By Ikechukwu Amaechi
ON Tuesday, October 1, Nigerians, as has become the tradition in the last 59 years, celebrated the independence anniversary of their country. The red carpets were rolled out in Abuja and across the 36 states. There were dinner parties in state houses where some of the choicest wines the world can boast of were served. Statements were issued and flowery speeches made about how great a country Nigeria, the giant of Africa, is.
The hoi-polloi were reminded that God didn’t make any mistake bringing the country’s over 350 ethnic nationalities together under one umbrella called Nigeria and those harbouring any thought of a fundamental tinkering with the structure of the Nigerian state were admonished to perish the thought. Instructively, the pomp and ceremony are over a day after. The speeches have been filed away to be reproduced a year from now when the country will be marking its Diamond jubilee.
Between now and then, nothing will change for the better and nothing changed between last year and today. It is business as usual. Some will even claim that those who want to see Nigeria on the moon, metaphorically, are unreasonable and uncharitable because the country is too young. They will remind you that the U.S. gained independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, 243 years ago, forgetting that Nigeria is not reinventing the wheel. In any case, why must we wait to be two centuries old or more to make progress?
But no matter what those who claim to be more patriotic than others say, 59 years is significant both for individuals and nations. Anyone born 59 years ago has come of age. In fact, going by the country’s very youthful population with 44 per cent between 0-15 years old, 53.2 per cent between 16-65 years and only 2.8 per cent over 65 years, more than 60 per cent of the country’s current estimated population of about 201 million was not born as at October 1, 1960.
This statistics is necessary considering that many of those born after independence have made giant strides in all fields of human endeavour. But same cannot be said of Nigeria. The only area where Nigeria has grown by leaps and bounds is population. From a reasonably manageable population of 38 million in 1950 to 186 million in 2016 going by the 2017 revision of the World Population Prospects, Nigeria’s population today stands at over 201 million, making it the seventh most populous country in the world.
While the leaders were clinking champagne glasses on Tuesday for successfully holding all of us down, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, former Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN Governor, was painting a scary picture in Lagos. Speaking on “Economic and institutional restructuring for the next Nigeria” at The Platform Nigeria, an Initiative of the Covenant Christian Centre, Soludo said: “Nigeria has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. If current trends continue and you believe the population figures, then the future may be overwhelming. By the time a child born today turns 30 (about 2050), there will be about 400 million Nigerians and when she is 80 (about 2100), there will be about 752 million Nigerians (third largest population in the world).”
The import of this is obviously lost on the leaders who were making flowery speeches, extolling Nigeria’s giant strides. They most banal amongst them were overtly obsequious and oleaginous. Others, too clever by half, admit that mistakes have been made, opportunities missed, but still insist that the country is over the hump and, therefore, making progress. But how can a country be on the up and up when its leadership class has no clue what it takes to jumpstart a 21st century knowledge-driven economy? Even when the leaders are abreast of the issues, they lie to themselves. The most egregious of lies is lying to oneself. And that is what we do always. We lie to ourselves.
Or how else can one explain the All Progressives Congress, APC, assertion that Nigeria was on the right course? “In spite of the inherited and our current challenges,” the ruling party said in its October 1, message, “President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has made commendable strides on so many fronts, most significantly the fight against graft, diversifying and revamping the economy, curbing insurgency and emerging crimes, promoting positive values in our national life, strengthening our democratic institutions and processes and achieving a respectable international standing.”
How egregious can a lie be? While it is true as the ruling party noted that “as a nation, we are better together than we are apart,” President Buhari has, wittingly or otherwise, done more than any other leader to keep this country divided along religious and ethnic lines. And while nobody expects the APC which has been fashioned in the president’s image to call the party’s alter-ego out, no one expects them to tell white lies particularly where facts don’t bear such claims out.
And here are some of the facts. Records of United Nations agencies show that Nigeria’s Human Development Index, HDI, value for 2017 is 0.532 – which put the country in the low human development category – positioning it at 157 out of 189 countries and territories. It is even worse today. HDI is a composite index which includes health, education, income, livelihood security and other indicators. It focuses on three main fields of human development: healthy life, knowledge and decent standard of living. Nigeria has the world’s third lowest life expectancy rate of 54.5 years, according to the United Nations.
In its current report released in April, the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, said the life expectancy of an average Nigerian in 2019 is only better than those of people in Sierra Leone, Chad and the Central African Republic, which have 53, 54, 54 years life expectancy rates respectively. Even war-torn Afghanistan has 65 years, Somalia 58 and Syria 73.
A Demographic Health Survey, DHS, conducted by the United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF, and the Nigerian government shows that today about 13.2 million of Nigerian children aged 5-14 years are not in school. That figure means that one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. In 2018, findings, based on a projection by the World Poverty Clock and compiled by Brookings Institute, showed that Nigeria with 87 million of its population had overtaken India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty. The implication is that almost half of our population live on less than $1.90 a day. That population is increasing and not reducing.
A human capital report in Quartz Africa on October 12, 2018, said Nigeria was set to stay the world’s poverty capital for at least a generation because it was making little progress in eliminating poverty. “New reports by global development institutions show that human capital spending in Nigeria – the poverty capital of the world after recently overtaking India – is among the worst in the world,” the business news magazine wrote.
Soludo put it more starkly when he buttressed the 12 clusters of variables that are considered in computing the Fragile/Failed States Index by the U.S Fund for Peace. “The index which aims to ‘assess vulnerability to collapse’ summarises the failure of Nigeria’s institution and measures four clusters of variables, namely: a) Cohesion (security apparatus, factionalised elite, and group grievance); b) Economic (economic decline, uneven economic development, and human flight and brain drain); c) Political (state legitimacy, public services, and human rights and rule of law); and d) Social (demographic pressures, refugees and IDPs, and external intervention).
“Nigeria’s ranking has deteriorated from 54 in 2005 and now stands between 13 and 15 over the past eight years and largely in the red alert category with countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Guinea, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc,” he said.
This is systemic decline rather than progress. Making progress would mean that the indices of development are pointing north. They are not. Instead, they are headed south. Some people will argue that the rot did not start today. That is true. But Buhari has made it worst. If there is any intention to reverse the trend, the starting point is acknowledgement of how bad things are and not playing the ostrich by lying to ourselves as we did on October 1.
Rather than the illusion of progress we are proclaiming, the truth is that Nigerians were better off yesterday than today. For me, that is the classical definition of retrogression.