119. Nigeria at 60: From Balewa to Buhari

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 2 October 2020
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: David Peterson via Pixabay

Read More from The Gleaner (Jamaica)

Nigeria. Africa’s most populous country and largest economy remains a huge enigma of unfulfilled potential, as it commemorates its diamond jubilee. With nearly 200 million citizens and 250 ethnic groups, the country entered what Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, described as “the Late Afternoon of Life”, turning 60 on 1 October. Following one civil war, seven military regimes, and three failed democratic experiments, many observers, drawing inspiration from Nigeria’s foremost griot, Chinua Achebe, have noted that the country – from the religious ferment of the volatile North, through the conflict-wracked Middle Belt, to the ravaged mangrove swamps of the oil-producing Niger Delta, to the marginalized East, to the “Wild West” – is “no longer at ease.” Could things fall apart?

Gulliver’s Troubles

Deeply religious Nigerians will be able to relate to a biblical tale of their country’s six decades resembling seven deadly sins: corrosive corruption, calamitous conflicts, coups d’état, competitive “tribalism”, chauvinistic misogyny, capricious politicians, and charlatan prophets.

Despite Nigeria’s rich talent and abundant natural resources, the country’s leaders have clearly lacked a sense of noblesse oblige, resulting in a Miltonian Paradise Lost. Both politicians and soldiers have failed spectacularly to transform the country’s fortunes, and Nigerians have declared a plague on both their houses. These leaders have been unable, in six decades, to establish a viable democracy, to guarantee the security of their citizens, to lift 70per cent of their compatriots out of poverty, to build durable infrastructure, and to stem profligate corruption that has seen an estimated $582 billion pilfered and siphoned off into foreign bank accounts.

While Nigeria can be likened to a Swiftian Gulliver, the metaphor of Lilliputian can equally be applied to many of its leaders whose gargantum greed has prevented a country of enormous potential from fulfilling its leadership aspirations. In sixty years, Nigeria has been reduced to a giant with clay feet, a “Tower of Babel,” built on the rickety foundations of oil rent that its leaders have simply collected and squandered. The country has earned itself the unenviable record of having the largest number of poor people in the world at 87 million. Oil still accounts for 90% of foreign exchange earnings and over half of government revenues, as successive administrations – from Balewa to Buhari – have failed to diversify the economy.

Buchi Emecheta wrote extensively about the plight of oppressed women in classic novels such as The Joys of Motherhood and Second-Class Citizen. Such misogyny remains rife across Nigerian society in sectors such as employment, education, and inheritance, with the COVID-19 pandemic exposing how rampant the scourge of gender-based violence has become. The political system is highly chauvinistic, with no female state governors out of 36, and only 21 out of 469 national legislators (a paltry 4.48%) being women: one of the lowest ratios in the world. Considering that women constitute half of Nigeria’s population, this scandalous waste of talent must be urgently remedied through temporary quotas.

More positively, Nigeria’s foreign policy was particularly active with the creation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975; membership of the “Frontline States” of Southern Africa in the 1980s; the deployment of over 150,000 military and police to global peacekeeping missions; and interventions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau in the 1990s and 2000s that resulted in over 1,500 Nigerian fatalities and cost the country over $1 billion. This Pax Nigeriana has represented a unique sacrifice in blood and treasure.

A Play of Giants

Basking in oil wealth, Nigeria hosted the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977, involving 70,000 artistes and delegates from 59 countries across Africa and its Diaspora at a cost of $.75billion in today’s money. FESTAC involved durbars, regattas, musical performances, and traditional dances, as well as elaborate works of art. The festival represented a national show-piece by a self-confident elite to mark the arrival into the ranks of the nouveaux riches of the world’s largest black nation. Nigeria sought to promote African culture as a sign of equality with a West that had often denigrated the continent’s traditions.

The achievements of Nigerian writers and artistes have been impressive. Wole Soyinka – “Kongi” – became the first African winner of the Nobel prize for literature, rewarded for his bountiful literary harvest in 1986. Chinua Achebe won the Man Booker prize, Ben Okri and Bernardine Evaristo the Booker prize, while Chimamanda Adichie claimed the Orange prize.  In the world of music, the 1950s Highlife era was led by titans like Victor Olaiya, Rex Lawson, and Bobby Benson. Their heirs, Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey, battled for supremacy in juju music, while iconoclastic Afro-jazz superstar, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, finally achieved global immortality through the 2008 Broadway musical Fela! Contemporary artistes like Tiwa Savage, Asa, Wizkid, and Burna Boy represent the voice of a new generation.

