To the average Nigerian, Nigeria has not fundamentally changed. The economy has doubled in size, mobile phones are common, yet Nigeria remains poor, poorly governed, and underdeveloped. And as far as many Nigerians are concerned, this state of affairs has been the same for a long time; all the economic, political, and social problems that plagued the country at its existence remain unresolved.
Nigeria has many problems, but only a few fundamental ones: a dysfunctional socio-political structure, profoundly entrenched corruption, and an unproductive economy.
A stroll through recent decades would reveal that none of these problems are new. Widespread poverty, weak institutions, endemic corruption, political instability, social conflict—these are all phrases that could characterise Nigeria at any point within the last fifty years.
Perhaps no one knew how to capture the Nigerian experience as well as the late Fela Kuti, and his evocative words in “Shuffering and Shmiling”—“My people dey shuffering and shmiling, everyday na the same thing. Suffer, suffer…”—perfectly articulate this.
Indeed, it is an indictment on Nigeria that many of Fela’s laments still ring true today. In Nigeria, problems are not solved; instead, they persist or evolve and manifest in other guises. For instance, fuel subsidies were introduced as a stop-gap measure to cushion rising international oil prices in 1977. Since then, fuel subsidies have been the source of multiple corruption scandals and still consumed over ₦700 billion in 2018.
This is Nigeria. A nation seemingly stuck in perpetual underdevelopment.
The more things change, the more they remain the same
It is apparent that the persistence of Nigeria’s problems is not due to a shortage of awareness, campaign promises, or resources.
For example, many Nigerian leaders have publicly resolved to diversify the economy away from its reliance on oil. As far back as 1986, General Ibrahim Babaginda declared his intent to diversify the economy. In fact, one of the core objectives of the derided Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) was to “restructure and diversify the productive base of the economy,” with a view to reducing dependence on the oil sector and imports.
Thirty years later and that refrain is still repeated—the government is trying to diversify the economy. Another constant promise of every administration has been eliminating electricity blackouts in the nation, yet Nigeria remains one of the worst-performing countries with regards to electricity supply. Other economic problems are just as old: double-digit inflation, unsustainable public debt, and so on.
Nigeria’s stasis is best seen in comparison with its pre-independence contemporaries. In 1960, GDP in Nigeria and South Korea was $4.1 billion and $3.9 billion respectively. Today, South Korea’s GDP of $1.5 trillion is over four times that of Nigeria.
The same stagnation can be observed in education. Singapore in the early 1960s had educational statistics similar to that of many African countries, including Nigeria. Today, the nation’s literacy rate stands at 97%. Nigeria, on the other hand, has only been able to improve the literacy rate to 60%.
Throughout Nigeria’s history, it appears that the nation has been running on a hamster-wheel of underdevelopment. Why is that the case?
Never a country
An argument could be made that Nigeria’s perpetual dysfunction stems from its fundamental structure. Nigeria was never designed to function as a nation, but as a business enterprise which metamorphosed into a rentier agglomeration of extractive institutions posing as a nation.
Thus, many of the problems Nigeria faces today, particularly those in the political and social sphere, stem from the absence of a cohesive national structure, and the absence of proper institutions with the capacity for nation-building.
Besides, there is no social accord which establishes consensus on the Nigerian national identity and the meaning of Nigerian citizenship. It could be argued that the nation’s seemingly fundamental problems are fuelled by the absence of a common heritage, which would otherwise aid consensus building and proper national identity. Both are necessary for the solutions required to solve Nigeria’s deep-rooted structural problems.
However, Nigeria is neither the only nation with an unusual creation nor the only country bequeathed a chequered history. Several nations, including India and Singapore, have been able to overcome similar problems and transition into functioning societies.
So, while Nigeria has a fundamental identity problem, this problem has been exacerbated by bad leadership and corruption.
The problem with Nigeria
The easiest lens to view Nigeria’s stagnation is through its leadership.
Over the last six decades, Nigeria has had thirteen Heads of Governments and hundreds of State Governors, yet only a few can be regarded as being mildly successful. One constant since Independence Day has been the absence of good leaders.
Rather than chart a path towards national development, pervasive distribution struggles amongst the nation’s elites often result in political instability and the erosion of good governance.
Tied to this is the problem of corruption. Often cited as the chief culprit of Nigeria’s woes, there is no controversy over its influence on Nigeria’s state of affairs.
As far back as 1947, thirteen years before the nation’s independence, a Colonial Government report identified corruption as a moral failure in Nigerian public service. Nearly twenty years later, corruption, among other factors, provided the pretext for a group of young middle-rank army officers to execute the nation’s first coup d’état.
The military did not fare better with corruption. An estimated $400 billion had been looted from the treasury by the time Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. In the twenty years since corruption has remained the toga Nigeria continues to cling to.
A nuanced perspective would acknowledge that corruption may be as much a symptom as it is a cause of Nigeria’s problems. Regardless, what is clear is that corruption uniquely inhibits our ability to solve these problems.
Breaking the wheel
It would be easy to write Nigeria off at this point. But evidence from abroad shows that there should be a way. Most recently, the ascent of the five dominant Southeast Asian nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) holds hope that if Nigeria does what is required, the future may yet be salvaged.
And doing what is required means going to the root of the problems.
For example, we need to address the current ineffective governance structure. A nation organised around the sharing of oil proceeds, with a bloated and inefficient central government, cannot properly serve a population as large and heterogeneous as Nigeria’s.
However, restructuring must go beyond carving out new states (or regions) or creating new revenue-sharing formulas. It would be necessary to redefine the nature of governance in Nigeria and renegotiate the implicit social contract that binds all Nigerians. Only once that is done can we create active institutions that genuinely serve the needs of the people.
Meanwhile, ignorance is the antidote to development. Nigeria cannot change unless it educates its people.
Education and citizen enlightenment have also been proven to be effective tools necessary for the transition of nations from third to first world. As proven by South Korea and Singapore, education is the key to lasting economic growth and development. Nigeria has historically been a nation with educated elites; however, the majority of the citizens remain uneducated and poorly educated.
Thus, there is a need for the prioritisation of sustained investment in education. Not only will education enable Nigerian citizens to become more productive and engender economic growth, but it would also increase citizen awareness and precipitate greater demand for good governance.
The elimination of corruption is also paramount. It is estimated that corruption in Nigeria could cost up to 37% of GDP by 2030 if left unchecked.
Unfortunately, if past antecedents are anything to go by, Nigeria is unlikely to make these changes. The status quo will probably remain; after all, it is not by accident that a country remains stuck in a state of underdevelopment.
Follow this writer on Twitter @LanreRufai_.