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Umez Foundation (UF)

Addressing Nigerian African Issues Head-on

Leadership is action, not a position

Is Democracy the Engine of Economic Development?

by Bedford N. Umez 

One of the arguments that is often made to explain problems of development in authoritarian regimes (such as the present day Nigeria and some other African nations) is the one that blames development problems on lack of democracy. The essence of this argument (referred here as democracy-leads-to-economic growth perspective) is that lack of democracy is the major cause of the problems of development in Nigeria. Before considering this argument, let me first define democracy.

In this context, I shall use the word "democracy" to mean a statement about sovereignty and nothing else. This, I believe, is the proper use. Sovereignty can reside in one person, a selected few (as we have seen time and time again in many African countries, especially in Nigeria), or the whole adult population. Sovereignty in the adult population is established and nurtured when a representative government permits and maintains certain basic principles; only then can such be properly and assertively called a "democracy." These principles are (a) universal political participation, (b) political equality, (c) majority rule (with substantive recognition of the minority rights), (d) rule of law, (e) government responsiveness to the public opinion, and, of course, (f) the basic freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and organization.1

The Issues and Implications

According to democracy-leads-to-economic growth perspective, Nigeria should establish democracy first in order to achieve economic growth because the military is not equipped to play a developmental role in the economic sphere. Perhaps the best known version of this perspective is presented by Alexander Madiebo. He states:

A military government is a major set back for any nation and should be avoided at all costs. This is because military men are unqualified for the task of government and either lean too heavily on advice which may not always be in the best interest of their people or, worse still, attempt to rule without it.2

Henry Bienen and Eric Nordlinger argue that the militaries are akin to interest groups; as such, they are more concerned with the advancement of their own corporate interests (e.g., military autonomy, salaries, and arms procurement) even when such interests are clearly at odds with those of the larger society.3 Thus, the military will be more apt to increase its own budget and proportionately reduce the budget allocated to civilian and non-defense projects.4 Samuel Decalo argues that militaries are hardly organizations. Rather, some factions of the military are self-interested players of a Hobbesian political environment, preoccupied with their own selfish aggrandizement which tend to retard economic growth.5

Within Nigeria, there are additional (though related) reasons why many Nigerians (in particular) are presently clamoring for democracy -- the return of the civilian government. First, is the ascendancy of the Nigerian military in governance and the present economic decline in Nigeria. It is an indisputable fact that Nigerian economy has been declining,6 and that Nigeria is one of the most coup prone nations in Africa.7 In fact, military intervention has become an integral part of the electoral cycle in Nigeria that in thirty-eight years, from the time of independence (1960) to the present (1998), the military has ruled Nigeria for twenty-eight of those years.

While it is beyond the confines of this article to provide a comprehensive of the various studies which outline the differences between military and civilian governments, it is instructive that some of the attributes assigned to the military, e.g., pursuit of narrow interests, apply equally to the civilian leaders. This point is exemplified by the pursuit of their own interest. Clearly, self-interest may be at odds with what serves the collective good. To that extent, neither the military nor a civilian government in Nigeria would assure development. Thus, the underlying question in this chapter: is democracy a precondition for economic growth?

It is clear that a democratic process is preferable to a military rule. Compared to a military rule, democratic principles, when enforced, provide a more stable environment for investments, and therefore likely to promote economic growth. It is common knowledge that business investors are usually reluctant to invest in a polity in which coups and counter coups remain the means of changing governmental personnel. Indeed, progressive economic performance is better assured with a democratically elected civilian leadership than within the military.

In addition, democracy provides periodic elections that allow people to change (and control) their government personnel (and in some cases, government policies through referenda). Accordingly, elected officials are presumed to respond to the public opinion or risk rejection at the poll. The assumed relationship between democratically elected leaders and the citizens is based on reciprocity.

Military rule, on the other hand, does not provide direct mechanisms that allow the people to control the military personnel or its policies. In fact, in a military rule, the question becomes who will police the military? Above all, the record of the military regime in terms of civil rights leaves a lot to be desired because most authoritarian regimes do not tolerate opposition, and therefore do not guarantee civil liberties.

