By Chikezie Ogbonna
Sixty years after gaining independence from her colonial masters, Nigeria is a country best described as one struggling to live up to her true potentials as a blessed nation. Now one of the most terrorized countries in the world. Issues like corruption, infrastructural decay, tribalism, religious bigotry and many other monumental messes have held the country down from playing a leadership role in Africa. A visionary leadership is lacking while public institutions are weak, inept and compromised. Decades of political patronage and nepotism have seen a corrosion of quality and performance in the public service.
In the beginning, it was not so. From independence in 1960, Nigeria took upon itself the role of uniting Africa against western re-colonization. The continent, from then on , became the centre-piece of its foreign policy. The fact that nations were living under foreign rule made it possible to galvanize them around a common cause. This led to the creation of the Organization of African Unity – now the African Union – in 1963 and Economic Community of West African States in 1975.
Nigeria assumed a leading role in these events as it forged a foreign policy with a strong Afro -centric posture. In fact, so frenetic was its involvement in this role that it almost paid little attention to the home front.
Nigeria’s leadership role on the continent was a product of the vision, dreams and, sometimes, whims of the founding fathers. They were nevertheless premised on real national capacity. Jaja Wachuku, Nigeria’s first foreign affairs minister noted in 1960 that:
Our country is the largest single unit in Africa… we are not going to abdicate the position in which God Almighty has placed us. The whole black continent is looking up to this country to liberate it from thralldom.
This defined the country’s behavior and continental outlook and has continued to influence successive administrations – weak or effective.
A once admirable leadership role
In an over the year’s leadership assessment of the country, a Professor of International Relations, Covenant University, Sheriff Folarin noted that the sheer size of Nigeria’s population – the largest on the continent which rose from 48.3 million in 1963 to over 200 million in 2020 gave the country the idea that Africa was its natural preoccupation.
In addition, its colonial experience and the abundance of its oil resources and wealth have empowered Nigeria economically. This made it possible for the country to pursue an ambitious foreign policy. It also permitted Nigeria to finance its Civil War with the then breakaway Biafra and strengthening its international independence, as well as, oil made possible an unparalleled post-war recovery.
According to Sheriff Folarin, Nigeria has used its influence to good effect and to good ends. For example, it worked with other countries in the West African sub-region to establish the Economic Community of West African States in 1975. It went on to push for the prevention and resolution of devastating conflicts that engulfed Liberia in 1992. The conflict spilled over into Sierra Leone and other countries in the region. Nigeria spearheaded the cessation of hostilities and created the cease-fire monitoring group to bring a total end to the civil strife and restore democracy in both countries.
Many observers agree that the sterling performance of the monitoring group is unparalleled in the history of regional organizations the world over. It has now become a model to emulate for its operational efficiency and for giving regional actors pride of place in the resolution of regional conflicts.
Nigeria exerted similar efforts to ensure that democratic governments were restored to Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire and Sao Tome et Principe, after military take-over in those countries.
Sheriff further observed that Nigeria in the course of her leadership campaign across the African continent spent over US$10 billion in these peace campaigns and also lost soldiers in the process.
Nigeria has not limited its peacekeeping role to West Africa. It has also been engaged in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia-Eritrea.
The country also played the most important role in fighting apartheid in Southern Africa and supporting liberation movements on the continent.
A spiral decline
Corruption, misappropriation of public funds, electoral malpractices and recently, insurgency and terrorism have devastated the capacity of the country and weakened its moral fortitude to lead the continent.
Amidst enormous wealth, poverty in Nigeria is endemic. It has already become the poverty capital of the world, according to The World Poverty Clock. Nigerians have been reduced to the behest of the politicians that tie them to gridlock of “stomach infrastructure”. This is a new trend which reflects institutionalized and structural poverty. Deprivation puts people in a vulnerable and compromised position where the desperation for survival makes them sell their votes and conscience.
According to experts, the slow movement of the current administration is also killing the Nigerian spirit and leadership posture.
However, this decline never started today. Some believe that the foundation of the country was flawed and for the nation to be able to move forward, there needs to be a deep rooted structural change, free from the influence of the old British arrangement and will need to bring to bear our strength, peculiarities and diversity.
Talking about over six decade of decay and down ward spiral decline of a once promising country, the late Literary icon, Prof. Chinua Achebe best described it in his book; ‘There was a Country’, his memoir of Nigeria and the Nigerian/ Biafra civil war as well as the many monumental bedeviling he has observed in Nigeria when he was active in the polity.
