State of the Nation with Olu Fasan

March 4, 2021

Nigeria is stuck in a rut, yet its citizens rule the world. Why?

Bola Tinubu

By Olu Fasan

THE outside world is puzzled about Nigeria. How can a country be so richly endowed and yet so utterly backward? Foreigners always lament how Nigeria is badly governed, how its resources are unconscionably squandered and how it has become a fragile state. Yet, Nigeria doesn’t only have a rich natural-resource base, its talent pool is the envy of the world.

Everywhere you look globally, Nigerians are occupying positions of responsibility and leadership. From science to engineering, literature to the arts, economics to other social sciences, Nigerians are recognized worldwide for their expertise and achievements.

Earlier this week, on Monday, March 1, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, formally assumed office as the first African and first female Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, WTO. World leaders have not stopped celebrating this great Nigerian. But while Okonjo-Iweala is the highest-ranking, she is not the only Nigerian with a significant international job. Dr Amina Mohammed is the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji is the President of the International Criminal Court. And at the World Bank, Dr. Sandie Okoro is senior vice president and general counsel. The list goes on!

Yet, while Nigerians bestride the world like a colossus, running world bodies and standing out from the crowd in other fields of human endeavour, their own country is in utter mess. Why is the world drawing from Nigeria’s talent pool while the country itself is so backward?

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You might ask: how backward is Nigeria? Well, take any global index – human development, social progress, government effectiveness, corruption perception, global terrorism, etc. – Nigeria languishes at the bottom. Nigeria is among the worst-performing countries by most international standards. If you don’t believe in global indexes, what about the lived experiences of ordinary Nigerians – the appalling insecurity, the abject poverty, the abysmal delivery of basic services, the institutional decay – all of which underpin the country’s woeful social indicators?

Everyone, public official and commentator in Nigeria should read the two internationally-acclaimed books that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala wrote about her experiences as a minister. For in the two books, she sets out in granular detail Nigeria’s governance challenges and why progress continues to elude this country.

In the first book Reforming the Unreformable, she lists four problems: 1) poor economic management, 2) poor governance and weak institutions, 3) the inability of the state to deliver basic public services, and 4) a hostile environment for private-sector growth. In her second book Fighting Corruption is Dangerous, she said that Nigeria is in a parlous state because of “inappropriate policies, inefficient and non-transparent institutions, corruption, capture by leaders and rent-seeking internal and external elite.” These well-known problems chime with the symptoms of state fragility listed in a joint report by Oxford University and the London School of Economics.

But why do these problems exist? Charles Hauss, a professor of public affairs at George Mason University, USA, says in his book Comparative Politics that “Nigeria’s problems cannot be attributed to a shortage of talented people”, adding: “Nigeria’s problems rest with the behaviour of people who fill key positions.” In 2018, during the launch of her books in London, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was asked why Nigeria was backward despite its talented people, she replied: “Countries that have more cohesion, a social contract and common vision of the future are likely to do better.” Put simply, Nigeria lacks these attributes.

Yet, these are symptoms of deeper structural problems. Let’s remember that many of the Nigerians who are holding, or have held, key international positions were once involved in running Nigeria. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala herself was twice finance minister, and also coordinating minister for the economy, a de facto prime minister! Yet, she couldn’t achieve much. Why? As she says in her books, there are powerful vested interests that “constitute one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the way of Nigeria’s progress.”

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But why does Nigeria have a political system that perennially produces bad leaders, puts mediocrity above meritocracy, allows elite capture, lets public officials act with impunity, and engenders tensions and disunity rather than cohesion and a shared purpose? The answer is simple: Nigeria’s political structure and Constitution are not fit for purpose.

Take checks and balances and accountability that underpin any true democracy. Nigeria’s Constitution creates an executive presidency and concentrates power in the hands of one person, with no effective checks and balances and no accountability mechanism. If that leader lacks vision and competence, then the fish rots from the head down. A country that has an over-powerful but incompetent president, who lacks a positive and grand vision of the future, can never make progress.

In their best-selling book, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson cite overconcentration of power in the hands of a leader as one of the reasons nations fail; they then recommend the diffusion of power with appropriate checks and balances. A former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has just been jailed for corruption; in Nigeria, he would be untouchable! The lack of checks and balances and accountability structures is a major obstacle to progress in Nigeria because it allows public officials to act with utter impunity.

Which brings us to another reason why, despite its talent pool, Nigeria is backward. This country is simply too big and too complex to be run centrally. Every large project must be split into manageable units to be successful. Nigeria, too, must be split into regional units, with power, responsibilities and resources devolved to regional governments. Nigeria needs true federalism; it needs regional powerhouses that can generate growth and prosperity.

True federalism, underpinned by structural rebalancing and equal and equitable treatment of ethnic groups and religions, will certainly also engender internal cohesion, a key condition for progress. Truth is, despite its talent base, Nigeria is backward because its structure and Constitution are deeply flawed. Until the structural defects are tackled through proper restructuring, Nigeria will remain stuck in a rut, while its talented people run the affairs of the world!

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