Notwithstanding the positive virtues of a democratic government (which, in principle, makes democracy far better than a military rule), I maintain that democracy is not self-executing, and therefore, does not automatically lead to economic growth. While the democratic process (hence, the principles of democracy) better guarantees performance for the people, one must be reminded that Nigeria has miserably failed in at least two attempts at democracy, 1960-1966 and 1979-1983. The first civilian government (1960-1966) did not keep Nigeria one. The last republic (1979-1983) was known to be generally corrupt.9

Corruption destroys any economy because instead of serving the people, corrupt officials start serving their own narrow selfish interests (thereby creating a government of the few, by the few, for the few). Just as some people are skeptical about investing in a country ruled by the military, some prefer not to invest in a nation mired in corruption. Nigerian leaders and the elite must rise above corruption; they must obey the laws of the land; they must have consideration for their fellow Nigerians; they must be democratic at heart; they must be selfless, honest and committed to better serve the interest of the country at large; and they must be truly patriotic. And when this is done, a sound economy will be established, and democracy will be maintained, and preserved.

Often, I compare democracy with Rose Royce, and a corrupt official with one who does not know how to drive a car but nonetheless wants to drive, Mr. "I Too Know" (ITK). Rose Royce is generally believed to be one of the best cars, built to last for a long time. However, if Mr. ITK (who does not know how to drive a car) is entrusted with driving this Rose Royce, this nice car might be wrecked in a matter of seconds. Conversely, if we entrust this Rose Royce with a good driver, the life of this car and its beauty are likely to be extended and preserved, ceteris paribus.

Just as Rose Royce is believed to be one of the best cars, democracy is believed to be the best form of government primarily because its principles are geared toward serving the interest of the larger public, hence, government of the people by the people. However, if corrupt, selfish, inconsiderate, and mindless officials are elected in a democracy, they will destroy the economy and democracy itself (just as Mr. ITK will destroy the Rose Royce), democratic principles and good laws notwithstanding. It is obvious that corrupt officials do not obey the laws and democratic principles; and, as we know, the real essence of any law lies in its implementation. If laws and democratic principles are only partially observed or totally ignored, what then is left of democracy? Frankly, nothing desirable!

Since that is the case, one is therefore compelled to ask these fundamental questions: Why did these two civilian regimes (particularly, the last one) fail in the first place? Specifically, is lack of democracy in Nigeria the ROOT of:

i. the prevailing value system "of he who no dey fast, na him go board last mentality" that encourages and endorses corrupt practices as necessary, and sufficient means to ends?
ii. the reason why some (if not most) Governors and their accomplices in the last democratic government (1979-1983) buried thousands of public funds (Naira, Pounds, and Dollars) in their private homes for private use10 (while Nigerians teachers, and civil servants went on for months without pay)?

iii. the reason why some public officials in Nigeria -- military and civilian officials alike – callously embezzle public funds and send them to their private bank accounts in foreign countries11 – the countries that either directly or indirectly enslaved, colonized, exploited, and marginalized Nigeria, and many other African countries?

iv. a flagrant disobedience to laws at almost all levels of government solely for the quest for illegal, and ill-gotten money?

v. ethnocentrism and its unhealthy inter-ethnic rivalries?

vi. intra-ethnic bigotry, evidenced in a feeling of some superiority of certain section(s) of the same ethnic group over others?

vii. extravagant display of wealth, punctuated with lavish parties that often entail blockade of roads used for the normal businesses in Nigerian big cities?

viii. arrogance, evidenced in title mania, with its associated class consciousness, and class antagonisms?

If we ignore questions like these, we shall allow the name of democracy, or the search for it, to serve as a cloak for every kind of abomination and folly, short-sighted policies, blatant tyranny, incompetent bureaucracy, sheer greed, avarice, and social oppression in Nigeria.

Let me address, at this juncture, another point about the relationship between democracy and economic growth. It has been argued that lack of democracy in Nigeria is the cause of the problems of development because the civilian governments have not enjoyed the length of time as the military; as such democracy did not have the opportunity to thrive.
There is no doubt that the military has been in power for over 71 percent of the time in Nigeria. However, did not civilian leaders actually have the opportunity to sow the seeds of progress but failed to do so? Specifically, how do we explain some cases of corruption and embezzlement of public funds within the past civilian government? Or have Nigerians forgotten the rampant corruption within the last republic?

