Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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How politics of tribal identities is affecting democracy 15 Jan 2020

A lot of people suppose the liberal democratic system is off-kilter. Faith in democracy is diminishing even in the supposed beacons of democracy like the United States of America and Britain. Several countries like Poland, Hungary, Turkey and India have elected leaders who have become "democratic autocrats." A number of these leaders have been popularly reelected.    
Some people blame socio-economic factors for this “crisis of democracy". As free markets and trade liberalization thrived, millions of jobs in some advanced economies were shipped overseas. Citizen's dissatisfaction with government performance also increased as vast majorities of the middle and working classes endured decades of income stagnation. Thus, unemployment, income inequality and corruption have given rise to populist and anti-establishment actors in political governance around the world.

In 2015, pervasive corruption under President Goodluck Jonathan's administration made Muhammadu Buhari's anti-corruption rhetoric appealing to many Nigerians. Buhari also had other populist agenda, including securing the lives and property of Nigerians, restructuring the economy, creating employment opportunities for the youth and paying N5,000 monthly stipend as unemployment benefit. However, the administration's anticorruption crusade has been a charade. Last month, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released a report showing Nigeria has hardly made progress in anti-corruption.

Despite the economy being in a rut since the 2016/2017 recession and half of the population living in extreme poverty, the president got reelected in 2019 for a second term. Amid the daunting challenges facing the administration, it has the unmitigated support of the legislative arm of government – controlled by the ruling All Progressives Congress – and an ample number of citizens, especially in the north where the World Bank says close to 80 per cent of Nigeria's 100 million poor are.

Many have expressed buyer's remorse for supporting Buhari in 2015. Nevertheless, they cannot argue that their erstwhile giddy support for the president was oriented in sound policy. But it would also be a serious mistake to argue that Buhari's supporters in 2015 and those who continue to support him today are indifferent to intellectual reasoning of policy matters. The same goes for supporters of the various "democratic autocrats" alluded to earlier.

It, therefore, begs the question as to what really drives this political behaviour. According to various studies, tribalism has a huge role to play in politics. History has shown that human beings are predisposed to tribal group identity. According to award-winning author and critic, Laila Lalami, this identity can be a mix of race, religion and language. Another parameter for group solidarity, which other experts have identified, is "affective polarization." This looks at the differences in the subjective feelings of one group or individual toward another.

In an article in National Affairs, American author, Jonathan Rauch, argues forcefully that the current hyperpolarisation in politics is not a function of political ideology; on the contrary, it’s being driven by tribal identities. "Increasingly, partisan disagreement is rooted not in policy differences but in a sense of threat – a sense gleefully amplified by demagogues," Rauch wrote. In the zero-sum game of politics that ensues, the victory of the other side is perceived as a threat to the advancement of once's race, religious beliefs, lifestyles and values.

Populist politicians ply their trade by exploiting citizens’ prejudices to discriminate against “the others”. Having mastered the politics of tribal identity, Donald Trump said during his 2016 campaign that "not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate." People who are vulnerable to demagoguery would continue to support Trump and other political and religious leaders who traffic in such rhetoric about the threat immigrants pose to the American way of life.

The Indian democracy, as defined under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, marginalises Muslims. A new law provides citizenship to Hindu and non-Muslim illegal immigrants from the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, while excluding Muslims. India's economy is facing some headwinds and economic growth is slowing down; yet religious identity is a key factor in Mordi's immense popularity. Press freedom in the country has declined; however, Mordi won reelection in 2019 in a landslide victory.

A peaceful protest in December at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) headquarters in Abuja organised to campaign for the release of former presidential candidate, Omoyele Sowore, led to a serious altercation, resulting in a severe attack on the human rights activist, Deji Adeyanju, by a group of rabid protesters. The leader of the latter group, Ibrahim Dala, said his group "would not allow foreign mercenaries and opposition to come and sabotage the government of President Muhammadu Buhari.”

Adeyanju and other activists have claimed the Department of State Services (DSS) was behind the attack on him. Notwithstanding the veracity of this claim and the alleged police acquiescence to the attack, groups like this have visceral support for the administration solely because of tribal affiliations.  

Recently, a Nigerian pastor touted the moral and Christian credentials of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, because of his use of military forces to protect Christians in Syria and Putin’s charitable giving to support the Christian community in the war-ravaged country. Given the tribalism that was emblematic in the pastor's praise of Putin, no amount of facts that challenge his opinion can change his mind.

Nigerian politicians who have mastered these identities continue to enact policies and take actions that entrench tribalism and divide the country. It is the reason some governors in the north, instead of building schools and hospitals to develop human capital in their states, have been building mosques, which they claim are part of their commitment to develop Islam. While these governors succeed in disempowering their people by exploiting religious sentiments, their supporters will continue to rationalise their incompetence, failure and unethical behaviour.

These are among the factors driving the decline in meritocratic ideals in politics, leading to the perception that the democratic process has become suboptimal in a lot of instances. But despite the challenges, democracy is not in a death spiral, although it direly needs a course-correction. While tribal group identities will remain as long as humans exist, their effects on the democratic process can be mitigated.

There needs to be a framework to bolster a sense of national identity, rather than identities that emphasise race, religion, ethnicity, etc. The media has an important role to serve both as responsible “social vigilante” and objective educator of policies. Equally important is the need for free market rules to be re-written to expand opportunities to more people, instead of largely serving the interest of corporations and the rich. The destruction of the social fabrics, partly caused by persistent economic inequality, is one of the factors bringing populist actors to power.