Nigeria: Politics ‘as usual’ is no longer fit for purpose
It is becoming increasingly clear that two different Nigerias are emerging: one wedded to the past and acting out an old and redundant formula that is no longer fit for purpose and a younger, brighter and more talented demographic that is crying out for change. Can the two find peaceful accommodation or is a clash inevitable? Analysis by Neil Ford.
The focus in Nigeria is naturally turning to next February’s Presidential and legislative elections, a contest that barring a very unexpected turn of events will be won by either Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) or Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), now that Muhammadu Buhari is to step down after completing the maximum two terms of office allowed under the constitution.
Yet there is also a feeling that the established political order is failing to meet the needs of young, ambitious Nigerians and the Nigeria of the 21st century.
There are in a sense two Nigerias. The first is the Nigeria most often depicted in the media: of ageing political big men; of entrenched corruption and unreliable power supplies; and of insecurity driven by Boko Haram and Islamic State in the northeast and militant groups in the oil-soaked Niger Delta.
That scenario also paints a picture of huge strains between the north and south, between the federal government and the states, and between the broadly Muslim north and mainly Christian south. All this is underpinned by an obsession with oil and a failure to diversify the wider economy.
On the other side of the equation, there is also the Nigeria represented by visionary businesspeople, bankers and tech innovators; globally admired writers, performers and artists; vibrant grassroots civic organisations and a younger generation that is both hugely ambitious and well connected via social media. Too many of these people are either failing to make the most of their talents within the country or see little option but to emigrate.
It is easy to explain why the current political culture is dominated by the former. The informal but entrenched system of alternating the position of Head of State between northern Presidents with southern running mates and vice versa evolved to help counter the very real risks to national cohesion that emerged soon after independence and which led to the devastating Biafran War that claimed an estimated 1m lives.
At the same time, the dominant role of a handful of influential men, often with a military career behind them, helped keep the army out of direct involvement in politics by ensuring that some of their own ran the newly civilian government of the country.
Yet even if this mindset is understandable, Nigeria has to become more ambitious at some point. The established political system is just not working. The West African giant has not imploded but the economy is unable to generate sufficient growth. The obsession with oil is also failing to serve the best interests of even the oil industry itself, with oil majors pulling out of the Niger Delta and Nigerian crude output steadily declining.
Corruption remains a massive problem and the state seems to do more to impede than to help the many talented people in the country. As a result, living standards have stagnated even while select sections of the economy gain a reputation for banking solidity and fintech innovation.
At the same time, political support coalesces more around popular leaders than around political parties. This has become somewhat globally fashionable with the rise of populist political leaders around the world, such as Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Narendra Modi in India, who put personality before policy.
They have often appealed to the lowest common denominator on issues such as religion, ethnicity and global warming, agitating mistrust of minority communities in the process.
Nigeria’s political class would do well to avoid going down the same road but in Abuja too there seems far too little concern about improving the fortunes of the bulk of the population, across all regions, ethnic groups and religious communities.
When Buhari came to power in 2015, he promised progress on the security situation, the economy and corruption. Although some investment has been attracted, including in headline-grabbing refining, port and rail projects, it is fair to say that he has failed on all three counts, with most services and forms of infrastructure remaining sorely inadequate.
To start with, the economy remains overly reliant on hydrocarbon exports, but the world is moving away from oil; it is only the pace of change that is in question. While falling demand for crude could decimate Nigeria’s main source of export revenues, it will force the government to change focus and encourage other parts of the economy to flourish.
Aside from Delta militants and northern Islamists, conflict between settled farmers and pastoralists in the Middle Belt of central Nigeria is only likely to worsen as the population grows and climate change intensifies resource competition.
Rising rates of robbery make many roads increasingly dangerous, while kidnapping has begun to rival oil theft as a source of income for those with criminal inclinations.
In response, the judicial system is overwhelmed and poorly funded, while the police and military are under-resourced, with the latter often exacerbating tensions by seeking to fight fire with fire.
Put simply, the federal government is failing to govern the country, increasingly literally, with the area of territory uncontrolled by the state steadily growing.
Embracing change and setting out a more positive vision for the future can help Nigeria to tackle secessionist and security problems, cope with climate change and diversify the economy more effectively than trying to freeze the country in a moment in time. A more optimistic Nigeria cannot be created and imposed from above but the political elite can remove the obstacles that stand on the road to change.
A lack of economic freedoms and opportunities, coupled with resistance to political change, will likely continue to ramp up tensions within the existing political and social pressure cooker. This will create an environment within which more people are tempted to pursue more extreme solutions, such as Igbo secession, petrocrime and kidnapping or Islamist rebellion.
The rotating Presidency served a purpose but now only helps to concentrate power in the hands of the political elite, while it is generally agreed that the political system is not inclusive. The great difficulty lies in assessing what should replace existing political structures.
The shortcomings of successive federal governments suggest that the transfer of more powers from Abuja to state governments would be one option but the record of many state governors on corruption and other issues makes this a difficult one to call.
An anti-corruption watchdog with greater teeth and independence would be a good place to start. In addition, although Nigeria has remained a democracy since 1999, its democracy needs to grow deeper roots that attract passionate – and not just wealthy – people into political circles.
Whatever security, political and economic stresses and strains Nigeria feels now are only going to intensify because of demographic change. The population has already grown from 45m at independence in 1960 to 218m this year but is forecast to grow to as much as 790m by 2100, when it will only be outnumbered by the two Asian giants: India and China.
This growth will undoubtedly demand massive changes. There will need to be a steep increase in basics such as housing, water and sanitation, schools and universities, road networks, public and private transport and energy.
It will be essential to find adequate employment for the increasing population, both in the rural areas where agriculture could and should see a rapid increase, and also in urban centres. This will need to be supported by an increase in the provision of business premises, office space, shops, factories and various outlets.
These require a flexible political system that cares about the needs, opinions and demands of the masses. Increasingly connected young Nigerians, who see how the global North lives, are surely becoming more frustrated at the lack of progress.
A genuine national debate is needed, with the full participation of the government, to identify structures more fitting for the challenges to come: population growth, climate change and an increasingly interconnected world.
These developments bring huge challenges but also great opportunities. For instance, tackling climate change could depress Nigerian oil revenues but it has also prompted the development of renewable energy technologies that could finally electrify Nigeria.
In addition, becoming the world’s third most populous state will give the country far more heft and influence on the international stage than it currently possesses. Having such a huge potential workforce at its disposal also brings substantial economic opportunities.
Whoever wins the Presidential election needs to accept that a large part of the blame for the country’s various woes lies at the door of the political system and culture, not just the performance and policies of past leaders. Yet it seems unlikely that they will do so given that they will have been brought to power by that very system. But Nigeria cannot continue to do the same tired things and hope for a different result.