‘For the People, by the People’ Rebuilding Trust in Nigeria’s Democratic Structures

For decades, Nigerian citizens have been denied the opportunity to contribute to shaping the laws and policies they are governed by. The notion that political engagement is the preserve of the elite has eroded public trust in democratic structures. In order for this trust to be restored, this author argues, the innate power of civic society to shape the political destiny of the nation needs to be re-emphasized.

Not long after the disappointing failure to achieve Vision 2020, we are back to speculating about Nigeria’s future. The COVID-19 pandemic, worsening climate crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the effects of all three on global supply chains, have underscored just how quickly the world can change. Meanwhile, the legacy of the #EndSARS protests, the end of presidential zoning, and the arrival of new political forces make the road to 2023 elections especially unpredictable. It is not surprising that such an uncertain time has people wondering what the future holds for Nigeria. 

Imagine Nigeria, a report put together by the federal government of Nigeria and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), attempts to chart a course for the uncertain journey ahead. Amongst the report’s key insights is the importance of public trust in governance structures in Nigeria. Unfortunately, decades of deceit and doublespeak from politicians and elected officials means that building this kind of trust will be an uphill task. What would it take to get the average Nigerian invested and engaged in Nigerian politics? The answer might be to give us politics that are worth getting engaged in; politics that resonate with the big questions on our minds in these uncertain times.  

Nigerian politics have never been a dull affair. The escapades and antics of politicians is a source of public entertainment, if not amusement. Sadly, these antics also distract from issue-based politics. Public service administration and politics ought to be about ideas, but Nigerian politics have long suffered from a dearth of ideas, let alone strategic and actionable plans. The evidence of the vacuous nature of political campaigns in Nigeria is seen in  party manifestos, where parties rarely present distinct policies to set them apart from their competitors. The Nigerian citizen is cheated of the opportunity to debate core political questions like ‘what kind of society do we want?’, ‘how do we get there?’, and ‘who gets a say?’. Instead, every four years, we get personal popularity contests, ethnic bigotry, and empty rhetoric. Why does it work this way, and what are the consequences for governance and engagement? 


One cynical view is that Nigerian politics mirror the desires of Nigerians. Maybe our politicians know we care more about appearances than we do about policy. The words of Douglas Ogbankwa, a Nigerian lawyer and blogger, echo a familiar complaint about public involvement in Nigerian politics:

The average Nigerian youth, enjoy the furore of a Big Brother thrill or the frill of an indecent display of wealth in a high-class wedding or burial where they can eat chicken and fish barbecue…This is obviously the reason government get away with so many impunities, because the Youth do not even know what is happening. In Southern Nigeria, the Boys are entrenched in football, the girls are entrenched in Church. Both are captured by entertainment.

Mr. Ogbankwa raises the same complaints as many other social critics. But despite football, religion and Big Brother, Nigerian civil society does not now, nor has it indeed ever lacked ideas.  Nigerians frequently debate and discuss political ideas, and one only needs to observe a newspaper stand for a few minutes to confirm this. The polity is brimming with exciting and ambitious ideas. Social campaigns like Bring Back our Girls, North Normal, Arewa Me Too and, of course, End SARS have swept through the polity and captured the imagination of ordinary Nigerians. But more often than not, important political conversations remain as conversations and do not turn into political action. This needs to change.


To understand why public hunger for real ideas is being ignored in Nigeria, we need to examine two things about how political power works. The first, is that the maxim ‘there is power in numbers’ is not always true. Large groups with disparate interests often fall victim to what political economist, Mancur Olson, calls collective action problems; where rational action from individuals makes cooperation impossible. It is because of collective action problems that it is easier for concentrated groups like government agencies, contractors, and tycoons to get organized than it is for millions of regular Nigerians to speak with a single voice. 

Imagine a government is debating putting tariffs on the importation of rice. This policy has winners: domestic rice-growers will see their profits rise from reduced competition. It also has losers: consumers of rice will have less choice and face higher prices. If rice consumers far outnumber rice producers (a reasonable assumption) we might expect the policy to fail. Those who stand to lose from the policy could rally their votes and resources against it.  