Besides, if the Nigerian elite truly believe that military must go, how can one explain the nomination of the late Gen. Sani Abacha by the then five political parties (April 20, 1998) as the only qualified presidential candidate for the scheduled August 1, 1998 presidential election? Put differently, if we buy the argument that Nigerians are tired of the military government, and believe that military is the major problem and therefore must leave Nigerian politics, what then prompted these parties to select Gen. Abacha, the then incumbent military leader, as the only qualified presidential candidate? Common sense tells one that if these parties really wanted military out of the Nigerian politics, they could have not nominated Abacha, a military man, to be the only sole presidential candidate for the scheduled August 1, 1998 presidential election. Those in my camp understand that mere change of dress, from the military [khaki] uniform to the traditional civilian "Agbada" dress cannot significantly alter someone's character.

But even if one accepts the theory that mere change of dress can substantially alter one's character, one is still troubled by the idea of selecting one man to be the only qualified presidential candidate in a nation of over 100 million. Democratic theory, as we know, presupposes, among others, that any qualified citizen can run and be voted for by the people, and whoever gets majority votes wins. Further, it suggests, in the interest of legitimacy, that there should be choices of candidates from which people choose. But to these parties, the right of the people to choose among five competing presidential candidates is not a part of their own defined democracy.

Related to the choice factor, is the obvious fact that one-man presidential race does not (and cannot) offer any room for presidential debates. It is palpably clear that there are serious issues confronting Nigeria. As such, serious debates and discussions (among and between competing groups) to address those issues are of considerable importance. But how can Nigerians hold genuine presidential debates on those relevant national issues if and when one man becomes the only presidential candidate? In light of the fact that no man holds a debate against himself, one-man presidential race (no mater the candidate and his/her attributes) is incapable of adequately addressing relevant divisive issues confronting Nigeria. Presidential debates on relevant national issues are paramount in a society of diverse groups and diverse interests (as in Nigeria) because two [thinking] heads are far better than one.

To further demonstrate that lack of "democracy" is not the major problem facing Nigeria, let us examine the request these parties made to Abacha’s successor, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar (June 17, 1998). On June 17, 1998, these same political parties that selected "King Solomon" Abacha as the only presidential candidate, appealed to Gen. Abubakar to end Nigeria’s tradition of military meddling in politics, cancel the results of all local and regional elections held under Abacha's reign, and extend Abacha's political transition to civilian rule for three to 12 months in order to "seek credibility" for the transition program.12 Tacitly, they admitted that Abacha’s transition program was a sham.

Notice that yesterday (call it the period before the death of Abacha), it was all perfect and dandy for them to nominate one man, Abacha (in a nation of over 100 million people) as the ONLY qualified person to rule Nigeria. At that time, Abacha was "credible" and the transition program was superb. As such, Abacha was the one, and so Nigeria should not be looking for another. Had it been that Abacha lived, accepted their offer, and became the civilian president of Nigeria under "democracy," no one would know, at least from them, that the whole democratic transition program lack "credibility." But when nature exposed their "infinite wisdom" in nominating "King Solomon" as the only qualified ruler in Nigeria, they started calling for reforms, cancellation of the previous elections and the postponement of the date for the hand-over. Is it not ironic that the same people who nominated Abacha as the "Messiah" of Nigeria accused his transition program of lacking "credibility" only after his death? In my view, Nigerians deserve to know what made Abacha’s transition program lack "credibility" so that credibility will be assured in Abubakar’s and future transition programs.

Tacitly conceding that the transition program set by Abacha was flawed, Gen. Abubakar ordered (July 20, 1998) that the electoral commission created by Abacha be dismantled, regional and local elections canceled, and the five state-sponsored political parties dissolved. In addition, he announced that the presidential elections should be held by February 1999 and that Nigeria should return to civilian rule in May 1999. According to him, "Nigerians want nothing less than true democracy in a united and peaceful country."13

I welcome this announcement, as I have been welcoming all the announcements to return Nigeria to a democracy. However, some relevant issues are yet to be addressed. Nigerian government must take some concrete and specific measures to stop the "fox" from entering the Nigerian "hen" house. So far as the revolving doors that keep on bringing corrupt men and women into Nigerian body politics are not tightly closed, elections after elections, parties after parties, constitutions after constitutions, and republics after republics in the name of democracy will continue to be ineffectual in solving Nigeria’s problems of development because the major source of the problem (discussed below) is basically ignored.

