University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Lent Seminar Series > What Nigeria can teach us about good governance: how ethnography can be used for political theory

What Nigeria can teach us about good governance: how ethnography can be used for political theory

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Political accountability is typically modelled as the ability of a principal (voters) to sanction or reward agents (politicians) who act on their behalf (Besley 2006, Wantchekon 2017). Whilst this offers a powerful model to explain certain aspects of political behaviour, case studies from south-west Nigeria suggest that it does not exhaust the ways that voters and politicians actually think about accountability. Rather, in line with work from Ghana (Paller 2017) and the UK (Coleman 2005), accountability demands that leaders make themselves ‘accessible’ to their constituents, maintaining spaces for direct, often face-to-face, communication. These empirical insights have normative theoretical implications: they bring us back to intuitive notions of accountability as requiring an audience (Busuioc & Lodge 2016) (and conversely that evading one’s constituents – that is being ‘inaccessible’ – is a failure of the duty to be accountable). This idea of accountability as incorporating normative sanction, relying as it does on relational capacities, is difficult to accommodate within principal-agent models which instead focus on material interests and the ultimate sanction of losing office. The disconnect can be traced to the way that the principal-agent model of accountability’s roots in liberal theory, where a long-standing urge to de-personalise power has led to theorists to rely exclusively on institutional constraints (Dunn 1990). As liberal political theory developed in the West it reacted against ‘interested’ and patrimonial relations, instead seeking to build political systems which had no need for trust (Warren 1990). Such an urge can be seen in the ease with which liberal theory has adopted economistic models of human behaviour, with both principals and agents modelled as simply interest-bearing rational actors. I argue that whilst this may be appropriate for the more systemic and ‘faceless’ (Giddens 1990) aspects of modern governance, it has less traction when it comes to democratic politics where power really does reside in the fallible individuals who occupy public office. Thus the demand that leaders be accessible opens up wider questions of political theory regarding the links between the political and the social (Ekeh 1976).

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Lent Seminar Series series.

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