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The enemies within: Why Nigeria is not working

By Olu Fasan

ALL nations were once poor and chaotic, but several have successfully transited from poverty to prosperity, from anarchy to order and stability. Some are, however, still stuck in extreme poverty and chaos. A modern example of the former is China. In 1951, China was an impoverished backwater, today it’s an economic superpower. Nigeria, sadly, is an acute example of the latter – still stuck in extreme poverty and chaos.

Truth is, Nigeria is not working: its politics is broken, its polity is decadent. Nigeria languishes at the bottom of every global development and governance index. In a recent tweet, a retired US consular officer described Nigeria as “one of the laughingstocks of the world.” That, truly is how the outside world views Nigeria!

Nigerian

But why is Nigeria not working? Well, there are policy-related factors, for instance, those relating to socio-economic policies and political governance. The policy choices that a country makes, and its politico-governance system, can make the difference between its success and its failure. But these policy-related factors are not my focus here. Rather, my focus is the human factors. The truth is that Nigeria’s problems are not caused by foreigners; no foreign country has invaded or plans to invade this country; no foreign power is plotting the failure of Nigeria, whatever the conspiracy theorists might suggest. Nigeria’s problems are self-inflicted, caused primarily by human failures, and it is these endogenous human factors, and the forces behind them, that I call the enemies within.

Now, what are the human factors? Well, there are many, but I would highlight just four. The first is the absolute impossibility of a national consensus on any issue in Nigeria. The second is the pervasive and destructive influences of powerful vested interests. The third is the complete lack of credible institutions of state and civil society. The fourth is the absence of a critical mass of well-informed citizens. As I said, it is a nation’s policy choices and political governance that ultimately determine its progress, but it’s the human factors that shape the policy choices and political environment. So, let’s briefly consider the human factors.

Take national consensus. Progress only happens when there is a consensus in favour of positive change. But when has there been a national consensus for anything in this country? Well, the only time there was a national consensus in Nigeria was during the struggle for independence. Even then, while the South desperately wanted Nigeria to become independent from Britain, moving a motion for it in 1952, the North demurred. It was not until 1959 that the North changed its mind, ushering in Nigeria’s independence in 1960.

SYNLAB Nigeria targets improved service delivery

Today, North and South are similarly divided on political restructuring. Indeed, schisms exist among virtually all the ethnic groups. But no nation can make progress with deeply entrenched divergent positions. Professor Cass Sunstein said in his recent book, How Change Happens, that political change only happens when a critical threshold is reached and the dam bursts. But positive change seems so elusive in this country.

That brings us to the second human factor: vested interests. Nigeria is a country where powerful vested interests dictate every aspect of governance. In her book, Reforming the Unreformable, the former finance minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, illustrated how vested interests can completely derail or damage positive change in Nigeria. For instance, she narrated how her plans to reform the Customs Service were derailed by “some of the powerful forces within government and society.” Truth is, whether by the cabal in President Muhammadu Buhari’s government or powerful forces outside government, this country is run by vested interests who are benefitting from the rot and would resist any positive change.

Of course, vested interests are only powerful because institutions are weak. To be sure, institutions are not just rules and structures but, more importantly, the people running them. Every society needs critical institutions of state and civil society. Sociologists talk about “pillars of integrity”, which can act as effective counter-powers against bad governance. But where are the pillars of integrity in Nigeria? The $2.1 billion arms purchase scandal was very revealing because it showed how virtually all institutions could easily be compromised. I mean, name it – the judiciary, religious groups, traditional institutions, the media, NGOs – all the country’s key institutions allegedly benefitted from the scandal. So, what hope is there for a nation when none of its critical institutions is above board?

Which brings me to the last factor: a critical mass of well-informed citizens? As Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University, put it: “Without a critical mass of well-informed citizens, rules and institutions become paper tigers, the rules get ignored, the institutions get overpowered”. But Nigeria lacks a critical mass of informed citizens to hold leaders and those in authority to account. Poverty, illiteracy, tribalism, self-interest and other ills have bred citizens whose mantra is: “If you can’t beat them, join them”!

Truth is, progress eludes Nigeria primarily because of lack of unity of purpose, dominance of vested interests, weak institutions, absence of enlightened citizens, not to talk of paucity of visionary and inspirational leaders. These human failures are the enemies within. Tackling them is the first step towards making Nigeria work.

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