When will Nigeria start to live up to its promise, so often deferred, of being the "Giant of Africa" - a country that many once believed could harness its wealth for the benefit of all its people, a country that could feed and clothe not only itself but much of Africa, and country that could lead the continent in innovation and technological advance?
Or has this deferred promise now become unrealisable? Is Nigeria doomed only to collapse under the weight of its own problems? Is it a country where the future livelihoods of millions of Nigerians have already been hijacked by the cynical and corrupt behaviour of those who have robbed the country of so much of its wealth? And can it even hold together as one country?
Deciding between these very different outcomes is no easy matter. But what is clear is that Nigeria has already come so uncomfortably close to economic and political breakdown that an awesome amount of work will be need- ed to insure against a relapse. The return of democracy in 1999 was at least one major step in laying the basis for a new beginning.
Twenty years ago, Nigeria was confidently borrowing for a host of projects that were intended to turn the country into an industrial power within a decade. But, as night follows day, the 1970s "boom" - fuelled by hand-over- fist spending and reckless foreign lending - was followed by the 1980s "bust". Nigeria started its dizzy slide into financial and ethical bankruptcy, from which it is still having enormous difficulty recovering.
The house may have fallen, as the title of Karl Maier's book suggests, but there is still scope for rebuilding it � as long as its rulers can agree on and pursue a pragmatic and inclusive strategy. But if this effort fails, the consequences can only be severe.
"The most productive scenario would demand Herculean efforts by the cur- rent administration to throttle corruption and mismanagement, strengthen the judiciary and the parliament, and revive the economy, giving confidence to foreigners and Nigerians alike to invest," says Maier, who argues in favour of a national constitutional conference that would create enough space for Nigerians to start talking and listening to one another.
Should such an attempt at national dialogue fail, Maier predicts that the civilian government will lurch from crisis to crisis, with the economy gripped by stagnation and with the legitimacy of the state in constant question. And if the civilians fail absolutely (as they did in their last turn in office from 1979-83), the return of military dictatorship would almost certainly spark the kind of ethnic and regional violence that could lead to national break-up.
There appears to be scant reason for optimism, Maier admits, "but just when despair about the future becomes overwhelming, one meets or recalls someone who restores one's faith that Nigeria just might turn itself around after all".
To all who know Nigeria well, this is a familiar feeling. The country seems to be on a perpetual roller- coaster that veers dangerously towards disaster before miraculously getting back on safer tracks.
On the positive side of the score card, Nigerians devote enormous energies to achieving for themselves what others around the world aspire to in terms of economic and social advancement. Indeed, Nigerians are widely admired for displaying a high level of creative and commercial drive, which by rights should make their country into a successful performer in the globalising world of the 21st century.
However, this potential for nation- wide improvement is sapped to the extent that many of the most successful Nigerians have chosen to live abroad, depriving the country of the very talent it needs to solve its problems at home.
On the negative side, Nigeria's inherent problems have shown little sign of effective solution even after the return of democracy. Thousands have died in inter-communal conflict of a religious or ethnic nature. Equally disturbingly, democracy has provided no solutions for the deprived communities living in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta - where kidnapping and sabotage are now almost daily occurrences. There is a long way to go before the "democratic deficit" the country so long endured under years of military rule can even begin to be reversed.
Maier prefers not to provide a systematic analysis of Nigeria's complex challenges but rather to bring some of these challenges to life, so that we can at least understand them better. He uses his reporting and observational skills to convey the authentic flavour of the Nigerian political landscape, whether in the palaces of the powerful or in the voting booths of a Lagos slum.
With each encounter, Maier seems to identify and probe a different point of stress in the system. Thus we come face to face with former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, with the father of the executed Ogoni activist Ken SaroWiwa, with Shi'ite revolutionary Ibrahim Zakzaky, with Catholic priest Father Mathew Kukah, with former Biafran rebel leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu and with the present-day leaders of a self-proclaimed Yoruba liberation movement. Along the way we meet many ordinary Nigerians who freely air their opinions on how things have come to be so bad.
By simply reporting the words and diagnoses of some of Nigeria's best- known public figures and its ordinary folk, Maier shows us the frightening absence of consensus on the definition of, let alone on solutions for. the real long-term difficulties that Nigeria faces. Vast chasms separate the different out- looks, opinions and objectives.
Listening to the words of the leaders of the ethnic and religious movements of recent years, there would appear to little chance of finding any common ground. Disturbing expressions of ethnic and religious chauvinism rise to the surface. In such a climate, the need for an entirely new definition of the Nigerian federation - somewhere between the original three regions and the cur- rent arrangement of 36 states - is all too obvious.
Despite Maier's sympathetic and highly readable account, the basic difficulties and causes of discord in Nigeria demand more rigorous analysis. Wary of pronouncing objective judgements, the author only occasionally lets him- self stray into the most sensitive areas of controversy, such as the close relation- ship between religious and ethnic competition.
Ever the journalist, Maier's preferred method is to quote Nigerians who analyse their own predicament. Thus a telecommunications entrepreneur, Dr Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, pronounces that the trouble with Nigeria is "a state of mind" or "a master-servant relation- ship that is still entrenched in this culture".
Using as an illustration the some- times less than human treatment of drivers and domestic servants, Gbadebo-Smith declares: "It is basically a form of slavery, and it is the same way that those in government look at the population. Until the day we break this mindset, when people realise that the house help is as human as they are, we will not see a change in this society."
Maier obviously feels that some of the answers will be found in the domain of personal relationships and community values. An interesting perception offered by a Muslim woman activist is that the irresponsible behaviour of the powerful is still encouraged by their families and communities. "If we are going to hold people to account and really make meaningful change in Nigeria," says Bilikisu Yusuf, "we must first begin with ourselves.''
Voices of self-criticism are not easy to find in Nigeria, where the political culture is as competitive as the basic economic culture of survival. But there is little doubt that a fundamental questioning of what are held to be "traditional norms" is essential if there is to be any genuine and sustainable recovery in Nigeria.
Some of the factors ripe for analysis and change that Maier tends to brush over are the complex nature of Nigerian corruption, the tendency of public utilities and services to collapse, and the ever-present climate of competition for government resources. Such phenomena are normal in many of Africa's struggling political entities, but in Nigeria they take on rather unusual characteristics.
The infamous "Nigerian factor" (an expression used to describe the deliberate undermining of quality and service) can to some degree be explained by criminality and the determination of ruthless operators to divert whatever they can of the nation's resources into their own pockets. But the more telling explanation of the ruinous inefficiencies of the Nigerian system is that they derive directly from the overbearing power, and the consequent lack of accountability, of the federal institutions themselves.
A country that aspires to attract substantial global investment has to provide an "enabling environment" for such investment. As of now, the reputation of Nigeria as a difficult place to do business is thoroughly well-deserved. The only way to remove these perceptions is to undertake genuine and wholesale reform of the offending institutions.
A government that wants to make a difference in Nigeria will have to remove the basic rationale for corruption and sabotage at source.
Nigeria's destiny remains in the balance. It is ironic, although perhaps entirely appropriate, that the latest democratic experiment is headed by Olusegun Obasanjo, himself one of the country's former military rulers and one who bears responsibility for the power of the federal system. The acid test of his legacy will be whether he can end the parasitism of the past and introduce new and service-oriented governmental institutions.
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