Nollywood has perhaps been the most potent symbol of Nigeria’s cultural “soft power.” It is the second-largest film producer in the world behind India’s Bollywood, and ahead of America’s Hollywood. This industry is thought to be the second-largest employer in Nigeria. Nollywood films are now widely available from Banjul to Baltimore to Bridgetown, and have influenced the dress of Kenyan politicians, Congolese pastors, and Barbadian women. Globally, Chiwetel Ejiofor was nominated for a best actor Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo shone in Selma, while Cynthia Erivo was nominated for a best actress Oscar for Harriet.

In the realm of sports, Nigeria’s Super Eagles won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980, 1994, and 2013, but – like the country – have failed to fulfill their huge potential at the World Cup. The team, however, won Olympic gold, along with long-jumper, Chioma Ajunwa, in Atlanta, in 1996. The men’s 4×400 relay team also struck gold in Sydney four years later. Legendary Nigerian boxing world champions have stretched from Dick Tiger to Hogan Bassey to Henry Akinwande to Anthony Oluwafemi Joshua.

Half of A Yellow Sun

Politics during Nigeria’s First Republic (1960-1966) was Hobbesian: short, nasty, and brutish. Political life centred around a system in which three ethnically-based parties dominated their respective regions. The “Founding Fathers” – Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Obafemi Awolowo – who are often uncritically revered as political deities, in fact, descended into ethnic chauvinism of the worst kind, playing out “A Dance of the Forests.”

These were not Solomonic Wise Men from the East. As the inept politicians drifted from one crisis to another, the prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, and the premiers of the Northern (Ahmadu Bello) and Western (S.L. Akintola) regions, were assassinated in a January 1966 coup. The Eastern-led military putschists provoked a Northern counter-coup which assassinated the hapless head of state, General Johnson “Ironside” Aguiyi-Ironsi, six months later, and put Ironsi’s chief of staff, Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian Middle-Belter, in power. Northern mobs killed Easterners living in the North in bloody pogroms, and the charismatic Colonel Emeka Ojukwu’s attempt to create the independent Republic of Biafra, resulted in a 30-month civil war in which at least one million mostly Eastern Igbos died. This enterprising group has shamefully never been fully reintegrated into Nigeria’s national life. Kenyan author, Ali Mazrui’s haunting 1971 novel of ideas, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, captured well the tragedy of this contemporary Cain and Abel parable, when he “tried” Nigeria’s greatest poet – who had died fighting on the side of Biafra – in an African Hereafter for betraying his art  and for putting ethnicity before nation.

Of Mandarins, Soldiers, and Politicians

From 1970, General Gowon oversaw a spirited post-war reconciliation. Oil was to be the balm that would soothe the pains and agonies of the past “decade of troubles.” The sudden spurt of the rich mineral from fields in the Niger Delta made Nigeria the world’s eighth largest oil producer. This era also saw an alliance between powerful mandarins and military brass hats in pursuing the country’s reconstruction efforts. Flyovers, dual carriageways, and bridges sprung up across Nigeria as a visible legacy of the heady oil boom of the 1970s. In this era of “Opera Wonyosi” excess, Gowon notoriously noted that the problem was not the money, but how to spend it. He relied heavily on “Super Permsecs” – Allison Ayida, Philip Asiodu, and Abdulazeez Atta – in relationships forged in the fiery furnace of civil war.

The dynamic minister of reconstruction and development, Adebayo Adedeji, oversaw national development plans, strengthened social cohesion through the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), and promoted regional integration through ECOWAS. By the time of his overthrow in July 1975, Gowon had reneged on a promise to return the country to civilian rule and corruption flourished, leading to a coup that saw the rise to power of General Murtala Mohammed. Nicknamed “the Sacker of Benin” for his brutal civil war role, Mohammed ironically became a national martyr, assassinated in a botched coup in February 1976. In his seven months in power, he had waged a popular anti-corruption campaign, committed his regime to a return to civilian rule, and pursued an activist foreign policy. The era of Falstaffian General Olusegun Obasanjo saw the brutal unleashing of “Mad Dog” securocrats – whom Fela memorably termed “Zombies” and “Yellow Fever” – before returning power to civilians in 1979.

