Nigeria and Nation-building at 62: Debt Cancellation and Untruths as Instruments of Under-development

INTERNATIONAL BY Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Nigeria acceded to both national and international sovereignty in 1960 but with a fragile foundation for nation-building. A fragile foundation because of deliberate distortion of census figures before and after independence. The first census in took place in 1866 and mainly covered the Lagos colony. In 1871, when the British tradition of decennial census began, the second census took place but the territorial coverage was still limited to Lagos colony and its environs. This observation was true of the 1881, 1891 and 1901 censuses. It was not until after the amalgamation of the Lagos Colony and the Southern Protectorates in 2006 that the 1911 census enabled an extension of census enumeration to some parts of the Southern protectorate.

In this regard, the records of the National Population Commission have it that the 1911 census ‘was marred by incomplete enumeration because some parts of the south had not recognised the legitimacy of the colonial Government.’ The 1921 census was based on tax records as the aged, infants, etc. were excluded. The 1952/53 census enumerations were staggered: the census took place in the North between May and July 1952 while that of the West and Mid-West took place in December 1952 and January 1953 respectively. The census in the East took place in August 1953. According to the National Population Commission, the enumeration strategy made the data between one region and another difficult to compare. In fact, the outbreak of World War II made people to query the intention of the census and why people did not submit themselves for enumeration.

More importantly, the outcome of the first post-independence census which took place in May 1962, was considered over-politicised and therefore was jettisoned. This was the basis for a fresh census in 1963 and the results of which were again contested at the Supreme Court which said it ‘lacked jurisdiction over the administrative functions of the Federal Government.

True, the Federal Government showed more seriousness about the need for good census figures: promulgation of Decree 23 of 1989 which established the National Population Commission, under which the November 27-December 2, 1981 census took place; adoption of a more scientific GPS and Satellite Imagery to establish geo-referenced EAs; and adoption of a Machine readable forms (OMR/OCR/ICR) to record information from respondents. However, controversy has always surrounded ethnic population figures in Nigerian politics and development strategies. Two major dynamics are noteworthy in this regard. First, some reports have shown that in the 1930s, the Yoruba ethnic group had the biggest population. Thereafter in the 1950s the British colonialists also reportedly rigged census and election figures in favour of the North. These are some of the underlying foundational factors militating against a seriously united Nigeria and against nation-building since 1960.

62 Years of Nation-building Challenges

Nigeria’s independence was essentially a compromise: that political governance should be predicated on federalism and regionalism as mode of government. Each region not only adopted its own development and strategic plans, but also developed at its own space and speed. However, as a result of interethnic animosities, a civil war broke out in 1967, following a southerner-led coup d’état in January 1966 and a counter-coup led by a northerner in July 1967. By so doing, a sort of North-South divide was created and by implication, ethnic rivalry became more pronounced. The crisis that emerged eventually degenerated into an armed conflict in 1967. During the crises and conflicts, General Yakubu Gowon put an unfortunate end to the regional system by creating twelve States out of the then four regions. And by so doing, the North has tried to do whatever is possible to hold on to power to the detriment of regionalism as a basis for growing a true federal system. Since then, Nigeria has not known any enduring peace. Inter-ethnic suspicions have become the order of the day. Nigeria, which was internationally seen to be quite rich in crude oil and also much respected, has also become a terra cognita for institutional corruption, and therefore no longer respected. 

And true enough, debates on perceived Fulani hegemony, which attracted debates at the Senate in 1961, have become a very potent threat to national integration in the Nigeria of today.  Efforts at nation-building were not seriously taken. In fact, nation-building efforts that had been taken have also been bastardised. They have become a critical obstacle to building a sociological nation out of Nigeria as a nation-state. Put differently, as at today, Nigeria is not a sociological nation but a nation-state by international force of necessity. The foundation for this cannot be far-fetched: the profound causal factor was the1914 amalgamation by the British colonialists. The post-independence accidental and coincidental factors are also multidimensional in scope and deepening in consequences.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was national happiness for various reasons: change from a dependency status to a sovereign statehood, Nigerians were quite happy about their independence and they showed this happiness by quickly seeking to join the United Nations and the Commonwealth, as well as other relevant organisations of interest. Nigeria was internationally well respected especially because of her rich mineral resources. Many powerful countries saw Nigeria as a potential great power. In fact, in 1962, an international trade fair was held in Lagos. Investors were much interested in Nigeria. Even after the civil war ended, Nigeria reached an agreement with France and Germany for the assemblage of Peugeot 504 GL and Volkswagen Beetle respectively. In the 1970s, the then UTA was flying the completely knocked down parts for the assemblage of Peugeot cars in Nigeria. This was very costly but General Gowon made it clear by that time that Nigeria’s problem was not money or insolvency but how to spend it.  

