Late 2017, my friends and I planned a catch-up dinner as we would soon be dispersing to our various home countries. Seated around a table in Nandos in the busy Houghton area of London, the conversation – as is typical of African International Students – soon came around to the topic of development issues on the African continent. While the nuance of the conversation shifted around the table, one thing we all agreed on was that a challenge to development in Africa was the obvious lack of credible institutions on the continent.

The failure of Nigeria to sustain economic growth has been due to the conspicuous absence of strong state institutions to effectively administer intervention strategies. Both the statist-led development plans of the 1960s and subsequent foreign-led interventions failed due to a lack of strong institutions to guide structural transformation projects and democratic reforms. Presidentialism and corruption are some of the negative outcomes of the political reform process in Nigeria. The capacity of the Nigerian state to manage equitable redistribution of resources, inclusive governance and reduce wastage is undermined where there are no strong institutions for effective administration. In addition, conflicts are more likely to occur where institutions are weak.

If we are to take national progress serious in Nigeria, then we ought to pay more attention to what it would entail to build stronger institutions to guide economic development and usher in democracy that is representative of people’s interests. The question then arises as to how the goal of building strong institutions can be achieved in Nigeria.

I have often noted that when people mention strong systems of governance in discourse, they refer to it in vague terms with no real concrete thinking to what the process would entail. One key thing that most of the discourse on strong institutions continuously overlooks is the very basic truth: that institutions are built by people. Strong systems are developed in a sequential manner in response to societal nudges with several foundations.

In China, the capacity of the state to implement and enforce policies are legacies from the Maoist decades when state reach was expanded, sometimes through violence. Autocracy lends support to China’s ability to make sweeping dictates. The Chinese government is a ‘regionally decentralized authoritarian (RDA) regime’ where political hegemony remains the concern of the central government while regions are granted economic autonomy. To legitimize state hegemony, the Chinese government continues to show strong support for implementing favourable economic policies.

The construction of strong legal and administrative frameworks in the United States arose out of a natural exchange between the political elite and the economic elite. The economic elite were able to make demands for transparency in governance, rule of law and responsible institutions because they had something to leverage with, their economic clout.

In Nigeria, the reality is quite different from the United States and China. Nigeria practices democracy or at least the semblance of it. Political power is decentralized amongst the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. This means that the Federal Government cannot make broad political decisions and expect to enforce it at all levels of the country. Already, this presents a stumbling block for many social justice advocates as bills passed at the Federal level face slow adoption at the State level.

Secondly, and arguably more importantly, there is no sharp demarcation between the Nigerian political elite and its economic elite. The lines are too often blurred because elites in Nigeria are too often the political players and the economic players.

So then, how can Nigeria hope to push for credible institutions in the country. For me then, this question is reminiscent of a chicken and egg situation because it begs a fundamental question of which comes first: Economic development or Political development. Should we focus more on improving our economy or should the focus be diverted towards improving our political structure.

Ideally, economic development should come first. However, economic growth is achieved by relevant policies that identify the strength of the Nigerian economy and our competitive advantage in regional and global space. However, the truth remains that for relevant policies to take hold, we need political will and commitment on the part of our leaders. So, the question becomes clearer, to build strong institutions, we must focus on the caliber of our leaders using individual competence, character and commitment as a gauge. We must focus on improving our electoral process so that credible leaders who demonstrate these three capabilities are placed in positions where they can achieve the most transformation.

From strong individuals come effective political leadership which leads to economic growth that churns a checkmate for excessive political maneuverings which results in strong institutions. That is the cycle of strong institutions.

Zainab Haruna is the founder of Decipher Solutions, a not for profit that works to support education and job creation efforts in Nigeria, and tweets from @Zennyharry.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Nigerian Diary