Nigeria: A Country In Perpetual Transition?


This reflection was inspired by a report in the Daily Post of January 11 2016 where Pastor Tunde Bakare, founder of the Latter Rain Assembly was reported as urging President Muhammadu Buhari to implement the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference. According to the report, Pastor Bakare told the president: “Let it be known that in spite of the rejection of our pre-election call for a transition period, Nigeria is now a nation in transition.

“This transition period will predictably be followed by a revolution which will, in turn, be followed by a reformation that will eventually usher in the desired transformation of our nation.”

Bakare re-echoed some popular sentiments about the Nigerian state: the first is an intuitive belief that despite current challenges, in the end things will be OK. In Pidgin-speak, Nigerians will generally say “E go better”. This eternal optimism or the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or “suffering and smiling”, perhaps partly explains why Gallup Poll found in 2011 that Nigerians were the world's happiest people – or most optimistic nation or the happiest place to be in the world.

The second sentiment is a shared belief that there will be an 'intervening moment' before this light in the tunnel is manifested. For some this 'intervening moment' will be either a 'revolution', a 'transformation' (such as adopting the recommendations of a National Conference to transform the structure of the country) or the coming into power of a reform-minded leader. Essentially there appears to be a consensus that there will be a rupture with the present way of doing things before the New Nigeria will emerge. One of the flipsides to this is that virtually every leader the country has had justifies his policies, including retrogressive ones, as representing the needed rupture with the present way of doing things. It is probably the reason why every government in the country, including at the state and local government levels likes to give the impression that its predecessors did nothing good and that 'real governance' is only starting with it.

Aside from the above sentiments, the notion of Nigeria as a country in transition also masks a number of salient issues:

One, is a certain tendency to blank out any question of when Nigeria was ever in a state of equilibrium. The truth is that you cannot talk of transition without knowing your take-off point or where you are transiting to. Knowing your take-off point is a crucial metric for measuring any progress or retrogression.

Two, Nigerians seem to have a high consciousness of the journey but a vague notion of the nature of the destination. This has often led to finger-pointing by different parts of the country on which part (or parts) of the country is (are) slowing down the journey. Several parts of the country that have threatened secession have often implied that without the others 'slowing them down'; their journey to the unspecified destination would have been faster.

Three, in the discourse of Nigeria as a country in transition, there is often a confusion on whether the country, ever troubled, is just hanging on a cliff or whether the cliff is in fact the country's comfort zone. When the American journalist Karl Maier published the book This House Has Fallen: Midnight in Nigeria (2000), the clear impression was that the country was about to implode. More than 15 years after the book was published, the country is still standing, its problems largely unresolved. In fact the country's problems rarely get resolved. In the run-up to the 2015 general elections, there were predictions that the elections would lead to the unravelling of the country. The election came and went. Nigeria did not unravel neither did it emerge stronger from the election. It is still hanging on the precipice – as it has always done. The country remains as divided as ever and paradoxically the sense of optimism that “e go better” also remains as strong as ever.

Four, Nigeria has been caught between the mood swings of the Afro-pessimism of the 1980s and 1990s – often regarded as the lost decades for Africa and the Afro-optimism of 2000s. In the decade 2000 until recently, there was an overwhelming Afro optimism where suddenly Africa became the beautiful bride of the world, with six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world being in the continent. Nigeria benefited immensely from the Afro-optimism of the era. In 2005 for instance Jim O'Neil, then a former Goldman Sachs analyst included Nigeria in the Next 11 (N-11). These were eleven countries – Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam which Jim O'Neill identified in a research paper as having a high potential of becoming, along with the BRICs, the world's largest economies in the 21st century. In January 2014 O'Neil again popularized the notion of MINT economies – a neologism referring to the economies of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, which he believed would be the next break-out economies. Nigeria's inclusion in MINT simply meant the country took over the spot of South Korea in the MIKT economies. To add to the wave of Naija-optimism, Filipino billionaire, Enrique Razon, was quoted as declaring during the closing activities at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2014 that year that Nigeria was the best place to invest that year. During 2014 Nigeria also became the largest economy in Africa following the rebasing of its GDP. Outside the shores of the country, Nigerians walked with more swagger as the wave of 'Naija-optimism was clearly discernible. Suddenly there was a collapse in the price of crude oil. A new sheriff came to town and there have been subtle suggestions that nothing ever was got right by his predecessors. There have been revelations of mind boggling diversions of public funds suggesting that contrary to the image, those who governed the country before did nothing but steal the country blind. Nigeria, we are told is broke, and must begin a new transition.

Five, Nigeria is classified as a democratising rather than a democratic country. It is a country in transition from autocracy to democracy. We are told that some of the features of a democratizing society include the tension between democratic consolidation and democratic reversal and between the expansion and the contraction of the democratic space. In democratising societies, the structures of conflicts are aggravated because of the bottled up feelings that were denied expressions during the periods of dictatorship. But a cynic can also ask when the country ever was without tensions? In democratizing societies there are authoritarian impulses that make it difficult to decipher whether the country is consolidating its democracy or relapsing into its authoritarian past. What appears obvious is that it is in transition.

Six, Nigeria has also been in perpetual war against corruption. There is always a notion of a transition to a period when corruption will become very minimal. Every regime in the country has made fighting corruption a key feature of its policy options. Yet revelations by each succeeding regime 'probing the preceding' one often suggests that corruption has not become less despite all the grandstanding about fighting corruption. We remember Obasanjo's Jaji Declaration (during his First Coming), Shagari's Ethical Revolution, Babangida's MAMSER, Abacha's Failed Bank Tribunal and Obasanjo's EFCC and ICPC (in his Second Coming). Buhari is now waging his own war against the malaise. Each regime approaches the 'fight' with a sense of moral outrage. The true test of success however is not in how much money an agency has recovered from 'looters' or in revealing how officials stole the country dry – as important as these may be – but whether the fight succeeds in making the country less corrupt. So far there is nothing to suggest that the incidence of corruption has become less despite each regime's moral outrage and the existence of contraptions like EFCC and ICPC. In this sense Nigeria remains in transition with respect to the fight against corruption.

A crucial question following the above is when Nigeria will move from its permanent transition mode to permanently resolve at least one of its numerous existential problems.

Written by Jideofor Adibe.
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