Tyrants: Why We Love Them Nigeria's Politics of Obedience

Out of a population of about 180 million, Nigeria has 360 members of the House of Representatives, 109 senators, 36 governors and one president. How is it possible that this group of around less than a thousand people manage to rule over and extract the vast majority of resources available in the country?

The sixteenth-century French lawyer, Étienne de La Boétie, pondered a similar question in his treatise on tyranny, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. He asked how a single dictator with no innate physical or mental advantages over his individual subjects can rule over all of them. His conclusion was that dictators exist only with the support of the general public and if the public was simply to withdraw its support the dictator would fall.

Introducing The Politics of Obedience…, American economist and historian, Murray Rothbard, states, “This fundamental insight was that every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general popular acceptance. In short, the bulk of the people themselves, for whatever reason, acquiesce in their own subjection. The tyrant is but one person, and could scarcely command the obedience of another person, much less of an entire country, if most of the subjects did not grant their obedience by their own consent.”

Now, Nigeria may be a democracy but, since gaining Independence in 1960, the majority of the country’s leaders have been military dictators. Of the five most recent presidential terms, only in two terms was the president someone who was never in the military. Of which, one was the brother of a military man and the other was the first presidential candidate of the then-ruling People’s Democratic Party to get voted out (ironically, in favour of a former dictator).

The vast majority of Nigerians seem dissatisfied with the current group of politicians we have. Yet, as La Boétie points out, no government can exist without the support of its people. General Mohammadu Buhari, who took power by force in 1983, and General Olusegun Obasanjo, a beneficiary of the failed military coup in 1976, were returned to power, not by force, but by our hands and thumbprints. La Boétie:

“Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had not cooperation from you?”

How, then, does this paradox happen? Most Nigerians are disappointed with the class of leaders that have ruled the country since 1960, yet many still continue to support and vote them into power. The recent elections of 70-something-year-old presidents in Nigeria and Ghana raise questions about the situations of the youth in these countries. In Nigeria, there are 30 million people within the ages of 18 and 28; theoretically, it should be easy for the youth to turn their backs on the generation that has ruled Nigeria since Independence and elect a competent person outside of that group. But, instead, young people maintain a significant hand in electing 70-something-year-old presidents in Nigeria and Ghana.

A common excuse made for voting in tyrants is that we are choosing between the lesser of two evils. In reality, Nigeria has two equally inefficient parties; both parties possess neither ideological stance nor difference, and share a similar trait in accusations of plundering and corruption. When one party loses an election, it is not uncommon for all its members to simply migrate to the winning party and continue as normal. When, in 1958, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of voting in the US elections, “There is, not two, but one evil party and it will be elected despite all I do or say,” he might as well have been talking about Nigeria.

Why, then, do Nigerians support the same politicians? Why do we constantly elect leaders from the same festering pool that has swirled around the corridors of power since Independence? Is it true, as Joseph de Maistre mused, that, “Every country has the government it deserves”?

Why we support tyrants

La Boétie arrives at three core reasons why, despite the fragility of their power, tyrants are able to maintain their dominance. First, tyrants usually come to power as heroes, either after a war or after having liberated their societies from a previous ruler. In both scenarios, their people idolize them and eagerly give them all the power they request. But power, as the saying goes, corrupts. With time, the heroes prove to be no better than the people they replaced. And, then, they consolidate power with brutality.

According to La Boétie, after a community is subdued by brutality, subsequent generations refuse to resist the tyrant, but not because they are scared. Rather, future generations submit because living under tyranny is the only thing they know; because despotism has been state of their society since they were born. He writes:

“It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they are born … the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.”

The second way in which tyrants hold on to power is by giving occasional handouts to the people. They share food, some money, dig a borehole here and erect a transformer there. When the Nigerian government starts welfare schemes like a N5,000 “stomach infrastructure” programme, it is tempting to believe that the aim of the government is not to create a social welfare system to help people escape poverty, but to share wealth in order to prevent the masses from rising up. Behind the two scenarios are different motives, and, after all, such tactics as the latter are not new:

“Roman tyrants… provided the city wards with feasts to cajole the rabble… Tyrants would distribute largesse, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, “Long live the King!” The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them. A man might one day be presented with a sesterce and gorge himself at the public feast, lauding Tiberius and Nero for handsome liberality, who on the morrow, would be forced to abandon his property to their avarice, his children to their lust, his very blood to the cruelty of these magnificent emperors, without offering any more resistance than a stone or a tree stump. The mob has always behaved in this way—eagerly open to bribes…”

The third and most critical method through which tyrants remain in control is by creating a pyramid of patronage with the tyrant at the top. “Whenever a ruler makes himself a dictator, all the wicked dregs of the nation,” writes La Boétie, “… all those who are corrupted by burning ambition or extraordinary avarice, these gather around him and support him in order to have a share in the booty and to constitute themselves petty chiefs under the big tyrant.”

Resisting the tyrants

It is futile for good people to go into the Nigerian political system and try to fix it. The system isn’t broken. The system is doing exactly what it was made to do. The political system in Nigeria is set up to enable tyrants to consolidate power such that the only way to stop tyranny is to refuse to participate in the system. It appears almost impossible to fix the system from within.

The Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) and resource derivation system, the concentration of power at the federal government level, the lack of state police, the contempt of free markets, the poor education system—these are not bugs; these are features of a system made to ensure that people are forever reliant on a pyramid of patronage for support and livelihood and, therefore, remain beholden to tyrants. The result is a country filled with crony capitalists and states that are not economically viable but depend on federal government allocations and frequent bailouts.

If the system cannot be fixed and the tyrant needs our support to rule, then it becomes clear that we must simply withdraw our support. As La Boétie puts it:

“Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.”

In 2019, there will be another round of elections and it will be interesting to see how people vote, if at all they will vote. I have not given up hope on Nigeria, neither have I lost faith in the opportunities for progress that democracies can provide. But in 2019 I will only vote for a party that does not have a history of enabling tyrants and shares my core beliefs about what Nigeria needs to progress: freer markets and a more decentralized government. Sadly, right now, no party fulfils these criteria⎈


“The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude” can be legally downloaded for free here.

* * * Correction: a previous version of the essay refers to a former president as a military man’s son. This has now been corrected as he was a military man’s brother.