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Nigeria @63: Search for ‘nationhood’ still elusive

OF the three member-countries of the United Nations marking their independence anniversary today, one, China, is basking in her super-power status; another, Cyprus; her nineteenth year of membership of the tranquil and prestigious European Union; the third, Nigeria, is enveloped with gloom, uncertainty, and discontent.

While the citizens of the first two wear their national identities with pride and optimism, most of the population in the third are alienated from the state and pessimistic about the future. Being a Nigerian is sometimes an embarrassment. This generation must change that narrative for the better.

Thousands are voting with their feet, moving abroad through diverse routes, legal and illegal, and simultaneously enriching other nations, but depriving the homeland of much-needed skilled labour.

In Nigeria, on its 63rd independence anniversary, only the political class is exhibiting a low-key celebratory mood. Corporate bodies place congratulatory adverts in the media only to remind everyone that they are still in business, many, just barely. For most Nigerians, irrespective of social class, melancholy, anxiety over the present and future, and anger are palpable.

Across the spectrum of national development, the country’s performance is sub-par. It has struggled to build a strong, resilient, and stable democracy. The economic front is a classic case of mismanagement and ‘poverty in the midst of plenty.’

Insecurity, a challenge since flag independence in 1960, has pushed the country into global notoriety, and unrelentingly towards state failure. These and other socio-political indices paint a picture of misery for its population of 213.4 million (World Bank).

Nigeria’s unhappy trajectory is driven by several factors and actors, especially its predatory and avaricious leadership. But among the strong restraints on its ability to realise its full potential, the contorted constitutional basis of its political organisation and failure to forge a union from its robust amalgam of ethnic nationalities takes the trophy.

Bluntly put, after 63 years of the “unity in diversity” aspiration, Nigeria remains, as the late statesman, Obafemi Awolowo, remarked many years before self-rule, “a mere geographical expression.” The late premier of the defunct Northern Region, Ahmadu Bello, agreed, insisting that the only sure road to national greatness is the one built on a strong foundation of autonomy for the diverse nationalities.

The imperative of federal constitutional arrangements as the guarantor of harmony, development and resilience in diverse polities has long been recognised. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French statesman, said it enabled central governments to pay full attention to “primary public obligations,” and the sub-national governments to “secondary affairs.”

Political scholars assert that federalism permits a great measure of regional self-rule, and “a preserver of their liberties and vehicle for flexible response to their problems.” It also encourages inter-jurisdictional competition, innovation, and development at a rapid pace. This was evident in the First Republic.

Over time, however, Nigeria’s three and later, four regions have given way to 36 states deprived of control of, or full benefits from their natural resources, and constitutionally excluded from sovereign authority over other commanding levers of development.

Consequently, the centralised authority deepens mistrust and hinders the ability to resolve the existential challenges facing the country decisively and to accelerate growth from the sub-national level.

Today, the dream of greatness is elusive, and the country is in reverse gear. On the UNDP’s Human Development Index 2023, it ranked 164th out of 191 countries, based on health, education, and living standards. While average global GDP per capita in 2022 was $12,607, according to WorldData, Nigeria’s stood at $2,184, compared to Brazil’s $8,918, South Africa’s $6,776, and Egypt’s $4,295.

Misery is pervasive, with 133 million persons trapped in multidimensional poverty, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The World Poverty Clock ranks it second to India in the largest number of poor persons on earth.

Unemployment rate hit 33.3 per cent by 2020 and currently hovering around 40 per cent. Among the youth, it is about 53.4 per cent. Inflation rose to 25.8 per cent in August, and food inflation by 29.1 per cent, reported Trading Economics. The Composite Consumer Price Index stood at its highest in 15 years last month, the NBS said.

With weak leadership and a distorted federal system, the republic is hurtling towards failure. On the Fragile States Index 2023 prepared by the Fund for Peace, Nigeria ranked 15th most fragile out of 179 countries.

This is not surprising as the country is badly divided, its over 250 ethnic nationalities range into mutually hostile groups, with weak institutions and poor, corrupt, and compromised conflict resolution mechanisms and a single, centralised policing system.

Insecurity reigns, overwhelming the dysfunctional security architecture. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Location Project estimate that over 80,000 persons were killed in the country from 1999-2022 by terrorists, bandits, Fulani herdsmen, armed robbers, kidnappers, and in inter-communal and sectarian clashes. In 2021, says SBM Intelligence, 10,366 persons were slaughtered.

