Self-organizing Nigeria: The antifragile state

Editor's note:

Below is a viewpoint from the Foresight Africa 2023 report, which explores top priorities for the region in the coming year. Read the full chapter on economic recovery and growth.

Foresight Africa 2023Many observers of Nigeria, the most populous African country, believe she should have been a failed state. To the surprise of these political analysts and economists around the world, Nigeria is not. Since attaining independence in 1960, the country has at many junctures staggered close to dangerous precipices—but fortunately, it has never reached the tipping point.

Why is Nigeria not yet a failed state? The public sector essentially provides none of the key necessities that are found in other nations—be it education, health, security, power, or infrastructure—and yet Nigeria moves forward.

Our basic thesis is that Nigerians’ self-organizing impulse is what has been preventing Nigeria from becoming a failed state and is indeed behind whatever successes (and there are many) individual Nigerians and Nigeria are achieving.

Despite the chaos and disorder in the nation’s public sector, the volatile nature of the economy, and societal stressors of various dimensions, Nigerians find impetus to organize life by themselves and for themselves. And this, they do, in every sphere of existence, at individual and group scale.

Millions of Nigerians display self-organizing impulses as they go about their daily business (not in easy circumstances to be sure) trying to earn a living, get an education, create a career path, find a spouse, raise children, and just generally, make meaning of life.

Of course, all societies possess this self-organizing impulse. However, what distinguishes Nigerians in this dimension, is the sheer scale of self-organization. Faced with undeniably harsh living conditions, failed by a public sector that does not deliver what it should, Nigerians have developed an outsized capability in self-organizing.

How does this self-organizing concept impact the economic development of the nation? In a myriad of ways, but here are two examples:

  • In the power sector, it is often repeated that Nigeria has only about 5,000 MW of generating capacity, clearly insufficient for a country of 200 million. This is of course absurd. And yet, Nigerians produce at least double as much electricity through self-organization than through the capacity of the large-scale grid suppliers. Much of this is through diesel generators, so not ideal to be sure, but more and more is from renewables like solar (including widespread adoption of mini-grids) and organic waste-to-power. This ability to self-organize and generate power on a small-scale, sets Nigeria up extremely well for the time when all Nigerians can have access to power that is mainly produced in situ.
  • The incredibly powerful Nigerian diaspora is of course another self-organizing phenomenon. The government of Nigeria plays essentially no role. There is no coordination between the countries receiving the diaspora and Nigeria (as is the case for example, with the Philippines). The emigres take on all the necessary tasks to emigrate; researching, applying, finding a job, organizing their departure, etc. And yet despite no government involvement, Nigerian brains (via the diaspora) are now the largest export earned for Nigeria, larger than the actual oil proceeds that reach the country.

And while it is obvious that Nigerians display a high degree of resilience, we believe that the consequences of self-organizing go further.

“Antifragility” is a systems concept coined by Nassim Taleb (famous author of The Black Swan). In his most recent book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb posits that, “some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors, and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”5 However, as Taleb notes, “in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for it.” Appreciating the limitations of the English language, he introduces the term “antifragile” as the exact opposite of fragile. He says, “let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Under Taleb’s definition, when a system with antifragile tendencies or qualities is subjected to volatility and stress, not only is it resilient, but it also thrives despite the hostilities and contradictions.

Under Taleb’s definition, when a system with antifragile tendencies or qualities is subjected to volatility and stress, not only is it resilient, but it also thrives despite the hostilities and contradictions.

This is a perfect description of Nigerians and Nigeria. For policy, this has profound implications: Policies that acknowledge and embrace this self-organizing impulse are much more likely to be successful. This means state-led development, should allow non-state actors room to have an impact, and avoid complex, centralized programs that have been shown to fail in the past, and are almost certainly going to fail in the future.

Put simply, to govern Nigeria effectively, less is more.