Nigeria @ 50

September 30, 2010

Nigeria and the Promise of Tomorrow

By Olusegun Adeniyi
Nigeria today marks its 50th anniversary as an independent country. But the Jubilee celebration in Abuja has been shadowed by  growing apprehensions, in several quarters, of an impending national crisis.

This fear, even if unduly hysterical, is fuelled by the incendiary nature of the on-going campaign for the 2011 general elections.

With subtle blackmail and open threats, political office seekers and their supporters are busy huffing and puffing over whether the presidency should return to the North to ‘compensate’ for the untimely termination by death of the Umaru Musa Yar’Adua presidency; or it should be retained by the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, because the South-south where he hails from produces the oil wealth that sustains the nation.

As it is typical, the current shouting match is not about programmes or ideals or for that matter the capacity of the contenders.

It is about their region of origin. Given that this sad narrative fits perfectly into the stereotype of Nigeria as two nations comprising ‘Christian South’ and ‘Muslim North’, it is then no surprise that former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. John Campbell, would paint a ‘doomsday scenario’ in the current edition of FOREIGN AFFAIRS and in his coming book ominously titled, “Nigeria: Dancing on the Abyss”.

While we can argue that the oft-predicted breakup of Nigeria remains largely far-fetched given that what unites the Nigerian ruling elite (from both the North and South) far outweighs what divides them, it will be foolhardy to dismiss Campbell’s thesis, essentially because there are increasing signs of desperation on the part of the main actors.

And when Nigerian politicians become desperate, they are usually very dangerous to the health of the larger society.

At a time when you expect serious introspection on the part of the political elite about the failings and lost opportunities of the last 50 years, all you get is polarizing campaign rhetoric which helps to heat up the polity and pushes our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines. While I have no problem with whatever ethnic or zonal permutations politicians come up with in the process of electing the next president and governors, the bottom-line remains that it would be much more productive if the aspirants also begin to place premium on the welfare of the people with a view to making the right policy choices.
This is especially important now that we have another golden opportunity staring Nigeria in the face. A new report sponsored by the British Council and coordinated by David Bloom, Harvard Professor of Economics and Demography, offers a good pointer in this direction.
Titled “Nigeria-The Next Generation” the report states: “Nigeria is at a crossroads: one path offers a huge demographic dividend, with tremendous opportunity for widespread economic and human progress, while the other path leaves Nigeria descending into quicksand. Nigeria’s most important asset is its young people – more important than oil. History has proven young adults to be a powerful agent of beneficial change, especially if they are healthy and educated, with decent job prospects.”
Against the backdrop of the fact that most Western countries are already grappling with the problem of an ageing population, Nigeria’s young population is a major potential. But this opportunity promises no inevitable outcome: it can be a dividend or a disaster. With the right policies, the report concludes, Nigeria could easily become one of the world’s leading economies; and with wrong choices, “Nigeria’s development breakthrough could be forever lost.”
The research on which several people, including former Nigerian Finance Minister and current Managing Director of the World Bank, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, collaborated argues that right now, Nigeria is poorly positioned to maximise the economic opportunities created by its demographics yet if this potential is not harnessed, “it will become an increasingly disruptive force”. The signs of this malaise are already all-too-evident on the streets of our major cities. What may not be so obvious, however, is that the consequences of mismanaging revenues accruing from natural resources are far easier to deal with than the after-effect of toying with a rising demographic tide. The latter course of action will most certainly be catastrophic for our nation.
The 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from Britain therefore offers Nigerian leaders (current and aspiring) a rare moment to accept responsibility for the past and seize the future. They must begin to fashion out the requisite strategies necessary to overcome the human and institutional barriers that for decades have held the country back, with a focus on accountability and good governance. They must also become more serious about putting in place social and physical infrastructure that will deepen and unleash the capacities of Nigeria’s next generation. All these will mean charting a new course and embracing a new form of politics.
Sadly, there seems to be little or no efforts to steer the people in that direction. More unfortunately still, in a nation where positions of trust—in both private and public sectors—have often been mistaken for opportunities to ‘come-and-eat’, it is not lost on critical Nigerian observers-some might even say it’s a fitting metaphor— that the most significant highlight of the 50th anniversary of our nation would be the cutting and eating of a giant cake!

Self righteousness

What’s more, self-righteousness seems to be the order of the day. Today, almost anybody with access to the media is blaming the nation’s woes on leadership failure and corruption. That may well be true but the current circus is almost akin to the African folklore of three famished brothers eating from the same plate of food evidently not enough to satiate their hunger. Apparently losing out in the game of greed, the first brother remarked but to no one in particular: ‘you are eating too fast’. To this the second brother responded: ‘so you saw him’.  The third brother completed the farce: ‘That was exactly what I wanted to say’!
With the landscape strewn with broken dreams and lost opportunities, what Nigeria today needs are not leaders who can regale the people with litany of her failings since we can all see them. What the nation needs today are men and women who will stand up and be counted in the process of her regeneration; change agents who will reposition Nigeria for the promise of tomorrow.
Fortunately, the nation has an abundance of such men and women in all fields of human endeavor. It is time for them to stand up and be counted.

Adeniyi, former Presidential spokesman, is currently a Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University