It’s normal for there to be a lot of hand wringing among young people in Nigeria when something like Emmanuel Macron happens. A 39 year old guy sets up a political movement and is swept to the Presidency of his country in roughly a year. If you live in a country that is seemingly trapped under bad leadership (with the promise of more when you scope out the horizon), this reads like magic.
But what exactly is the problem? Is it that Macron is young and at his age, it is constitutionally impossible to be President in Nigeria? I’m not convinced. I’ve often posited that it is possible a distrust of young people in Nigeria is because of the experience — still within summonable memory of many Nigerians — the country had the last time young people were in charge. When you take the trio of Gowon, Murtala and Obasanjo, none of them was as old as Macron when they led Nigeria for the first time. Yes, I know, they took office with their guns. Still, what do people remember from that time? What did they then tell their children about the way these men led Nigeria?
Let’s park the age thing to one side — you can be stupid at any age.
There are many problems afflicting Nigeria. The education system is awful — it does not even teach people how to think, how to solve problems or how to look for answers. As Nigeria cannot import competence en masse, you are going to have to make do with what is available. Then there’s the atmosphere that just makes it bad to have rational debates about anything. A large part of the ignorance is wilful. People cannot then conceive of better and what better looks like. And as I often say, it is possible for a nation to be trapped in this kind of cycle for centuries.
But there’s another massive anti-Macron problem. But it is not an impossible one and the payoffs to it will be huge if it can be cracked. The problem is the problem of the system we try to solve our problems with — the political system.
To be clear, Macron is an establishment kid albeit one with incredibly good political instincts. He went to the École nationale d’administration where they teach them words and numbers to the highest possible level. He must be fiercely intelligent given the way he managed to navigate the system in such a short time to the point where he was able to see where the weaknesses were and exploit them.
Nevertheless, it is possible to use the same set of Nigerians in a different way that does not lead to outcomes that increase poverty and wastes lives. The question is how? Remember that if Nigeria reduces its corruption to the level of Ghana’s, this will translate to tens of billions of dollars extra in GDP. There is no need for perfection in policy making — just getting the first basic step right will yield better outcomes.
The Nigerian political system as it is guarantees certain types of outcomes. It is like those giant crushing machines that turns any kind of metal into scrap — whether you feed in a red or blue car into it, by the time the result comes out at the other end, it’s just metal and no one can really tell what it looked like when it entered. The political system does not accentuate or enhance talent. What it does, ruthlessly, is to ensure conformity. No matter the question, the answer is known.
As such, Nigerian politics is incapable of rising up to the hard challenges the country is faced with. Its answers are often feeble, half-hearted or just kicking the can down the road. The tools that help you rise to the top are often woefully inadequate for the actual job.
We should view these things as structural problems. Start from this question — if you were to design a political party from scratch in Nigeria today, how will you solve for the structural problems that you see in PDP and APC right now? How will you solve the problem of money? I’m talking about hard practical ideas now. How will you tackle the structural problems that make it practically impossible to win over people based on ideas or even rhetoric? Reading Ayisha Osori’s forthcoming book, I tried to make a mental note of the amount of time she spent speaking to people about her plans, answering their questions and making her pitch. At most, 10–15% of her campaign time was spent on this. The rest of the time was spent meeting or trying to meet people and listening to ‘advice’. It is possible to pass through the system as it is today without a single idea in your head that you have spent time thinking through and fine-tuning. The system does not demand that from you.
After reading her book, a friend of mine here (succesfully) went through a party primary. Before the primary day, she said she had to go offline so she could prepare (study, research, fine-tune her pitch etc). This made me pause and reflect. Flip it to Nigeria and what she would have had to spend her time doing instead is running around trying to meet the people voting in the primary (or some other big people) so as to guarantee the final outcome. The idea of winning because, on the day you met the people to decide your fate, your pitch was simply the best is completely non-existent in Nigerian politics today. If it was, then people who have ideas and have spent time thinking through their plans will automatically be at an advantage.
And that’s the point. In your putative political party or movement, how will you raise the status of this type of skill while reducing the status of envelope sharing and running around? Please note that you will need to do this in a way that still allows you win elections. It is difficult for both of them to co-exist — if money sharing is allowed to determine outcomes, ideas and political persuasion automatically become a waste of time. We are back to that metal crushing machine that guarantees a particular answer no matter the question that is asked.
This problem is worth solving because it can allow us make much better use of whatever human resource is available in Nigeria today. It might even be the same set of people in the National Assembly who can deliver much better outcomes if you have a better process. Who knows, some of them may even have useful ideas but there is currently no value in putting them out there. Changing the way we select people for office, in a deliberate way, to ensure that those who come out of the system have the kind of skills that are required to get Nigeria moving in the right direction is the holy grail here.
Ideally, the best way to do this will be to somehow get the current political parties to change their ways and reform themselves. But no one sat down to design the current system that is damaging Nigeria. These are the hardest types to change. The insiders may not even know there’s something wrong and I’ve seen a few people enter the system and then begin to ‘extol the virtue’ of the current dysfunction and the ‘skills’ needed to navigate it.
Here’s what I’m saying in a nutshell — how do you begin to design a political system where Macron can enter at one end and still come out as Macron at the other end? Maybe the French system even made it too hard for him hence why he had to form his own party. Perhaps that is the lesson to be learnt. Whatever it is, keep an open mind.
Because as things stand, if you put Macron in the Nigerian political system, he’s going to come out as Dimeji Bankole.
P.S Before Macron, there was Ciudadanos and Albert Rivera in Spain that offered a brand of liberal politics as an antidote to populism and nationalism. Spain is a parliamentary democracy so it is a lot harder (if not impossible) for a Macron to emerge there. Still, that party managed an impressive number of seats in parliament and was then able to influence government policy as kingmakers. Start from here