Patching Up Nigeria’s North-South Divide

In the post-colonial period, African politics has tended to look something like this (as excerpted from my book on West Africa, The Ringtone and the Drum):

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

Some countries may have moved away from this model in recent years; a few may even have been blessed with leaders who attempt to govern for all their people. On the ground, however, this is how African governments continue to be perceived – their reputation for cronyism has yet to be shaken off.

And perception is important. In Nigeria, which has been no exception to the above rule, the perception of many people is that the informal system of rotation of the presidency between northerners and southerners that had prevailed since 1963 has been broken. It may or may not be a coincidence that the murderous activities of the northern terrorist group Boko Haram, which some influential figures believe pose an existential threat to the country, ratcheted up after the accession to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded the northerner Umaru Yar’Adua when the latter died after just three years in office. The informal rotation had hitherto seen the eight-year tenure of a northerner followed by a roughly similar period in charge by a southerner, but Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election meant that by the end of his term southerners would have been in power for thirteen of the previous sixteen years. That he plans to run for re-election in 2015 has exacerbated northerners’ concern.

Northern Nigeria already lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north, school attendance is lower, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all much higher than in southern states. With a northern president in power in a patrimonial polity, northerners at least had the hope that they would have their “turn to eat” every few years. Without that reassurance, even in the unlikely event that the gulf between north and south does not continue to widen, many northerners’ perception is that they have been cut loose, and that the ‘material and political booty’ accrued by presidents will now be the exclusive preserve of southerners.

There are a number of measures that must be taken to quell the growing anger of the north, but in a country that threatens, as Foreign Policy magazine has recently put it, to ‘come apart at the seams’, political representation is among the most important. While it waits for leaders that govern for the many rather than the few, or for institutions that force them to do so, formalising the regular geographical rotation of presidents by enshrining it in the Constitution (thereby obliging the major parties to abide by it in putting forward candidates) may help narrow Nigeria’s north-south divide. In an ideal world this would not be necessary – leaders would take into account the interests of all their countrymen and distribute resources equally. But Nigeria is not an ideal world. The north-south divide has been accentuated by the long rule of southern presidents, and has helped bring about the emergency the country is facing. Formalising the rotation of the presidency is only a patch on a wound, but it may be a necessary one for northerners again to feel that they have a future as Nigerians.

Power and Politics in Pakistan: A Limited Access Order

Pakistan Political Economy Foreign Aid

The Limited Access Order (LAO) conceptual framework is an excellent way to understand why developing countries work the way they do, analyze their political and economic dynamics, and formulate policy ideas appropriate to their context. Its focus on power, violence, rents, and elite bargains provides far greater explanatory and predictive power than the standard template that uses developed countries as a model for how countries ought to work. As such, everyone in the development field working in a policymaking role should make use of it.

Created by Nobel Prize winner Douglass North, John Wallis, Steven Webb, and Barry Weingast, the LAO framework argues that:

No one, including the state, has a monopoly on violence . . . An LAO reduces violence by forming a dominant coalition containing all individuals and groups with sufficient access to violence . . . The dominant coalition creates cooperation and order by limiting access to valuable resources – land, labor, and capital – or access [to] and control of valuable activities – such as contract enforcement, property right enforcement, trade, worship, and education – to elite groups . . . The creation and distribution of rents therefore secures elite loyalty to the system, which in turn protects rents, limits violence, and prevents disorder most of the time. Continue reading

What Switzerland Can Teach Us About Development

Switzerland fragile statesInternational efforts to help developing countries start with a mental model of how government should be structured. It is based on the most common European model of state building—a model initially developed by France but shared by most countries today. European history did, however, have another model, one that is not well remembered but that may be much more useful for fragile states—the Swiss model. Continue reading

Libya: Tripoli (and others) Should Welcome Benghazi’s Demand for Autonomy


Last week, 3,000 militia and tribal leaders from eastern Libya announced unilateral plans to begin establishing their own autonomous government. They demanded a return to the loose federation that existed before Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi came to power in 1969.

Predictably, the leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli rejected these calls. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, even claimed that they were inspired by elements loyal to Gaddafi’s old regime.

This is a mistake. Although Libya would in an ideal world be just fine with a unitary government built around a single national assembly, it is more likely to create a robust state that can meet the needs of its people if it empowers its regions. Continue reading

Is Corruption Always Bad?

Corrupt Money

Corruption is generally vilified as an unmitigated evil. It disenfranchises the poor, weakens public services, reduces investment, and holds back whole societies. And yet, in some instances, corruption can actually be very useful, lubricating business in a way that promotes growth, creates jobs, helps smooth the introduction of needed reforms, and reduces poverty.

What explains this paradox? Continue reading

Is Lagos next?

Although it is extremely hard to predict the actions of a terrorist group such as Boko Haram, Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, may be a looming target.

The organization’s capacity and ambition have grown swiftly, probably due to assistance from extremist groups in the Maghreb, Somalia, or farther afield.

And, as I wrote in December,

The country’s weak institutions make it ill-prepared to deal with threats like this. It is unlikely to have the capacity to meet the challenge. Expect more attacks in the coming months.

Continue reading

What can Southeast Asia teach Africa about development?

Southeast Asia has consistently outperformed Sub-Saharan Africa in income growth. As the below chart indicates, its inhabitants were much poorer than Africans in 1960; today they are two and one-half times richer. In fact, over the past half-century, the region has been the most consistently successful in the developing world, growing almost continuously (apart from a brief hiatus after the 1997 Asian financial crisis).

Source: Tracking Development

Southeast Asia’s growth has also been much more inclusive than Africa’s. Whereas the latter’s two growth spurts since independence—in the 1960s and 2000s—have yielded little poverty reduction, Southeast Asia has produced spectacular reductions. Indonesia, for instance, reduced poverty from 60 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 1984. Vietnam reduced it from 58 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2008.

Yet, the region does not meet the standard model for economic success, at least as defined by the World Bank and the rest of the Western development community. Governments have historically not been held in check by elections. Corruption is widespread. Governance has rated low on most indicators.

What then explains this success? Continue reading