By then, there was also limited inter-ethnic animosity. On the contrary, there were manifestations of transparent solidarity in spite of some suspicions. The mere fact that Nigeria started her sovereign existence with self-governing regions and with limited functional responsibilities for the central government, there was self-esteem and healthy, competitive development policies. 

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) told the story of lowering of the British Union Jack and Nigeria’s accession to national sovereignty thus: ‘just before the stroke of midnight, they switched of the lights and lowered the British Union Jack. Then at midnight, the lights were switched back on and the green-white green stood majestically for all to see. This was followed by a volley of fireworks, then the military band played and we rejoiced.’ The story of PMB’s speech on the occasion of Nigeria at 62 does not show any seriousness of purpose. The speech was a catalogue of attempts to convince Nigerians of his achievements which are, at best, very controversial.

The Western region of Chief Obafemi Awolowo first came up with a Rediffusion transmitting programme at the local government levels. It operated like a radio transmission station in which the receivers are placed at the top corner of citizens’ houses. All local government news or announcements are relayed directly to the people, thus keeping the people abreast of current local government activities. The same Awolowo government also first introduced black and white television in the Western region, Nigeria, in particular, and Africa, in general.

The education industry was also a very serious business in the immediate post-independence era. Admission to universities was either through preliminary method, in which holders of Ordinary Level Certificates apply and write entrance examination, or possession of a Higher School Certificate or possession of two or three Advanced Level papers were considered for possible direct admission. The beauty of the system by then was that each university admitted its preferred best candidates.  University education was then very qualitative. Disruption of university academic calendar, which was from September or October to June or July of the following year, was rare. Secondary school educational calendar was from January to December. University students’ protests were quite patriotic and in self-protection: protests against Anglo-Nigerian Defence pact in 1960, protests against the killing of Adekunle Ademuyiwa Adepeju of the University of Ibadan, on February 1, 1971, etc. Inter-secondary school competitions were regularly organised in the areas of sports, literary debates, cultural dances, Christian schools’ games, etc. Such nationalism has entered into désuétude.

And true enough, academic titles were also well respected. Only holders of a medical degree (MBBS) or PhD degrees answered the title ‘Doctor’ in the past. ‘Engineer’ or ‘Barrister,’ or ‘Architect’ or any other professional names are nouns and not adjectives that can qualify. Today, they are wrongly used as adjectives, such as Barrister ‘X’, Architect ‘X’, or Engineer ‘X’. Today, everyone answers a title beyond Mr. In essence, Nigeria of today is that of titles. Even bricklayers, mechanics, etc. call themselves engineers. Politicians and academics who were accredited as ambassadors extraordinary and plenipotentiary, who are not diplomatic careerists, still refer to themselves as ambassadors after leaving office. Whereas, only career diplomats who had served as ambassadors plenipotentiary abroad can answer the title of an ambassador after their retirement from public service. When people who are not entitled to the title are not so addressed, they always take the bad end of the stick.

Governmentally, Nigeria has not been doing well, particularly under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) but the people of Nigeria have been fantastically doing well internationally. Recall the scientific performances of Nigerians in Diaspora. Recall their significant annual dollarized remittances to Nigeria. Recall the political appointments of some of them in the United States and the United Kingdom. In fact, recall the struggle of Kemi Badenoch who made it to the final five for the Conservative tussle to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of Britain. More interestingly, recall the 16 November 2001 Miss World Beauty Pageant that took place in South Africa and during which the 18-year-old Nigerian, Agbani Darego, became the first black African to be crowned Miss World. Nigeria’s international image was beautifully enhanced.

But, as good as these developments were, the truth remains that Nigeria has lost her high level of international respectability. Nigeria has become a country of gaspillage and reckless waste. The 62nd anniversary is fraught with insecurity, lack of patriotism and rhetoric. This brings us to the PMB’s call for debt relief and cancellation in his speech at the 77th UNGA and the untruths in his October 1, 2022 independence both of which are manifestations of major development setbacks which ought not to be.

Debt Cancellation and Untruths

Without any jot of doubt, any manifestation of untruths in political governance is not simply an act of dishonesty but one that has the potential to seriously undermine national development. Many of PMB policy pronouncements are fraught with untruths and statements that hardly reflect the situational reality on the ground. In the same vein, asking for debt relief and debt cancellation is self-defeatist and unpatriotic. Asking for debt cancellation is majorly an instrument of self-underdevelopment. 

