In development, a large number of people or quantity of natural endowments don’t count – at least, not in the absence of merit and competence. A belief in merit and competence produces good governance, a sure path to economic development. Their absence spawns the ‘paradox of plenty’ or the so-called resource curse disease…


In his 2019 and 2020 Democracy Day addresses, President Muhammadu Buhari showed deep concern for Nigeria’s daunting challenges, all of which boil down to our deteriorating human development measures in health, education, personal income, and other indicators of the good life. We achieved electoral democracy in 1999 (albeit imperfect) in the hope of fostering more human development than we had under military rule. We have failed in this because of bad governance.

Some of our commentators and scholars are blaming democracy for the failures of governance. But these are two entirely different ideas. The basic tension between them should be so clear in the case of Nigeria that it does not help to continue to conflate the two in popular discourse.

While a prominent feature of democracy is periodic elections, the imperative attribute of good governance is accountability. One does not lead to the other. Accountability is a primary quality of checks and balances, by which is meant those procedures that are put in place to diminish the risk of the centralisation of power. Before Abuja reaches for the revolver, let me explain what I mean.

Take nepotism. Although it is more prevalent in developing countries such as our own, it has yet to be history in more developed economies. In the most powerful of them all, the United States of America, presidents have been known to appoint relatives to powerful positions in government. In response, the U.S. expressly passed a law against nepotism in 1967. In 1978, it passed another law to exempt advisory positions, like that of a senior advisor to the president, to which Donald Trump appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

But no matter how prevalent it is, nepotism is a bad thing because unchecked, it can lead to a harmful concentration of power. That’s why the power to appoint people to defined high offices in our democracy is shared between the executive and the legislative branches of government. One appoints, the other confirms.

Everyone knows that the most achieving countries of the world prioritise merit in large measure in both the private and public sectors of national life; this is true from Singapore to China to the U.S.A and many others.


Nepotism is also bad in another way. It suggests a disregard for merit. Everyone knows that the most achieving countries of the world prioritise merit in large measure in both the private and public sectors of national life; this is true from Singapore to China to the U.S.A and many others.

Take the smallest country in the list, Singapore, which some analysts deem one of the most efficient and incorrupt bureaucracies on earth. The secret of Singapore is an unshakeable belief in good governance that is built on merit and competence.

But God has blessed Nigeria a million times more than Singapore’s 5.64 million people, against our 205.92 million people. In her own divine wisdom, God also gave us over 200 mineral resources, including oil and humongous reserves of gas. Singapore, on the other hand, has only a little deepwater oil and a relatively paltry landmass of 709 square kilometres against our 910,770 square kilometres.

Today, the just over five and a half million Singaporeans have $299.3 billion in foreign reserves. Two hundred and six million Nigerians have only $33.42 billion. Singapore’s GDP per person last year was $103,717, while Nigeria’s was $6,098. That’s the difference good governance makes.


Given this relative deprivation, Singapore had to rely on high-quality human resources made possible by a strict policy of meritocracy leading to good governance. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times puts it, it had to “run its economy and schools in a way that would extract the maximum from each citizen.”

And here’s the result: Today, the just over five and a half million Singaporeans have $299.3 billion in foreign reserves. Two hundred and six million Nigerians have only $33.42 billion. Singapore’s GDP per person last year was $103,717, while Nigeria’s was $6,098. That’s the difference good governance makes.

So what’s the moral of these numbers? In development, a large number of people or quantity of natural endowments don’t count – at least, not in the absence of merit and competence. A belief in merit and competence produces good governance, a sure path to economic development. Their absence spawns the ‘paradox of plenty’ or the so-called resource curse disease, with which we are now seriously afflicted.

Ebere Onwudiwe is a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja.