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How the ‘messiah syndrome’ holds back Nigerian development

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How the ‘messiah syndrome’ holds back Nigerian development

Some countries have seen an elite bargain that commits to long-term growth and development, with each new government delivering on the agreed compact irrespective of who is in charge, but in Nigeria the only such bargain has been to allow the looting of state assets, says Onyekachi Wambu.

The heated discussions ahead of Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential election captured an exercise in futility. The two flawed candidates, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, placed Nigerians between a rock and a hard place. Yet respected figures argued fiercely for each candidate as the anointed messiah that would save Nigeria. 

The best case that could be made by smart supporters of Jonathan, was that he was not Buhari, an ex-army officer who came to power through undemocratic means. While ‘Buharists’ argued that given his military background and no-nonsense approach, he would defeat the growing Boko Haram insurgency, as well as halt the imminent economic collapse.

His well-known authoritarian tendency, they argued, would be a small price to pay. His failures from his first period in office, where he was effectively fired in a palace coup by his fellow military officers, were simply ignored. His APC party promised instead to return the naira to parity with the dollar. 

In January 2015 the dollar exchange rate was 187 naira, as at mid-September 2022, it is 430. The Boko Haram insurgency has worsened, with additional conflicts caused by marauding herdsmen, unknown gunmen and kidnappers.

Has there been buyer’s remorse?  Maybe for Buhari, who has finally lost his messiah status. However, the APC’s latest flag-bearer, Bola Tinubu, is being touted credibly as the next President, with many of the same individuals who projected Buhari as the messiah doing the same for Tinubu, despite the continuing questions about the source of his wealth, gaps in his CV, and ominous ‘interest’ from US authorities. 

Arguments in his favour are easily made because his PDP opponent, Atiku Abubakar, former VP under Olusegun Obasanjo, faces some of the same questions about his own wealth and given the fact he spends most of his time in the UAE, Nigeria might easily end up with another Biya-like Presidency, remote-controlled from abroad.

Sense of entitlement

The lack of real enthusiasm for either of the candidates has created an opening for the first time for a serious third-party candidate, the former governor and businessman, Peter Obi, representing the Labour Party. His candidacy has been rapturously embraced by young people, for whom he is the messiah that will fix the economy, produce jobs and provide a future for them. 

Yet Obi is also part of the recycled elite, with solid, but modest achievements in his former position as governor. All three also share the same elite failing, which is a profound sense of entitlement. Tinubu, having financed Buhari’s Presidency, feels it is his turn as does Atiku, who still resents being overlooked by the party when Obasanjo stepped down, in favour of Umaru Yar Ad’ua. 

Despite this sense of entitlement, there are some interesting differences between these three candidates and previous leaders that dominated Nigerian politics. 

Buhari is probably now the final representative of a group of military officers who captured the Nigerian state in the 1960s and have disastrously held the nation hostage since then. 

The three current candidates, despite questions about the source of their initial wealth, are seen as effective businessmen who have built formidable fortunes. For the first time Nigeria will be led by someone who understands the disciplines and imperatives of business – and with proven expertise of efficiently managing an organisation’s resources in pursuit of targets and profitability.

But is a messiah businessman enough? A new book, Gambling on Development by Stefan Dercon, deals with the reasons some countries have developed successfully, while others like Nigeria continue to flounder. He posits a simple thesis: for take-off to happen, as in China for instance, there must be an elite bargain that commits to long-term growth and development, with each new government delivering on the agreed compact irrespective of who is in charge.

Such an elite bargain has not existed in Nigeria, dominated as it is by the messiah syndrome. The only such elite bargain has been one, instead, that encouraged the looting and privatisation of state assets, alongside the balancing of ethnic and religious sensitivities, rather than a focus on development. For Nigeria in 2023: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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