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Economics of protests: Why Nigeria should be having more demonstrations

Trust economists, they will analyse anything. Would you believe that some of them have investigated the conditions under which a democracy is likely to be having regular protests and have concluded that it’s when a country is below certain income threshold? Well, that’s the subject of a paper titled “Democracy, Development and Conflict” written by the Oxford University professors Paul Collier and Dominic Rohner. They argue that democracy would increase protests in countries with poor economic conditions, where poverty and inequality are rife. Some other economists have, indeed, proved empirically that large-scale collective protests are often driven by poor national economic performance.

But the puzzle is that this theory doesn’t seem to hold true in Nigeria. Given the widespread misery and suffering in Nigeria, this country should be having an epidemic of protests. Yet, as we saw recently with the aborted #RevolutionNow protest, Nigeria is not a country prone to protest. Nigerians are not what the US columnist Thomas Friedman called “the square people”, that is, people who demonstrate in public squares “aspiring to a higher standard of living and liberty”. But why does Nigeria defy the theory? Why is Nigeria not having riots and protests despite its appalling social and economic conditions? Well, let’s explore the theory a bit more.

The starting point is that every government must make lives better for its citizens. Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, famously said that, “The care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object of good government”. But, as we know, not every government cares for the wellbeing and happiness of their people. Well, there are two theories as to when a government may do so.

The first theory was propounded by Timothy Besley, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, and Torsten Persson, a Swedish economist. In their paper titled “The origins of state capacity: property rights, taxation and politics”, Besley and Persson developed the concept of “a common interest state”, where the interest of the people in power is coincident with the interests of ordinary people. In other words, without any democratic pressure, they adopt policies that serve their own interest but also happen to benefit ordinary people. It’s the equivalent of the economic theory of how self-interest can end up serving the public interest. For Besley and Persson, China is a common interest state.

But the common interest state theory relies too much on what the leaders would do voluntarily. Can you imagine leaving Nigerian politicians to their own devices and hoping their interest would be congruent with those of ordinary Nigerians? No, it won’t. Most of them would adopt policies that benefit only themselves, their families and friends but damaging to ordinary people. So, the common interest state theory can’t work in Nigeria.

Which brings us to the second theory. This one is based on the concept of democratic pressure. In their book titled “Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that a government is likely to work for ordinary people when it faces democratic pressure in the sense that if it doesn’t generate and spread prosperity widely to ordinary people, it would be voted out of power. So, that democratic pressure would force a government to work for the people.

But, as one scholar points out, in many countries today, elections have become just “a collective celebration of popular powerlessness” because once politicians win elections, often through vote-buying and other malpractices, they do virtually nothing to improve the lives of ordinary people. Basically, the people have no means of making the government work for them between elections. They have to wait until the next elections to make their will felt, but those elections are also likely to be manipulated. So, what can the people do?

Well, this is where pressure between elections matters. Pressure from below, that is, from the citizens, is the only means of forcing government to work for the people. Surely, a democracy can reduce protests only if it delivers prosperity for the people and provides channels for grievance ventilation and resolution. Which is why, as Professors Collier and Rohner argue in their paper that there should be little proneness to protest in economically strong and democratically accountable countries.

By contrast, given that democracy generates, as Collier and Rohner put it, “technical regression in repression”, that is, it constrains government repression, a democracy that is below an income threshold, thus unable to meet the basic needs of its people, would be prone to protests. Professors Collier and Rohner put that threshold at a per capita income of $2,750. In other words, a democracy with a per capita income of below $2,750 should be experiencing regular protests.

Now, as every knows, most Nigerians live in debilitating social and economic conditions. Nigeria’s per capita income in 2018 was $2,028, well below the protest-inducing threshold suggested by Professors Collier and Rohner. Indeed, according to the CEICdata, a respected global data analyst, Nigeria’s per capita income was $1,951 in 2017 and averaged $1,669 over several years. Nigeria is, of course, the “poverty capital of the world”, according to Brookings Institution, being the country with the largest number of the extreme poor, with nearly 50% of its population living on below $1.9 a day. Even worse, according to Brookings, “extreme poverty in Nigeria is growing by six people every minute”!

So, this country is more than ripe for an epidemic of protests. But why are they not happening? Well, the first reason is that Nigeria is not a proper democracy. As Professor Collier and Rohner argue, democracy constrains the technical possibilities of government repression. Put simply, a democracy is not supposed to be repressive, it’s not supposed to treat protests as an inconvenience to be controlled or a threat to be extinguished.

As the British human rights group, “Article 19”, puts it, “protests constitute a fundamental pillar of democracy and complement the holding of free and fair elections”. Protests enable citizens to express dissent and grievances, to expose flaws in governance and to publicly demand that those in power rectify problems and be accountable for their actions. Thus, protests strengthen representative democracy. Thus, a true democracy should not use brutal force, arbitrary detention or cynical court actions to repress protests.

Sadly, Nigeria’s democracy doesn’t have, as theory suggests it should, the regression-in-repression effect. As we saw with the Buhari government’s heavy-handed clamp-down on the #RevolutionNow protest and the detention of its leader, Omoyele Sowore, who was ludicrously accused of “treasonable felony” and “acts of terrorism” for using the multitudinous word, revolution, Nigeria’s government deploys the standard techniques of autocracy to suppress protest. Yet, protests are now a global phenomenon, even in rich nations, as the Hong Kong protests, and the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, show. So, Nigeria defies the economic theory of protests because its democracy is repressive.

But, apart from government repression, another reason Nigeria is not prone to protest is its ethnic and religious polarisations, which make it difficult to build a national consensus for major strikes. For instance, nine Northern groups recently pulled out of the planned #RevolutionNow protest, saying it was not in the North’s best interests. Any protest would be tagged “southern” or “northern”, nor national. But even if there is national consensus, self-preservation means that only a handful of people would lead or join any protests.

Yet, Nigeria is ripe for a wave of protests. Theory suggests it should be having them. But with a repressive government and a docile citizenry, they won’t happen. Sadly, that reduces the pressure for socio-economic progress!

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