By Dakuku Peterside
A significant chapter of global history was closed on 30th August 2022. On that day, an equally substantive champion of reforms passed and bequeathed us a mixed assessment of his contribution to the new world order. Mikhail Gorbachev is that man. He was not alone in this powerful club. His best-known contemporaries were Ronald Regan of the USA and Margaret Thatcher of the UK. They were not ideological soulmates but shared a heart for radical reforms.
Gorbachev represents different personalities depending on which side of the cliff you stand. Widely seen in Russia as the man responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev is hailed in the West as the leader who helped end the Cold War in Europe and nudged Russia towards political liberalisation. Many on the left in the “global South” blame him for facilitating US triumph in the Cold War and creating a global imbalance in favour of the West.
His record is much more complicated than the extreme perceptions of his brief tenure as the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during 1985-91. Whichever way one assesses the leader, who died Tuesday at 91, there is no denying his role as a world-historical figure who altered post-War international politics.
He did not set out to dismantle the Soviet Union. That was an unintended outcome of his effort to reform the Russian economy (perestroika), inject a measure of openness into its closed society (glasnost), end the arms race with the US, build cooperative relations with Europe, and pull back from military adventurism in Afghanistan.
The perestroika (“restructuring” or “reformation”), which he started then, never reached the destination he wanted – democratic, humane socialism, perhaps because that destination was a utopia rather than a real place. The glasnost (openness) policy revolutionised Soviet Union society by allowing for a vibrant civil society and relatively free press. Glasnost galvanised opposition to Soviet rule and gave the people the ‘fuel’ to burn down the communist ideology of the time. But there is no doubt that Gorbachev welcomed Western ideas and assistance—seemingly recognising that an open economy and a vibrant civil society were the keys to his country’s future.
As a young member of the CPSU Politburo, taking charge of a society mired in multiple crises, Gorbachev believed that rejuvenating the Soviet Union was his patriotic task. But he could not control the forces he unleashed. This, in turn, led to the collapse of the communist system that the 1917 Russian Revolution founded. During the seven decades that it lasted, the Soviet Union had a powerful impact on world affairs — playing a critical role in defeating fascism in Europe, constructing the post-War order in Europe, and inspiring communist movements worldwide.
Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of Gorbachev’s presumed triumphs have turned out to be ephemeral. After a brief flowering of liberalism, hopes for democracy in Russia have withered away. The peace Gorbachev created in Europe rose in flames as Russia invaded Ukraine in February. If Gorbachev hoped for constructive relations with the West, President Vladimir Putin is now locked in a severe confrontation with Europe and the US.
Reflecting on the life and times of Mikhail Gorbachev leads us to fundamental questions about Nigeria’s economic, political, and social evolution but, most notably, a future marked by uncertainty and rapid changes. The parallelism between Nigeria of today and the Soviet Union of Gorbachev is apparent. The decay of the Nigerian systems is internal, and the cancerous nature needs painful surgery to remove the affected organs of the system to have any chance of growth in Nigeria.
Corruption, insecurity, criminality, poverty, youth unemployment and hopelessness are ravaging the country and may push Nigeria over the precipice. However, like the Soviet Union, we must take care not to kill the Nigerian state by unleashing reforms whose consequences may not be clear and may lead to the unravelling of the Nigerian state like that of the Soviet Union. Therefore, Nigeria has a lot to learn from Gorbachev and the reform and collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nigeria has come to a point where it requires immediate holistic reforms to lead the country in a direction that will positively impact its development. The existing systems are not working, and it is apparent to all. Only a madman will keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. Nigeria needs to overhaul the political system, which is barely democratic. Only a courageous leader with deep insight and vision can upturn the system and build consensus on extensive political and structural reforms. A critical element of the reform is a fit-for-purpose governance structure, decentralised and cost-effective system.
This reform must be gradual and pushed from the centre with the buy-in of people from all parts of Nigeria. The universalism of collective national interest must subsume ethnicism, regionalism and religious jingoism for the benefit of all. In the spirit of openness and inclusiveness, leaders must share their visions with the people and show them how they work hard to actualise their ideas.
The leaders must restructure the Nigerian economy to be more productive. There is no basis for growth if all we do is consume and not produce, mainly when 70% of what we consume comes from abroad.
Nigeria needs a leader who, through good implementable policies, will transform Nigeria’s economy. We have economic transformation models from Singapore, UAE, and South Korea, to adopt and improve upon. The leader must have the courage to make difficult decisions to run a modern capitalist economy driven by market principles but adapted to serve Nigeria’s peculiar interests.
Nigeria needs a leader in the ilk of Gorbachev with the sincerity of purpose and courage to upturn the system and make the hard choices Nigeria desperately needs. However, this leader must be careful to manage the reforms to avoid the disaster of the collapse of Nigeria, just like the Soviet Union.