WITH the national confab in progress, the subject of this article is so ‘on-time’ that I intend, before the process concludes, to launch straight into the heart of it without the essayist’s introductory niceties and elegant phrase-making.
I think it’s a near-disaster that the Nigerian political lexicon came up first with the phrase ‘geo-political zones’ to refer to its major ethno-geograhic areas while we are yet to find deeply-rooted organizing principles for economic modernisation and nation-building. Sustainable nation-building should be 90% about sound economic policy, with positive socio-psychological values reinforcing good governance.
Among others, one innocuous background to the virus of low-quality policy versus high-tension politics in most African countries (with perhaps the thankful exception of Botswana, Mauritius, Tunisia, Morroco and, arguably, post-genocide Rwanda) is a famous statement by one of Africa’s political giants of the anti-colonial struggle. I mean immortal Kwame Nkurumah. He was quoted as declaring, with a hectoring cross-continent voice, that Africa’s newly independent countries should first ‘seek the kingdom of politics, and all other things would be added unto them .…’, echoing one of The Bible’s best known, elegant and timeless admonitions concerning the Kingdom of God.
Nkurumah, of course, spoke in a different season for a different reason, as compared to the largely anti-development context in which Africa’s pernicious political dynamics has played out in recent decades. The great man, who, like Zik of Africa, was a deeply active young intellectual overseas, had been inspired by North America’s and the Caribbean’s politico-literary-intellectual movements against imperialism, racism and colonialism in the first half of the last century. This pumped-up student of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ deployed that famous statement only to emphasize the crucial importance of using our newly-won independence to ensure near-total emancipation of the African mind.
Nkurumah’s advocacy to seek first the kingdom of politics invited Africa’s new countries to consolidate their hard-won political freedom into a platform of resistance to neo-colonialism in any form or ploy. His call inspired, for instance, Nigeria’s university students who rose stoutly against and eventually stopped the British-Nigeria Defence Pact proposed under the Tafawa Balewa government in the early 1960s. Nkurumah’s call was not intended for African politicians to play politics for the sake of politics, but was rather a time-bound, fit-for-purpose rallying cry for Africa to focus on and prioritize the construction of modern, industrialized economies as a solid foundation for viable and socio-economically inclusive nation building. It seems subsequent African political leaders have mindlessly mis-used that statement as an excuse for politics for its own greedy sake, leading to the pervasive developmental failure now bedevilling the continent.
The failure of Africa’s leaders to achieve industrial-economic transformation six decades after that statement was made has left de-humanizing footprints of ultra-poverty in crowded, unsightly agglomerations of misery in cities across the continent, with accompanying social and psychological malaise. To cite just one of many painful examples of how we have over-played politics and over-failed on policy for economic/industrial development in Africa, a highly-placed Nigerian diplomat serving in the African Union (AU) shared with me his utter embarrassment in discovering, as Head of an AU Mission, that even AU diplomats’ salaries are overwhelmingly accounted for by aid grants by the EU and some bilateral organisations!! If, for any reasons, the EU were to cut off aid to the African Union, you don’t want to imagine just what might happen. Due to too much politics at the expense of sound economic policy, we continue to deepen economic (and therefore) political dependence on the very societies against which we worked so hard to gain political (some say ‘new-flag’) independence.
When societies embark on industrial economic production which is inclusive, generates mass-employment, develops high-quality human capital and continuously expands the middle-class, they unleash widespread affluence, R&D and technological capacity, and tend to experience minimal intra and inter-group tension.
Where, as clearly in Nigeria’s case, crucial aspects of policy for economic development and nation-building are treated as secondary by incompetent and corrupt leadership, and subjugated under the logic of desperate politicking, greed and unwholesome (do-or-die) rivalry for power, real, imagined and other ‘toxic’ triggers of disharmony germinate. Such socio-politically toxic triggers get embedded as immanent trends of disunity in society’s structures, norms and systems, sooner or later producing a critical mass of murderous and socially-disruptive elements. That is the reality represented by Niger Delta militancy and Boko Haram.
Across Africa, sadly, and arguably in Nigeria more than elsewhere, politics has so blatantly trumped policy for economic development that the key questions are the silly, polity-heating ones like ‘Whose turn is it to rule?’, ‘whose political zone should produce the next party chairman?’, ‘which State should produce this Minister, that Ambassador, ‘which tribe should produce the next Governor, or Chairman of the Football Association?’, which religion should produce the next railway corporation chairman?’. Such silly agitations have now become so deeply embedded in the psyche of the minority of selfish, anti-development and power-mongering characters that populate, rule and ruin Nigeria’s socio-economic and political-power space. We all (the poor, most especially) pay the price.