The major source of problems in Nigeria, as I view it, is caused by "ajo mmadu" – the wicked people. "Ajo mmadu" will always destroy and destroy and destroy. They are sadists who enjoy inflicting wounds on others while watching them die slowly by the way side. These "ajo mmadu" are the ones who have kept Nigeria in this state of economic, political and social mess all this time. They embezzle public funds with God-forbidden impunity. They cause scarcity of gasoline in a country that is ranked among the top in crude oil production. They constantly interfere with the electricity even in hospitals with patients on life-support machines. They lie to the people, and often dress themselves in borrowed robes and fake titles. All these wicked acts are all motivated by bribery and corruption produced by the value system of "he who no dey fast, na him go board last." That is where the major problem lies; it is "ajo mmadu," pure and simple.

Therefore, formation of new parties today and the cancellation of the previous elections will not matter a bit so far as the "ajo mmadu" are practicing their sadism in Nigeria. So far as the revolving doors keep bringing them in, changing dress from khaki to "agbada," or changing parties, canceling elections, writing and rewriting the constitutions will NOT solve Nigeria's major problems of development. In fact, doing these things over and over often means enriching these people (and those waiting on the wings to rob the nation when their time comes). After all, there is no election in Nigeria that is free of alleged fraudulent practices. These ones conducted last year (1997) were not the first and neither will they be the last. The most effective solutions to Nigeria's major problems (including those with the Abacha’s transition program) lie with the good leaders – those who are guided by the principles of "charity begins at home," patriotism, and consideration for others -- the true meaning of democracy.

It is time Nigerians started calling a spade a spade and a garden fork a garden fork. Democracy cannot thrive in a society where the rich continue to get richer (at the expense and exploitation of the masses) and the poor are subjected to perpetual and agonizing death. The pursuit of democracy, though an excellent idea, must not lead Nigerians (or other people for that matter) to ignore the basic engine that establishes, and makes civilization run, namely, economic growth (brought about by good leaders dedicated to bring development to their country). Once a nation's well being is neglected, i.e., once most of the leaders in a democracy start serving their own interests instead of those of the people, the regime's legitimacy will be eroded, and democracy will surely die. In fact, there is an impressive body of empirical evidence demonstrating that economic crises of various types can trigger transitions from democratic regime to authoritarian regime.14 The survivability of a regime (including the democratic regime of the US, as a matter of fact) depends upon the performance of the regime itself. A polity cannot provide economic prosperity, welfare and domestic order -- the overall good living standards -- if the leaders do not care for the common good. In a simple language, Nigeria will not survive if the leaders typically subscribe to the prevalent habits of decay in Nigeria that encourage corrupt practices as necessary and sufficient means to ends.


To conclude, the basic argument of this paper is quite simple. Democracy is the best form of government when its principles are enforced. The military governance is the worst option for the reasons adumbrated at the beginning of this paper. However, one must recognize that democracy, just in name, does not stop a criminal from being a criminal. All we know (about the democratic process) is that over a period of time, the institutions, the economic structure, and the whole business of laws, and law-making will be maintained according to the wishes and desires of the people. This is only true if all other matters so vital to the success of a country (e.g., patriotism, commitment, great vision, investments on the part of the leaders and the elite, and genuine consideration for others) are taken seriously by those who are elected in a democracy. Indeed, it is pure illusion to assume that answers to any society’s problems will be forthcoming by mere repetition of democracy (as if it were an incantation against the evils perpetuated by men against men) nor by an authoritarian military rule (established under the guise of curbing corruption). Nigeria will continue to experience economic downturn, and democracy is bound to fail in Nigeria, as it has failed at least twice, if the [civilian] leaders and the elite fail to provide and maintain the overall good living standards of the people -- the welfare of the state.
Therefore, success of a democratic government depends upon the morally guided and sagacious leaders (and the elite) who are determined to work for the growth and development of every aspect of the whole country, be it political development (democracy), economic development, or good human relations. When this commitment is demonstrated, there will be economic growth -- the people will be well fed. And when people are well fed, they are likely to obey laws, respect the rights of others, accept conventional means of political participation, and generally observe the principles and the values of democracy. The maxim that "a hungry man is an angry man," underscores this point.