Apart from Islamic terrorists in the North-East, bandits in the North-West, and Fulani herders/militants in the North-Central spreading death and destruction, a separatist agitation in the South-East has spun off a virulent terrorist element. The South-West and South-South regions also host murderous cults and criminal gangs, militants, armed robbers and oil infrastructure thieves and vandals.

In the 10 years to June 2023, reported the National Security Tracker of the Council on Foreign Relations, 19,366 Nigerians were kidnapped in 2,694 incidents. After the spectacular abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, in 2014 by terrorists, and of another 110 girls in Dapchi, Yobe State, in 2018, the criminals have abducted 769 students in various Northern states since 2020, according to Aljazeera. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre records 3.6 million refugees within and outside the country.

Ranked sixth most terrorism-impacted country 2022, Nigeria hosts three of the world’s six deadliest terror groups – Boko Haram/ISWAP, bandits, and Fulani militants. In the just-released 2023 Global Organised Crime Index, Nigeria was ranked sixth.

Nigeria is at a bad junction. It has failed to imbue a sense of oneness among its people primarily because of the wrong political strategy of centralisation. Elections further polarise the populace. Its various experiments with democracy, lacking the essential ingredients of a federalist superstructure, and visionary leadership, deliver misery. The Fourth Republic especially, is led by particularly self-serving politicians

In the run-up to, and in the first six years after independence, federalism, anchored on the regions, facilitated rapid development despite the birth pangs of the hotchpotch of diverse ethnicities. It was precisely a violation of regional constitutional autonomy with the federal intrusion into the old Western Region that triggered the implosion of the First Republic, the takeover by the military and incremental concentration of power and responsibility in the central government, and weakening of the atomised states unbundled from the four defunct regions.

The regions had considerable autonomy, independent revenue sources and ran autonomous productive economies. Nigeria’s global leadership in the production and export of cash crops – groundnuts, cocoa, palm produce – were powered by the regions.

Unlike the past when regions had local police forces, today, Nigeria alone among the world’s 25 federal countries operates a single police force. The result is inertia and failure in the face of unprecedented insecurity across the country; large areas are ungoverned and un-policed.

Belgium has 196 local police forces, apart from three national police agencies; each of Brazil’s 26 states and many municipalities have their own police forces; Mexico has two federal law enforcement agencies and each of its 32 states separate forces.

Similarly, the centre exclusively appropriates control over Nigeria’s mineral resources, telecommunications, railways, and power. It takes 52.68 per cent of revenues arising therefrom, thereby impoverishing the states.

This retrogressive template needs to be jettisoned without further delay. It is a matter of national survival. Admittedly, all national problems would not vanish in day with federalism, restructuring will however undoubtedly drastically reduce the divisive struggle for control of the centre, unleash the productive potential of the states, and facilitate local and effective security.

But hope is not totally lost. Despite the stresses, including a civil war, political and social upheavals and mutual distrust, the republic has held together. It has recorded some successes in diverse areas. Despite its disarticulation, its economy is Africa’s largest and the world’s 31st largest. It has one of the world’s most vibrant populations and members of its large diaspora are achievers everywhere. The Migration Policy Institute, Washington, saidNigerian-Americans are the most educated immigrant group in the United States, and Nigerians are among topmost educated in the United Kingdom.

With its abundance in nature, headlined by minerals, arable land and a diversity of land and marine flora and fauna, all the population needs to transport the country to a reputable status are a true federal polity to foster production; competition and innovation, and competent leadership.

Nigeria should stop its precarious existence and take the right choice of restructuring into a true federation with the 36 states as federating units. US think tank, Brookings Institution, put it strongly: “Sometimes, nations face a stark choice; allow regions to federate and govern themselves, or risk national dissolution.”

Belgium confronted that choice and acted sensibly by federating its components. Italy granted autonomy to Sardinia and staved off violent separatism. Tanzania worked out an autonomous pact between its mainland and the strategic and ethnically different Zanzibar archipelago.

There is of course the other alternative; separate peacefully as former Czechoslovakia did to birth Slovakia and the Czech Republic; or violently as some former Soviet republics and the ill-starredex-Yugoslavia; or Eritrea’s and South Sudan’s long and blood-spattered secession respectively from Ethiopia and Sudan.

All Nigerians have an abiding stake in a peaceful reset of the country. The current political leaders have an opportunity to fulfil this destiny peacefully by leading the way, or like their predecessors, betray it by standing in the way.

Now 63 and lame, Nigeria is living on borrowed time, its fundamental contradictions, and centrifugal forces, worsened by successive inept, corrupt, and visionless leadership, are driving it into implosion.

To avoid that riotous inevitability, the entire country should cooperate and renegotiate the union. Time is running out.