In my mind, these ultimately silly and irrelevant questions, which, unfortunately also get transmitted to the popular consciousness, constitute the most cynical background challenge to Nigeria’s nation building and economic modernization. There’s simply TOO MUCH politics in the air!! The overwhelming majority of Nigerian politicians are 90% ‘politics-focused’ 90% of the time, whereas what the country so desperately needs is a large number of ‘economy-focussed’ politicians.
Regarding this problem, nothing notionally underscores our economic development malaise more clearly than the fact that we (unfortunately) refer to the six broad ethno-geographic areas of the country as ‘geo-political’ zones. I will argue that this terminology, which prioritizes the political imperative, conditions the minds and perception of not just our developmentally-retarded politicians, but also of the average, politically-aware citizen about what is the most essential issue at stake for nation building. Politicians and most of us see those zones as inner-chambers from which regional, tribal/ethnic political gladiators prepare and emerge to fight the political battle over who controls the power and office to allocate resources at the national level. This same developmentally-useless inter-zonal contest for political and resource advantage is reproduced among LGAs and senatorial zones within the States of Nigeria. The ultimate insult to Nigerians is that the anti-nation-building wars of individual greed are pretentiously claimed to be fought on behalf of the citizens of those so-called political zones!!
So long as we internalize – as groups and as individuals, the cynical ‘geo-political’ rivalry idea, for that long shall those six areas be seen and used mainly as launching pads for political-power struggle and rivalry of the most desperate, primitive and vicious kind by Nigerian politicians, most of whom, apart from corrupt gains through public office, have very little claim to success and achievements in any respectable fields of human endeavour.
Politics is no doubt important, and it impacts all of us individually or as groups, whether or not one chooses to be interested or involved in it. But look closely, politics (especially the Nigerian kind) has feet of clay in the most crucial areas of existential progress – for individuals and for groups. Politics, like politicians, feeds off economic progress and prosperity. In fact, Nigerians politicians even feed off the misery of the majority in periods of terrible economic downturn!! A sound economy, on the contrary, funds politics and provides the public resources on which politicians feed and from which they often steal. A good economy also oils the wheels of good governance, where and when that is the priority of political leadership. About time, therefore, we made economic production, productivity, human empowerment and socio-economic well-being of Nigerians the priority concern of politics and politicians.
While the Confab is about to end, I am hereby challenging members to seriously consider re-designating those 6 areas as ‘Geo-Economic’ Zones. Such terminology tweaking will change the perception of these zones in Nigerians’ popular psyche (politicians especially) such that they are no longer seen as areas from which to launch politico-ethnic wars against other zones, but rather as places in which frantic and creative economic production and human development are taking place, where there is a rush to outperform other zones in a context of healthy economic competition. The idea of specially-designated economic and industrial regions or zones has been in currency for over a century in countries that have put economic modernisation at the heart of their nation-building vision and effort. Saudi Arabia, for example, has embarked on the construction of four Economic Cities during the past decade, with a view to making them the hubs of economic production, manufacturing, R&D, employment generation and technological innovation.
The Ruhr heartland has served that purpose in Germany, the Rhone-Saone Corridor in France, the British Midlands, including the industrial cities of Northern England, Ukraine, for the former Soviet Union (perhaps why Russia is today very jealous of perceived encroachment in Ukraine by the EU and US), the Northern region of Italy, Eastern China, etc.
Nigeria features the uniquely good fortune of having varied and evenly spread natural resources across all the six main ethno-geographic zones. To that extent, the natural basis already exists for creating an atmosphere of wholesome rivalry (as well as collaboration) over production, productivity, innovation, invention and technological know-how. The same way our elite collaborate to establish political parties that are multi-ethnic conglomerates (note the composition of PDP and APC) to be used for election-winning and political advantage, let them now compete (and collaborate) over positive drivers of socio-economic wellbeing and nation-building. Let’s extend the debate and the fighting over and beyond ‘whose turn is it to rule?’
I hereby move that the national confab throw the term ‘geo-political zone’ into the rubbish bin of under-development (where it has always belonged) and adopt the more grown-up and nation-building-friendly term ‘Geo-Economic Zone’. It’s a change that, in my view, will prove popular with the masses of Nigeria. Case rested.
Bolaji Ogunseye is a policy analyst and development professional