Saturday, October 04, 2008

Nigeria: The Progress, the Problems

Hussein J. Ibrahim
Abdullahi Y. Bello and Suleiman M. Odapu

Nigeria's 48th independence anniversary was devoid of fanfare. President Yar'adua's speech marking the day was short both in its content and in its promises of what good things lay ahead, a usual feature of Independence Day speeches.

The president's speech rather highlights the challenges that the country had tried over the years to surmount, describing it as "the trying terrain we have had to traverse these past forty-eight years, while setting our sights firmly on the boundless opportunities and exciting possibilities that lie before us." He said his administration would not resort "to quick-fix methods and short-cuts in approaching fundamental problems which require methodical and sustainable solutions."

"This is not the way Independence Day celebration is celebrated in other parts of the world," said Comrade Issa Aremu, General Secretary of the National Union of Textile and Garment Workers Union. He countered that the president's speech "lacks the needed sense of history of what independence means and promises, a sense of mission and service delivery."

In a way what has robbed the Nigerian nation of the mirth and fanfare needed to celebrate the day it won independence from its former colonial masters is the perpetual downturn in its economic fortunes and the resultant poverty, instability and social vices it has spawned. The unhealthy state of the economy could also be blamed for the dissatisfaction which the different regional blocs harbor about the concept of one nation. Forty-eight years after, there are still clamours for the entrenchment of true federalism, equitable revenue sharing formulas and the resource control war that has gradually been taking over the whole of the Niger-Delta. Underlying this clamour is the need to gain access to what has euphemistically been described as the national cake, it being nothing short of gaining access to the vital necessities that make life meaningful and easy.

As access to these key necessities of life- sufficient healthcare, adequate shelter, sumptuous nutrition and a modicum of prosperity- continue to elude the country, disillusion also continued to set in. Recognising this, subsequent administrations in the country began celebrating the Independence Day anniversary in low key. It was the same this year with the Yar'adua administration, an administration that has up till now been trying to find its bearings and footing. This was remarkably different from the spirit of hope that pervaded the atmosphere prior to the October 1st celebration in 1960 when independence was granted to the country. Describing the day in his book 'Beckoned to Serve,' former president Shehu Shagari wrote: "When the great day arrived at last, it was celebrated with pomp and pageantry and with great hopes for the future. For now, one thing was certain: British colonialism was gone and gone for good!"

But the colonial masters were subsequently replaced by a new ruling class who though espousing the rhetorics of a one and free nation, nevertheless maintained the kind of privileges the colonialist had cornered for themselves. It was a far departure from the dreams and visions of the nation's founding fathers. Today, it is virtually as if the founding fathers never existed. This is evidenced by the degree of rot that has taken over some of the monuments that at one time were used to commemorate their lives of achievements and struggles. Take the Sardauna of Sokoto for instance. That icon who single-handedly set in motion, the mechanism to free a region from the shackles of poverty, illiteracy, provincial backwardness and political dormancy. Even though he is oft talked about with fond memories, his hometown of Rabah which holds some of the evidence of his early life, is run down. The schools, mosques and other monuments that bring his memory to mind are all crying for a facelift.

This neglect is symbolic of a much larger neglect which has meant the failure of the country's ruling elites to draw the necessary inspirations that will help sustain the vision that was set for the nation by its founding fathers. Now, topmost on the list of reasons that has stalled Nigeria's march to progress is the prevalence of poor leadership at all levels of the society. Poor leadership has meant pervasive corruption, mismanagement, absence of clear national goals, the exploitation of sectional interests to further personal or political interests. The myriad of woes is long. And just as long is the series of palliatives put in place to address the problems. National orientation initiatives were promoted, inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogues organised, war against indiscipline and corruption launched, new economic development plans rolled out. But somehow they seem not to have worked effectively for the nation as some of the old problems still persist. The painful irony in all this is that it is unanimously accepted that the country has all the necessary human and material resources it needs to reverse its decline and make it great.

