Nigeria’s Future Beyond 2020: From #EndSARS to Good Governance

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By Tunji Olaopa

There are so many Nigerians who are eager for the year 2020 to come to an end, and for the new year to commence. And the reasons are so obvious. This is the year when so many hopes and dreams were dashed by events that no one expected or foresaw. This is the year of the coronavirus and the pandemic that sent many to an unexpected demise. It is the year that a simple-structured virus, novel in its appearance, crept into the human consciousness and space, and brutally transformed our thinking. All across the world, the coronavirus pandemic essentially locked down all governance calculations and socioeconomic dynamics. In the space of close to one year, COVID-19 has slammed most countries into a terrible recession that beats the economic imagination. All good governance metrics, as well as efforts at achieving good governance, were stopped in their tracks.

COVID-19 met uniquely different sets of political and economic dynamics in the different contexts it invaded. No country was prepared for the scourge of the virus. Interestingly, the coronavirus refocused our long-cherished understanding of the difference between development and underdevelopment. This is in the sense that the “developed” countries are reeling under the onslaught of the novel virus. The vast health infrastructure of North America and Europe failed to curtail the pandemic that is so unlike many others in human history. The coronavirus became the grim reaper that could not be curtailed by the best of medical preparation and infrastructures.

The coronavirus did not only beat the best of medical imagination, it also undermined all medical prognosis about Africa and the rest of the third world. While a host of unknown factors ensured that the worst of the COVID-19 effects are kept at bay in Africa, the same cannot be said of the government and governance efforts to keep the virus from inflicting its tales of woes on those who have suffered the worst from governance failure. The COVID-19 pandemic turned up the underbelly of governance in Africa, and revealed what people already know about leadership and its inability to facilitate a qualitative life for Africans. Nigeria is very typical in this regard. The pandemic was the excuse that opened the Pandora Box. Like most countries in the third world, the coronavirus in Nigeria exposed the fault lines that had been patched together under the veneer of normality.

When the COVID-19 arrived, Nigeria was already in the deep throes of governance listlessness. Unemployment keeps soaring; Fulani herdsmen, Boko Haram insurgents and kidnappers have laid siege on the entire country; the economy kept underperforming; Nigeria had already overtaken India as the poverty capital of the world; and she is very low on most human development indices. In other words, Nigeria was already a tinderbox by the time the coronavirus made its way through our porous borders. When the government declared a lockdown, it was clear to everyone, and the government itself, that it was not a sustainable strategy. There was no coherent plan for any economic stimulus that would keep the citizens stable in lockdown. The attempt at reaching out to Nigerians was swallowed up by the already yawning political and bureaucratic corruption chasm. Thus, while the virus was about its grim business, hopelessness settled on the hearts of most Nigerians. Even the arrival of a common enemy was not sufficient to turn away attention from our collective woes and predicament as Nigerians. And this is because there is no fundamental commonality by which we can maintain a stand against a pathogen.

Our existing condition as a country not only allowed the virus to ravage us, but to also make us worse off. Many businesses were lost, recession sets in, inflation galloped, and the unemployment figure doubled and trebled. And then the tinderbox exploded! The recurring issue of police brutality burrowed into the already terrible situation, and the #EndSARS protest reacted to the brutalization of our collective consciousness. One of the interesting significations of the protest is that it demonstrated how we as Nigerians always define our identity in the negative. What brings us together are usually reactions against the leadership failures and bad governance that Nigeria has struggled with since independence in 1960. While most nations of the world are defining a new normal, in terms of what the COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to revised and rethink, it seems that Nigeria is regressing back to the old normal. The #EndSARS protest became a timely reaction against the normal of corruption, governance and leadership failures, and endemic corruption. The protest became a fundamental wake-up call for everyone—all Nigerians—to start reflecting not only on the present, on 2020 and all its terrible surprises and woes, but also on 2023 and beyond.

Let us pause a bit and reflect. 2020 has become in our imagination a figuration of all that is bad about the world and also about Nigeria. But we need to even out our assessment if we are not to become bitter and uncritical cynics. If we agree that Nigeria has not failed, then the implication is to balance the woes with the wins. However slow we perceive the governance efforts of the government, some policy effects are still manifest in terms of infrastructural development. The concept of “pockets of effectiveness”, derived from public administration and management, has always allowed me to come to terms with government efforts, however minute, to intervene in the lives of Nigerians. However the COVID-19 situation has affected us, we need to applaud the government emergency management strategy that kicked in when the virus burst its bound in China and started invading state borders. Without the emergency management strategy, the situation would have been much worse. We need to also cast attention on the railway project across the country as a signal to the infrastructural development that, in time, will begin to affect the lives of Nigerians. The reformer in me commend the high-performing states of the federation, from Lagos to Kaduna, and from Edo to Borno. I am particularly impressed by the resolve of the National Governors’ Forum to institute national peer review mechanism underpinned by benchmarking learning and sharing across states of smart and good practices. If followed rigorously, these instituted practices have the capacity to reconstruct Nigeria’s policymaking dynamics in ways that will reorient it towards good governance.

But to become realistic again, the question everyone is asking—and it is a justified one—is straightforward: how do all these pockets of effectiveness add up to a significant governance framework that qualitatively affect the wellbeing of Nigerians? Put in a more direct term: how do these governance issues affect me as an ordinary Nigerian? Good governance and quality life, for most Nigerians, are trackable—we simply go to the markets and feel the pulse of the crucial items of survival. The markets simplify all the GDP calculations economic indices of the global economic institutions which are mere gibberish to many Nigerians. If Nigeria is achieving a 7.0% growth rate, and a bag of rice is climbing steadily beyond the reach of the minimum wage, then what is there to celebrate? And 2020 is the year that Nigeria’s economic metrics became as confusing as it could be. The pump price of petrol went up and down in ways that left many properly confounded, but certain that Nigeria has hit the rock.

From 2020, attention has suddenly shifted to 2023. The year 2020, before now, had a magical ring to it. It was supposed to be the year that Nigeria’s vision of good governance was to be realized. Vision 20:2020 captured all that was good which will transform Nigeria into a booming global economy and democratic state with an efficient service delivery to all Nigerians. However, 2020 has turned out to be far from all we envisioned. Unfortunately, the present administration has inherited and contributed to the overall perception of the Nigerian state and its future possibilities. 2023 presents a possibility for a democratic turnover. This is to the extent that democracy often comes with the hope of a new administration with better sets of policies conducive to good governance. And no matter how cloudy and illogical political forecasting appears for now, we have no choice but to keep looking forward to the future, while attempting to intervene in our present situation in the best possible ways we can. This is the most important thing about the #EndSARS protest—it was a most vigorous push for the future of Nigeria by those who best represents that future.

That the Nigerian youth could seize the governance moment significantly foreground the possibility of hope for Nigeria and for the future. If the Nigerian youth do not care, then Nigeria is essentially finished. But that they care sufficiently to protest speaks a lot not so much about the now, but about the future, even beyond 2023. Mary Macleod Bethune, the America educator and civil right activist, was right on point: “We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.” This is what the #EndSARS protest represented; and this is what we need to look beyond 2020 for—the willingness by the government to read the protest for what it is, an imperative to accelerate good governance and impact the wellbeing of Nigerians. That is something to look forward to. Indeed, that is something that need to start immediately, before 2023.

  • Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos (tolaopa2003@gmail.com tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)