Building Elite Consensus in Nigeria

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Adedamola Akinbode


1           Elites and the elite theory

Throughout history, the dispensation of wealth and privilege was the preserve of the few. In traditional societies and monarchic systems of government, management of society and decision making fell on the king, chiefs his courtiers and the circle of people which had influence over them. Even in democracies the radius of influence was always small. Societies are almost invariably organised in layers within a pyramidal structure with power and decision making being concentrated at the apex of the pyramid. How that pyramid is established in the first instance is a matter of political systems, governance structure, culture, social circumstance and several other influences. In some societies the social order or pyramid can be narrow leaving power in the hands of a few where in others, more common in democratic systems, the apex of the pyramid is relatively flat. Power is only one criterion by which an elite is defined. A social elite which often determines the direction of what becomes known as tradition is often separate from the political elite which determines power structure and institutional arrangements and governance which is turn differs from an educational elite. Membership of an elite group can be by individuals, families, clans or other organisations such as clubs. Interestingly, holding a prominent office is not always a guarantee of belonging to the elite class. Elite groups often overlap. As such, it is not unusual for a member of the religious elite such as an arch bishop to belong to the governance elite. Case in point; the arch bishop of Canterbury is a member of the House of Lords- the highest law making body in the UK. The group may be formal or informal, visible or hidden, but within every society there is a tacit acknowledgement of their presence.  The term speaks more the ability to consistently exert influence in a given aspect of national or group life and a sense within the larger group that the approval of that subset (the elite) is required to give legitimacy to any one decision or position. In other words a group that exercises a disproportionate amount of voting power on aspects of community life. The Nigerian civil service in has emerged as one such group.

The concept of the elite class, although an ancient practice, only recently gained prominence among academics in politics through the works of theorists such as Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels (John Higley, 2006), instigating discussions on the existence and functions of the elite within the society.

More recently, a classical theorist (Alberoni, 2007) described two classes of people in a population. He explains that in one group are men with formal authority and power whose decision in diverse ways and varying degrees, have an influence on the activities of the society in which they exist – the elites. Within the other group is a subset of the population with limited (or non-existent) institutional power and whose way of life is of considerable interest- the common people. The elites by this definition are a societal construct through which other social influences like ethnicity and religion are filtered to common people, thus, shaping the ideological and philosophical directions of their societies (Ojukwu & Shopeju, 2010). Elites, as described by Higley (2006), are ‘persons who, by virtue of their strategic locations in large or otherwise pivotal organisations and movements, are able to affect political outcomes regularly and substantially’.  Put simply, they are a subset of the population with the capacity to influence political outcomes. They play a significant role in mapping out policy issues as well as deciding which should receive priority in relation to others.

Putnam (1976), in his paper- ‘the comparative study of political elites’, explains that political elites usually belong to the top echelons of the society and are limited in size. To put it into perspective, few researchers have attempted to estimate the size of political elites in different societies. For instance, Thomas (2002) estimates the size of political elites in the United State at about ten thousand people. Other researchers have calculated the size of the elite population to be about five thousand in countries like Australia (J Higley, Deacon, & Smart, 1979), as well as France (Dogan, 2003).

In spite of its small numbers and the indeterminate nature of its origins, the elite wield considerable  power while the common people, willingly submit to the elite despite being the larger size of this group (Azeez, A & Ibukunoluwa, 2015); a hypothesis which forms the basis of the elite theory. The elite theory acknowledges that the “few” who hold power monopolise power and makes the important decisions while the others (non-elites), the public or the masses, have relatively no power or choice but to accept the decision of the privileged minorities. Kifordu (2011), using the critical elite theory explains that if the few in Nigeria (elites) have the power to make changes that will affect any political course, the direction of change is very likely to depend on these few. Going by this theory, several authors have stressed the importance of a consensus among elites as the basis of democracy and development in Nigeria (Ojukwu & Shopeju, 2010; Reno, 1993). Rustow (1970) explains that democracy is best preserved, enhanced or stabilised based on existing consensus among the political elites. The consensus could be in form of common beliefs in the fundamentals or in rules. Thus, this paper interrogates the concept of elite consensus within the context of strategy development in Nigeria. It explores the concept of elite consensus and development (its facilitators, barriers, benefits and shortcomings) and outlines the approaches towards obtaining an elite consensus in Nigeria.

2           Conceptualising elite consensus

The general consensus among scholars is that agreement from the political elites is needed for the development of a country. Furthermore, for development to ensue such a consensus must be positive, protect the commonwealth and align with the rules of good governance and rally around the principles of creating greater levels of intangible wealth. A school of thought explores the positive correlation between elite consensus and political stability. John Higley (2006) clarifies that the stability of political institutions is hinged on the absence of disunity among the elite. The elites, through collective decision making, are capable of influencing sectors of the society, thus playing a greater role in the development of the country. In other words, building consensus among the elite class is fundamental to national growth and development.

