The Ikoyi district, one of the most affluent neighborhoods of Lagos, Nigeria, features rare open green space in the city of about 20 million people. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Why are some African governments better at enacting polices that benefit the country as a whole while others engage in pork barrel politics that only benefit specific communities or interests?

That’s the main question driving Carl LeVan in his new book, “Dictators and Democracy in African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria” (see ungated excerpt). Most comparative studies of Africa blame poor government performance on ethnic diversity, foreign debt, authoritarianism or resource-dependent economies. Carl’s answer is different. In this third installment of this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, Carl answers a few questions about his book.

KYD: Your book closely examines trends in Nigerian policy, arguing that good government performance depends on how political power is distributed. I know you also look briefly at Ghana and Zimbabwe as well. Why did you choose to focus on Nigeria? How well does Nigeria represent the rest of the continent?

CL: The challenges to good governance in Nigeria are in many ways characteristic of the complexities in other African countries. It’s a country where colonial rule created regional disparities and artificially enhanced the power of certain ethnic groups (in Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulani). It has a dark history of military rule and coups, and its post-independence economic development has been full of promises betrayed by elites. It is also incredibly diverse; Nigeria is home to an estimated five percent of the world’s languages! Lastly, it is a country where economic and political changes over the last 10 to 15 years suggest it is really charting a new course. It’s part of a group of countries on the continent that have overcome those historical and structural problems, often on its own terms and through its own model of development.

What makes Nigeria especially challenging to study is that so many of these complexities come together all at once in one place. I wanted to find a way to honor those nuances but to also generate a new narrative about the drivers of its “ups and downs.” While many African countries have an element of regional balancing, I think Nigeria’s north/south balance is especially compelling, so this is arguably a limit to generalizing from the Nigerian example.

KYD: Your book’s argument draws on a theory of “veto players,” a term coined by political scientist George Tsebelis, who defines veto players as “individual or collective actors whose agreement is necessary for a change of the status quo.” You use veto players theory to go beyond classifying political regimes as either democracies or dictatorships. Your book is one of the few studies that have done so studying a country in Africa. How can veto players theory transform the study of African governance?  

CL: There’s an empirical problem and a conceptual problem: Empirically, we see that some dictatorships provide public goods and generate economic growth, while some democracies — even sustainable ones — do not. This is not unique to Africa, as scholars like Adam Przeworski have shown. Conceptually, the distinction between democracy and dictatorship tells us enough, and terms like “electoral authoritarianism” or “neo-patrimonialism” have only made it harder to understand the relationship between regimes and government performance. I think that veto players can help us understand some of the structures underlying such regimes. As a model, it beckons us to ask, who has leverage? So the book has a pretty serious discussion, going all the way back to Hannah Arendt, which argues many of the brutal regimes we associate with individual rulers actually governed through coalitions and institutions. This is the focus of the new research on comparative authoritarianism by Jason Brownlee, Jennifer Gandhi and others.

KYD: You find that an increase in the number of veto players impedes “the delivery of national collective goods because it is more difficult for political actors in these regimes to coordinate their interests for the broader common good.” For example, in Nigeria, you show that each additional veto player is associated with a 7 percent increase in inflation and a 3 percent increase in the budget deficit. Yet much of the scholarly literature shows ethnic diversity explains cross-country differences in public policies and blames ethnic diversity as the major obstacle for poor economic governance in Africa, including high government deficits. How do you reconcile these two empirically supported findings?

CL: Ethnicity is obviously still an important part of African politics. But I started my research tracing my dependent variable (outcomes such as court performance, fiscal discipline and classroom size) over time. I then wondered: How can there be so much variation in public policy performance since the 1960s, if the number of ethnic groups is basically the same? That’s the kind of question generated by a single-country study, and that has led scholars like Dan Posner to ask, what makes ethnicity salient or politically useful? We’ve studied this question through voting behavior, politicians’ strategies and electoral incentives. My book situates ethnicity essentially within the coalition-building process of veto players.

One thing that has held Nigeria together, and that the nation has learned, I think, is that any sectional attempt to dominate politics doesn’t last — it just faces too much pressure from other segments of society. Some of this pressure is from ethnic groups and traditional organizations, which are still largely geographically concentrated in their respective “home” regions. But no single group is large enough to dominate the others, leading to coalition building across regions. Moreover, ethnicity is increasingly not necessarily the basis of  those coalitions. This is essentially what I argue in an essay coming out this summer in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies. A big question for Nigeria’s future is whether we’ll also see more sectional interests based on emerging economic differences, with the rise of a new middle class, and with much of the recent economic growth lacking an even geographical dispersion.

