People & Money

Why the state, not Nigeria, could fail

An article in the Foreign Affairs journal has just set off heated debates online about whether Nigeria is a failed state. Professor Nick Chessman who’s an associate from the years I consulted and wrote on EU-Kenya development cooperation more than a decade ago co-authored this article with Fola Aina, a doctoral fellow at King’s College London. Their article is provocatively titled “Don’t call Nigeria a failed state”

To be transparent, I’ve given more than five public addresses in the past 14 months since Covid-19 reached Nigeria in March 2020. I found myself on each occasion offering this disclaimer: that I have spent much of my two decades plus working on African Security, Development and Governance arguing spiritedly with academic colleagues and others to dispel the notion that Nigeria is a failed state. More recently, however, I have been somewhat shifting position, seeing the amplifying effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Nigeria’s worst vulnerabilities whilst niggling away at some of its once vaunted resilience factors.

So no bonus marks for guessing which side of the state failure argument I woke up on this day when I read the Chessman-Aina take on Nigeria in Foreign Affairs and thereby provoked to scribble this piece. I ended up agreeing largely with their central thesis that Nigeria, rather than failing, may have become more inclusive and stronger over the past twenty-two years of democratic rule. And truly, we have seen in these past seven months both the power of Nigerian youth everywhere demanding more civil policing, spurred by the ENDSARS campaign. Less edifying, the unfortunately ethnically-framed agitations in some parts against President Buhari’s clear failings at the helm of Nigeria.

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Cheeseman and Aina essentially reformulate what I have always regarded as Nigeria the two speeds nation. One in which the well-off and owners of significant stakes will defend the Nigeria project as a pan-national class, not as representatives of their individual ethnic groups. They will be enabled by a dependable army of the less-well-off, hanger-ons who even at this dire economic times largely survive on big-men’s hand-outs.

So the co-authors’ view on inclusiveness at macro political level, I totally concur with. The worry for me has always been the other Nigeria – slow-speed, mostly in reverse, the world of the increasingly left behind – now being sucked almost inexorably into a governance vacuum with the dramatic explosion this year of assorted insecurity actors filling that vacuum. They include bandits, kidnappers, terror groups and ethnic militias. These needs to be tackled with both burning urgency and a laser focus.

More specifically, it is the broadly optimistic tone of the co-authored article that most persuades me. Sensible security and economic reform to address the underlying desperation will put Nigeria in far better stead and perhaps a lot quicker than many think. Also, a capable aspirant emerging Nigeria’s presidency can set a similar tone down the lower political levels. Focused reform can be spurred to life.

To capture all of this, something I heard from a successful businessman friend –  who would not have written a PhD if he got another eight lives, or even considered engaging in the largely arm-chair philosophizing about state failure – is cogent and succinct. “Nigeria won’t implode because what the ordinary people want is just the simple things in life and the feelgood factor that comes with a fairly growing economy that is dripping resources down”. The ‘dripping’ for me is a thankfully lower hanging fruit than an out-rightly tricking down economy, difficult to engineer from this abyss.

Anyone might share share my relative sanguineness if they feel all of the youthful entrepreneurial energy around me here in Lagos which is relatively better organised. This should not be too difficult to upscale when progressively emulated upcountry by purposeful elected representatives, like Governors for Ekiti, Kaduna and Edo states are showing glimpses of in the Lagos-led reforming spirit. It might take a whole generation but doable. I admit that I have somewhat argued against the Obama Africa admonition not to trust strongmen but institutions.

Our power brokers at all levels are those strongmen. Their role in rallying together at crucial moments is largely unheralded and has been part of Nigeria’s saving grace through the several political turbulence. If they grasp the nettle, pushed by the current deterioration, I am backing them to be able to count stronger institutions on their side as a veritable ally in resetting the Nigerian project. Also, there is that growing trend of few technocrats leaving roles in business and elsewhere to enter politics in order to role-model for the archetypal deals-making but zero-innovation politicians that dominate Nigeria.

So, my take is that Nigeria is not yet a failed state but can fail. There exist still several recourses that can dramatically reverse the current rot. Whatever readers make of my rosy take, be reassured at least that even I have revised my position almost daily to both support and oppose different sides of the Nigeria state failure debate.

So, some concluding philosophical thoughts. As long as a Nigerian identity exists, which I insist is real at least among the elites, Nigeria is not yet a failed state. Nevertheless, the Nigerian state is arguably a failure. The glue that keeps people together is the identity, and coupled with a purpose can see Nigeria emerge to truly lead Africa. One irony is that a failing state may counter-intuitively strengthen a national identity, framed by non-ethnic, exclusivist-regional or religious goals, but based narrowly on class (mostly economic) interests.

Recent reflections have also led me to consider how our time horizon affects our notion of success or failure as well as the benchmark of identity. So, ‘failing’, ‘being a failure’ and ‘failed’ are all subjective categories for this reason and depend on the magnitude, duration and what comes next. The state in Nigeria is failed or failing as I wrote above. Still, looking through history, some identities have survived although states have failed- the Gauls, Catalans, the Nubians and Peul (Fulani).

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Also, failure of a state may not herald the doomsday as widely held. In some sense, it is a part of the evolutionary process on the journey towards a more stable equilibrium, like the cobweb equilibrium theory. In this sense, much of the recent dialogue on nationhood and Nigeria have been both necessary and at times alarmist. Failure of one state may be part of the process towards the actualisation of successful nation-states.

Let Nigerians keep the national identity together, agonise less about a state that has always existed mostly in its absence and only in parts. What is more important than the discussion about characterizing failure or success is how we organise and what comes next. Whether or not what we contrive reinforces the Nigerian identity or fragments is the big question.

Dr Ola Bello is Executive Director, Good Governance Africa. He holds a doctorate from the University of Cambridge and advises the AU, UNECA and AfDB on the African Mining Vision.

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