Nigeria’s kleptocratic Second Republic (1979-1983), under the ineffectual leadership of Shehu Shagari, saw a descent into Sodom and Gomorrah. The democratic experiment of moving from a parliamentary to a presidential system proved to be short-lived, as widespread corruption saddled the country with a $16 billion external debt. General Muhammadu Buhari and the strongman of the regime, General Tunde Idiagbon, abruptly ended civilian rule shortly after a flawed election in 1983. The heavy-handed regime launched a “War against Indiscipline” and clamped down harshly on the media. This volatile period also saw growing xenophobia with the shameful expulsion of three million West Africans, criminalized as “illegal aliens.”

Two Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Buhari was replaced in a “palace coup” by General Ibrahim Babangida in August 1985. At first portraying himself as a “liberal” soldier, Babangida eventually earned the nickname of “Machiavelli,” as a ruthless and scheming dictatorship led to an endless democratic transition in a circuitous journey without maps. In the end, Nigeria’s “Maradona” dribbled himself into a maze, forced out of power after an annulled election in June 1993, effectively killing the still-born Third Republic. By this time, Nigeria had accumulated an external debt of $30 billion. Continuing the venal tradition of his predecessors, Babangida’s administration was unable to account for $12.4 billion of missing oil revenues in 1991, confirming its reputation as a “government of settlement.”

Nigeria’s next military horseman in this “Army Arrangement,” the Macbethean General Sani Abacha (1993-1998), was the most tyrannical leader in the country’s history. Abacha almost seemed to be pursuing a psychopathic “Samson option” of bringing the country down with him. The hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight environmental activists in November 1995 was the nadir of his debauched rule, satirised in Wole Soyinka’s play, King Baabu. Nigeria was subsequently suspended from the Commonwealth, and branded an international pariah. After his death in June 1998 – reportedly in the company of Indian prostitutes – Abacha’s family had to return much of the estimated $3 billion fortune he had illicitly amassed. Though his domestic reputation will certainly never recover, Abacha did contribute greatly to peacekeeping efforts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. After the tyrant’s death, the level-headed General Abdulsalaam Abubakar led the soldiers back to their barracks, surrendering power to the elected government of Olusegun Obasanjo in May 1999, as retired generals occupied influential positions in the country’s new politics.

The Emperor Without Clothes

Obasanjo emerged from Abacha’s jail to preside over the Fourth Republic suffering from messianic delusions in this “Second Coming” as head of state. He was to be a bridge between the military and civilians, between the North and South, a new broom to sweep away the corruption and abuses of military brass hats who had lost any sense of purpose beyond plundering the national treasury and pummelling innocent citizens into brutal submission. He had inherited a plethora of conflicts: Ogonis against Andonis, Ijaws against Itsekiris, Tivs against Jukuns, Chambas against Kutebs, Katafs against Hausas, Yorubas against Hausas, and Hausas against Igbos. Some of these conflicts continued under Obasanjo’s rule, leading to an estimated 12,000 deaths from violence related to religious and ethnic feuds. Nigeria’s “imagined communities” developed their own differing interpretations of the same history and proceeded to defend these on the basis of birthright and blood. Though these conflicts over land, religion, resources, and chieftaincy titles mostly had local roots, opportunistic politicians exploited them for their own parochial ends, realising how easy it was to light a fuse under simmering brushfires.

Nigeria’s economic problems also forced many of its citizens to turn to religion for succour. The popularity of both Christian and Islamic fundamentalists increased, even as wealthy, ostentatious preachers – “Brother Jeros” – played on the gullibility of their desperate flock. Religion became a political weapon, as sharia criminal law was applied to a dozen Northern states. Communal riots between Muslims and Christians sporadically erupted, resulting in scores of deaths. Despite his flawed fin de régime in which he unsuccessfully sought an unconstitutional third presidential term, Obasanjo and his dynamic finance minister, Ngozi “Wahala” Okonjo-Iweala, were able to settle the country’s $30 billion external debt. Corruption, however, raged, as did armed militancy in the oil-producing Niger Delta. The country’s infrastructure continued to crumble, despite billions of dollars being released by the treasury.