So why has it not been able to tap into this deep well of advantages? The popular view is the Nigerian elites are still slumbering or they are yet to discover their purpose. If the elites champion any cause at all it is often bound to have a regional or sectional tinge to it. While the hope was that after a bitterly fought civil war that severely tested the unity of the nation there will follow some deeper level of reconciliation and understanding, but grievances remain fresh nevertheless. In the south-east today, there are sections who still declare themselves living in the Republic of Biafra. In the Niger-Delta, the latest theatre of violence, kidnaps and battles, the dominant threat has been that of secession. Elder statesman and the man widely credited for moving the motion for independence, Pa Anthony Enahoro, in a recent chat with our correspondents, blamed this on a leadership class that exploits the divisions amongst the people. He said: "The consequences is that Nigeria has lost so much in terms of human and material resources with a faint hope of having the matter redressed except the people take the initiative and ownership of a national dialogue and negotiations that could facilitate an equitable structure for the country."

But even the question of national dialogue is bogged down by politics that is largely of its own making. Enahoro's group, PRONACO, which at a time was united in the pursuit of the agenda of national dialogue and was preparing to set up a parallel national constitutional dialogue to rival a government organised political reform conference, was itself divided by in-fighting and conflicts that led to some notable members of the group pulling away. It is symbolic of the absence of a clear consensus even among those who constitute the nation's intelligentsia about the way forward. Most of the measures to address national problems, if they prove effective at all, come usually from the trade union bodies. Efforts by the National Assembly to carry out a review of the constitution to address deep-seated problems have been met with suspicion when the administration of former President Obasanjo attempted to use the exercise as a means to secure an unconstitutional tenure elongation. A recent bid to revive the exercise has so far been slow in taking off.

In his Independence Day speech to the nation, President Yar'adua said the "Nigerian economy is on a strong footing with an average growth rate of about 6.9per cent, a single digit inflation rate, external reserves of about 63 billion dollars and the naira appreciating steadily against the major currencies." While this hopeful hypothesis by the President was dismissed by the opposition as untrue, foremost economist, Professor Ibrahim Ayagi, agrees the economy has grown but picks holes with how its benefits has trickled down to the ordinary Nigerian. He told Weekly Trust: "I will not say the Nigerian economy has not performed at all. The Nigerian economy has performed well to some extent; it has done well in some areas, it has not done well in many areas. If you take it overall, we should say we should have performed better than we have performed already. Which is not exactly agreeing with those who say it has not performed."

But the hopeful figures and projections of economists about the viability and growth of the Nigerian economy since it attained independence in 1960 contrasts with the stark picture of poverty on the streets and the low rating Nigeria have been garnering in the human development index and the assessment of development agencies. This paints a picture of unequal distribution of wealth, wealth corruptly siphoned into few pockets or outrightly embezzled or mismanaged. The topmost position the country has been occupying in the corruption rating equally says much about this. Despite his optimistic projection about the growth and size of the Nigerian economy relative to its status in 1960, Prof. Ayagi said nevertheless, that it could have been better. "The reason why I say it could have been better," he explained, "Is even after the growth and overall performance which is not too bad, we have poverty in the country. And we have been accumulating revenue in the country. We never thought we could have been getting what we are getting today in terms of revenue."

He identifies the problem thus: "The problem I think is that revenue has been accruing to states and local governments and I am not sure that these local governments and states are really spending them in the right way. I don't think they are spending them on investments that will improve the Nigerian economy or that will improve their own state or local governments' economy. I think there has been a lot of wastage of resources."

In a way, the story of Nigeria has in a way been one of wasted opportunities in areas generally agreed to be crucial and important to nation building. Countries that in the sixties were less developed than Nigeria or were at par with it have in a way, surpassed it both politically and economically. But that is not passing the death sentence on the country despite some of the dismal actions of the ruling class. In forty-eight years Nigeria has been getting wiser to its problems and the solutions that need to be applied to solve them. What is lacking in applying the solutions is the will. Who knows, it might just come one day, ushering in an Independence Day celebration that would be filled with pomp, pageantry, glamour and vivacity.

source: Nigeria: The Progress, the Problems, Washington