Nigerian 2015 Elections: Has the Government Run Out of Rents to Offer?

The postponement of the 2015 Elections and the security problems that plague the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan are emerging as indirect evidence of the serious instability and fragility of the Nigerian state. The failure to provide acceptable voter cards (PVCs) and Boko Haram violence are certainly problems. However, the trump card is in the game is the sudden ostensible appearance of the manipulations of special interest groups in Nigerian politics. This is a reasonable sign the rents offered by the government rentier state to special interests has run out.

Prof Attahiru Jega’s job as Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) is rumoured to be on the line and special interest groups are calling for his head. Any replacement for Jega will have to be an obvious candidate of vested special interest as a “last desperate rent offering”. Jega remains in office though. 21 Resident INEC Commissioners have rejected the postponement of elections as untenable. Sambo Dasuki, Jonathan’s National Security Adviser and coup plotter against General Muhammadu Buhari, is identified as the mastermind behind the election postponement. Rumours and logics of Jonathan quitting office in frustration and the possibility of military coups ‘announced’ by those in high places abound. Let us not forget that in stable governments rumours of instability are neither common nor tolerated. The fact that these rumours are making front page news and front room conclave by opinion leaders is evidence of instability and fragility in the land all by themselves.

Political economist, the late Charles Rowley [1] explained how coups and government collapse in sub-Saharan Africa was due to the inability of the government in power to continue to provide sufficient rents to state bandits (i.e. those who enrich themselves at the state’s expense) to keep then in office. The new government usually and initially can afford the rents that would keep the power brokers and players sated and supportive but eventually the demand for rents outstrips the supply. When the supply dries up instability starts to manifest abruptly. The special interests that rented out their influence in cooperation with the president and ruling party start to become uncooperative; they never operate for free.

The governments of Generals Murtala Mohammed, Johnson-Aguiyi Ironsi and Muhammadu Buhari that never offered [significant] rents if at all to special interest groups did not stand of enduring in office. Their governments could not be destabilised because they were not founded on the ‘rented cooperation’ of special interests but were kicked out office, fatally (as were Ironsi and Mohammed) or peacefully (as was Buhari). Jonathan’s administration has created to terms of the first time Nigerians are seeing political destabilisation and fragility since the return to democracy in 1999. It does appear the rents offered by a very corrupt government to keep it in power have run out; if the rents were flowing the elections would have held on the rightful date.

Coincidentally, a top-ranking political official hinted me on Valentine’s Day 2003 about the way Nigerian politics and government works. “You do not have to be a great politician to be a president or governor in Nigeria… all you need is money… and make sure you never run out of money to buy your power. As long as you remain in power you have to be ready to pay for it… The president is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces, appoints the military chiefs, appoints the Inspector-General of Police, appoints his ministers and appoints the INEC Chairman. Any of these appointees that contravene the orders and wishes of the president will suffer instant hell and hunger. Incumbency never fails to prevail at election time”. President Obasanjo’s handling of for I-G of Police, Tafa Balogun, and other dismissals may have proved his arguments to right. However, the evidence that Jonathan’s incumbency cannot guarantee him a second term in office and that the position of Jega does not suit his interest disqualifies his point. Jonathan may no more rents to give. Is this because of the fall in oil prices and mounting state debt?

In future Nigeria needs leaders who can rule by the provisions of a substantive and enforceable constitution not by issuing rents. Even if it is impossible to rule Nigeria under democracy without rents, the rent offerings have to be value-adding (bettering the economy) and not value subtracting (bleeding the economy to death), and be very well managed. Well, at least at this stage of Nigeria’s development. Only if things could be a lot better, Nigeria has had its chances be a lot better.


[1] Rowley, Charles K., 2000. “Political culture and economic performance in sub-Saharan Africa,” European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 16(1), pages 133-158

Grimot Nane

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