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Nigeria is stuck on a treadmill – going nowhere fast

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By Olu Fasan

Nothing agitates me about Nigeria more than its parlous state and uncertain future. So, it’s a huge privilege to be asked to write for this great newspaper, a welcomed opportunity to use its respected medium to contribute to public discourse on the state of the nation! The questioning of institutions and received wisdom is a democratic virtue, and a sceptical lack of deference towards leaders is the first step to reform. So, this column will provoke thought and speak truth to power.

In that spirit, and to set the scene for future discussions, I want to use the column’s debut to draw attention to an issue that should concern every well-meaning Nigerian: the fragility of this country and its worrisome lack of progress.

Nigeria- map

The truth, let’s face it, is that Nigeria is not working. Indeed, according to political scientists, Nigeria is not an effective state because it lacks the ability to get things done. Think of any global league table that measures progress – corruption perception index, government effectiveness index, human development index etc – Nigeria is languishing at the bottom of it. Earlier this year, Nigeria was ignominiously named the “poverty capital of the world”, having overtaken India as the country with the largest number of extremely poor people. Nigeria has 87m people, nearly half its population, living in extreme poverty compared with India’s 73m, even though India’s population is 1.3bn. In its 2016 Country RepTrak Index, the Reputation Institute listed Nigeria among the 16 countries with the worst reputation in the world.

What’s more, Nigeria now qualifies as a fragile state. Recently, Oxford University and the London School of Economics published a joint report, titled “Escaping the fragility trap”, in which they identified six “symptoms of fragility”. They are: 1) security threat from organised non-state violence; 2) government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many citizens; 3) state has weak capacity for essential functions; 4) environment for private investment is unattractive; 5) economy is exposed to shocks with little resilience; 6) Deep divisions in the society.

Looking at the above symptoms vis-à-vis Nigeria, it’s clear that this country fits the fragility bill. For instance, with the spread and impunity of Boko Haram and the marauding herdsmen, few will disagree that Nigeria faces multiple threats from organised non-state violence and that the government is ill-equipped to respond effectively to the security threats. Truth is, Nigeria lacks state capacity and can’t deliver basic services to its citizens. Indeed, this country has one of the worst public sectors or bureaucracies in Africa, which is linked to the fact that it is one of the worst places to do business in the world. And, of course, as a country that depends on oil for 96% of its export and more than 75% of its revenue, Nigeria is one of the world’s most volatile economies, with its economy exposed to shocks. And, finally: deep division in the society. Well, can anyone deny that this country is socially and politically divided, deeply polarised along ethnic and religious lines? Unity and social cohesion elude Nigeria. So, based on the international measurements of state fragility, Nigeria is a fragile state!

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But why is Nigeria, with its huge human and natural resources, still stuck in the poverty and fragility traps 58 years after becoming an independent nation? Why is this country stuck on a treadmill – going nowhere fast – with virtually no significant progress? Surely, the problem is not lack of a talent pool. Today, as ever, Nigerians are holding prominent positions in international organisations and foreign governments all over the world. As Charles Hauss wrote in his book Comparative Politics, “Nigeria’s problems cannot be attributed to a shortage of talented people”.  He then went on to say that “Nigeria’s problems rest with the behaviour of the people who fill key positions”.

Of course, the leaders/followers dichotomy is not that simple because, in the end, as Joseph de Maistre rightly put it, people get the government (leaders) they deserve. But the governance structure of every country, its institutions, can constrain behaviours and shape progress. Which is why serious countries don’t put trust in individual leaders but build structures, robust institutions, that ensure that good governance becomes routine.

And it is why, truth be told, Nigeria must be restructured. Without restructuring this country, it will remain on a treadmill, stuck perpetually in the poverty and fragility traps!



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