At 50, Nigerian house has fallen

2010-10-02 12:15

In a recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine, former US ambassador to Nigeria, John ­Campbell, expressed the fear that the country’s election next year could tip it over the brink.

The main reasons, according to Campbell, are: the failure of elite consensus over power-sharing or rotation, the absence of a strong central figure and the fragile electoral reform process.

He predicted that Nigerian politicians, already split along ethnic lines, would inflame religious ­tensions and the fragile peace in the Niger Delta, leading to a deadly post-election crisis.

For a country used to hearing the worst about ­itself, Campbell’s forecast will hardly come as a shock.

A few years ago, a US intelligence report that Nigeria would disintegrate by 2015 caused alarm and contempt in roughly equal measure.

Before that, Karl Maier had written a book titled This House Has Fallen, a blunt commentary on how corruption, greed and bigotry had endangered the country’s future.

In reaction to the book, those who truly believed that the house had fallen wanted to know what would become of the rubble, those who thought the book was only a warning wanted to know how to prevent the disaster, and those who were mad at Maier’s audacity would have been happy to hang the author by the spine of his own book.

Why? At 50, Nigeria can no longer be in denial or afraid of asking itself hard questions just because such questions appear politically inconvenient.

Politicians preach unity all the time but have ­managed to foment a devastating civil war and more than a dozen religious ­crises.

Some love to pretend that they believe in merit and fairness but are usually the first to chuck out a candidate just by the sound of his name, tone of voice or state of origin.

The same ­constitution that guarantees full rights of citizenship puts quota above competence. Isn’t that why the ruling People’s Democratic Party has been more concerned about ­zoning than about what the aspirants for the party’s ticket have to offer the country?

It’s really about turnocracy, you see.Nigeria loves to think that it is safe, secure and ­unbreakable because it has size, mineral resources and a big ego.

The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia collapsed not because they did not have size, but partly because they had size that they could not manage.Similarly, neither the breadth of Sudan’s landmass nor the potential of its mineral wealth has saved it from the calamities of a ghastly civil war.

Brazil, India and China show that size matters sometimes.

Value flows in the direction of size not for its own sake, but if it can also find relatively skilled labour, stability, basic infrastructure and ­reasonable guarantee of the sanctity of contract.

If Nigeria wants the next 50 years to be different, it must face down its demons by punishing ­corruption, providing infrastructure and micro-credit, and insisting on an electoral system that produces credible leadership.

I disagree with Campbell that the failure of ­consensus over power sharing or the absence of a strongman – like Obasanjo, for example – is necessarily a bad omen. Strongmen, godfathers and moneybags have been the bane of the country’s politics.

The failure of consensus, which Campbell is sorry about, is not so much a failure as it is the beginning of the end of an archaic recruitment system.

It’s a good thing for the country, especially since ­politicians of all shades, including the strongmen, are now compelled to negotiate a different model.

Vested interests will, of course, resist it, but such resistance need not lead to chaos and bloodshed.

It is possible to take the cynical view that ­Campbell’s take is more an alert to the US establishment about the increasing unreliability of its fourth-biggest oil supplier than it is a prophecy about whether or not Nigeria is near its doom.

Or to feel that those who have ever spoken harshly about the country’s faltering steps are its worst enemies.

Yet if Nigeria can humble itself and take a long, hard look in the mirror, it just might find that it has been its own worst enemy.

As the country marks its 50th anniversary, Campbell’s and similar forecasts should be a wake-up call.

»Azubuike is the former executive director of publications for Punch Nigeria

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