KYD: Just a couple of weeks ago, we featured Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly’s book, “Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change.” Their book and that post suggest a great deal of political power is also held in the hands of ordinary people, even if popular protests only slowly or incompletely deliver political change. Your focus on veto players — actors who can block or facilitate policy change — almost by definition focuses on political elites. What does that mean for popular protests aimed at initiating political change?

CL: I think I’m going to assign that book in my class next spring!

Scholars who use veto players typically focus on formal institutions, in part because most such studies seek to explain patterns across different countries. Yet I also noticed a useful discussion in the literature about when and whether people’s preferences are channeled through those institutions. For example, one might look at the tea party in the United States and plausibly argue that its interests are now represented (or perhaps “captured”) by certain members of Congress. But there are also social movements that make political and social demands while maintaining self-control over their forms of participation. Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement in the 1990s is an interesting example, because like other social movements, it was difficult to sustain, and it really struggled to maintain its integrity in the face of military governments that wanted to co-opt its members.

I’m trying to push that theoretical discussion by describing conditions when we can juxtapose such broad-based social forces with, say, a particular faction of the military. And that’s precisely what I think happened in the early 1990s, and again right after Nigeria’s transition in 1999. So I take institutionalist tools of political science, and I integrate insights from classic works on state-society relations in Africa by Goran Hyden, John Harbeson, Claude Ake and others. The idea that social movements or other “informal institutions” have to coordinate their interests is also influenced by ideas from federalism; Rotimi Suberu is doing extremely important research along these lines.


Voters wait in line during the March 2015 presidential election in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. (Carl LeVan)

KYD: In Nigeria’s election earlier this year, former head of state Muhammadu Buhari was elected president. Granted, it’s still early. But do you have predictions for the coming years in terms of whether we should expect the Nigerian government to pursue public policies for the benefit of the country as a whole?

CL: Buhari’s presidential campaign capitalized on two frustrations: escalating violence by Islamic insurgents based in the northeast, and widespread corruption that has prevented benefits of recent economic expansion from trickling down. Then within days after being sworn in, his transition team reported that the country is $60 billion dollars in debt, and the governors asked for a huge financial bailout. It immediately reminded me of the way I discuss Buhari’s first weeks in office in 1984 in my book, when he said his predecessors had failed to “cultivate financial discipline” and relied too much on external borrowing. He refused to bail out the states then, and it looks like he’ll do the same now.

Now of course, he faces electoral accountability — perhaps the strongest since independence, given that the 2015 elections went pretty well. But it’s going to be difficult to reduce corruption and deliver the public goods demanded by voters. His administration inherited a sharp drop in oil prices, and that will make it all the more difficult to move forward with his (apparent) plans to remove the oil subsidy — when he does, then Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly should give me a call! There will be huge protests, just like in 2012. The other problem is that some very powerful people, including the cartel-like group that benefits from the oil subsidy by selling Nigeria the refined oil it has to import, will resist change; they are making too much money.

Fiscal discipline is a priority for Buhari, and this is difficult under any regime. But Nigeria’s problem isn’t simply spending — it’s spending on budgetary priorities that do not reflect citizen demands and that are not sustainable in the long term. One of the main rebel groups in the oil-producing south, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, this weekend threatened to pick up arms again if the National Assembly doesn’t cut back some of its perks and spending on itself. While such threats might seem well-intentioned, they could also inadvertently strengthen Buhari’s hand, since he needs the Assembly in order to keep tabs on the pulse of the people in different parts of the country. If he tries to ignore the “honourables” (as they are called), we can probably expect some new veto player behavior from the Assembly sooner rather than later.

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Carl LeVan is assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington. He has a forthcoming collection of essays (co-edited with Joseph Fashagba and Edward McMahon) on subnational legislative politics in Africa, and an article (written with Todd Eisenstadt and Tofigh Maboudi) on participatory constitution-making, which will appear in the American Political Science Review. He blogs at Development4Security and you can find him on Twitter as @Dev4Security.

See our earlier posts in this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular: