Obinna Ezugwu

On October 1, 2017, Nigeria officially clocked 57 years as an independent nation. It is yet another milestone for the world’s most populous black nation and activities were lined up in celebration. But other than the count of years, is there anything worthy of celebration?


“None,” says Mr John Bede-Anthonio, public affairs analyst and former Managing Director, Lagos State Development and Property Corporation. “Definitely we have not done well, we are worse off now than in 1966.”


Depending on which side of the divide one is; this milestone means different things to different people, it is a nation that had so much hope at independence in 1960. It was to be the pride of Africa and rub shoulders with Japan, China, Brazil, India and so on, as the next big thing on the global economic and political stage. Japan and its Asian contemporaries are now prided as industrial Tigers; Nigeria with its enormous human and natural resources has remained a potential giant of Africa and indeed the hope of the black man.


The post 1960 independent Nigeria which ran on a tripod of Eastern, Western, Northern and later Mid Western regions blazed a trail in economic development. In 1964, the World Bank named Eastern Region economy, spearheaded by palm oil and coal, the fastest growing regional economy globally.


The Western Region led by the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was ahead of many European countries economically with its signature agricultural product, cocoa, and had the Western Nigeria Television before countries like Spain and Belgium, and Egypt, while the North with its groundnut and textile industry was catching up fast.


Economically, it was almost a roller coaster, but politically, frictions were becoming rife. In the North, the United Middle Belt Congress led by Tiv born Joseph Tarka was violently being cracked down in their demand for a Middle Belt Region. The East was, to a lesser degree, facing agitation for the creation of COR state by the minorities of the region, while the West from which the Mid West was carved out in 1963, was having an escalating political crisis prompted by the rivalry between Awolowo and the Northern backed Samuel Ladoke Akintola.


These crises informed the first military coup of January 15, 1966, the aftermath of which saw the counter coup of July 29, 1966, culminating into the eventual Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70 with the attendance loss of over a million lives. But the war presented the country with a great opportunity. The Biafra side had in the course of the three years the war lasted, developed indigenous military and industrial resources such as the famed “Ogbunigwe,” rocket launcher, refineries and other equipments. However, instead of building on these technologies, the refineries were bombed and a number of the scientists executed after the war ended.


Dr. Felix Oragwu, Nigeria’s foremost nuclearphysicist who was an integral part of the scientific team recalled, in a chat with Business Hallmark, how General Gowon, having been advised that Nigeria had no future without technology, invited him with a view to drive initiatives in this regard, but was opposed by other members of the military ruling class, notably the late General Murtala Muhammad who insisted that it was a move that would empower ‘the rebels’ and that they were running a military government, not technical government.


The civil war, nonetheless, had minimal impact on the Nigerian economy. Crude oil, which had in the late 60s, become the country’s major foreign exchange earner blossomed in the international market, and the country was buoyant. So much so that Gowon was once quoted to have said that Nigeria had all the money, but didn’t know what to use it for.


Throughout the 70s to the mid 80s, the country’s new currency, the naira had more value than the American dollar, but the successive military governments had, through their recklessness and lack of proper planning ensured that beyond oil, the country had no economy. Indeed, from 1970 when the country effectively became a unitary federation in the aftermath of the civil war, the once vibrant regional economies gradually became comatose as everyone focused on oil revenue. The fruit of that neglect, some say, is what the country is reaping now.


The Tigers of Asia have leaped into first world nations with strong technological advancements and high living standards; India is number 40 in the global competitiveness ranking of 137 countries by the World Economic Forum (WEF); it is the most competitive economy in South Asia and one of the fastest growing in the world.


The same WEF put Nigeria as number 127 out of the total. It is a country fast sliding down a slippery slope; the once giant of Africa is struggling to hold itself from falling apart and has in truth, fallen from the mountain top to deep valley where the vast majority of its people reel in poverty while the few privileged political elite live as princes on wealth acquired mainly through endemic corruption. In essence, Nigeria has only worked for a few and failed the many.


