At 60, What are the Real Change Options for Nigeria?


By Tunji Olaopa

The predicament of the Nigerian state has recently brought two antagonistic avatars of the Nigerian project into an unlikely compromise. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Wole Soyinka have been age-long enemies who disagree on almost everything from Owu history to national development options for Nigeria. But most recently, and in the context of the many indicators of the dangers facing the Nigerian state, not the least of which is the colossal pandemic and its many governance implications, these two great minds have reached an agreement that portents danger in its very possibility. Obasanjo has already become (in)famous for his many critical and incisive letters that courageously outline the Nigerian conditions and its many pitfalls and faultiness. These are letters that incite multiple provocations and generate multiple, and often acerbic, reactions from government functionaries, scholars and intellectuals, like Wole Soyinka.

About two weeks ago, Obasanjo let loose another slinger to the government. In the wake of the diversity problem and socioeconomic troubles Nigeria is currently undergoing, Obasanjo argues that Nigeria is “fast drifting (in)to a failed and badly divided state.” For him, Nigeria has not only become the poverty capital of the world (a position formerly belonging to India), it has become terribly insecure. All these are a function of the trouble with integrating ethnic differences. Professor Soyinka corroborates this cogent assessment of the Nigeria situation. For him, “Nigeria is divided like never before.” It is precisely in the agreement of these two observers of the Nigerian condition that the anxiety that underlies this piece is founded. The reaction of the government to these criticisms has become almost mechanical in its recurrence. The point in strategic communication however, is to take any criticism serious no matter where it is coming from, and more so if they are backed by objective indices. The most significant index in this case is the worsening quality of life of Nigerians.

As if to corroborate the conclusion of the two statesmen, the Fragile States Index for 2020 ranks Nigeria 14, with a point of 97.3, and in the group of countries placed on the “alert” status. This position places Nigeria four positions away from sliding into the “high alert” status with countries like Afghanistan, Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And it is dangerously nine positions away from the “very high alert” and failed states like Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. These statistics has the advantage of bringing the fundamental significance of local debates about politics, governance and development down to earth. For many years, and since independence, Nigeria had been standing at the precipice of national calamity. There have been several tipping points that we have miraculously overcome. And we seem not to have learnt from history in order to rethink our national path. Unfortunately, we are still in the eye of the storm.

There have been so many significant and analytical predictions about the fall of this house called Nigeria. From the CIA to Goldman Sachs and even intellectuals like Karl Maier, Nigeria’s demographic and socioeconomic indices are not good. There is always the persistent threat of a reenactment of the horrors of the Arab Spring. And this is not the result of an empty threat analysis. The Nigerian youth unemployment, and untapped youth bulge leaves the Nigerian state at the mercy of an angry mass of young Nigerians who believe they have got a bad deal from the Nigerian government. We all therefore live in fear of that unknown spark that will conflagrate the simmering ember of disaffection. Add to this the “barbarians” outside the gate of the Nigerian state: the Boko Haram insurgents and the herdsmen menace, as well as the spate of banditry and kidnapping that keeps tearing at the seam of the Nigerian social fabric.

At the governance level, Nigeria is gradually entering a post-oil phase within the context of a rapidly transforming global dispensation into a knowledge economy. The current pandemic and its massive impacts on the global economy has again brought home the sad facts about Nigeria’s prone-ness to economic recessions, and liquidity crisis. The diversification question has remained perpetually on the development agenda of Nigeria. And we have so far refused to answer it with the political will and courage it required. This is all the more daunting because Nigeria significantly lacks ideologically propelled political parties with the capacity to aggregate issues that are cogent to Nigeria’s progress. The capacity of the members of the two major parties to move effortlessly from one to the other signals their ideological bankruptcy. And Nigeria’s ideological drift. No wonder the neocolonial traps, in the form of Chinese loans and IMF stabilization conditionalities, always seem appealing. We have been in a state of crippling insolvency for as long as we can remember, and soon as the world oil market price slumps on the volatility curve.

