Exploiting Mass Action During A Democratic Anti-Corruption Campaign


Abel B.S. Gaiya



In a previous article on Gamji, it was explained, inter alia, that under the dual condition of prevalence and [strong and vast] networks of corruption, there is a trade-off between the generality/indiscriminateness (and aggressiveness) of anti-corruption campaigns and policy effectiveness, more so under conditions of lack lustre economic growth, democracy and separation of powers. This was termed the Buhari tradeoff, obviously referring to President Buhari’s situation.

In a dictatorship, a leader who undertakes an ambitious (that is, system-cleansing) indiscriminate anti-corruption campaign faces greater ease of doing so with relatively little political constraint. In a democracy where separation of powers exists, any anti-corruption campaign faces significant political constraints, and these political waters must be navigated with a combination of soft (diplomatic), hard/stern, and ‘shadow’/Machiavellian tactics. President Buhari had been faulted in that article for failing to possess or develop the tact needed to perform such navigation. However, one of the critical democratic tools which the article proposed could be exploited by a leader in order to ease the Buharian trade-off is what was called mass propulsion.

Simply put, mass propulsion refers to the active/practical action of the masses in support of a leader’s actions/policies in a way which exerts pressure on the political class. In other words, because there is a separation of powers, the leader cannot force his demands on other political powers; but he/she can exploit the responsiveness of these other political powers to the pressure of the masses in order to ease their acceptance of his/her demands. It is termed ‘propulsion’ because the mass action propels the leader’s progressive agenda.

It could be argued that if the public had created sufficient pressure on the senate – for instance, through street protests, social media campaigns, public statements and threats by several and prominent pressure groups, constituency-based pressure, threats of vote withdrawal or threats of loss of candidate/party loyalty etc. –, to approve Ibrahim Magu as the EFCC chairman, then the likelihood of the senate capitulating would have been higher. Right now, the presidency is alone in this struggle. It has no – or at least it has initiated none – tools to fight against the senate’s impunity, and this has led to an impasse, with the senate seemingly having the upper hand. The power of mass action in Nigeria is demonstrated by the effectiveness of the 2012 subsidy removal protests which led to the capitulation of the political class in the reversal of subsidy removal.

To be clear, this is largely the fault of the EFCC, as an agency. People do not trust the agency. It has seen little success in its fight, the combination of its strong investigative powers and confidentiality of investigations and outcomes/results easily breeds suspicion in the public mind that the agency abuses its position; and it is perceived to be used, since the Obasanjo years, for the harassment of political opponents. If the EFCC had garnered public support by building public credibility all these years, Magu’s rejection would have incited massive public outcry. Like many observers have concluded, during a politically-motivated attack on the anti-corruption agency, public support is the only political cover the agency has to enable it triumph over high-level opposition. Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency – the KPK –, after building public credibility (even becoming one of Indonesia’s most trusted, most followed, and most respected institutions) and public support by achieving visible results in prosecution and being transparent, had public and international support when the national police tried to take down two KPK commissioners by naming them suspects in a case of abuse of power and extortion. When Latvia’s Prime Minister Kalvitis tried to dismiss KNAB’s (Latvia’s anti-corruption agency) director, he was confronted by Latvia’s largest protest since the fall of communism; his political support waned and his cabinet collapsed as a result. The present EFCC case is similar to the STT’s (Lithuania’s anti-corruption agency) which also lacked strong public support, and so when parliament successfully removed the head of the agency, the newly appointed director adapted to the change in conditions and became less aggressive in executing the enforcement mandate.

Granted, the mass action by the Nigerian populace could only arise endogenously in the case of the fuel subsidy removal because of the gargantuan extensiveness and intensity of the socio-economic pain inflicted on a wide range of people. It is more difficult – perhaps impossible – for such mass action to arise endogenously in response to events whose impacts [on the broader anti-corruption battle and future national development] are not felt by the populace. Mass action was not even undertaken by coordinated pressure groups; talk less of the unorganized masses. This has already been explained as a result of the lack of EFCC public credibility and failure to build public trust and support over the years.

This is why it is proposed that the presidency must actively/exogenously undertake a coordination/organization of mass action to support its efforts.  In other words, in the absence of endogenous potential, the incitement of mass action needs to come as an organized/planned effort from the top, rather than from the bottom. This is important, not only for the anti-corruption war, but all other areas of the administration’s focus.