Last week Sunday, during the ThisDay Live discussion programme, normally moderated by Dr. Reuben Abati, but which was also competently anchored by another seasoned journalist, Charles Aniogolu of the Arise television, the issue of debt relief and cancellation as raised by PMB in his speech at the 2022 General Assembly of the United Nations, was one of the topics addressed by the panellists. I did argue in favour of non-cancellation of Africa’s or Nigeria’s debts for many reasons. Professor David Aworawo of the University of Lagos believed that there should be debt relief and cancellation because of the many international problems, including global epidemics and pandemics, problems of climate change, etc. Thus, international solidarity should prevail. As much as this reasoning is valid in logic, there is no disputing the fact that Nigeria’s international image cannot but be at stake. Nigeria is on record to be borrowing, if not over-borrowing, to sustain the payment of salaries and to fund foreign indebtedness and oil subsidy to the tune of more than 90%. Nigerian government’s remissness in the more than seven-month old ASUU clearly shows that the Government does not have the capacity and capability to manage public affairs and should not be trusted with fresh loans.

Normally, loans should be taken for sustainable and profitable development projects. 

Imagine, for example, the case of the Ajaokuta rolling mills. It was started by the Russian contractors, contrary to the advice of Western leaders who did not want Nigeria to be under Soviet influence by that time, by arguing that Russian technology was unnecessarily heavy. Nigeria did not listen to the advice, but did get the project kick-started. In fact, in 2019, during the Russo-African summit in Russia, Vladimir Putin offered to help complete the Nigerian project. And true enough, 95% of the project has been completed, leaving only five percent to make the rolling mill productively functional. 

Most unfortunately, however, when the Russian special military intervention in Ukraine began, Nigeria took side in support of Ukraine. Nigeria forgot about the implications not only of her investments in the Ajaokuta steel industry, but also of her policy implications by asking Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine. The current speculation now is that Russia is most likely to renege on its promise to help complete the project by 2023. 

Besides, PMB’s policy has become very myopic. PMB is fighting corruption but under his administration, institutional corruption has reached its crescendo. PMB has told the UNGA of his intention to leave behind a democratic legacy by ensuring that a foundation for free, fair, credible and transparent elections are always organised, beginning from 2023. Good enough, but the ruling party of which PMB is the head, has been found and openly accused of making fraudulent PVCs for the purposes of 2023. In this regard, this accusation and the open vote-buying cannot lend credence to the intention of any potential good democratic legacy.

In international economic relations, investments are seen as development aid. To an extent, it is. However, when investment agreements are done and it comes to the level of implementation, implementers, who generally are the owners of the technology to be invested or deployed, normally dictate the direction. The implementers are generally from the investors’ home states. To interest the investors, they are often allowed to repatriate their profits or to reinvest them. Agreements on avoidance of double taxation are frequently done. In essence, what is considered as development aid necessarily becomes an opportunity of creating more employment for people in the investors’ countries.

In the same vein, when loans are given, they are often attached to conditionality to ensure dependency on the creditors. Dependency is a potent tool of control by creditors of the debtor-nation. In some cases, when a debtor-nation defaults, some agreements provide for serious punitive measures, such as attachment of some national infrastructures. It cannot therefore not be in the interest of the creditor nations to have the debtor-nations completely free from their indebtedness bondage, as such freedom necessarily has the potential to deny the creditors of their legitimate bases for intervention in the economic administration of the debtor-nations. 

The most disturbing aspect of debt relief and cancellation is that it does not allow for self-development, self-reliance. It encourages indolence, mental weakness, and physical laziness. When life is unnecessarily made comfortable, the urge to seek self-solutions based on the doctrine of necessity as a mother of invention will not be there. Nigerian professionals are undoubtedly competently endowed, but because of perceived policies of Fulanisation and Islamisation agenda, possession of professional competence cannot be brought to impact on national development and nation-building. 

For instance, one major dynamic of PMB’s 2022 Independence Day anniversary is selfish sectionalism. In the words of PMB, ‘conscious that today’s address would be my last on an Independence Day as your President, I speak to the millions of Nigerians, who believed in me, propelled and stood by me in my quest to bequeath a country where all citizens have equal opportunities to achieve their lives desires in peaceful atmospheres.’ This is one of the opening sentences of the speech and it speaks volumes. PMB only spoke to ‘the millions who believed in (him), who stood by him…’ This means that PMB was never the President of Nigeria but of those who supported him. Again, he wants to bequeath a country of equal opportunities but PMB is the champion of nepotism. He wants to bequeath democratic legacy but under his watch, the ruling party is fraudulently making its own PVCs. With these contradictions, it makes little sense allowing PMB to continue to deepen Nigeria’s indebtedness only for his successors to carry the burden. Nigeria can never be a land of equal opportunities in an environment of uncontrolled institutional corruption, declared Islamisation and Fulanisation agenda, conscious promotion of untruths in political governance, borrowing to sustain corruption, and forceful acquisition of titled land for herdsmen coming from West and Central Africa. And without mincing words, Nigeria at 62 is a national disgrace and pointer to greater unhappiness, insecurity and disintegration if PMB continues to happily frolic around the world rather than addressing the peoples’s concerns. 

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