Does everybody get ‘a piece of the national cake’? How Nigerian politicians cooperate to distribute public resources.
Since 2017, political scientist Leila Demarest has immersed herself into the dynamics of Nigeria’s National Assembly, the federal parliament of the country. How does this institution work, and how do politicians cooperate? And how are public resources, mainly funded by oil money, distributed among the different regions? Thanks to several field trips to the capital of Nigeria, adding up to a period of 8 months, she wrote four papers on different aspects of Nigeria’s National Assembly. In this article, she highlights the main findings.
Tensions between ethnic and regional groups
Initially, Demarest was mainly interested in relations between members of parliament from different ethnic and regional groups. Tensions between these groups are recurrent in Nigeria, with some divisions turning violent. One main issue of contestation is access to public resources. Politicians often criticize national and regional governments, arguing that their regions are marginalized and they are not getting their fair share. In this context, she wondered how the Nigerian parliament ever gets the budget approved and is ever able to agree on resource distribution. This question stemmed from her earlier research on intergroup divisions and federalism in Nigeria.
Politicians often [...] argue that their regions are marginalized and they are not getting their fair share
Committees provide access to public resources
In 2017, she set out to investigate this and soon discovered that her initial ideas needed adaptation. Demarest: ‘For instance, I initially thought political parties would play an important role in getting politicians from different ethnic and regional groups to agree on policies, especially given that parties in Nigeria are by law required to be cross-cutting (there is a ban on ethnic parties). Yet parties appeared to have little practical impact on the work of Members of Parliament (MPs), who rarely received instructions.’ Nevertheless, intergroup relations were quite amicable, and parliament rarely saw gridlock, or severe infighting.
What Demarest discovered was that MPs mainly foster cooperation through the parliamentary committee system. The Assembly leadership makes sure that all relevant ethno-regional groups have a key position in parliament and have equal access to committees. These committees in turn provide access to public resources: MPs can lobby for projects in their constituencies and can divert public contracts to their own companies or those of their friends. Given that everyone gets a piece of what in Nigeria is called ‘the national cake’ (oil money resources), stability is maintained.
> Corresponding publications: Demarest L. & Langer A. (2023), Managing Diversity in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic National Assembly: Integrated Parties versus Ethno-Regional Balancing, Publius: The Journal of Federalism.
> Demarest L. (2023), From budget padding to budget scrutiny? National Assembly-executive relations in the budget process, Nigerian Journal of Legislative Affairs 10(1).
Uncovering the power of MPs
She also soon discovered her original research question was also linked to other, equally interesting questions: ‘It has been a widespread idea in my field (African politics), that legislatures were not really worthy of in-depth investigation as they were generally perceived to be weak, rubber-stamp institutions. Yet given that MPs in Nigeria could divert public resources to themselves, I discovered this also empowered them vis-à-vis the president. Especially MPs with access to some of the more “juicy” committees like petroleum, education, health etc, were shown to sponsor more legislation, also legislation curtailing the president’s power.’
> Corresponding publication: Demarest L. (2021), Men of the people? Democracy and prebendalism in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic National Assembly, Democratization 28(4): 684-702.
Where are resources directed to?
Yet while lawmakers have access to public resources, it was also important to check where these resources were directed to. Previous research had mainly argued that lawmakers provide benefits (development projects, cash transfers, etc.) to their constituencies to get votes and remain in power. This was incongruent with realities in Nigeria, where most resources are accrued by elites. According to Demarest, her research argues that ‘MPs are not actually incentivized to work for constituents as they primarily need to pay off senior party elites to get positions. Voters are paid to vote around election time, but that is more a one-off exchange.’
> Corresponding publication: Demarest L. (2021), Elite clientelism in Nigeria: the role of parties in weakening legislator-voter ties, Party Politics.
On the process
Demarest conducted several field visits to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria between 2017 and 2022. Her last research visit had to be postponed due to corona. Luckily the foundation that gave the travel grant was flexible (Catharine van Tussenbroek Fonds).
Gathering the information she needed was challenging sometimes, Demarest explains. ‘During my field visits, I conducted a survey among Members of Parliament, and numerous interviews with MPs and staff. This was not always easy; MPs tend to be very busy and do not always have time for you. In addition, my focus was on sensitive topics like clientelism and political corruption; people do not talk about these topics freely. For me, it was important to connect with local researchers to learn more about this. I was a visiting fellow at National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS), for instance.’
‘I also relied a lot on official documents of parliamentary proceedings, like the legislative debates, votes and proceedings, and order papers. These documents allowed me to construct my own dataset on MPs, their background characteristics, and which bills and motions they (co-)sponsored. This manual collation was certainly challenging work, but very valuable insights were obtained through this.’