Sick Man and Bad Luck

In May 2007, Obasanjo, handed power, in a disgracefully flawed election, to Umaru Yar’Adua – the first university graduate to rule the country. This soft-spoken Northern aristocrat promised political and economic reforms, but died in office in May 2010 before implementing any real change. Yar’Adua’s Ijaw deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, took over as president, and won presidential polls in April 2011. The zoologist oversaw five years of largely incompetent rule, with the oil minister, Dezani Alison-Madueke, the most visible representative of the reckless profligacy that resulted in the government being unable to account for $10 billion in oil revenues in 2014 that the Central Bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, exposed at the staggeringly corrupt Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

Perhaps the greatest symbol of Nigeria’s persistent failure to fulfill its huge potential is the Ajaokuta Steel Complex – planned since the 1970s, and having consumed $5 billion – which has effectively become a white elephant. The March 2015 polls achieved the first democratic change of government in Nigeria’s history. Muhammadu Buhari had promised to sweep away the corruption of the widely discredited People’s Democratic Party (PDP) under “Badluck” Jonathan. He would become the second former military ruler in 16 years to return as a civilian president.

Since 2015, the lackadaisical Buhari – nicknamed “Baba Go Slow” – has been dogged by ill health and allegations of a corrupt cabal having hijacked his government. He took six months to appoint his first cabinet and spent five months in a British hospital.  Reminiscent of the “euphoric planning” of the oil boom 1970s, Buhari’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) envisaged tackling Nigeria’s infrastructural deficit through building roads and railways, as well as  promoting industrialisation, with the goal of creating 15 million jobs and achieving 7% growth rates by 2020. The government has, however, come no way near achieving these targets. Unemployment stands at 27.1%, with a perilous 14 million youths – who represent 60% of the population – out of work.

Insecurity between herdsmen and farmers has increased local conflicts across the country, even as Boko Haram and its breakaway Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have wrought widespread misery in the north-east, with more than 50,000 deaths and over 2.5 million displaced. Attacks by Niger Delta militants had earlier shut down a third of Nigeria’s oil production. Gulliver’s troubles have prevented the country from playing an effective military role in stemming terrorism in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, with neo-colonial France instead acting as the regional hegemon.

Nigeria’s economic woes have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, amidst declining international oil prices. The country has amassed an unsustainable $85 billion debt, using half of its government revenues – the same amount devoted to infrastructure – to service this debt, thus preventing sufficient funds going to employment, education, and health.  An already stagnant economy continues to struggle, amidst persistent electricity black-outs: South Africa, with a third of Nigeria’s population, produces ten times more electricity. The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is increasingly fractious, as various godfathers jostle for power ahead of elections in 2023.

Nigeria’s continuing political intrigues recall the words of its most famous magician, Professor Peller: “Abracadabra! The more you look, the less you see!” The six-week postponement of the 2019 election was sadly not unusual, reflecting the state of gross decay of many of Nigeria’s denuded institutions and dilapidated infrastructure. The last two polls in 2011 and 2015 were also postponed. Nigeria’s parliamentary dunderheads – not renowned for moral rectitude or legislative acumen – have each allocated themselves a reported $480,000 annually, making them among the highest paid lawmakers in the world. They have also budgeted as much money to renovate their national assembly as to repair federal roads.  Several state governors have acted as prodigal sons, accused of perpetrating massive corruption. Many business people, too lazy to use entrepreneurial skills which many lack, instead rely on personal connections to members of the ruling cabal to enrich themselves. Scores of religious leaders, rather than preaching a “liberation theology,” instead practice a “prosperity gospel”: these charlatans have built their mansions on earth, while urging their flock to await theirs in Heaven.

One hopeful sign for Nigeria has been the fact that its 1.2 million-strong global Diaspora sent home $25 billion in remittances in 2019, representing a figure equivalent to over 80% of its annual budget. However, the COVID crisis is likely to reduce this income by 20% in 2020. As the country turns 60, Nigeria is a limping Leviathan unable to maintain the most basic responsibility of statehood: providing security to its citizens. The country’s seven deadly sins have caused untold suffering in six decades of independence. Its prayerful populace appear to be awaiting a miraculous deus ex machina. But, might Nigeria instead be consumed by fire and brimstone in a millenarian apocalypse?

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.