Predictably, our increasingly insensitive politicians will today be clinking glasses in celebration of Democracy Day and in self-satisfaction at how well they have fared in 15 years of civilian rule. They are in the minority. A majority of Nigerians, at home and in the diaspora, are thoroughly disgusted and are angrily saying so. Others are ready to go further.
Over the past years, Nigeria has been sleepwalking towards the precipice. Many Nigerians across nationalities, regions and cultural persuasions now openly question the continued existence of the quasi-federation in its present form and its ability to fulfil the purpose of a modern state − which is the peaceful pursuit of happiness. In this milieu range conservative, moderate and extremist ideologies. Mass murderers like the deranged Boko Haram salafists seek the overthrow of the state in their quest for a warped theocratic utopia to flourish.
The contest for power and control of resources has remained largely unresolved, with the elite often subsuming the fundamental pillars of statehood as they gorge themselves on national wealth, while centrifugal forces, ever present since the amalgamation of the northern and southern Nigeria protectorates in 1914, have been reenergised and are tipping the country towards the abyss. Should it again be the usual mantra of saving it from the cliff?
Those who, for decades, have lived in self-denial are being forced by the sheer weight of current despair, dreadful insecurity, dispiriting joblessness, crumbling state institutions and unprecedented international attention captured in the gripping, unfolding horror of 276 teenage girls snatched by terrorists from their school before a befuddled military, to face reality. Nigeria is a failing state, unravelling before a global audience on cable television. Nigeria’s successive governments provide ample evidence of leadership failures.
It should not have been so. Afterall, the Fourth Republic is 15 years old today, the longest period of unbroken civilian rule since flag independence in 1960. The First Republic (taking in the period 1960 – 1966) collapsed in its sixth year; the Second Republic lasted only four years, the Third Republic was an elaborate fraud and was aborted ever before it took off. In 1985, Ibrahim Babangida, the military dictator between 1985 and 1993, said in a broadcast that “what really lies at the bottom of our past dilemma is the absence of a viable political arrangement.” Yet, he wasted N40 billion (pretty good money then) on a fraudulent transition programme that ended in an unmitigated disaster. The same goes for Olusegun Obasanjo who promisingly took off in 1999, but took the country for a ride for eight years and rounded it off by foisting a dangerous mix of a sickly and inept presidency on a timid populace. But both are still pretending to be patriotic.
Mention them, who is really worthy of that noble designation of “leader” among our previous and present rulers since 1966? How have we been coming across a series of tragic rulers, some criminally selfish and dangerously megalomaniac, while others are plainly inept and simple-minded? Perhaps, it is only here that crass idiocy is worn as a badge of leadership and honour while gross incompetence is celebrated as a worthy virtue.
Three faulty general elections and three (incompetent) presidents, and the military firmly in the barracks, portend some progress. The economy too, though generally shambolic, recently got a fillip with the rebasing of its Gross Domestic Product by which it is now Africa’s largest economy at $510 billion. Growth has averaged 7 per cent over the last decade, one of the three highest GDP growth rates globally; telecommunications has grown exponentially, with connected GSM telephone lines rising to 171 million and internet penetration becoming one of the world’s fastest growing. For our government that preens at every minute favourable statistic, an assessment by the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria that industrial capacity utilisation rose to 52.7 per cent in the second half of 2013, while the service sectors have added new significance, gives much to cheer about.
But the flipside is gloomy. Though about 70 per cent of Nigerians were living in poverty in 1999, today, 60.9 per cent are still poor despite unprecedented oil revenues. The World Bank says Nigeria hosts seven per cent of the world’s poor. Our economy is dysfunctional, structurally defective with the three tiers of government dependent by over 70 per cent for sustenance on crude oil and gas revenues. Actual power generation, after gulping an average $3.5 billion per year, has risen only from 3,200 megawatts in 1999 to less than 5,000MW at its peak in 15 years. Railways are archaic, with available tracks stagnating at 3,556km despite billions of naira spent on dodgy Chinese contracts.
If ever anyone doubted the precariousness of the economy, such doubts dissolve at the reality of 23.9 per cent unemployment rate and a 54 per cent jobless rate among youths. The Ministry of Labour once estimated that 41 million Nigerians were jobless. Corruption is out of control and openly promoted at the highest levels of government. Over $400 billion is estimated by The Economist of London to have been stolen from the treasury in 40 years to 2010.
The mix of a tottering economy and a country drifting in a turbulent ocean is threatening the very fabric of our existence. We must act fast, wisely and realistically to save the union. We appear to have run out of options, and the ongoing National Conference, despite the obvious insincerity of its conveners, offers a chance. No longer is any single power bloc able to dictate and impose its will on the rest of the country. This is a decisive year: antagonistic primordial tendencies are tearing the country apart just as exclusivist religious policies are. A former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, did not mince words recently when he warned that divisive religious policies and centralisation were threatening the country’s existence.
To navigate our way to a viable, sustainable future, Nigerians must realise that we are not one people; we never were. Indeed, the British colonial authorities that forced us together 100 years ago wanted co-existence, not unity, and implemented different administrative policies in the provinces. There are over 250 languages and 450 dialects in this country, diverse cultures and different aspirations. A distinct section wants a secular polity, defined by the rule of law, liberty, especially equal opportunities for all, including women and children. Some concentrate all their energies and resources on religion and would have preferred a theocracy; some value education, some don’t. Nigeria has failed to realise its potential these past 54 years of independence and 15 years of civilian rule largely because those with retrogressive tendencies exert excessive influence, and act as a brake, on those who want to join the globalised world. They have been over-indulged.
We must regain our groove or live with the fatal consequences of not doing so. The country has become so dysfunctional that rag tag Islamist terrorists are running rings round its vaunted military, killing our soldiers at will and laying waste to a large swathe of territory. We cannot fight insurgents because religion has corrupted even senior security officials who now allegedly betray their comrades on religious and political grounds.
Nigerians should insist on true federalism, and delegates at the conference need to be reminded that Nigeria is neither sacrosanct nor non-negotiable. Described by eminent lawyer, Itse Sagay, as “feeding bottle federalism,” the Nigerian state is organised for sharing revenues and not for production. The union is negotiable because it is not delivering. Instead, it is confronting the whole world with the possibility of an implosion with repercussions that will certainly destabilise West and Central Africa and possibly beyond. A country where 12 states will flagrantly violate the constitution and implement criminal aspects of Sharia law is one bound to permanent crisis and self-destruction. Human rights bodies estimate that over 150,000 have died in ethno-religious crisis since 1999, while about 2.5 million others have been displaced.
This is the moment of truth. There should be no more politics of appeasement of rude, retrogressive forces. Any state that cannot live in a secular, liberal democracy, should be free to and encouraged to secede and build its theocratic utopia. As a former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told us recently, “Nigerians must hold their government accountable.” Democracy is not just about periodic elections manipulated by corrupt politicians; it is about people taking decisions, pushing their agenda, their concerns and welfare to the front burner.
As the 16th year of civilian rule begins, only a strong determination by “We, the people,” to have a genuine federation, hold officials accountable and halt the tyranny of a few bigots, power mongers and treasury looters, will prevent a catastrophe. Unless corrected, democracy can hardly thrive in a nation-state founded on a “mistake.”