In reality, this may not be the case: the consumers speak different languages, live in different places, and while they all care about paying less for rice, they care a whole lot more about other things. More importantly, there is a temptation to free ride. If the tariff is overturned, all consumers will benefit, even those who didn’t spend their money or time fighting for that outcome. Most consumers will wait and see, hoping others do something but not wanting to go out on a limb without guarantee of support. By contrast, the rice producers, though fewer in number, are better able to galvanize their energy and resources towards their ultimate goal.  

But this only explains part of the story. Political power goes beyond who wins between competing items on the agenda. It is also about what gets presented on the agenda in the first place. For example, most Nigerians believe that members of the National Assembly make too much money in salary and allowances, but for obvious reasons there has never been a National Assembly Salary Reduction Bill voted on within the National Assembly. In this case, the act of saying nothing about this issue is an even more powerful political act than rejecting it would be. Nigerian politics is full of these nondecisions: public debates that are ignored, policy options that are never entertained, and repetitive political conversations that never match the dynamism of the current moment. Collective action problems and the agenda-setting power of those in charge explains the lack of ideas in Nigerian politics, and in turn the lack of public trust.


The Imagine Nigeria report makes prudent recommendations for building public trust in Nigerian politics. These include increasing citizen engagement, ensuring inclusion and participation, building institutions capable of delivering goods and services, and ending government impunity. However, these recommendations depend on the ability for public ideas to shape politics. Citizens have no reason to be engaged in a process that ignores their concerns, and participation will never be substantive if the participants never exercise their power to hold the government and public institutions to account.  

Fortunately, neither of these are insurmountable problems. Governments everywhere face the temptation to listen to concentrated interest groups and would love to be able to ignore conversations that do not favour them. But political change still happens. This is because governments are rarely the only actors with agenda-setting power in politics. Opposition parties, media, and civil society have agenda-setting power they can use to promote big ideas. These organized groups often serve as a vanguard, crystalizing vague public debates into specific policies, giving the population a cause to rally around, and confronting the government in spaces that the government doesn’t fully control.       

Unfortunately, in Nigeria, opposition political parties, which ought to be a key pressure group, have never lived up to their potential. Whether assessing the pre-2015 All Progressives Congress opposition, today’s People’s Democratic Party, or any of the third-force parties, the traditional stance of the Nigerian opposition has been to lean into personal character claims and remain vague on important national debates. Whether this is due to complicity in wanting certain items off the agenda or out of a mistaken belief that issues don’t matter to Nigerian voters, the results have clearly been detrimental to public trust in governance.


Fortunately, civil society actors can present alternatives that shift the public imagination. Not Too Young to Run turned the general sentiment that young people were shut out of Nigerian politics into a catchy slogan, and then a piece of legislation. YIAGA AFRICA and other supportive associations used demonstrations, media coverage and even public shaming to force national and state governments to consider the bill, and the population got behind it. During the #EndSARS protests, media organizations, NGOs, and mutual support groups like the Feminist Coalition worked together to keep the discussion alive and to distill various interests into specific and actionable demands. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is an evergreen example of the power that civil society organizations have to press political issues. Successive Nigerian governments have underinvested in Nigerian tertiary education, leaving students and teachers worse off. In daily politics, the government manages to keep this lack of investment off the political agenda. But the ASUU strikes caused the public to learn that the federal government paid universities only 9 per cent of promised annual funds in 2017.  

The success of these movements should not be overstated. The Age Reduction Bill signed in 2018 kept the minimum ages for executive positions like president and governor unchanged. There are still people in prison for protesting during #EndSARS, and justice for those killed by police remains elusive. But movements like these elevate political discussion in Nigeria. The effectiveness of civil society is apparent in how hard the government tries to silence these calls for issue-based politics, as well as the extent to which these attempts have failed. Despite efforts by the government to remove issues from public discourse, ranging from subtle nondecisions to open violence, civil society movements have achieved real wins in Nigeria. If skepticism towards government is ever to be replaced with real trust, the agenda-setting powers of our civil society will be key. Without them, the government will not consider ideas that really matter to people and will continue to operate an empty brand of politics that says and does nothing for voters. If we want to build public trust in governance, then the government must first show trust in the civil public by taking its ideas seriously

This essay was developed with the support of the Federal Government of Nigeria and UNDP.

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