Unlike the ongoing effusion of national pride in China (today) and Botswana (yesterday) that are also marking their national days, gloom, anxiety and seething discontent are pervasive among Nigerians at home and abroad on the country’s 59th anniversary. The reasons are not far-fetched: In June 2018, Nigeria grabbed the title of host to the world’s highest number of people living in extreme poverty. That same year, it ranked the 16th “most dangerous” country to live in, and had the 10th highest unemployment rate. There is, in addition, a deep feeling of alienation, now increasingly freely expressed, among individuals and groups and the inescapable realisation that this is still a fragile country, but not a nation.
Nigeria is a dream truncated. It has failed to become the united and cohesive plural society inspiring national pride and a sense of belonging among its 250 plus major ethnic nationalities that its founding fathers envisaged. Instead, it is at best, a “cultural mosaic,” as described by scholars at Carleton University, Minnesota, in reference to the inability of component groups to assimilate or “melt” into a main national culture as in the United States, Australia, Brazil, Philippines and Singapore, among others. When, six decades ago, the late Ahmadu Bello, premier of the now defunct Northern Region, urged his contemporaries to recognise the differences among the disparate “Nigerians,” echoing the late Obafemi Awolowo, premier of the defunct Western Region, who in advocating a workable federation, had much earlier described the British contraption as a “mere geographical expression,” not many would have imagined that this insight would remain cogent today.
So valid it is that, despite the illusion of integration promoted by discredited elite, the deep fissures within the polity and the socio-economic devastation wrought by sustained misrule are visible for the abused Nigerians to see. While Nigeria has crawled, others at similar levels of underdevelopment with us in 1960 have sprinted. Take China; with a Gross Domestic Product of $14.21 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund, delivering a per capita income of $10,150, it has become the world’s second largest economy and No.1 exporter. India’s GDP of $2.97 trillion makes it the world’s fifth biggest, ahead of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada at sixth, seventh, eighth and 10th respectively. Brazil, once our peer, pips in at ninth largest with GDP of $1.96 trillion and per capita income of $8,967. Singapore’s per capita GDP of $62,984 is ninth highest (IMF), South Africa’s is $6,377 despite that country’s economic slowdown. Nigeria’s GDP of $447.01 billion delivers only $2,244 per capita.
Nigeria is clearly being left behind, both in stable political system and on the economy even in Africa where it has slipped in foreign direct investment allure – to No.8, says RMB – and in stability, where Ghana, Botswana, Rwanda and Morocco are highly rated. The World Economic Forum and the Fund for Peace separately list Nigeria among the top 15 “most fragile states,” while it ranked 157 out of 189 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index report 2018 and in Africa, was rated 24 behind Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Cameroon.
Unless a drastic change is effected, criminality, terrorism, economic ruin and joblessness could conflate with the broken political system and mutual hostility among the components to tip the country into implosion. So dysfunctional has the state become that the otherwise national task of confronting Islamist terrorists and violent herdsmen has been hampered by the centrifugal forces as consensus on strategy could not be achieved. Between them, they shot Nigeria to the No.3 spot as the most terror affected country on the Global Terrorism Index. Kidnapping for ransom has conflated with armed robbery, gang wars and random killings to provoke travel advisories by major investing countries to their nationals to steer clear of Nigeria.
To rescue the country from its global laughing stock status, it is urgent to make the right choices. The first task is to stop operating Nigeria, a natural federation, like a unitary state. Though federal in name, the country from 1967 onwards has moved steadily into a highly centralised administrative and economic mode with disastrous results, rendering the country increasingly unviable and moving it inexorably towards failure.
Whereas the component regions were once vibrant self-sustaining economic centres of production, the atomised states of today exist only for consumption and sharing resources, mainly from crude oil and gas receipts. States lack control or full access to their natural resources. This has made 34 of the states almost totally dependent on federal allocations and at various times by labour unions’ reckoning, between 20 and 31 states pile up unpaid workers’ salaries and pensions. States have expenditure plans, but hardly have economic or realistic job creation plans. So, 61.6 per cent of our youths are unemployed, says the National Bureau of Statistics, among the 20.9 million Nigerians that were jobless by September 2018. Worse is in the offing: having overtaken India as host to the world’s extremely poor in mid-2018 with 83 plus million living on less than $1.90 per day, the World Poverty Clock says six more people fall into this bracket every minute and forecasts that by 2030, 45.5 per cent or 120 million Nigerians will be wretchedly poor. The World Data Lab adds that with a population growth rate of 2.34 per cent per annum, real GDP growth, even at an optimistic 2.15 per cent, will translate into more poverty and a larger army of jobless youth.
There should be no more delay therefore in immediately implementing the recommendations of the past constitution conferences to devolve power to the states and achieve resource control and fiscal federalism to safeguard the union. To overcome lack of assimilation and separatism, Canada wisely enacted the Multiculturalism Act 1971. Between 1971 and 2011, Belgium embarked on a still ongoing process termed “state reform” to find constitutional and legal solutions to the divisive tensions among its component nationalities – Flemish, Walloons and Germans, etc – with the sixth in 2011 effectively leaving the economy in the hands of the regions and communities. Cobbled together like Nigeria by British colonialists, India has constantly striven to manage its combustible national and ethnic diversities, enacting a whopping 103 amendments by March 2019 to its 1951 Constitution.
We too must overcome the prevailing dominant and retrogressive political culture that confers advantage on the unproductive and creates an elite imbued with a misplaced sense of entitlement, and enthrones a rentier state where rational economic considerations have been crowded out in decision making in favour of the primordial, sectional and sectarian. Thus, though a major oil producer, we import almost all needed refined petroleum products and we hold on to refineries, airports, seaports and an inefficient state oil company because the rent takers insist on sustaining the prevailing patronage system.
The failure of 20 unbroken years of civilian rule in the Fourth Republic to deliver inclusive governance, reduce poverty, provide infrastructure, stability or credible elections underscores the need for urgent reforms. Let the federal and state governments focus on economic policies targeted at job creation, start-ups, agriculture, mining and manufacturing to revive and rebuild a vibrant middle class, the driving force of innovation, political and economic reforms. The states should transform to vigorous economic units competing for investments, markets and pulling their people out of poverty. The mass of the people should imbibe the culture of peaceful agitation and mass participation without which democracy cannot thrive.
Ultimately, Nigeria must urgently reform, operate true federalism and organise to allow for peaceful resolution or separation. There is nothing sacrosanct about a political contraption, which Nigeria is. The amicable separation and success of the Czech and Slovakia Republics prove this. There is no viable alternative to restructuring and unless we make the right choices, an untidy implosion is neither far-fetched nor too far away. Far from being celebration time, this is a time to act to save the tottering edifice.
Punch Newspaper Editorial Board