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Election Blues And Nigeria’s Journey To The Past

1 year ago
6 mins read

The mood all over Nigeria since March 1, 2023 is palpable. Ordinarily, when a popular candidate is declared winner in a contest that followed the appropriate rules, the spontaneous reaction is predictable. And when people react with cold shoulder to such a victory declaration, the cause is obvious. It is easy to understand why those behind a winner could not roll out the drums and why their celebration is in subdued tone. But that declaration has led people into asking various questions, looking for clues and trying to figure out explanations.

What inspired this writeup was a thought-provoking piece written by a Facebook friend living in Aba, the commercial city in Abia State, Southeastern Nigeria. His reminiscences over what I summarised as de-industrialisation of Aba got me thinking about the descent of into economic, social and political doldrums in that order. I considered his writeup, which described the progressive decline of industrial activities in Aba as a microcosm of the decline at the national level. The writer named no fewer than 15 companies, mostly multinationals, which have either closed operations or are operating as just shadows of their old selves. He emphasised on how Aba has turned from an industrial city to one of buying and selling, probably the second thing Aba had been historically known for.

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So, when I hear the presumptuous and complacent commentators saying “Nigeria will get there,” I wonder if they knew the history of Nigeria’s glorious past. The history of Nigeria’s de-industrialisation is clearly lost on many who pose today as political leaders who want to provide direction for the country, but they themselves lack direction and clarity of purpose. Many of those who plunged Nigeria into the present crisis are, thankfully, still alive. It will be of interest to know whether they are happy or sad about how their decisions while in power in the past have shapes our present, and how these would shape the future.

To put in a wider context the illustration made by my friend in Aba, the journey of de-industrialisation of Nigeria begun with those who were ready to concede to the Bretton Woods institutions’ demands for devaluation of Nigeria’s Naira, privatisation and commercialisation of public enterprises without proper operational guidelines for the transition and the massive corruption that accompanied the process. Nearly 40 years down that road, here are the outcomes. The non-competitiveness of private enterprises for so many reasons led to Nigeria’s transition from a manufacturing or productive economy into a net-importing and heavy consumption and trading economy. Jobs, skills and expertise began to be exported on a massive scale and unemployment soared locally, with attendant devaluation of people’s lives.

Expectedly, people became vulnerable to all sorts of temptations, mostly arising from income deficits, lowered purchasing power, inflationary trends, denied opportunities to boost human capital development. Many otherwise promising Nigerians have had their progress arrested or even truncated and have settled for ordinariness instead of distinction and excellence. So many Nigerians lack the benefits of comparison with other countries that were at the same level about 40 years ago. The inability to do so could find eloquent explanation in Amartya Sen’s book titled “Development as Freedom.” And here is the crux of the issues of Nigeria’s developmental decline made worse with the coming of the fourth republic democracy in 1999 when all manner of actors with questionable characters filled and choked up the space.

The ensuing politics was not politics of development but one of the stomach and the pockets. Whatever the motive and performance assessment may be, the setting up of the Economic and Financial Crimes commission (EFCC) was a proof of the financial recklessness in the new political order and of the new political actors on stage. The success or failure of EFCC is irrelevant in this discourse. The plethora of cases it has handled — whether successfully or unsuccessfully — is a testimony of the failure of this political experiment over the past 23 unbroken years. The gap between the rich and the poor has not only widened, but the records of people who have been plunged I to multidimensional poverty are mind-blowing as the economy has been experiencing secular stagnation. Why should it then be surprising that politicians at various levels of positions under contest have chosen to weaponise the prevailing poverty by playing money politics, one in which vote buying has assumed ridiculous proportions such that the players now try to turn that into another politics on its own in their quest for power?

To understand the extent of failure of Nigerian political leaders both in military and the current civilian rule, a quick reference to South Korea might suffice. Over the past five or six decades, Nigeria and South Korea have experienced cycles of military dictatorships and civilian administrations. As at 1979 when Nigeria moved from military dictatorship to civilian administration, South Korea was still battling with military coup d’état. However, they both went on divergent paths as South Korea resolved its internal crisis and restored democracy by ending dictatorship in 1987, while Nigeria truncated its own democracy in 1983 and installed military dictatorship again.

