By Jibrin Ibrahim
NOW that there is a new government, my bet is that Nigerians would be asking themselves the question of whether there would be a new cabal in power and its possible composition. This is because there is a passionate and widespread belief that for each regime, there is a powerful informal group outside the government that pulls the strings acting as puppet master. Such groups are usually known as cabals. The most famous cabal in Nigerian political narratives is the “Kaduna Mafia”, which was said to have been the power behind the throne under military rule.
The power and reach of the cabal are said to have been greatest under the Buhari administration. I still remember my amazement on 24th June 2019 when hundreds of demonstrators stormed the Defence House, an annex of the Presidential Villa, calling on President Muhammadu Buhari to: “take full control of government from the hands of those they described as as his second term in office begins” (Daily Trust, 25 June 2019). The protesters, under the aegis of Concerned APC National Stakeholders (CANS), carried placards with inscriptions such as ‘Abba Kyari Must Go’, ‘PMB Must Take Charge of the Government’, ‘We Need Fresh Ideas Not Recycling Men and Women Who Have Spent Over 40 Years in Government’.
The convener of the protest was one Dr Symeon Chilagorom who explained their action as follows: “Our demand is a simple one; the people of this country elected Muhammadu Buhari as their President, not Mamman Daura, not Ismaila Funtua, and definitely not Abba Kyari. Only President Buhari has our mandate to govern over the affairs of this nation. In light of that, we are simply asking that President Buhari should take back control of his government and begin to walk his talk by delivering on the promises made during his campaign” (Daily Trust, 25 June 2019).
Their key argument was that they want the President on “the driver’s seat not passenger’s seat” so the cabal should allow him to govern. It would be great if Dr Symeon Chilagorom could tell us now whether they succeeded in getting President Buhari rather than the cabal to run his second term government.
The narratives on cabals are deeply rooted in Nigeria’s political economy. The country runs a rentier state that relies on substantial external rent derived from petroleum exports. The creation of wealth is carried out by a small workforce that produces and sells the petroleum while an even smaller group takes decisions on who makes money out of the extraction of rent. Essentially, the government has been the main recipient of external rent and both politics and economics operate on the basis of who gets access to the rent. The country’s political economy therefore created the structural basis for shadowy players to emerge and play significant roles.
As is well known, the rentier state is oriented away from the conventional role of providing public goods that have been extracted from the people through taxation, it is a provider of private favours through the allocation of rent derived from petroleum. Petroleum exports which accounted for only 10% of export earnings in 1962 rose to account for between 80 and 90% of total export earnings over the past few decades.
The power of cabals is therefore located in their capacity to insert themselves in positions where they influence the process of resource allocation. The nature of the political economy imposes an interconnection between political, economic and military networks and it might be difficult to disentangle them. What is clear is that the thirty years of military rule has produced powerful players from the military that continue to play a major role. When we look at the life of the Fourth Republic, two of the five presidents who have ruled were generals.
One of the questions that is posed about Nigerian politics is whether twenty-four years of democratic rule has started producing a new class of political and economic power players without connection to military rule. Why are critical political moments in Nigeria always marked by top politicians dashing off to Minna and Abeokuta for consultations with the generals? Have former state governors for example been able to transform themselves into strong and autonomous players in their domains?
Alternatively, has the practice of almost complete wiping out of legislators at each general election made it difficult to grow and sustain the power of godfathers and cabals? How does the growing economic power of Nigerians entrants into the Forbes list of the wealthiest people in the world translated into political power? Finally, are the networks ethno-regional or national?
When the deep state is referred to in the United States for example, it is not really about a shadowy group that has open doors to visit the president at night, gossip and pump ideas into him. It is about leading corporations and those who control them, key members of the political elite, the military-industrial complex. i.e. the main stakeholders in American capitalism who plan, plot and strategise to protect the system. I doubt that is what we are talking about in the Nigerian context.
Often, the cabals we talk about are essentially people who have the confidence of the President and often their institutional location does not matter much. The power of such groups that we talk about are essentially over rent-seeking opportunities rather than system maintenance of the political and economic order. When cabals play important roles, it means the State is collapsing and has difficulties performing its functions. William Zartman defines state collapse as a situation where the structure, authority (legitimacy), law and political order have fallen apart and must be reconstituted in some form, old or new.
The challenge for the Tinubu administration should not be about a cabal but about the reconstruction of the Nigerian State. States perform three main functions – they exercise sovereign authority, operate institutions for decision-making and identity-formation and guarantee the security of a populated territory. These are the functions the State is no longer performing and the capacity to carry them out must be rebuilt.
The Nigerian rentier State model has also collapsed with the severe limitations that have emerged over extracting and selling petroleum. There is very little rent to distribute and mounting debts could easily lead to bankruptcy. This is a critical time and any government focused on sharing would discover that criminals inside and outside government are pocketing the rent. Combatting corruption and building state capacity should be the focus of governance.
Ibrahim is a professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, and Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development.