Nigeria celebrated 61 years recently. Do you think we should be celebrating anything in spite of the myriad of challenges confronting the country?
What a tough question you have asked me! That we still remain a single independent country and not under the control of any foreign power, we can say the county has a cause to celebrate. But in terms of the expectations of the citizens in 1960 when Nigeria became independent, that is a different ball game altogether. We should celebrate because, despite the threat here and there, we have remained an independent nation.

Do you side with those who say our independence was premature with no adequate arrangements for political harmony post-independence, that the envisaged El Dorado would have come with the British still administering us?
I disagree with such a perspective. Ghana became independent in 1957, three years before Nigeria’s independence and other countries who got their freedom after Nigeria and these countries have made some remarkable progress. So, the fault is not that the British left early. Rather, we should blame ourselves for not being able to manage our diversity. If the British had stayed for another 100 years and the current leadership we have continue to have the kind of mindset they have, there is no way Nigeria will be an El Dorado. Looking at the circumstances under which we became independent, there were issues concerning the regions and how we would live together. But the pre-independence leaders were able to agree at a certain point that we should be independent. I think we should commend our leaders who fought for independence for the country.
Yes, our post-independent leaders have had much more money than the pre-independence leaders. The question is: how have they managed the resources? How come the mineral resources have not been exploited to better the lots of Nigerians? What I will say is that we should not go back. Let us talk about reality and not say we should turn back the hands of time and go back to 1950s. We are in 2021 and the challenges we have now will appear to be much more than what we had in 1959. As we speak, there are agitations for separation from Nigeria left, right and centre. The agitations are a collective verdict on today’s leaders that they have not done well. If we look ourselves up in the mirror and we tell ourselves the home truth, we will know that we have mismanaged the opportunities that we have had in the country.

Do we blame those who relieve nostalgic feelings about the good old days that are far better than today?
When you look at the population of Nigeria, you will discover than there are more youths than people who are talking about the good old days of the country. As far as the larger population is concerned, the nostalgic feelings may not appeal to them. They are talking about the present and we are talking about the past. Our approaches and policy thrust must reflect the current reality. Why did we have ‘Operation wetie’ and the declaration of state of emergency in the West if everything about the past was good? While I am not out to condemn everything that took place during the First Republic, I am saying other countries have moved on and we should not keep going back.
Some people talking about going back to the parliamentary system of government, but the question is: are we satisfied with the attitude of our current political class? Can they successfully operate the parliamentary system? There was a time a governor in Nigeria appointed over 1,000 aides across the country. What is the meaning of that? He was elected to develop a state, but was already thinking of how he will become the president. I am saying that no matter the system you put in place, if the political class doesn’t develop the right attitude, the system will not take us anywhere. We need to look at the current challenges we have and see what experiences we can borrow from other countries to solve our problems.
In the past, we had leaders who were thinking of making an impact and leaving legacy. But the current crop of leaders is more concerned about creating comfort zones for themselves and their families. This is the issue we need to address. If we say these leaders are not good, how are we sure those coming behind won’t be worse, given the kind of disorientation they have. The problem is much deeper and there is no short cut to it. Nigerians must come together to appreciate that the enormity of the challenges we are facing is much bigger than envisaged.
Before now, we had local government chairmen who, rather than concentrating on developing their councils, were doing ajo (monthly contribution) of N5 million each from the council funds in some states. Depending on the number of local governments in their states, some of them got millions of naira. They were not concerned about building bridges or fixing roads. If we try to be cosmetic about the problem, it won’t get us anywhere. The problem requires a total overhaul of the system and our values. What is happening in the country today is a function of our leaders not being prepared for the challenges ahead. The main concern of those angling for 2023 now is to get to power and accumulate wealth. The interest is not to serve the people and even those coming behind will also have the same mindset. That is why I said the problem is deeper than we think it is.  The political class has perfected strategy to pervert whatever reforms that are brought to the system. It is not that our leaders are entirely bad, but the deepness of the problems is bigger than their capacities. So, when you have people with low capacity in charge, the challenges will be mounting and the end result will be no impact.

