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The promise of greatness

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By Obadiah Mailafia

THE English playwright William Shakespeare famously observed that some people are born great, some achieve greatness, while yet others have greatness “thrust upon them”. Same can be said about nations. We Nigerians had greatness thrust upon us, but we have proceeded to make such an appalling mess of it.

National greatness is a combination of factors: economic prosperity, high per capita income, human security, happiness and general well-being. The richest countries in the world include the United States, China, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, India and Brazil. When we discount for well-being and quality of life, the middle-level democracies top the list: Finland, Norway, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia. At the opposite end, we have failed states such as Nigeria, Pakistan, DRC, Afghanistan, Somalia and Haiti.

The nineteenth century robber baron, Cecil Rhodes, famously declared that “to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life”. Today, we could say that the real lottery winners of life are children born in the Nordic countries, where average citizens enjoy the highest in terms of economic prosperity, human security and quality of life. Political philosophers from Aristotle and Plato to our day have debated the secrets of national greatness as have historians from Herodotus and Thucydides to Arnold Toynbee and Paul Kennedy.


Ten elements, to my mind, matter for national greatness. First, existence of a legitimate constitution and the Rule of Law. Great nations are often those that have reached a constitutional settlement among their people. They would have agreed a constitution based on the popular will and not just one group at the expense of others. Equally crucial is the rule of law. China may not be a liberal democracy, but the Chinese are evidently committed to the rule of law in how they govern their country. This makes for continuity, stability and legitimacy.

Second, commitment to nation building and national integration. Great nations may be ethnically diverse, but their leaderships are deeply committed to nation building. Linked to this is the important issue of elite consensus. The national elite in great nations tend to forge a national consensus regarding their common future as a nation and as a people. This means building an inclusive government and administration that reflects the country as a whole, not just a narrow section of it.

Third, a strong and enlightened leadership. It is said that a dozen men built America. They include founding fathers such as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Nations do not emerge out of nebulous ether; they are, rather, the handiworks of enlightened statesmen. We cannot think of Britain without statesmen such as William Gladstone and Sir Winston Churchill. Nor can we think of India without Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Creative leaders set the tone and ensure that the nation endures and prevails.

Fourth, human security. No country can flourish without peace and social harmony. Human security entails security of life and property and a peaceful atmosphere in which communities and individuals can pursue their dreams of the good life.

Fifth, institutionalisation of property rights. Property rights are fundamental requirement for a free-market economy in which people freely invest and reap the fruits of their labour. As John noted long ago, there can be no liberty without the right to property.

Sixth, investment in human capital. A great nation is also one that valorises people as the ultimate source of national wealth. In our day and age, having the fortune of sitting on a lake of oil is no longer the guarantee of national wealth. As a matter of fact, reliance on merely extractive natural resources can be a source of considerable anguish, including corruption and violent conflict. Investing in the youth is the key to a prosperous future.

Seventh, effective public institutions. Successful nations are also those that have evolved an effective state machinery. An effective state is one that is able to secure the common peace, monopolises the use of the instruments of legitimate violence, establishes presence throughout the national territory in terms of effective public administration, builds a merit-based civil service, ensures national consensus, commits to nation building and mobilises the entire populace behind higher national goals and purposes.

Eighth, economic development and economic growth. In our democratic age, economic prosperity is not possible without long-term economic growth. A country cannot be great without a certain minimum level of economic prosperity. Such prosperity in itself is not possible without economic development and long-term growth. A wise leadership is one that promotes growth through astute management of public finances, prudent investment in human capital and public goods, building sound infrastructures, ensuring food security, creating jobs and expanding the possibility frontiers of freedom and prosperity. In the words of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest level of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”

Ninth, preservation of historical memory. Great nations are characterised by a long historical memory. The Jews, for example, trace their history to over 4,000 years. The Chinese are building a great civilisation on the back of over three millenniums of unbroken history. The nations of Europe are characterised by a long historical memory. Unfortunately, we Africans are, by definition, a people without a history. Not long ago, the enemies of our country sat down and decided that history should no longer be taught in our schools. For a people that occupy the lowest rungs of world civilisation as determined by our Roman Conquistadores, erasing our history is part of the long-term strategy of keeping the African people in slavery and subjection under the new Global Apartheid. It is an evil that we must overcome if our collective self-confidence is to be fully restored.

Finally, commitment to moral righteousness. A commitment to righteousness, however, defined, is central to the making of great nations. It has been said that “without vision the people perish”. The vision being referred to is the vision of righteousness. There are evil countries and there good ones. A good country is one that is founded on righteousness, which we define in terms of commitment to peace, truth, justice and law. But it has also been said that an unarmed prophet is doomed.

Righteousness must go hand-in-hand with strength and military might. Righteous wars must be fought and potential bullies must be left in no doubt that they will meet their doom if they crossed the red lines of history. A successful nation must be able to defend itself and must be able to go into alliances with others to take on aggressive rogue states when the need arises, as sooner or later it must.

The nineteenth century French aristocrat and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the young American Republic and sought to understand the moral and institutional foundations of its democracy, had this to say: “I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbours … in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in her democratic congress and in her matchless Constitution. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of America…America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

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