Nigeria a talented giant with clay feet

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that featured in Business Day: 4 October 2020.

Nigeria. Africa’s most populous country, with nearly 200 million citizens and its largest economy, remains a huge enigma of unfulfilled potential. The country turned 60 on 1 October. Despite Nigeria’s rich talent and abundant natural resources, its leaders have clearly lacked a sense of noblesse oblige. Both politicians and soldiers have failed spectacularly to transform the country’s fortunes. They have been unable, in six decades, to establish a viable democracy, to lift 70% 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 Gulliver, the metaphor of Lilliputian can equally be applied to many of its leaders whose gargantum greed has prevented the country from fulfilling its leadership aspirations. Nigeria has been reduced to a giant with clay feet, fed on a gluttonous diet of oil rent that its leaders have simply collected and squandered. The country has 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. More positively, Nigeria’s foreign policy was particularly active with the creation of the Economic Community of West African States in 1975; membership of the “Frontline States” of Southern Africa in the 1980s; and the deployment of over 150,000 military and police to global peacekeeping missions. This Pax Nigeriana has represented a unique sacrifice in blood and treasure.

Basking in oil wealth, Nigeria hosted the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977, involving 70,000 artistes and delegates from 59 countries across Africa and its Diaspora at a cost of $1.75 billion in today’s money. Nigerian writers and artistes have achieved impressively. Wole Soyinka became the first African winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1986. Chinua Achebe won the Man Booker prize, Ben Okri and Bernardine Evaristo the Booker prize, while Chimamanda Adichie claimed the Orange prize. Iconoclastic Afro-jazz superstar, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, finally achieved global immortality posthumously 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. This industry is also thought to be the second-largest employer in Nigeria. Nollywood films are now globally available: they have influenced the accents of South African students, as well as the dress of Barbadian women, Kenyan politicians, and Congolese pastors. Nigeria’s Super Eagles were African football champions in 1980, 1994, and 2013, and won Olympic gold, along with long-jumper, Chioma Ajunwa, in Atlanta, in 1996. Legendary Nigerian boxing world champions have stretched from Dick Tiger to Hogan Bassey to Anthony Oluwafemi Joshua.

The Nigerian administration of president Muhammadu Buhari is currently struggling with 27% unemployment, and 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 have wrought widespread misery in the north-east, with 50,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced. Amidst declining oil prices, the country has amassed an unsustainable $85 billion debt. One hopeful sign has been the fact that Nigeria’s 1.2 million-strong global Diaspora sent home $25 billion in remittances in 2019: equivalent to 80% of its annual budget. However, as the country turns 60, Nigeria is a limping Leviathan unable to maintain the most basic responsibility of statehood: providing security to its citizens. 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?

* The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof adekeye adebajo
Professor Adekeye Adebajo
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