Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Understanding Nigeria

 We fail to adequately understand what Nigeria really is. It is not a state in the classic sense but a colonial invention.

Nigeria as an entity on the map was created by the British for bureaucratic convenience. They lumped together more than 350 different ethnic groups which had never had anything in common before. And they did this fairly recently. The British established a colony in Lagos only in 1860, unified the country only in 1914 and then left in 1960. Furthermore, there was no independence movement that transcended ethnic and religious divisions in the country and that could provide an impetus toward national unity as it did in Kenya, or as it did in Algeria. There was opposition to British rule, but it was based ethnically rather than nationwide. It was against colonialism and racism rather than for Nigeria.

Edinburgh produces more electricity than Nigeria’s entire national grid. Nigeria, with 205 million people, has a GDP that’s less than that of the state of Maryland, with 6 million.  There are many, many more mouths to feed. If the country is to be food self-sufficient, it would have to require massive development in agriculture. And that simply won’t happen.

If you’re going to call Nigeria a failing state or a state that risks failure — and many, many Nigerians believe that — you’re implying that Nigeria is a nation-state as the world traditionally defines it. By that criteria, Nigeria is failing. But if you look at Nigeria as some other type of entity, then it seems to me, while it may well be increasingly dysfunctional, you can’t say that it’s failing. In fact, for the top 1-2% of the Nigerian population that has grown wealthy from oil revenue, the current situation is relatively satisfactory. They send their children abroad for education, not to boarding schools in Nigeria where they’re subject to kidnapping. They go to London or Johannesburg for medical attention, not to the public hospitals, which are failing. The current political arrangements provide a venue for sharing out political offices and oil revenue. Estimated 80 percent of the oil revenue probably ends up in the hands of 1% of the population

 The Biafra War, a major civil war that left up to two million people dead, and that resulted in a generation of military rule just as oil came on stream in enormous quantities. In other words, an almost unimaginable flow of wealth into an entity which had very, very weak institutions and in which those who exercised power were military officers. The oil curse is the short explanation. When oil came on board, the way you got rich was essentially by capturing the state, capturing oil revenue. You didn’t get rich through investment in agriculture.

On top of that, Nigerian society is organised into patronage-clientage networks, which go from the top of the social pyramid to the bottom. The elite sense that they were entitled to state wealth. Prebendalism refers to political systems where elected officials and government workers feel they have a right to a share of government revenues, and use them to benefit their supporters, co-religionists and members of their ethnic group. Keep in mind that government authority has only rarely been nationwide. Mostly, it’s islands of central authority in a sea of spaces that are governed by sub-national or non-governmental groups.

Abridged and slightly adapted from an article by former United States Ambassador to Nigeria and Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations John Campbell

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