At 60, Nigeria has failed; restructure it now by Punch Editorial Board

SIXTY years after independence, the abject condition of the Nigerian state is everywhere in evidence; rancour, distrust, fear of implosion and deprivation are the talking points. Hitherto sanguine believers in the myth of “unity in diversity” are joining the majority to agitate that the country reverts to genuine federalism. In the borderlands and rural abodes where insurgents, bandits and militias hold sway, facts on the ground are outpacing polite debate.

Nigeria’s history is a story of an uneasy union. Like some countries where different cultures, language groups and nationalities have been forced, or have chosen under duress, to live together, it is facing existential challenges. Building a nation is a far-cry; the State has failed. The country has been taken over by sundry criminals and society is in excruciating pain. A toxic mix of ethnicity, religion and corruption drives public sector affairs. Femi Mimiko, a political science professor, once said: “Ours is the textbook definition of state capture, where a tiny governing elite runs the system in its own interest and for its own good. It is a system of political and economic exclusion, which fuels anger, and a feeling of marginalisation.” Absolutely!

Rescuing the tottering edifice as a viable going concern will require statecraft, pragmatism and visionary leadership. These, sadly, are patently lacking and time is running out to accomplish this peacefully. There are those like the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), who forlornly cling to this house of cards amid the storm, choosing as the theme for the Diamond Anniversary, “Together.” Said the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, “For a country that has gone through a bitter, internecine civil war, years of political crisis, daunting security challenges, including religious and ethnic crisis, our unity and our resilience are worth celebrating.” Ridiculous!

There is no doubt many people are not much in the mood to celebrate. Nations celebrate freedom not servitude; abundant prosperity not abject poverty; justice not oppression. The contraption the British cynically and fraudulently cobbled together in 1914 has not only failed, but as presently organised, it cannot also work! It is the world’s only remaining natural federation that operates like a unitary state.

The purposes of a state — security of lives and property, welfare of citizens, actualisation of individual and group potential — are in short supply, with the situation deteriorating by the day. Built on a foundation of injustice, fraud and a rigged administrative structure, unity and inclusion have always been elusive. Never since the run-up to and the Nigerian Civil War have the ethnic nationalities and major faiths been so mutually antagonistic.

Political inertia cripples everything: crime has become monstrous, featuring an 11-year-old terrorist insurgency, heavily armed and organised bandits, Fulani herdsmen-militants converging in the country from all over West Africa, kidnappers, cult gangs and violent thugs. The governors of Zamfara, Katsina, Niger and Sokoto states have separately admitted that bandits are in control of swathes of territory like the terrorists who once controlled 27 local government areas in the North-East and still render its major highways unsafe for everyone, including governors and the military.

The economy has for decades defied fixing, kept alive only by hydrocarbon revenues extracted from the Niger Delta region and inequitably shared by the 36 states, the Federal Capital Territory and the central government. This sharing culture renders the states indolent, unproductive and parasitic.

At 60, Nigeria cannot boast of sustained political integration or social inclusion. In key areas of life, the pains of the missed targets are conspicuous. Elections are warfare, often a charade. Repeatedly, the courts decide “winners.”

Unlike its peers, Nigeria has no clearly defined national goals, no future and no hope. The country has lost the capacity to deliver medium or big-sized infrastructure projects. In 2011, a presidential committee found 11,886 abandoned projects, costing N7.78 trillion. More have piled up since then. The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, the Second Niger Bridge, the Ajaokuta Steel Company, the East-West Road, the Mambilla Power Project, rail and road projects and the seaports in Apapa are conspicuous indices of a failed state.

Many states and the Federal Government are heavily indebted. The exchange rate, which was 71 kobo to $1 in 1960, 89k in 1985, N22 in 1993 and N92 at the start of the Fourth Republic in 1999, has shot through the roof. A dollar currently exchanges officially for N379 and higher in the parallel market. For a country heavily dependent on almost every need (including the ones it can produce like petroleum products), it is an economic disaster all the way.

Domestic manufacturing has crashed, instigating a terrible level of unemployment and import dependence. At independence, Nigeria had an unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent, but as the population soared without any scientific plan to reduce it, the country is faced with an unemployment time bomb.  Today, the country’s combined unemployment and underemployment rate stands at an awful 55.7 per cent. The textile industry employed 60,000 Nigerians in 1970, 165,000 in 1980, and hit a peak of 250,000 in 1985. By 2015, it employed just 5,000 workers.

Corruption is an untameable monster. The Human Environment Development Agency said Nigeria lost $600 billion to sleaze between 1960 and 2019. Efforts by succeeding regimes to combat graft have failed woefully. PwC concluded that corruption could cost Nigeria up to 37 percent of GDP by 2030.

All this has inflicted mass poverty. In 2018, Nigeria, with 20 per cent of its population, overtook India as the extreme poverty capital of the world, with 80 million of its citizens living below the threshold of $1.90 per day. Ominously, the World Poverty Clock says that the number has ballooned to 105 million as of mid-2020. Life expectancy is thus low at 55 years, the fifth worst in the world. Nigeria’s peers in 1960, Cuba, Singapore and Malaysia have 78, 83 and 76 years respectively. UNICEF said Nigeria is now the world capital of under-five deaths, again, taking over from India.

Education, the bedrock of every developed society, is a jumble. Although Nigeria has 161 (82 public, 79 private) universities today as against just the University of Ibadan and the University of Nigeria at independence, Nigeria owns the negative distinction of having the highest out-of-school children in the world, meaning that one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. At 62 per cent in 2018, illiteracy is a huge problem. With a population of 200 million people having a single police force of about 370,000 officers, many communities are virtually unprotected.

Yet, public office holders are living in denial, arguing pitiably that Nigeria has taken giant strides. All they hold on to are just a few hits and misses – the unbroken,  but uninspiring 21-year long Fourth Republic, negotiating the Civil War and being Africa’s largest economy when the GDP was rebased in 2014. They forget that Singapore had a per capita income of $428 in 1960, but had $65,233 in 2019. In contrast, Nigeria’s PCI was $92.96 in 1960; in 2018, it was $2,028.

Just how poorly the country is doing is reflected in its rating on the Fragile States Index (formerly failed states index) published by the US think tank, Fund for Peace. Based on factors like weak or ineffective central government that has lost control of part of its territory, lack of public services, widespread corruption, criminality, refugees, and persistent economic adversity, Nigeria is rated the world’s 14th most fragile state. All the social, economic and political factors cited by the FFP are amply present. Politically, the state is being de-legitimised.

Time to peacefully undertake the necessary reform to return to the pre-1966 era of autonomy with the 36 states as effective, autonomous sub-national units is running out. A Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, agreed with a former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, that the country is collapsing and needs urgent fixing to avoid implosion, though Obasanjo flunked the opportunity to reform Nigeria. Some like John Onaiyekan, a cardinal and Afenifere, the South-West pressure group, believe that the main national issue should be restructuring and not elections in 2023. They are right.

Homogenous people with small population and shared historical experience can opt for a unitary style system; but a diverse, multi-ethnic population can thrive only as a federation. Seven of the eight largest countries by area are federations. Russia, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Australia, India and Argentina, being more rational, operate various forms of federalism. Though they are all ethnic Germans, the 16 states of Germany wisely adopt an efficient federal system reflecting their different autonomous existence before unification. Even unitary states like the United Kingdom constantly devolve powers to their constituent territories.

Nigerians may have a country, but definitely not a nation. What then lies ahead? Reform or break. There is nothing sacrosanct about a dysfunctional country. Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo says, “Fortunately for us, our walls are not yet broken, but there are obvious cracks that could lead to a break if not properly addressed.” He is right. And that is what serious federations that are even functioning effectively are doing.

For example, in order to accommodate the French-speaking Quebec Province, Canada is the most decentralised country among the three North America federations: Canada, the US and Mexico. In fact, it is one of the most decentralised countries in the world, according to a respected journal, American Quarterly. It says, “Over the years, individual provinces assert themselves very effectively, especially in economic areas, contributing to the overall prosperity of the country. Ontario was originally the manufacturing and industrial heartland of Canada, Alberta has become the oil and gas capital of the country and Québec has emerged as the principal producer of hydroelectric energy in North America. In recent years, some of the poorer provinces, such as Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, have transformed into richer provinces because of a strong demand for their natural resources (oil, gas, potash).” But Nigeria is stuck as a “feeding bottle” federation with all its dire consequences.

It is either Nigeria reforms or creates room for a break-up. And the only way to prevent the country’s disintegration is to fundamentally rework the Union into a competitive federalism where all the units become productive, fend for themselves and take proper charge of their fate. But is there a will?  Somehow, the critical mass is galvanising in many parts of the country to save the country from collapsing. But the groups that are imperiously standing against restructuring, especially the Northern elite, should not push other nationalities to a position where negotiation becomes impossible and secession becomes inevitable.

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