Are you suggesting that we look into our leadership recruitment process and possibly put in place mechanism that will prevent people with low capacity from taking up leadership positions and consequently arrest the progressive decline in the quality of leadership in the country?
Let me caution that it is not totally true that the quality of leadership now as compared to what we had in 1999 is weak or poor. But when you look at categories, we may see something that suggests that perhaps there is a decline in the quality of leadership. On the aggregate, I will disagree with that perspective. In 1999, some people became governors because some other people did not believe in the Abdulsalami Abubakar transition programme. They did not participate and were thinking there would be a roadblock somewhere along the line. So, they stayed away from politics and therefore we had people of questionable characters taking over the scene, people who were part of the Abacha shenanigans coming to rule over some states. So, if you look at that context, you will see it may be inappropriate to generalise. But when we look at categories, we may say yes, there has been a decline in quality.
If you look the governors then, Olusegun Osoba as Ogun State governor, even Mohammed Lawal of Kwara State, Lam Adesina of Oyo State and juxtapose them with some governors that we have around today,  I am not out to condemn all the governors, but I am saying in some areas, you see improvements and in others you see some decline. Taking all these things together, I will say that the quality of leaders we have on the average is not too bad. The problem is their disorientation and wrong perception about democracy. I wrote a paper where I tried to propound the thesis of spoilt child syndrome when I was assessing the impact of democracy in the country under the Fourth Republic. I used the thesis to describe the attitude of elected and appointed Nigerian politicians. You see them trying to behave as though they are demigods and never comfortable with the rule of law and believe the resources of their states should be their personal properties. They don’t want in anyway because they suffer from what I called small child syndrome. We have people who have wrong notions about democracy now presiding over our affairs. Where do you expect them to get the experience from? The concept of me and me alone is very rampant among them and they don’t care. All that matters to them is the fatness of their accounts and pockets. We have read so many revelations in the newspapers about how some of our so-called leaders have messed up most of the opportunities we have had. To the political class, democracy means an opportunity to make wealth. Governors got bailout and other types of financial interventions, yet workers are still being owed salaries in most of the states. Instead of using the money to pay backlogs of salaries, some of the governors converted the money to buy assets, some even spent them money to do airports and avalanche of misplaced priorities. As long as we continue to have such people in the saddle, development will not be heralded. So, we might say we have not experienced any major leap forward in Nigeria under this Republic because our politicians do not have the basic understanding about development and the infrastructure needed to bring about development is not just there and our leaders harbour notions that are antithetical to democracy.

Going forward, how do we get out of this mess, ensure progress is made and democracy that we have subscribed to as a country gives benefits to the people?
It is as if you know what I am writing on currently. I have a presentation and I will give you some of my main findings in the paper. One, Nigeria is not yet in a popular democracy; rather we are in a limited democracy. Two, democracy talks about conflict and consensus, that is conflict in terms of competition, disagreement here and there and after all altercations, we still try to arrive at a consensus. There is no national consensus in Nigeria as we speak in terms of development. What I see is competition about how to hold on to power or win power among the elite. So, what do we need to do? One, we need to have the correct attitude towards democracy. We are operating a concept which we do not understand. How can we do well on the concept? We can’t. Our attitude towards democracy is faulty both at the level of leadership as well as followership. The two groups must come to the proper understanding of democracy. It will shock you if I say America is not the best democratic country in the world today. America is in number 25 in terms of democracy and Nigeria is in number 112, down the ladder. Those who came up with the ranking looked at the electoral process and pluralism as well as governing process and several other indicators. It is not enough for us to bring about elected people. The way these people perform in office is also very important. In Nigeria, we have limited the concept to going to campaign and voting on election day. Our leaders who have been elected do not want Nigerians to participate. Therefore, you hear expression like “We will take the Chinese loans and nobody can stop us;” “irrational elements, evil people” coming out of the mouths of our politicians. If your citizens are evil, how would you describe the citizens of other countries? These are not expressions we should be hearing in a democracy. Persuasion is the key thing in a democracy. Even somebody who is not supporting your view, use a cultured language that can bring the person out of the bad behaviour they are. But if we have concluded that they are evil, how do we go from there? Dialogue or conversation is the foundation of democracy. As long as there is no conversation between the leaders and the people, democracy is in danger. How much of dialogue do you see going on in Nigeria beyond the National Assembly people passing a bill or not passing a bill? The president in his Independence anniversary speech said there would be dialogue. I pray the dialogue would come up soon. Our political parties too are not democratic. If we talk about leadership recruitment, the platforms as recognised by the constitution for now are the political parties. Can we say they are good drivers of democracy? How do we stabilise democracy and recruit good leaders when the vehicles that will bring that about are not democratic? Look at the crises in the major parties today.


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