When a nation like Nigeria lies in a geographically advantageous position (almost at Africa’s center), with Africa’s largest gas reserves, and a population of vibrant, intelligent young people, one must ask why this nation has consistently failed to live up to its potential, and what could possibly be done to change its trajectory.
We must examine Nigeria’s foundations. Nigeria is a product of the worst sort of British imperialism – the sort driven by the greed of adventurers like Cecil Rhodes and George Goldie. Goldie was a major driving force of British commercial interests in the Niger Delta. His Royal Niger Company dominated the palm oil trade in this region and was an archetype of post-colonial and contemporary Nigeria, in that it neither invested in schools, hospitals, nor in other infrastructure. It was committed to corruption, violent acquisition of power, and lack of accountability.
At some point, Goldie’s misrule was too much even for the British Government. So the management of this new colony was handed over to a protégé of Goldie and fellow adventurer, Frederick Lugard. Lugard’s reign promoted ethnic and religious division and made no attempt to manage Nigeria’s diversity. The country was run by rather mediocre and disinterested British officials, who set out to commit the minimum number of resources possible to the task.
This ramshackle structure was handed over to a group of talented, but flawed individuals, independent Nigeria’s so-called founding fathers, who failed to manage the inherent rifts, and turn the colonial project into a nationalistic, ambitious one that would cater for the needs of Nigerians. This spelt doom for Nigeria’s First Republic. Their miss-steps were taken advantage of by a group of mid-level army officers, opening the way for the military to dominate Nigeria’s politics since then.
The 1970s’ Oil Boom was a great opportunity for national revival and advancement, but a leadership composed of army officers, with little political education and no ideological foundation to speak of, was clearly not up to the task. Consequently, this opportunity was squandered.
What followed was the 1980s’ Commodities Bust, which significantly impacted Nigeria, and other African nations. The fundamental question posed by this crisis, which is yet to be answered till today by the Nigerian political elite is: how do we move Nigeria away from the crude oil paradigm and build a nation that is not dependent on oil? This period also witnessed an exponential rise in ethnic, religious, and sectarian violence, and the process of De-Nigerianisation (i.e., the erosion of a sense of a shared Nigerian identity, and the slow decline of institutions committed to nation building).
The push for liberal democracy has not significantly improved the lot of ordinary Nigerians, although the current arrangement is still an improvement over military rule. Politicians have collectively failed to rise to the challenge of bequeathing Nigerians with a safe, secure, and prosperous environment to live dignified lives, although some work was done by the Obasanjo Administration on economic management. Sadly, social and welfare challenges were not addressed, and any gains made were reversed by the Buhari Regime, clearly the worst since Nigeria’s independence.
It is worth noting that corruption has always been a major problem in Nigeria, but at this point, its corrosive impact is magnified. As a prominent cleric remarked, Nigeria was a moral failure before it became an economic failure.
Thus, Nigeria’s reality is not rosy, and it will be extremely challenging (many insist it is impossible) to build a country that fulfils its potential. Nigeria is best understood through the prism of objective, cynical realism, but even when these exacting standards are applied, there is cause for cautious optimism about a new generation of Nigerians who are well-educated , impatient for genuine change, fed up with decades of limited progress and have the energy and ambition to fight for the future of their dreams. This energy drove the #EndSARS protest movement in 2020 and Peter Obi’s Presidential Campaign more recently.
These young Nigerians pioneered the concept of a leaderless movement with the #EndSARS movement and have driven the first genuine nation-wide middle class driven political movement in Nigeria for Peter Obi’s Presidential Campaign. Consequently, they now have a better understanding of how the Nigerian electoral system – from political campaigning to voting, to vote counting, to vote rigging and voter intimidation, to gathering evidence for electoral tribunals, to how the electoral appeals process works.
There are encouraging signs that they are beginning to take on corrupt Machine Politics in major urban areas, and there’s a perceptible desire for social change and economic empowerment. In addition, prominent muck rakers have emerged from among them in the mould of Upton Sinclair, who exposed corruption in politics and business (especially in Chicago’s meatpacking business).
Change, some have argued, results from dissatisfaction, disaffection and practical first steps. This new generation is not gifted with special virtues which are absent in previous generations, but they were born into a struggle, which they must either overcome to thrive or be consumed by. They also live in a wider world increasingly hostile to young Africans.
This is not to say that they will succeed. The corrupt political establishment sees them as an existential threat and will fight them like a wounded prehistoric beast to preserve their privileged positions.
They could also be co-opted by the corrupt political establishment, and succumb to complacency, like previous generations – or Nigeria could simply implode into chaos, and all this might not matter.
Hope is not abstract; it gives us a reason to wake up every morning. Let us hope, for the sake of Africa’s future, that they succeed.