HERSKOVITS: 50 YEARS OF CHANGE IN NIGERIA (3)
Continued from yesterday
THERE is discussion these days about Nigeria's future as a country -should it continue and if so, in what form? Should it break up into x number of units? Should there be a national conference to determine the future? If so, who would choose who attends, and how? But it is a tragedy that the fundamental question of Nigeria's existence even arises now. Only those too young to remember the civil war -or to have been through it -can imagine repeating it. It is sobering that those who do not remember now outnumber those who do. But the question I have always asked about Nigeria is how, arguably against the odds, it has remained Nigeria. Those hundreds of ethnic groups, speaking hundreds of languages, coming to independence without a single tarred road connecting north and south, and with imported institutions that were, whatever else, hardly a perfect fit. And yet, despite it all, there has been a Nigeria for half a century, and some kind of awareness of being Nigerian. This is not a small accomplishment.
My comments here rest on an assumption I refuse to give up: that Nigeria will continue as a single entity and, further, it will do so as some kind of federation. It must. The repeated creation of states has in each instance brought demands for more states, with a new 'minority' behind each demand. I do not think delimiting units for a confederation, let alone new independent countries, would be any easier, smoother -or bloodless; we have many post-Cold War examples that say otherwise. Paradoxically, demands to create more states come alongside heated, and irresponsible, demands for parts of Nigeria to 'go their separate ways.' But that alternative to a federal Nigeria is also an inducement for terrible violence. Government revenue is central to whatever does happen. And oil is, for now and some time to come, central to that. Too central, in fact; it's long been clear Nigeria suffers from the clichÃ©d oil curse, and that it shapes, or if you will, disfigures, political and economic reality.
Only Lagos among Nigeria's 36 states produces sufficient revenue to come anywhere near sustaining itself; the others are all on the federal dole. I've mentioned that state governments are not held accountable, either for their own expenditures or for the lack thereof, or for whether they disburse funds legally due to local governments. Nor are local governments held accountable either, even when their chairmen seek first to build new, often substantial houses. This is hardly a workable federal system in which power and functions are responsibly devolved away from the center. And it must be noted that one criterion for statehood, talked about as early as the Willink Commission, is economic viability. No one could take that seriously now. Even worse, with states relying on monthly handouts, there is little incentive to stimulate income-generating activities. New policies based on making states less dependent on Abuja would, of course, provide jobs and even (theoretically) tax revenues. And perhaps more important, it would allow the creative energies of Nigerians to work in constructive ways.
But, as always, the critical changes to produce greater state autonomy require having fewer and larger federating units. Is this possible? I don't think so, at least now. There is no will among those in government, or for most of those aspiring to be there, to talk about hard issues. The focus is on winning the elections next year in a situation as delicate and potentially explosive as any the country has ever faced. But federation issues demand rational discussion, and Nigeria needs more than just a few people talking and heated arguments in newspapers and web sites. What would happen if leaders did something rare in Nigeria: talk to the people? Those charged with governing in Nigeria rarely explain anything to the public. It would be splendid if they did. And even better if discussion followed and affected policy.
I began by talking about the unintended consequences of some good intentions. So let me return now to the creation of states and the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential form of government and ask, so what if there were such consequences? Did it really matter? In 1979 the new constitution tried to correct the imbalances that had led to instability. Did it succeed? Yes and no. Certainly it made sense to have the highest executive power in the hands of someone chosen by the whole country. It also exposed many Nigerian politicians to parts of the country they had never seen before,22 encouraging their broader understanding and sense of Nigerianness.
But the proliferation of states also helps explain the otherwise nearly inexplicable passivity of the Nigerian public in the face of misrule and abuse of power. For one thing, it created more avenues for grand theft, euphemistically called mismanagement. And the other key to today's fragmented Nigerian identity is the inexcusable and widespread poverty that corruption has engendered. In the late 1970s, a time of increasing prosperity, many people from one end of the country to the other happily identified themselves as Nigerian. But in the 1980s Nigerian identity began to fray and it has continued to do so ever since. The causes are not all necessarily the same, although there is a constant: the same 'Trouble with Nigeria' that Chinua Achebe first wrote about as far back as 1982 -the failure of leadership. And to failure we may now add abuse.
What is to be done? is the always apt question. I hesitate to prescribe for Nigerians -except to suggest, quite seriously, that a winning football team, another world class Super Eagles, would contribute mightily to Nigerian unity. Meanwhile, I know that Nigeria does not need more investigations and reports. There are stacks of these, decades' worth, many with sound recommendations. Nor do Nigerians need outsiders to tell them what to do. There are Nigerians who know what to do. But as time passes and serious problems go unaddressed, major changes become more difficult. An obvious, disturbing example is the heightened importance of religion in politics. Worse, the ever-easier access to weapons.
Looking back, I see that when there have been attempts in the last 25 years to solve problems, solutions have come the easiest way: by adding layers of complexity. As with the creation of states, change has meant more -of regulations and procedures -without addressing basic issues where change for the better should mean less. I do not see that the present gives immediate hope. Yes, some governors are trying to improve the lives of their constituents -Lagos is a model now. And courts have overturned some rigged elections, most recently in Ekiti and Delta states after three-plus years of litigation. And some candidates for the National Assembly truly want to serve their country.
But this year's amending of the constitution using national and state legislatures shows the depth of the retrogression. Nor do I see how any kind of national conference held now could get to the fundamentals and produce constructive answers; Nigerians are too fragmented by poverty, electoral manipulations and the culmination of all I've been talking about. Just note the clamour at the National Assembly for still more states.
For Nigeria to be what it should and -I still believe, Nigerians of integrity and commitment to the whole country will have to deny today's toxic politics and face the basic questions. They will have to examine them with 'intellectual rigor,' whose lack in Nigeria's 'founding fathers' Chinua Achebe deplored over twenty-five years ago. They will have to look for unexpected consequences. They will have to make hard choices and get their fellow Nigerians to go along. And they will have to insist on raising education to the highest priority. Without it, as the 21st century's globalized world keeps changing ever more rapidly, Nigerians in Nigeria will be left with ever fewer opportunities.
Who will take on that huge challenge, I can't know. Concluding a 1972 piece in Foreign Affairs called 'One Nigeria', I wrote: '[Nigerians are trying]…for stability and ethnic diversity, and for a better quality of life throughout the country. If Nigeria succeeds, the success will be Africa's, for other states may derive strength from her strength, and even ideas for ways to solve the problems they all face.'
And despite so many wasted opportunities, I believe that what I've just been describing, along with the talent and energy of many Nigerians, could still make that success possible. Fifty years is a short time in the life of a country.
• Herskovits is Research Professor of History, State University of New York's Purchase College, New York. This material was presented at the Coventry University African Studies Centre -Chatham House Africa Programme Conference: 'Nigeria: the Biggest and the Best? 50 Years of Independence' on November 10, 2010.