And so, we are back to the perennial question: how do we escape this vicious circle? How can the Nigerian state shake off its burden and join the Fourth Industrial Revolution train into global competitiveness? The trouble with Nigeria does not bear any single story or even monocausal analysis. It is terribly multidimensional. What is needed is to trace our troubles to their fundamental base. I am aware that the starting point for such a search for solution and resolution is with the perennial leadership matter. But here, as in many of my public commentaries, I have attempted to wrestle with the leadership issue beyond its broad gesture as what will transform Nigeria. The sense in which many conceive of a leader as a messiah who will come and magically transform everything wrong with Nigeria.

The idea of leadership must be seen in both generational, heroic and societal terms. The leadership that will transform Nigeria must be a collaboration of leadership efforts, a coalition. The first comes from the multiples of generational figures like Obasanjo and others like him, down to younger leaders in various fields of endeavor. All those who believe in the Nigerian project must weigh in. The second is the level of the heroic: these are those who, from the intellectual to the political, believe so much in Nigeria that they are willing to engage with her even to the detriment of their own lives and ambitions and interests. So many of these have died, and so many more are still alive—from Wole Soyinka to Attahiru Jega, and from Pat Utomi to Akinwunmi Adesina, and from Matthew Hassan Kukah to Chimamanda Adichie and all politicians and public servants who are heroically serving Nigeria. Lastly, leadership also emanates from the civil society in Nigeria. Civil society is presently comatose in Nigeria, but it is a leadership field that is fundamental to monitoring the visions and policies of the Nigerian state, and the danger they have of sliding into governance failure.

At the next level of resolution lies the perpetual trouble of restructuring the Nigerian state. Whether we like it or not, Nigeria will remain stagnant until it confronts this thorny issue heads-on. The logic of plural states is that they are only amenable to a federal or confederal framework that will enable them deal with their inherent centrifugal forces. Yet, Nigeria has been struggling with unitary dynamics embedded in its Constitution. That we are still debating these issues only points to our incredible comfort with standing national logic on its head. Of course, there is no patriotic Nigeria leader who would want to supervise the dissolution of Nigeria. However, expecting that restructuring will dissolve Nigeria is an irrational political fear in itself. And its irrationality is further compounded by our willingness to keep patching our national pathological condition until a most probable implosion. Thus, restructuring the Nigerian state requires revisiting fundamental constitutional provisions at a deep legal and political levels. In its simplest lexical essence, to restructure Nigeria is to reflect and act on its structural anomalies in ways that will release the institutional and structural energies that have been constricted by the wrong structural logic. Nigeria’s greatness lies in its federal strength and capacity. Any other consideration is a dangerous waste of time.

The last point I have had some time to muse over is the connection between Nigeria’s diversification and her capacity to be globally competitive sufficiently to launch herself into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One diversification path is massive industrialization that deploys the advantages of modern technologies and artificial intelligence. This option is challenged by Nigeria’s discouraging infrastructural deficit which requires more than $100 billion investment annually for the next thirty years to offset this deficit. And turning to either China or the IMF, the huge capital investment required to transform infrastructural development is not a self-reassuring option. Yet, there must always be a first step. And in this case, the power sector becomes the focus of Nigeria’s mighty leap into industrialization. Apart from the oil sector, power remains one of the albatrosses hanging around Nigeria’s national neck.

And it is politics that ties all these ideas together into a coherent framework of possibilities that could transform Nigeria. A courageous political leader will therefore become the one who will set aside the fear of dissolution that will keep together a contraption, while pushing forward on the basis of optimism motivated by the pragmatic strength of what others have done and succeeded. Nobody wins on the basis of not stepping forward. Those who have transformed their countries learnt to keep their fear in abeyance. It is better to try and fail, than not to try at all, says the poet, William O’Brien.

  • Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Directing Staff, National Institute

For Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos