Given the reality of Nigeria’s history, and its serial failure to maximise opportunities arising out of crises, it is perhaps not out of place to argue that the country is jinxed. Leaders, civilian and military, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, have come and gone. But the country continues to take a step forward and two backwards.
The question seems unreasonable, maybe even dubious. To ask if a nation, more than 60 years old, bountifully blessed in human and material resources, is jinxed is stretching incredulity. Jinxed from what? By who and for what purpose? Yet, when one recovers from the initial shock, the question – indeed – warrants exploration, if only to compel Nigerians to review our history, be clear about what it is telling us, and take appropriate lessons for the future.
Historically, epochal events play a large part in the rise and fall of nations. This is especially true in war, where victors enjoy the spoils of their victories – increase in political power, prestige and economic gains. Losers, on the other hand, suffer through the humiliation of defeat, their voices silenced, their economy ravaged, their people cowed. But beyond war, other seismic activities such as economic depression, natural disasters, and internal political upheaval, to mention a few, can shake things up. Indeed history suggests that crises are the surest means of driving positive change and midwifing national growth and development.
Some examples will help to drive home the point. Take the United States of America. This is a country that was born out of a protest against the overbearing attitude and requirements of being a colony of Great Britain. Its leading lights decided that enough was enough over taxes and the lack of representation; they fought a war of independence, crafted a Constitution founded on the republican principle that “all men are born equal” (in contra-distinction to the absolute monarchies that held sway in most of the world at the time), and the country has never looked back since. Through the decades and centuries, the US has utilised every major crisis to get better. Its Civil War led to the abolition of slavery in the country. The Great Depression led to the “New Deal” of policies like on Social Security that, till date, protects its citizens from financial ruin. The Civil Rights Acts resulted from the series of protests by African-Americans over discrimination and segregation. The list goes on.
Take Germany and Japan. The two were the principal leaders of the “Axis Powers” during the Second World War. They lost the war, humiliatingly. Their territories were occupied, with some of them lost for good. Their economies were destroyed. Worse still, new constitutions were largely written for them by their conquerors. But through the ashes and sorrows of the defeat, they gradually built up and, within a generation, had regained most of their prestige on the international stage. Today, Germany is the undisputed leader in Europe, the very same objective it sought in going to war in 1939; while Japan has long being one of the top three economies of the world.
China is another good example. Occupied by Japan for most of the Second World War, it required the support of allies for the country to come out victorious. But the occupation and its aftermath left China in pretty bad shape. Its economy was in tatters, its territory divided into mainland China (Peoples Republic of China) and Taiwan. Saddled with a humongous population, it effectively closed itself to the rest of the world and commenced the long journey to restoration and revival, with a “Cultural Revolution”. It followed this up by liberalising trade and implementing population control (one child per couple, for many years). All these have made China the world’s pre-eminent economy today.
Sadly, Nigeria has perfected the art of wasting crises and opportunities. Fresh from extricating itself from colonial lords in the early 1960s, the country’s politicians dragged the nation through several electoral crises and contests for power. Rather than produce better efforts at elections management and power distribution, further divisions ensued…
Nearer home, Rwanda and Ghana provide us prime examples of crisis not left to go to waste. The former country witnessed a genocide that wiped out nearly a million of its citizens and brought it to its knees in 1994. Painstaking efforts at rebuilding and reuniting the country have reset it, and it is now a shinning beacon of progress and development in Africa. Ghana, on the other hand, was an economic wasteland in the 1980s. Things were so bad that its citizens sought refuge and respite in other lands, including Nigeria. Its military was also busy, like Nigeria’s, organising one coup after another, leading to serial instability. A hard reset, led by J.J Rawlings, changed all of these. Today, Ghana is a bastion of stable, representative democracy, and its economy outperforms most in the African continent.
In all the examples sited above, and many more elsewhere, crises were used to build and rebuild nations to enviable heights. They reflect an abiding faith in the precept that Winston Churchill, former U.K, prime minister, brilliantly coined: “never let a good crisis go to waste”.
Sadly, Nigeria has perfected the art of wasting crises and opportunities. Fresh from extricating itself from colonial lords in the early 1960s, the country’s politicians dragged the nation through several electoral crises and contests for power. Rather than produce better efforts at elections management and power distribution, further divisions ensued, ultimately causing the military to take over the reigns of government.
The military came in 1966 and, rather than unite the country, they practically set the nation on fire. Rather than mend the fissures creating by the selfish and tribalistic politicians it overthrew, the soldiers worked to expand them, leading eventually to a three-year civil war and thousands (possibly millions) of deaths.
Many a nation has come out of civil wars stronger, more vibrant and more united. Somehow, Nigeria has achieved the opposite. The spirit of Biafra, supposedly overcome following the end of the war, remains strong in the hearts and minds of so many Igbos today. Worse still, the secessionist spirit is now shared by several other groups. From the Niger Delta to the South-West to the North-East, Nigeria has managed to somehow breed multiple centres of separatist movements.
The highlight of the clamour was the June 12 crisis, a result of the then military government’s refusal to depart the stage. Ultimately, by a combination of natural events and a strident opposition, civilian rule was re-birthed in Nigeria in 1999. Sadly, the aftermath of this leaves a lot to be desired.
If the 1960s and 1970s were missed opportunities, the 1980s and 1990s presented different types of crises that, properly harvested, would have set Nigeria on real development by correcting the errors of the post-independence era. The first was the economic meltdown that started in the early 1980s, which saw the collapse of the price of the nation’s principal revenue earner – crude oil. This collapse, allied with growing corruption and misplaced development priorities, had a harrowing effect on the nation’s citizens. Rather than a “New Deal” type sets of solutions that would diversify the economy, empower the middle class and grow local manufacturing, Nigeria was served with a mishmash of policies that further blighted the economy, forced many to seek economic refuge elsewhere and made life more difficult for citizens who had nowhere to run to. From Austerity Measure(s) to the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), the opportunity to get better was wasted by ill-suited policies and programmes.
The 1990s saw a world increasingly focused on human rights and democracy. Nigeria was not left out, as citizens clamoured for a return to civil rule – especially when it was clear that the military that had come in as avowed “saviours” were no better and, by many accounts, actually worse than the civilians they had hitherto chased from power. The highlight of the clamour was the June 12 crisis, a result of the then military government’s refusal to depart the stage. Ultimately, by a combination of natural events and a strident opposition, civilian rule was re-birthed in Nigeria in 1999. Sadly, the aftermath of this leaves a lot to be desired. Elections are routinely rigged and the leaders that emerge mostly represent the worst, rather than the best the nation can offer. The result is evident in the dwindling quality of life in Nigeria. Progress, on many indices of human development including health, education, and security, remain patchy at best.
Presently, Nigeria faces two major crises. One is a security crisis in the North of the country that has resisted all proffered solutions. Even as the country continues to battle Boko Haram in the North-East and an amorphous band of bandits in the North-West, there is no sense of a plan to arrest the situation. Instead, platitudes have become national policy. If and when Nigeria finally gets a handle on Boko Haram and the bandits, there is nothing on the table to suggest that the country would have learnt lessons and build better for the future.
The second crisis that Nigeria currently faces also affects the rest of the world. That is the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on health resources. The country has been largely lucky, given that the rampaging virus has not affected a large number of the populace. But even the few that it has affected has shown to all how acutely deficient our health services are. Yet, despite this fact, there is no concerted effort to rejig the health system to allow for greater efficiency and effectiveness. Hospitals, inadequate in most places and ramshackle where they exist, remain poorly staffed and poorly equipped. Worse still, staff are poorly remunerated. The net effect is that the health of most Nigerians is hinged on hope and prayer.
Given the reality of Nigeria’s history, and its serial failure to maximise opportunities arising out of crises, it is perhaps not out of place to argue that the country is jinxed. Leaders, civilian and military, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, have come and gone. But the country continues to take a step forward and two backwards. Perhaps there is something beyond the natural that limits the country’s progress. It may well be time to consult and seek a reprieve from the gods!
Chris Adetayo is a public and international affairs commentator.