Nigeria’s Great Opportunity

Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph Professor Emeritus - Northwestern University, Former Brookings Expert

February 12, 2009

I returned to Obamerica on February 8 after a two-week visit to Nigeria. In a lecture at the University of Ibadan on October 24, 2008, I had cautioned that if Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Nigerians and other Africans should not ask what Obama could do for them but, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, should instead ask “What they can now do for themselves, their communities and their countries.” I am even more firmly of that opinion as it concerns Nigeria. The Obama era, which we hope will extend for two elected terms or eight years, represents a great opportunity for Nigeria.

Three aspects of my recent visit illustrate this argument. The first was the launch on January 29 of the commemorative volume, AWO on the Trail of a Titan, for the centenary of the birth of Chief Obafemi Awolowo on March 6, 2009. Although I wrote one of the essays for the book, I only saw the completed text when it was presented during the elegant ceremony. Frankly, it greatly exceeded my expectations. Instead of profuse laudatory prose, virtually all the essays took a hard-headed approach to the range and depth of Chief Awolowo’s thinking. The audience erupted in spontaneous applause when Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, stated that Awolowo’s greatest legacy was the large volume of his writings, and that his policy recommendations were highly relevant today.

This observation is linked to the second delightful experience: a private audience with Governor Fashola. During an earlier visit last October, I kept hearing about the progress being made in Lagos in the quality of governance, improvements in public services and the broadening of the government’s tax revenue base. This was the elusive virtuous cycle about which so much has been written: effective and transparent government; the provision of public goods of transport, health, education, water, electricity, physical security and others, and a fair and equitable tax system. The latter renders citizens and corporate entities financially responsible for the revenues of a government that they can then hold to account.

In association with an Africa Growth Initiative of the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, I hope to help conduct a systematic study of the model of developmental governance being forged in Lagos State. I was not exaggerating when I told the governor that this is one of the most encouraging exercises in democratic government that I have encountered during three decades of involvement in Nigeria. Nigeria consists of 811 governmental sites at federal, state and local government levels. This provides many potential “workshops” in governance and development. Where other models of good governance emerge in the country, we need to assess them critically, provide frank analyses and feedback and encourage long-frustrated advances.

The third positive report concerns the Research Alliance to Combat HIV/AIDS (REACH) which, like the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative, is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over a decade ago, I told colleagues in the American federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, that, in order to combat the AIDS pandemic in Africa, greater use must be made of the research skills of social scientists. Furthermore, in so doing, it would be necessary to overcome many governance hurdles. For the past three years, we have had the opportunity to take on this dual challenge in Nigeria.

REACH is a collaborative programme of the University of Ibadan and Northwestern University in Illinois, U.S. Survey research to understand the factors that increase vulnerability to infection and hinder the utilisation of available treatment and care facilities have been conducted in 12 sites in Oyo, Lagos, Cross River and Benue states. Later this year, we will begin rolling out the findings from this research in workshops and symposia at community, state and federal levels. The ultimate aim is to help improve the policies and actions of public, civic and other organisations and to empower Nigerians, individually and collectively, in their efforts to reduce the risk of infection.

The success of REACH, as that of any public or private institution that seeks to produce public benefits in Nigeria, depends on the crafting of an effective model of developmental governance. In almost every case, there is no model that can be dusted off the shelf and implemented. Instead, it must be forged through daily combat with the debilitating “Nigerian factors” of which we are well aware. After my tour of seven of our research sites, what impressed me was the success in crafting a model of “blended partnerships” that includes dozens of field researchers, graduate assistants, and Nigerian and non-Nigerian social science and public health experts. Particularly uplifting were the personal narratives of grassroots individuals who expressed pride in the skills they were acquiring and appreciation of the opportunity to contribute to the production of knowledge beneficial to their communities in fundamental ways.

“Yes We Can,” a slogan adopted by the Obama election campaign from the struggles of Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. decades ago, resonates strongly in Nigeria. Whether by applying the prescriptions of Obafemi Awolowo and other political luminaries, understanding the courageous work of Governor Fashola and his associates (and others similarly engaged elsewhere in Nigeria), and advancing the efforts of the REACH programme and others to produce evidence-based public policies, practices that have long hindered progress in Nigeria can be consigned to the dustbin of history. Of course, none of this is easy, but nor are the hurdles insuperable. Nigeria possesses abundant assets – human resources, capital wealth, untapped potential in agriculture, energy, manufacturing, solid minerals and others, a robust civil society and corporate community, and embattled but resilient democratic institutions – that are more than adequate to meet the challenges.

If Barack Obama does succeed in winning two terms as president, and if he is asked in 2016 where has his vision of transformative leadership been reflected in concrete advances in governance, prosperity and security, is it likely that developments in Nigeria would be cited? To those quick to respond, “Not likely,” there’s one fitting reply today: “Why not?”