The Nigerian Predicament

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

December 29, 2009

At the December 11 Achebe Colloquium on Nigeria, led by famed novelist Chinua Achebe and sponsored by Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, former U.S. Ambassador Princeton Lyman made the most provocative presentation. He decried the complacency of Nigeria’s elite regarding the country’s vulnerabilities. According to Lyman, being the most populous African nation and a major petroleum exporter were no longer doing Nigeria much good, as it was becoming increasingly “irrelevant” in continental and international affairs.

However, the presence of many distinguished individuals from Nigeria, the United States and Europe at the Achebe Colloquium sent a different message: the persistent hope that Nigeria would somehow find a way to reverse its downward slide. Nigeria is experiencing a crisis of performance in virtually every area of public policy. Meanwhile, the prolonged illness and absence of the nation’s helmsman, President Umaru Yar’Adua, has heightened the dismay and anxiety. Largely unspoken are gnawing fears. Can the national edifice known as Nigeria fall apart? Will the “guardians” of the commonwealth be induced to intervene?

As fate would have it, the driver of my taxi home after the trip to Providence was a Nigerian. When I asked him about his background, he blurted: “I usually avoid saying I am a Nigerian.” He was repeating almost verbatim an admission by one of the panelists at the colloquium. Several weeks ago, I bolted upright when I heard a character in an American television comedy blithely state that, “were I a Nigerian, I would be a millionaire.” Soon thereafter, while waiting for a movie to begin at my local cinema, I was again startled to see an advertisement for a company promoting identity theft services enact a purchase taking place in Lagos. Clearly, a Nigerian urban scene was enough to tap into the anxieties of a general American audience. In that respect, Nigerians are not alone.

Exactly 30 years ago, I left my teaching position at the University of Ibadan to return to the United States. In the studies I then published on the making of the Second Republic (1976-1979) I explained the practice of “prebendalism” and its dire consequences. No political system in Nigeria can succeed if the country did not find ways to reduce the pervasive use of government offices to extort public revenues. Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola recently called on Nigerian leaders to use their positions to provide service, rather than as instruments “for amassing illegal wealth.” The time has come for a sweeping transformation of the misgovernance of Nigeria at all levels of the federation.

In August 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Nigeria and identified opportunities for extensive engagement between our two nations, in order to address the major problems hobbling a vital ally. At an October 2009 conference in Ditchley Park, United Kingdom, a group of distinguished participants, similar to the Achebe Colloquium, met to discuss the prospects for Nigeria. Ditchley director Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s conference report is recommended here, as it presents a cogent summary of Nigeria’s challenges and opportunities, its failings and its abundant resources, especially human. The next step in these initiatives should be the formulation of a global plan of action to advance peace, democracy and development in Nigeria.

To my Nigerian friends and colleagues, dismayed and disenchanted by the perilous state of their nation, I recommend Michael Schuman’s The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest of Wealth (2009). Schuman relates how several Asian countries dramatically reversed course, and adopted policies and practices that led to the creation of internationally competitive industries and the lifting of hundreds of millions of their citizens out of poverty. In each case, the process was sparked by the determination of particular individuals in government, business, and academia to seek a better path. They stuck to it until their actions ignited waves of transformation across their societies.

Such individuals can be found in all walks of life in Nigeria and in its extensive diaspora, and they belong to all age groups, ethnicities, religions, and professions. They are the potential change-agents of Nigeria, as it limps away from another disappointing decade. Nigeria’s government is defined by a constitution, laws, and institutions. This architecture, erected at great cost, must be made to perform at the highest level, especially during this period of political uncertainty. This is also a moment when capable and committed Nigerian government officers, legislators, and jurists, as well as its extensive community of legal, media, religious, traditional and academic leaders, must bind together and help steer the ship of state into safe waters.

The final words of the Achebe Colloquium communiqué called on Nigerians “at home and abroad to join hands during this time of crisis and uncertainty and take the necessary steps to build a country of which they can be proud.” In Nigeria and overseas, we can rally around a core agenda of strengthening constitutional and democratic governance, ensuring honest and credible elections, and using mass communication technologies to expose and reduce corruption. We can establish public-private partnerships to encourage the investments needed to effect an economic transformation comparable to what was achieved in Asia during the past four decades. And Nigeria’s deficiencies in security, energy, roads, railroad, health, education, food, water and sanitation can be drastically reduced in partnership with international agencies, industrialized countries and rapidly developing nations.

It may take a decade to affect the needed transformation of Nigeria. The Ditchley director stated in his report that the conference participants “swung between pessimism and optimism.” Ultimately, however, they “all wanted Nigeria to succeed.” The same could be said of the Achebe Colloquium and any similar international gathering that may be convened.

May this season of prayer and reflection bring renewed determination among Nigerians to boldly confront the challenges and opportunities of the new decade. And may her leaders exercise astute judgment in guiding a course through the current uncertainties. Nigeria is not irrelevant and failure is not an option.