However, such efforts at ‘mass action engineering’ must be covert in the sense that mass pressure on the political powers must be incited and directed without the targeted elites perceiving a causal link to the presidency. This is why it is deemed a Machiavellian tactic. If a deliberate causal link is concluded, this would worsen the relations between the presidency and these other political powers, thereby leading to greater politics-policy frictions.

To be covert, the presidency must keep and maintain informal, but hidden, networks with pressure groups which can receive trigger directives and then incite and sustain mass engagement among the masses accordingly.

Ab initio, this entire process – that is, the responsiveness of mass action to the leader’s political frustrations – would have been easier if the leader were more populist (in the sense of being able to attract and incite the passions of the masses). Without such populism, such engineering would require the disbursement of incentives, often monetary. President Buhari and, to a lesser extent, Acting President Osinbajo, lack the populist characteristics. Right from the beginning, Buhari’s selling point were his anti-corruption and anti-terrorism stances; but this was largely based on his historical record as a military head of state and his military personality, respectively, and not on his personal demeanour.

Buhari’s personal demeanour lacks many things. He was never a particularly inspiring speaker; nor is he witty or politically-minded. He is more of a simple military man with a sombre ambience and an aversion to politics, who wants to make a difference. This ‘old man demeanour’ and sombre speechmaking does not attract the youths, neither did his comments about Aisha’s place in the federation attract the educated women; neither did the public’s suspicion – no matter whether true or not – of an Islamist agenda help attract all Christians; nor did his skewed political appointments attract all ethnic groups. In sum, he did, and still does not attract much loyalty (extensively or intensively) to his person – especially worsened by the perception by some in the public that his policies and inaction caused or worsened the economic recession, and that he is incapable of catalysing economic transformation. Besides, the populace now suspects Buhari as being co-opted (or at least manipulated) by powers he sought to destroy – a suspicion whose narrative is characterized by talks of a ‘cabal’. Osinbajo is more politically tact than Buhari, but he also suffers from a similar set of personal limitations with respect to the ability to incite mass love and loyalty. His speeches are also sombre, though less so than Buhari’s; and he also gives off a quiet and introverted demeanour.

The Nigerian populace is actually very angry with its politicians. Many people even hold the simplistic opinion that the solution to the country’s problems is to murder all members of the establishment political class. However, there is simultaneously a fear of the repressive capability of the Nigerian state, magnified by a historically-conditioned docility which prevents protesting. Nevertheless, in recent times, the Nigerian people are beginning to reverse these tendencies. This is seen in the practicality of the Biafran agitations, the 2012 subsidy removal protests, the 2016 pro- and anti-Buhari demonstrations, as well as the few scattered attempts at protesting the current adverse conditions pervading Nigeria. It does, therefore, seem that if a radical anti-establishment leader can emerge (on a new political platform), – with a bonus of an ethnic-transcendent demeanour/character which enables him/her to transcend ethnic boundaries – who has the soft skill of rousing public passions and attracting mass love and loyalty (by speech, action and demeanour), the Nigerian populace would give its mass support. With such a potential leader possessing technical competence and innovative ideas for developing the country, possibly all demographics and classes (including the intelligentsia) could give their support. Nonetheless, under such circumstances, such a leader and party must be ready to survive the attacks – both legal and illegal – which the establishment political class would hurl at them in bipartisan fashion. Additionally, it does seem that public support would amass for the key anti-corruption agencies if they can build their credibility by demonstrating real and visible results. Until such a scenario emerges, Nigerians would have to made-do with the current state of affairs whereby a spotted sheep is surrounded by a small pack of black wolves; but the sheep’s voice is not loud enough to call for the help of the multitude of shepherd dogs sleeping at a distance.

In summary, we are faced with a dual problem. The first is that the president is unable to incite mass action to propel him through the political obstacles currently faced. The second is that the key anti-corruption agencies meant to spearhead enforcement also do not have satisfactory public credibility and public support to also overcome these same political obstacles. Although the administration has pursued preventive measures as well (i.e. the BVN, TSA, Whistleblower policy, and perhaps the FOI), if a politically-driven deceleration of enforcement efforts occurs, the effectiveness of the preventive measures could be reduced significantly.