During a seminar on ‘Consensus Building among the Elites’ Prof Alemika of the University of Jos explained that the magnitude of ethnic and religious diversity among Nigerian citizens hinders consensus building on issues of national security among citizens because these issues are first examined through the prism of religion and ethnicity. Given the divided nature of Nigerian elites (from a purely political perspective), homogeneity of ideologies among of political elites would seem to be non-existent. It is noteworthy to mention that the slow (or non-existing) pace of development in Nigeria is not necessarily an outcome or proof of weak consensus among her elite. Several scholars have argued that there exists an implicit consensus among Nigerian elites. Nevertheless, elite consensus in Nigeria may have been built around a set of negative, anti-development extractive, rent seeking rules. Reno (1993), as well as Ojukwu and Shopeju (2010), suggest that the Nigerian elites have created a governance environment with positive loops around corruption where decisions are taken, which themselves reinforce a system which sustains corruption. Ojukwu and Shopeju (2010) describe how individual incentive of the Nigerian elite is centred on “personal enrichment and aggrandizement, primitive accumulation, patrimonial (personalized) rule, rent-seeking and prebendalism”. Consequently, in the context of national development, establishing elite consensus is as important as the ideology around which the consensus is built.

A prime example of elite consensus is the constitution of most African countries which is subsequently sold as a document originating from the people. The US constitution is no different.

2.1     The nexus between government and the elite in Nigeria

Government in Nigeria is structured as a series of concentric circles with political office holders and the civil service at the outer circle informing and influencing an inner elite core, which is not rule bound. This core is often termed the “cabal”. “That core is terrified of losing power, perks and influence all of which enable rent seeking. Meetings of the federal executive council have in previous regimes been described as a series of contract endorsing sessions”.

3           Building elite consensus

Building elite consensus in a developmental context needs to follow the basic principles of consensus decision making described by Tim Hartnett; participation (providing a platform for contribution from all involved elites), collaboration (involving elites in development of ideologies), agreement seeking (aim towards the achievement of an accord among involved elites) and cooperation (understanding individual preference of elites and incorporating it into the elite’s consensus).

National consensus or public consensus is often preceded by an elite consensus where the envelope of issues have been narrowed and framed in a manner that only produces agreement with the views of the elite. Consequently, a consensus builder has to identify and persuade the agenda setters (the inner core) of the elite and persuade them to a developmental purpose. Persuasion within this framework could be positive (as seen in financial reward, political capital) or otherwise (creating credible threats to the short-term interest of the elite or a powerful subset of that group such). This could also be achieved through moral suasion such as the General Buhari anticorruption campaign. A final option is to raise the decibel level of discourse on the agenda to a point where it can no longer be ignored such as is happening with the subject of restructuring in Nigeria.

Unlike general consensus in decision making, building elite consensus is a more complex phenomenon which (in most instances) is an outcome of systemic incentives associated with participation in a formal alliance (Kreps, 2010). Elites, like other rational actors, weigh the cost and benefits around joining alliances (or not) by exploring historical benefits, the prospect of future returns as well as the punishment costs of abstaining (or defection). The algorithm for such decision making is straightforward- a negative response when the costs outweigh the incentives to form an alliance and vice versa. Consequently, the first phase towards the establishment of an elite consensus should be the identification of incentives as well as costs of forming such alliances.

Given the non-nationalistic nature of Nigerian Elites, personalising incentives enhances the process of consensus building. Therefore, elite identification for development (in Nigeria) should focus on potential (personal) incentives which can be derived from the joint alliance. The notion of elites aligning to protect personal interests is not necessarily a negative or a new ideology. Marat (2012) explains that the success of Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 regime change was underpinned by consensus formed among elites whose ultimate aim was the protection of their personal interest (self-preservation). Simply put, the identification and presentation of shared but personalised interests that cross institutional and political lines would facilitate the formation of alliances among elites. Nonetheless, this method of consensus building may not capture all elites with invested interest, it is grounded on the hypothesis that achieving elite consensus on an ideology is a favourable alternative than disunity among elites.

Following the identification of incentives and corresponding elites, consensus building focuses on fulfilling alliances- a more complex phenomenon. Just like every other consensus building, establishing elite consensus is facilitated with the participation of identified elites during the process of identification and evaluation of alternative solutions as well as the decision-making. Alimeka (2015) agrees that without proper consultation among the elites, implementation of consensus met may be problematic. The process of fulfilling alliances established with non-elites is underpinned by Acemoglu and Robinson’s (2000) argument that elites prefer to include the common people in their political game in order to prevent political and economic threats posed by non-elites often in the form of a referendum on which the mass of people can then vote.

4           Conclusion

Given the subsisting federal structure and how this structure impacts resource allocation in Nigeria, as well as the level of diversity of interests (in terms of; ethnicity, religion, education and wealth) that exist among the Nigerian population, there is bound to be a manifestation of heterogeneous ideologies. Accordingly, citizens address issues through the lens of ethnicity and religion first which translates into a lack of national identity, disunity and other problems that interfere with achieving a national consensus (as seen in Nigeria’s national security; Alemika). A national consensus on development must of necessity be preceded by an agreement among the elite, if only on broad issues of economic direction, social cohesion and distribution of resources. Examining the power distribution in societies, including Nigeria, will establish the presence of individuals whose actions (or inactions) can affect policies as well as direct society-level ideologies- elites. Hence, establishing consensus among elites would potentially foster a climate that supports development.

The challenge, however, is the establishment of an elite consensus pro-development values, norms and positions. Although, scholars have established the presence elite consensus Nigeria, the ideologies around which the consensus are built have limited development. Hence, the need to build new elite consensus around ideologies that foster development. This paper envisages consensus building among elites as a 4-stage process of identifying costs and incentives (as well as disincentives) to building consensus, identifying elites whose personal goals align with identified incentives, generating formal or informal dialogues within them and finally integrating them into the decision-making process. The sovereign national conference of 2005 was one such attempt.







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