Agreed that Nigeria has gradually stabilised into what has the faint colouration of a liberal democracy, the outcomes are completely different from those of South Korea. While South Korea has moved up the ladder from the Third World ranking to one among the countries of the order of the First World, Nigeria remains stuck down the ladder. The use of resources made a whole difference between the two contrasting countries. Semiconductor and automobile industries were foundational to the rise and growth of South Korea, spawning the family companies (or chaebols) supported by the state, now grown into multinationals. Prominent examples among them are Hyundai, LG, and Samsung. But while these were rising, political leaders in Nigeria oversaw the closing down of auto assembly plants, substituting with the importation of completely knocked down auto parts and later opened the floodgates for the importation of fairly used cars that is now a thriving business. The delusion of petroleum revenue dependency has turned the national and sub-national (state and local) governments to dependants upon revenue allocation rather than revenue generation system that has turned political leaders into complacent and laid-back bunch of people. Annually, they wait for petroleum pricing to concoct budgets rather than rely on industrial activities. Children born during this sad transition period would find it rather hard to come to terms with stories that most Nigerian car owners once bought their cars as new from Nigerian auto factories.

The civilian rule in Nigeria since 1999 has been rather more capital intensive than result oriented. A former Central Bank Governor once boldly said the cost of governance was too high and needed to be trimmed down especially as the central government is particularly top-heavy as a cost centre. But being in government, especially in an elective position, has become a lucrative industry unrivaled by any productive enterprise, with lawmakers at the national levels earning humongous incomes and living in affluence at the expense of those they purport to represent. The same applies to state governors who have become emperors of some sort. With their deplorable attitude towards governance and the widening gaps between them and the ordinary Nigerians, there is no need to search too far for reasons why Nigerians are now more like pawns in the hands of politicians. The governed have become mostly pliable, gullible and weak.

Weaponisation of the people’s vulnerability by the politicians is therefore not surprising as many have lived most of their adult lives in near penury, without the hope of any major breakthrough for the rest of their lives. It is therefore sufficient for them to be kept busy with thoughts and arguments about tribe, religion and other such sentiments that can easily inflame passion and build tension. This is applicable to the educated and the illiterate.

In the absence of jobs or other rewarding enterprises to keep the hands and the minds busy, the vacuum is easily filled with conspiracy theories, unhealthy sentiments and attitudes that divide rather than unite people of diverse backgrounds. In those days when corporate entities were thriving and jobs were available for seekers, many enterprises saw diversity of people as strength to an organisation. Their hiring policies then provided opportunities for employees from various tribes and religions for a healthy balance. They not only looked for the best, they also provided career paths for self development for job seekers that were not necessarily top notch. Employees were moved from their home states to other states to work, thus exposing them to different social and cultural environments. With reduced employment chances today, such opportunities are lost and people grow up inside their cocoons and sociological silos. The National Youth Service Corps programme introduced in 1973 has succeeded in part in bridging some aspects of the ideological, cultural and religious divides. But, half a century on, the programme has become ossified over time and desperately needs a review of its practical impacts. Apart from the fact that the 11 month duration is not enough for internalisation of lessons learnt, the administration of the programme is no longer as noble as it is not helping matters.

Political actors who are supposed to build the nation are actively capitalising on the existing fault lines and are even involved in widening them for selfish politics. The strength expected to arise from unity has therefore become rather elusive. The words in Nigeria’s coat of arms and national pledge have become mere cliché, with no meaning to the people. Two major tribes that have excelled on their own in industry, trade and professions have continued to operate apart for the lack of political common grounds and a recourse to divisive narratives that play to the advantage of the oligarchy that has held the reins of Nigeria for the most part since independence. As long as that trend continues, the progress of Nigeria will continue to be slow and the locus of the country will continue to be like that of a goat tethered to a tree: it will only continue to go round in cycles.

Dr. Olukayode Oyeleye is a public analyst and commentator


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