You do not need to have been present on Independence Day to imagine the excitement at the dawn of Project Nigeria.
Time Magazine noted that “Nigeria's sober voice urging the steady, cautious way to prosperity and national greatness seems destined to exert ever-rising influence in emergent Africa.”
Fast-forward to 1999 and a similar mood filled the air as President Obasanjo stood on that dais in an immaculate white kaftan, accepting the democratic authority of the Nigerian office.
After the brutal General Abacha years, who would have thought that the forlorn hope in Abiola would end with a former prisoner leading the nation into a democracy?
20 years into the 4th Republic, where is Nigeria headed?
Obasanjo and the early challenges
Obasanjo inherited an ugly situation in 1999: high unemployment, a battered international image, and a fiscal system weighed down by debt. Assisted by an impressive cabinet, he got to work; lifting Nigeria out of debt distress by paying over $12 billion to the Paris Club, reforming financial institutions through a recapitalisation exercise that trimmed the number of banks from 89 to 25, and liberalising the telecoms sector to pave the way for entrance of GSM (from 700,000 to 10.2m lines within three years).
Nevertheless, the economy remained fragile, with 48% of the population living in poverty in 2004. Despite the billions of dollars poured into energy and infrastructure, some challenges remained— a notable one being that power output did not exceed 3,500MW at the time. One reason for this was the President’s apparent strategy to use the Minister of Works for political settlements, leading to the squandering of critical resources; over $8 billion deducted from the Excess Crude Account to fund power projects was either wasted on poorly planned projects or those that lacked a policy framework.
Obasanjo also reinforced Nigeria’s worst electoral systems, creating an anti-hero out of Maurice Iwu, while simply watching as the Niger Delta eventually caved into crisis.
The final error was in his choice of successor. Deciding against choosing one of his policy wonks to lead the country, he threw up two unsuitable elements in Yar'Adua and Jonathan. An era of reversals heralded Umaru Yar'Adua's tenure after Nigeria flirted with the effects of a global recession that wrote off a few banks, while the President’s absence of 164 days and failure to hand over power to the Vice President ultimately plunged the nation into inactivity and anxiety.
Violence dawns with rising youth unemployment
One theme that has permeated the 4th Republic is violence. Yet this is to be expected, given the rise of youth unemployment, poverty and religious fundamentalism over the past 20 years.
Nigeria moved from the Ife/Modakeke crisis to the tough days of Oodua Peoples’ Congress, then to the unforgettable days of the Niger Delta militancy. The latter led to a spate of expatriate kidnappings, oil theft, and disruptions to national oil production. At some point, the infamous MEND group boasted that Nigeria’s oil output had fallen by 30%.
Just as a contested amnesty program eased tensions in the region, Boko Haram reared its head in the North East, sparking a guerrilla war that would terrify parts of the North for the next decade. As time passed, other elements arose: ethnic nationalism in the East, herdsmen-farmer clashes in the Middle Belt, and so on.
Despite the luxury of global oil prices sitting above $100 for 44 months, President Jonathan’s tenure was marked by an increase in corruption, failure to invest in infrastructure, and rising insecurity. Meanwhile, not even sustained economic growth above 5% filtered through to the bulk of the population, with no notable changes in health or education outcomes.
All through the Jonathan years, Nigeria still budgeted less than 12% and 6% on education and health respectively, with allocation mostly focused on recurrent expenditure. And despite buoyant government revenues, poverty kept increasing, reaching 61% of the entire population in 2010.
Buhari leads without coherence and challenges multiply
Goodluck Jonathan was denied a second term by popular vote, losing to a serial contestant who allied with a stoic opposition leader, Bola Tinubu. Buhari’s image was burnished from an Islamic fundamentalist to an uncompromising leader, strong enough to end the gaping crisis in North East and also with the right integrity to end the wanton theft of Nigerian resources.
That was the pre-election dream; reality has been different. Buhari passed over his early days of momentum, delaying cabinet appointments for six months while a recession loomed. Eventually, he would appoint the familiar faces that dotted his campaign teams. He would also spend six months cumulatively in the United Kingdom due to ill health.
On the economic front, the Buhari administration has gone big on debt, shopping for Eurobonds to invest in infrastructure as it delays a much-needed overhaul of the tax system, down-sizing of the government and a pivot towards new economic growth poles. Public debt more than doubled between 2014 and 2018 (from below ₦12 trillion) and recurrent expenditure rose from ₦3.5 trillion to ₦5 trillion.
Nigeria is not out of the woods. Power generation may have doubled in the last 20 years, but it still cannot power a mid-sized European city. Poverty has risen, with over 90 million now living in poverty, making Nigeria the poverty capital of the world. Youth unemployment is scary, having risen from 5 million in 2015 to 13.2 million in 2018. Violence continues to dot many places above the River Niger, and Nigeria’s middle class, once hyped as a sign of the country’s progress, is leaving the country in droves to find stability in countries like Canada.
Nigerian political leadership do not feel a sense of urgency to change things; it continues its monthly hydrocarbon rent distribution system, collapsing incentives to grow the Nigerian economy through strong states.
The challenge of youth explosion and the future
Where does Nigeria go from here?
What is the fate of a country with a spiralling population growth—we may have as many as 400 million people in a few decades—and failed health and education systems? Nigeria is a poor country, it is neither oil-rich nor able to effectively tax its citizens.
Meanwhile, the explosion of the youth bracket and a lack of economic opportunity will dominate the country’s narrative for the foreseeable future. 2016 data from the National Population Commission estimates that 52% of Nigerians are under 19 years old, and 82% are less than 40 years. Nigeria’s population dynamics shows that it will have a least more than 200m people below the age of 30 by 2050. The implication of unharvested youth energies would keep looming in Nigeria as it tries to find a pathway to progress.
Nigeria must invest in its young people. Adopt a private sector-led approach, invest in health and education, ease access to capital, deregulate markets, and transform fiscal institutions. These are known yet rejected strategies out of this mess. None of this would work without strong political and economic institutions driven by quality leadership.
Nigeria keeps throwing around sub-optimal leadership, a feature that declined as the decades progressed. Nigeria has made gains in specific sectors, but it is clear to everyone that the emerging demography will implode the country if the laxity and lack of range of Nigerian leaders continue.
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