Situating RISE in Nigerian Political Tradition: Historical Roots of Deliberative Politics Among the Igbo


Image of Marco Castradori

Marco Castradori

RISE Nigeria

Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA)

Long-standing concerns about the quality of governance in developing countries, and the more recent reckoning with populist backlashes in the Global North, have renewed the urgency surrounding the study of alternative, more effective, and inclusive forms of democratic institutions. Seen as avenues towards the re-patching of an eroding social fabric, participatory and deliberative forms of political engagement are among the most promising fields of research in this regard. This is particularly the case given the potential for inclusive dialogue to restore trust in the democratic process, simultaneously increasing participation and driving more informed and efficient policy design.

It is this hypothesis that undergirds the political economy component of the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Nigeria project, led by Professor Leonard Wantchekon and conducted in partnership with the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA). The study aims to demonstrate how constructive dialogues and commitment from policy actors can have an impact on policy design and implementation—specifically in the domain of education—by organizing deliberative forums or “Summits” where widely representative members of the general public discuss with elected officials, and agree upon, an agenda of policies to be enacted. The agenda is then made official through its inclusion in a non-binding “social contract” signed by participants. RISE Nigeria adds a new dimension to the ongoing studies on the effects of deliberation on political behaviors and outcomes (see for instance: Fujiwara & Wantchekon, 2013; Wantchekon & Guardado, 2020; and Wantchekon et al, 2020) and will contribute towards the generation of knowledge surrounding the design of effective democratic institutions in developing contexts.

It is precisely the context that adds an extra layer of pertinence to the RISE Nigeria study design. Historical analyses of democratic underperformance across Africa have often pointed to the imposed nature of Western institutions to differently-accustomed African societies as a strong contributor to the governance deficit endemic to many post-colonial African states (see for instance Englebert, 2000). In this narrative, colonial rule is seen to have eroded the democratic tendencies that “infused” (Bates, 2010: 1134) precolonial Africa, substituting traditional forms of governance first with authoritarian colonial hierarchies, then, upon decolonization, with Western institutions unfit for the social and historical dynamics of African societies.

RISE Nigeria and its link with African traditions

By introducing a form of deliberative policymaking inspired by the consensus-based politics that existed widely across Africa prior to the colonial era, RISE Nigeria aims to contribute to the study of colonial legacies in African politics. Deliberative forums, like the RISE Summits, do not fall into the conventional Western-style democratic process imprinted in African politics by decades of colonial and neo-colonial influence, and thus represent an interesting test for the claims that a general incompatibility of Western institutions is at the root of Africa’s democratic deficit.

To be clear, not all pre-colonial African societies were democratic, egalitarian utopias. Across the continent authoritarian and misogynistic forms of governance were widespread. However, there remains considerable evidence that decision-making by consensus was the order of the day in African politics, and stemmed from a deep-rooted axiomatic approach to social interactions that rested on the assumption of consensus as the basis for joint action. For instance, even in the case of conflict, it was conventional for settlement of disputes to target not merely the avoidance of further collision, but rather a complete reconciliation among the parties (Wiredu, 1995).

Image of a two-headed crocodile sculpture from the Ashanti people in Ghana

The Ashanti people, in modern Ghana, often used depictions of a two-headed crocodile to demonstrate their belief in the possibility of consensus to always be reached. While in the short term the interests of the two heads may differ, their long term goal to fill their shared stomach is consensual.

Nigeria is no stranger to pre-colonial democratic manifestations. RISE Nigeria, therefore, will be an important test to evaluate the potential significance of reaching back to traditional democratic customs in the design of more effective institutions of governance.

Igbo government structures

The Igbo are an ethnic group native to modern South-eastern Nigeria whose pre-colonial governance structure represents an excellent example of the African deliberative tradition that RISE Nigeria is grounded in.

Often described as acephalous, Igbo society was organized at the village level and featured a largely meritocratic authority structure that repudiated permanent hereditary power (Ibenekwu, 2015). In fact, even meritocratic titles were largely symbolic and seldom overshadowed the egalitarian nature of village organization. While the manners by which interests were aggregated among villagers varied in different parts of Igboland—some giving greater importance to age-grades, while others to patrilineal family ties (the Umunna)—the general form of decision-making was an “exercise in direct democracy” (Uchendu, 1965:41).

A typical village could feature four increasingly-inclusive levels of segmentation (encompassing progressively larger groupings based on patrilineal ties), each devoted to the resolution of segment-level issues. Decision-making at each segment was undertaken through deliberations among representatives of lower sub-segments, where the smallest parcel of society was the immediate nuclear family. Only within the family, and even then tentatively, could an individual (usually the father) be said to have some form of executive authority. At any larger segment, no member could take decisions affecting the group without the consent of the other relevant representatives obtained in deliberative gatherings.

At such meetings, anyone who so desired was free to attend and was given ample opportunity to contribute. Though by no means immune from a degree of patriarchy, the deliberative apparatus was also fairly inclusive of female interests. While seldom the representatives of their families, conflicts and issues judged to be relevant to the women at the segment level would be deliberated upon in the presence of women, and parallel structures of women deliberative decision-making bodies often existed to address “female” concerns. Okonjo (1976) goes as far as to describe the Igbo as having a “dual-sex political system”, far from the strongly male-dominant nature of modern Nigerian politics.

Igbo governance, therefore, was largely representative and placed paramount importance on consensus-based deliberative decision making. For a people without any institutionalized coercive apparatus (police, courts, and prisons), the consensual approach was the only viable means of securing voluntary adherence to decisions and directly contributed to a more cooperative and less top-down political environment—an environment that RISE Nigeria seeks to reflect.

RISE Nigeria’s deliberative format: Reflecting Nigerian customs to modernise governance

Igbo society was guided by representation at the sub-segment level and deliberation at the segment level. RISE Summits seek to experiment with institutions of governance that mirror traditional deliberative politics by facilitating a structure of sub-segment representation (each sub-segment being a particular stakeholder group in the education system—parents, teachers, etc.) and deliberation at the segment level—which can be thought of as the totality of the education sector in each of the treated local governments.

Just as in Igbo custom, RISE Summits aim to foster a form of decision making guided by consensus. Given that such deliberative forms of politics have been shown to facilitate conflict resolution (e.g., Gutmann and Thompson, 1996; Habermas, 1996; Macedo, 2010); lead to more informed voting behaviours (e.g., Austen and Feddersen, 2006); and inspire citizens to become more politically active and aware (e.g., Esterling et al, 2011), the RISE Summits promise to be an interesting test for claims that African politics should look back to inspire its future.


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from a Campaign Experiment in Benin. Working Paper

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RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.