Chinua Achebe wrote;
“Within six years of this tragic colonial manipulation (referring to the period of independence and early years of self rule from 1960 to 1966, before the first bloody coup the country witnessed) Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule. Public servants helped themselves freely to the nation’s wealth.
“Elections were blatantly rigged. The subsequent national census was outrageously stage-managed; judges and magistrates were manipulated by the politicians in power.
“The politicians themselves were pawns of foreign business interests.
“The social malaise in Nigerian society was political corruption. The structure of the country was such that there was an inbuilt power struggles among the ethnic groups, and of course those who were in power wanted to stay in power.
“The easiest and simplest way to retain it, even in a limited area, was to appeal to tribal sentiments, so they were egregiously exploited in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The original idea of one Nigeria was pressed by the leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region. With all their shortcomings, they had this idea to build the country as one.
“The first to object were the Northerners, led by the Sardauna, who were followed closely by the Awolowo clique that had created the Action Group.
“The Northern People’s Congress of the Sardaunians was supposed to be a national party, yet it refused to change its name from Northern to Nigerian People’s Congress, even for the sake of appearances.
“It refused right up to the end of the civilian regime.
“The prime minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who had been built up into a great statesman by the Western world, did nothing to save his country from impending chaos. The British made certain on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country that had played no real part in the struggle for independence. “This was the situation in which I wrote my novel A Man of the People.
Nigerian artists responded to these events in a variety of ways.
“The irrepressible Wole Soyinka put on the stage a devastating satire, Before the Blackout, which played to packed houses night after night in Ibadan.
“The popular traveling theater of Hubert Ogunde and his many wives began to stage a play clearly directed against the crooked premier of Western Nigeria. The theater group was declared an unlawful society and banned in Western Nigeria.
“Things were coming to a head in that region. Violence erupted after an unbelievable election swindle, as a result of the anger and frustration of Western Nigerians.
“It was in these circumstances that Wole Soyinka was charged with holding up the Ibadan radio station and removing the premier’s taped speech!
“Creative writers in independent Nigeria found themselves with a new, terrifying problem on their hands: They found that the independence their country was supposed to have won was totally without content.
“In the words of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria was given her freedom “on a platter of gold.”
“We should have known that freedom should be won, not given on a plate. Like the head of John the Baptist, this gift to Nigeria proved most unlucky.”
Are we optimistic about the future?
Nigeria has been relegated to the background of international affairs. To turn this around requires a revisit to the roots – and mowing the lawns afterwards. Nigeria must take stock of its own performance and capacities and re-position itself – first from within.
According to a constitutional lawyer and activist, Chiagozie Nwabuko, for Nigeria to rise above the fray of her current parochial situation, there is a need to see the ascendancy of a system that rewards meritocracy and discard the so called quota system and federal character which has only established mediocrity as the norm.
According to him, when the country transcends through the system, it will experience a turnaround in all facets of its nationhood.
However, according to Sheriff Folarin, if Nigerian leaders are increasingly determined to proffer African solutions to their problems, then political structures and institutions must be reformed to reflect conditions suitable for sustainable development.
Without a formidable political base, the economy will remain weak and fragile. The political base is crucial, because, the state is the repository of all ramifications and dimensions of power – political, economic, technological and military. And the purpose of the state is to authoritatively allocate these resources.
There is also a need to empower people to mobilize their local resources and to use them for development. And, of course, public funds should not be concentrated in the hands of few individuals, who may be tempted to steal them. An accountable system is one in which money management has several checks.
Oil wealth has been the country’s nemesis, a curse that has promoted corruption and blatant bleeding of the economy. But it is declining in value and as source of national revenue. Now is the time for Nigeria to make good its repeated and well-advertised intentions to diversify the economy.
Looking forward, with the uncertainties surrounding the future of oil in the international market and a few focuses into other energy alternations, a de-emphasis on oil would open the door to smarter ideas about how to create wealth. It would also herald getting rid of a great deal of the phlegm of corruption which has played such a central role in Nigeria’s infrastructural decay, eroded its influence and given it such a negative image.
Unfortunately, it is now widely regarded that African leaders do not look towards Nigeria anymore for counsel, inspiration and help. They think Nigeria has a lot on its plate already and needs help.
“The potential is still there for Nigeria to return to power; but it takes leadership to (re)build the auspicious atmosphere and to activate the country’s potential – the two steps required to regain that enviable frontliner spot on the continent” Sheriff Folarin noted.