Above all, economic prosperity brings other developments that are conducive for democracy, namely, industrialization, communication, and most importantly, education which fosters a good understanding of say the rule of law, and harmonic ethnic relations. These developments encourage, advance, and sustain democracy, and they can only come about in a strong economy built and maintained by TRULY educated Nigerian leaders, i.e., Nigerians with the common sense to understand that investment at home is the engine of economic growth. Only these kinds of men and women will say NO to the prevailing value system that encourages and endorses corrupt practices in Nigeria. Only these kinds of men and women will say NO to disobedience to laws, inter-ethnic rivalries, intra-ethnic conflicts and bigotry, excessive display of wealth, and arrogance. Only these kinds of men and women will say NO to neglect of true education, embezzlement of public funds, colonial mentality, and inferiority complex. Only these men and women will say YES to the principle of charity begins at home, and not abroad, consequently encouraging investment in Nigeria, instead of creating greener pastures abroad.

In sum, democracy (DE), when its principles are religiously enforced, brings economic growth because more people tend to invest in a democracy (as explained at the beginning of this paper). Economic growth (EG), on the other hand, is a sine qua non for maintaining democracy (DE). However, the preservation of democracy and maintenance of economic growth are a function (f) of the good leaders (GLs) who are determined to work for the growth and development of every aspect of the whole country. Symbolically, this:

DE <===> GE = f (GLs)

If Nigerians continue to ignore this obvious fact, the next republic will follow the same failed path of the previous ones, all things being equal.


1. See, in particular, Howard Zinn, "How Democratic Is America," in Robert E. DiClerico and Allan S. Hammock (ed.), Points of View: Readings in American Government and Politics,(New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995), 2-13; Janda, et al., The Challenge of Democracy: Government in America, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995), 33-37.

2. Alexander A. Madiebo, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War (Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980), 386.

3. Henry Bienen, (ed.) The Military and Modernization,(Chicago: Aldine, 1971); Eric Nordlinger, "Soldiers in Mufti: The Impact of Military Rule Upon Economic and Social Change in the Non-Western States," American Political Science Review, Vol. 64 (1970), 1131-1148. Henry Bienen, Soldiers in Politics: Military Coups and Governments, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

4. Ibid.

5. For details, see Samuel Decalo, Coups and Army Rule in Africa, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

6. See, Izevbuwa Osayimwese and Sunday Iyare, "The Economics of Nigerian Federalism: Selected Issues in Economic Management," Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Vol. 21 (Fall 1991), 9
7. Pat McGowan, and Thomas Johnson, "Six Coups in Thirty Years - Further Evidence Regarding African Military Coups d'Etat," The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 24 (1986), 540-546.

9. Ladipo Adamolekun, "Introduction: Federalism in Nigeria," Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Vol. 21 (Fall 1991), 2-3.

10. See Eric Umeh, "Debt Crisis in Nigeria: Is it Macroeconomic Debtor Mismanagement
or Imprudent Credit Lending? A Case Study," Unpublished Master's Thesis, Texas
Woman's University, Denton, Texas, May 1992, 41-42.

10. Ibid.

11. "We at the Citibank had a large account deposited FROM NIGERIA (my emphasis). When the Nigerian government changed hands in a military coup, some of the new authorities came to claim the money of someone in the previous regime. They were NASTY THUGS (emphasis mine). We called the police, and the police did some checking. They came back to me the next day and said, 'Mr. Dessauer, you don't have to worry about these fellows anymore.' We put them on a plane to Nigeria and told the Nigerian embassy if they ever tried this stunt again we would send all Nigerians home." [Statements by John Dessauer, the former top Citibank official (Swiss branch), as quoted in THE NIGERIAN, May, 1996, p. 3.]

12. African Herald, July 1998, 12

13. Online Posting. Washington Post: http://search.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WAPO/ 


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