Prebendalism and Dysfunctionality in Nigeria

In the summer of 1977, I tried to make sense of what was amiss in Nigeria. The outcome was an article, “Affluence and Underdevelopment: the Nigerian Experience”, published a year later.  That same year, as the transition from military rule to the Second Republic was fully underway, I arrived at another understanding about a fundamental flaw in Nigerian politics, economy and society which I termed prebendalism. Thirty-three years later, an international group of scholars was convened by Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Governor of Ekiti State, for a conference in Lagos organized by Drs. Wale Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare entitled, “Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: Critical Reinterpretations.” In early 2013, they published an edited volume of papers described by one commentator, Nicolas van de Walle, as “essential reading to anyone who wishes to understand why a country with so much potential remains mired in poverty.”

Following the September 2011 conference, many commentaries appeared in the Nigerian print and online media. Bankole Oluwafemi in his blog told his fellow Nigerians: “you’re very familiar with this concept [prebendalism], you just might not know it.” Segun Ayobolu provided an apt explanation: “occupants of public office at all levels in the second republic felt that their positions entitled them to unbridled access to public resources with which they not only satisfied their own material needs but also serviced the needs or wants of subaltern clients… This kind of criminal diversion of public resources for selfish private ends starved the polity of funds for development, increased poverty and inequality, and intensified an unhealthy rivalry and competition for public office that triggered pervasive instability… Two and a half decades after, Professor Joseph’s postulations remain as valid as ever.”

The crippling consequences of dysfunctional governance are experienced in all areas of life in Nigeria. There is a fundamental contradiction between prebendalism and the provision of efficient public services. Can prebendal attitudes toward governmental office ever change and, if so, how? Cambridge University Press, which published my book, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic, in 1987, is reissuing that volume later this year.  As I contemplate these publications thirty-five years after arriving at the essential “postulations”, I am reminded of Karl Marx’s injunction:  “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” The next phase of this vital project is to go beyond critical interpretations to concerted action. To prompt such exercises, I am making available for further dissemination the epilogue I wrote for Adebanwi and Obadare’s excellent book which includes my suggestions for countering prebendalism. As the renowned scholar Crawford Young stated, this book “is an invaluable guide to postcolonial Nigeria [and] a major contribution to understanding African politics more broadly.”

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