Agitations, both peaceful and violent are rife, and tensions are escalating. In the country’s North East, Boko Haram terrorists group has brutally murdered not less than 20,000 people, including Nigerian soldiers since it started its campaign for an Islamic caliphate eight years ago. And it has shown little sign of slowing down even with military onslaught.


In the South East, the now proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has been leading a campaign for referendum. Despite continued military actions against the group – the latest being the ongoing Operation Python Dance, which started two weeks ago, when a number of individuals were killed and many others tortured in Abia and Rivers State – the group says, it is unfettered and would continue agitating until referendum is granted. It has consequently declared October 1 as a day of mourning. In the meantime, its leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu is still missing after the military swooped on his home killing at least five people.


In another breath, calls for restructuring have grown and many insist it is the only way the country can be salvaged from collapse.


“Restructuring is long overdue. The only thing we have not addressed fully is what kind of restructuring,” said Dr Dan Ekere of the Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos. “Nigeria is lopsided the way it is. There are many ways we can restructure; one of it is that we must go federal.


“The only reason you find most Northerners in power is the oil. If there was no such thing as oil, most of them would have gone back to their states to find ways of developing the states. And unfortunately, in spite of the fact that they have held sway in power more than any other segment of this country, the North is not as beautiful. It is just a few of them who have stolen so much that are living in heaven inside hell.”


He insisted that Nigeria has come to a point where restructuring is inevitable. For him, it is either the country is restructured peacefully or it happens violently.


“There are so many ways to do this restructuring. It is either we do it peacefully or we do it violently. Whichever option we choose will play itself out with time.


“The North cannot tie us down and insist we must follow them. In fact, the basic problem of the Nigerian state is the North because they are just enjoying without contributing. And meanwhile, the place is so rich with resources.


“But nothing is happening to those resources because there is cheap money from crude oil to take away with their numbers. And the so-called number that they have is not because they are actually human beings in the first place”


There is mass poverty and mass unemployment and crime rate is escalating. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), in a recent report, disclosed that a total of 125,790 crime cases were reported in the country in 2016. This year, the number will likely be much higher with the rising spate of ritual killings, kidnappings and armed robbery. Ekere notes that these are attributable to the dire economic realities of today.


“Obviously crime is on the rise. Crime flourishes where hunger and economic hardship become the order of the day. There is a relationship between economic hardship and crime. In 2014, a bag of rice rose to N8,000, it was alarming. But the same bag rose to over N20,000 last year, and as we speak it is in the neighbourhood of N17,000 and N18,000 upon all the claims of local production.


“The bottom line is that people are having it very tough to feed their families. Perhaps you are a salary earner, what you were earning in 2015 is what you are still earning now. The same amount goes to the market what it was able to buy in 2015, it cannot buy half it today.”


The verdict is similar across the board. Nigeria has failed to lift itself from the pit of underdevelopment despite the enormous potential it has. And at 57, many insist this year’s independent anniversary should be a time for sober reflection as there is really nothing to celebrate.


“In terms of our political evolution, in terms of our economic revolution, and even social evolution, I would say that regrettably, we haven’t done as well as we should given all the factors at our disposal,” noted journalist cum public affairs analyst, Dr. Chidi Amuta. “In terms of what our endowment entitles us to, we have not done well at all.”


Mr Wale Ogunade, a legal practitioner and activist, says that at 57, Nigeria is like an adult learning to walk, and pinned the country’s challenges on leadership failure.


“Obviously we are not where we should be as a country, given the potential we have. We are like a 57-year-old man still trying to walk.


“The problem of Nigeria is leadership, we have not gotten the right leaders, and I will begin from Tafawa Balewa who was not ready to be leader. The person who was ready to be a leader at the time was Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and of course, that he showed with the way he moved the Western region. He was the one pushing the development of Nigeria.”


