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Book review: Nigeria has democracy but not development. How to fix it

Trains parked at a train station
Nigeria recently started commercial operation of a China-assisted railway linking the southwestern cities of Lagos and Ibadan. Emma Houston/Xinhua via Getty Images

After struggling for 39 years to develop a fertile ground for democratic governance, Nigeria had its turning point in May 1999 when it became the world’s fourth largest democracy. This came after 16 years of brutal military rule.

Despite complaints of fraud by political opposition in each election held since 1999, local and international election observers have regarded each of Nigeria’s general elections as relatively free and fair.

On the economic front, Nigeria is now the largest economy in Africa and 26th globally. It now attracts more foreign investments than in the military era.

Taken together, the Nigerian democratic experiment seems to have come a long away.

But has democracy led to development in Nigeria? The award-winning international political economist Omano Edigheji, in his new book, Nigeria Democracy Without Development: How To Fix It, argues powerfully that Nigerian democratic experiment is marred by monumental flaws. This is notwithstanding the modest progress it has achieved.

The book offers interesting detail and finely reasoned conjecture about the paradoxical relationship between democracy and development in Nigeria.

In this review, I organise the main ideas of the book into three parts:

  • the paradox of democracy without development in Nigeria;
  • explanations of democracy without development in Nigeria; and
  • pathways to democracy with development in Nigeria.

The paradox of liberal democracy

The book demonstrates that Nigeria continues to face massive developmental and institutional challenges. This is despite the implementation of western liberal democracy and the good governance reforms driven by donors. The challenges include human capital deficits and extreme poverty. This is due to under-investment in health, education and infrastructure. For example, Nigeria’s human development index value for 2020 was 0.539, placing the country in the low human development category.

Of all African countries, Nigeria faces the most significant challenges for reducing poverty and inequality due to rapid population growth. More than 40% of Nigerians (83 million people) live below the poverty line of $1.90 a day.

Another 25% (53 million) are vulnerable. Yet, the combined wealth of Nigeria’s five richest men is $29.9 billion. According to a recent report by Oxfam International, the combined wealth of the Nigeria’s five richest men could end national poverty. The implication here is that democracy has led to massive increases in poverty and economic inequality in Nigeria.

The book flags another major challenge: high unemployment, which has continued to increase since 1999. At 33%, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the world. Youth unemployment is higher than for older workers. This means the risks of violent conflict and civil unrest are especially high.

And despite anti-corruption campaigns, Nigeria is still perceived to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Nigeria ranked 149 out of 180 countries in 2020, the second lowest in West Africa after Guinea-Bissau.

Then there is the security issue. Bandits, separatists and Islamist insurgents increasingly threaten government’s grip on power. Mass kidnappings, killings, maiming and other forms of insecurity are on the rise nationwide. This is true even in more stable parts of the country.

By and large, the book empirically demonstrates that the democratic experiment of the last 20 years has had negative results on Nigerians. Nigeria’s corrupt political elites (with a few exceptions) have largely been the beneficiaries of the democratic experiment. Not the masses.

Explanations of democracy without development

Edigheji focuses on structural and agent-based factors of the state as the likely explanatory factors behind Nigeria’s democracy without development. More specifically, Edigheji zooms in on two principal explanations that account for democracy without development: poor leadership and weak institutions. In this, he goes beyond the conventional argument that the prospects of democracy and development in a post-colonial country are invariably linked to its level of economic development, political culture and social make-up.

First, he blames Nigeria’s democracy without development on two factors. These are a lack of an ideology of development nationalism and the preponderance of politics without principles. The ideology of development nationalism is not only about national identity, consciousness or a feeling of belonging to a particular nation. Instead, it is premised on the need to catch up and to overcome underdevelopment, dependence on foreign countries and poverty.

The ideology of development nationalism, Edigheji argues, can only be promoted by developmentalist or patriotic elites. That’s because they do not engage in the politics of self-enrichment that undermines the collective national interest. Instead, they make necessary sacrifices to achieve their collective goals.

Developmentalist elites have a shared vision for national development. This includes massive investment in the provision of public goods. These include education, healthcare and infrastructure, or national policies, such as international trade and monetary policy.

Nigeria’s political elites since 1999 have not been developmentalist. They have been rent-seeking and predatory.

The second contributing factor to democracy without development has been the capture of the state. This has been achieved through a non-merit-based recruitment and promotion of civil servants, the core of which is the civil service.

The efficient and effective management of the civil service is central to sustainable and equitable economic development. This is underscored by the experiences of the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) and the Tiger Cub economies (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Nigeria had one of the best and most meritocratic civil services in Africa. It was made up of mostly career civil servants. They progressed based on qualifications, performance and seniority.

Today, however, Nigeria has one of the worst civil services in Africa. Recruitment and promotion have become politicised and ethnicised, particularly since 1999. The result has been that the best and brightest Nigerians are no longer in the civil service.

Non-merit-based recruitment and promotion have brought about inefficiency in the public service, low-levels of economic development and higher corruption.

Pathways to democracy with development

For Nigeria to overcome its developmental and institutional deficits, Edigheji argues for a democratic developmental state. The term developmental state was coined during much of the 1980s and 1990s to describe countries which had experienced rapid economic growth through state-led interventions. These include Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam.

Edigheji sets out some of the key elements of a democratic developmental state:

First, Nigerian politics needs to be driven by developmentalist elites whose politics is anchored on the people and political parties based on ideology.

Second, the political elites need to transform the structure of the economy. They can do this by promoting human capital development, infrastructural development, and industrialisation. They must also combat the challenges of insecurity, corruption and climate change.

But achieving these depend on inclusive political and economic institutions.

Unanswered question

Notwithstanding the enormous contributions of the book, some questions remain to be fully answered. These include the suitability of the developmental state model as a panacea for Nigeria’s challenges.

The first question centres on understanding the processes that produced developmental states. How did developmental states achieve their successes in economic development? What worked, what didn’t, and why?

The second centres on the possibilities and the lessons Nigeria can draw from developmental states elsewhere. Would a developmental state model work in Nigeria? If yes, how?

Overall, the book makes a compelling argument for why democracy has failed to produce inclusive development in Nigeria. It offers perceptive insights into what the country needs to do to overcome its developmental and institutional deficits. It’s a very illuminating book and enjoyable to read. It is a valuable book for students, scholars, policymakers, politicians and development practitioners who want to comprehend the political dynamics of Nigeria. It is also an important contribution to the literature on the challenges of democracy and development in the global South.

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