In an interview with a national daily fortnight ago, Professor Ango Abdullahi of the Northern Elders Forum put it very bluntly: “If I was a teacher marking Nigeria from 1960, or a teacher marking Nigeria’s script as one of my students of over these 57 years, I will grade her a failure,” he said.


“We will be 57 years and the question is, have all those aspirations been achieved? The honest answer is no… I will say that Nigeria failed to achieve the goals and aspirations it set for itself and for its people.


“Some of the references used in gauging our development indices are India, in 1948 and Malaysia. Malaysia has really moved faster in their development endeavours. Unfortunately, despite all the endowments, Nigeria has failed to achieve the goals expected of it since independence.”


But how did we get here? For Amuta, the answer is multi facet and cannot be pinned on one factor.


“This is open to debate. Some people will tell you that we got it wrong the moment the military intervened in politics, others will say we got it wrong the moment we shifted from agriculture and industry and moved after oil royalties,” he said.


“It’s not a one factor explanation, if you say military rule, there are also countries like South Korea where the military had intervened, but has been a force for good. The military in South Korea saw itself as a force for good and they actually prepared the society for democratization which was built on economic transformation of the country.


“When the hour came to remove them out of power, it was logical; a consequence of political evolution predicated on the economic work that they did. So our failure cannot be blamed on military intervention, we are not the only country where it happened. A good number of what you call the Asian tigers, at one point or the other, had military, but there has been both political and economic transformations in those places.


Even in Africa, there was military in Ethiopia, it was the military that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, today Ethiopia is blazing a trail with rapid economic development, and this was the country that was the poster boy for starvation and famine, and there is no oil there; it is landlocked and drought stricken, but they have been able to transcended the limitations in their environment.


Today, their economy is growing fast. There was no military coup in Kenya, and although it is doing OK, it is not developing in the same pace as Ethiopia. Therefore, to attribute our failure to military is to be intellectually lazy.


“At the same time, you also look at oil. The coming of oil wealth is not a curse in itself; it is the abuse of the opportunities that brought us here. Again, some of the countries that are leading today in economic development, if you look at the Gulf Arab States: the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Iraq which was bombed out and completely flattened as a result of war, but they came back.


“If you go to those countries and see the amount of infrastructural development, you will understand that diversification of the economy is not a rhetoric. Here, we have been talking about diversification since the early 60s. For us, it is a manner of speaking, not a policy direction. In the Gulf states, what they have done is to use oil wealth to build an alternative economy which now thrives on tourism, knowledge economy and other things. If you go to Dubai, you will be ashamed.


“I have businesses in those places, the infrastructure is first grade, electricity doesn’t fail for one second, water supply is adequate, sanitation is there. Some of the biggest airlines in the world such as Emirates – when the Emirates started, the Nigerian Airways had more aircraft than it did, so what is it that has changed?” he inquired.


“Therefore lack of determined and focused leadership, lack of policies that are sustainable as well as accountability is the problem. Again, don’t forget that most of these Gulf states are not democracies, they are monarchs, but these monarchies are more accountable than our elected officials. All we do here is to use democracy to legitimize stealing. Every four years, we go to the polls to license a new set of thieves.”


Abdullahi on his part, blamed it on Murtala Muhammed whom he said, messed up the civil service, which has always been the stabilising factor in any country’s development programme.


“From 1960 until 1974, Nigeria was doing well in the area of development. I happened to have served as Commissioner of Economic Planning under the military government from 1973 to 1975. As from that period, things began getting worse, particularly, during Gen. Murtala Mohammed.


“Although Murtala appeared to be a nationalist and Pan-Africanist, regrettably, he messed up the civil service, which has always been the stabilising factor in any country’s development programme.


“Politicians come and go, but civil servants remain until retirement. Murtala abused civil service rules. Now a civil servant has to be a liar, or sycophant to keep his job. This is where Nigeria began to run into serious difficulties in governance.”


Everyone seems to be in an agreement. At 57, Nigeria is at crossroads and urgent steps need to be taken to set it on the part of progress.


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