By Adagbo Onoja
Jim O’Neill, British economist, Goldman Sachs’ ex-philosopher-king and the oracle of rising global market powers, has finally elaborated on the logic of his latest coinage MINT, (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) as the next set of emerging market powers in a few decades ahead. Listening again to his investment banker minded journalism on BBC Radio 4 recently, I could see more clearly the problematic nature of his inclusion of Nigeria in that bracket for any student of politics of development. Instructively, Nigeria was a grudging and last minute inclusion, replacing the more qualified but demographically disqualified South Korea.
The inclusion of Nigeria is problematic in that the logic of its inclusion has ignored several issues that are at the heart of Nigeria’s unique and embarrassing underdevelopment. That is the country’s lack of the power elite and state coherence to achieve. In other words, Nigeria is not so much about sorting out the electricity supply crisis or fighting corruption but fundamentally a crisis of state.
But let us begin by admitting the genius of O’Neil’s inclusion of Nigeria on that list. It is doubtful if any other thing has had the healing effect that oracular construction must have had on national psyche in Nigeria. This is a country which has been used to hearing it is heading for implosion for so long. And then suddenly, it hears that it is heading for the club of the prosperous and powerful. It must have been a pretty good New Year gift because things are so bad that Nigerians must have thought the world has forsaken them to their oily fate.
One is not currently in a position to ‘‘read’’ much of the Nigerian press and what they made of it but the fact that a mandarin of Nigeria’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP) has made elaborate but propagandistic reference to Nigeria’s membership of MINT is one admissible evidence of my claim. We are even lucky that the current regime in Nigeria is not very creative in self-projection.
Otherwise, O’Neill’s proclamation is the sort of thing a Nigerian regime with a brilliant information management strategy would have so systematically appropriated for propaganda purposes not only because of O’Neill’s oracular standing in this matter after the success of his BRICS semantic adventure but also because the idea of Nigeria joining the prestige club of developed economies is a most useful constructivism or ideology, if you like, around which an effective politician rather than a transactional leader or regime can quickly mobilize the entire country.
But and this is a big but, there are a number of peculiarities that O’Neill’s MINTing of Nigeria either ignored or could not appreciate. This is apart from the thesis that three decades is too long and would be a case of too little, too late for Nigeria to be attaining in the late 2020s the level of development that it should have attained several decades ago.
These peculiarities constitute what I refer to as the Nigerian Exceptionalism but which operates as a direct opposite of say, American Exceptionalism. While American Exceptionalism is a brilliant power elite’s manifesto for “accumulation on a world scale’ or what Michael Desch calls America’s liberal illiberalism, Nigerian Exceptionalism is the unbelievable lack of agency on the part of an otherwise sophisticated African power elite.
Totally overwhelmed by its privileges and commodious life chances granted them by Nigeria’s excessive blessing in human and material resources, this ruling elite is completely and permanently incapable of any sense of shame that the country is still at the level it is today, development wise. This is one point that did not appear to have informed Jim O’Neill’s oracular enterprise this time.
Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, out-going governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank referred to this in his distinction of corruption in Nigeria from corruption in other countries. It is said that while Bill Clinton, a former American president was looking for apartment to rent in New York sometimes back, the typical Nigerian politician which could range from a councilor in a municipal authority to legislators, governors, ministers, heads of federal agencies and extra-ministerial departments and the presidency could afford to buy and maintain houses in most western capitals. Now, they are shifting to Dubai and emerging centres of entrepreneurial creativity in the Middle and Far East and they are not embarrassed by this.
One must thus reckon with something that, for want of a more appropriate concept for now, I would call the developmental sadism of the Nigerian power elite. Here, I cannot but again recall that statement by an ambassador to a delegation of a former Nigerian foreign affairs minister in Morocco in 2002 that the most princely building one sees in the country side in Morocco is most likely to be a public primary school or so. This is not the kind of statement anyone can or is making in Nigeria which, unlike Morocco, has oil money. O’Neill can bear testimony to the fact that Nigeria does not even appreciate the import of such a statement and the evidence would be in the school he visited in a Lagos suburb. Hence the thesis of the developmental sadism of the power elite in Nigeria.
So, Nigeria is so exceptional as to make any element of over confidence about it to be misplaced because, unlike other elite formations everywhere else, the Nigerian elite does not think for the nation. The result is that Nigeria, as it is, is an ungoverned space, not in the American sense of the phrase but in the sense that the Nigerian state is so incoherently constituted that it is comparable to the nuclear bomb. The tragedy and nightmare about the nuclear bomb is not so much that it will necessarily be exploded in a nuclear war but even more so by someone somewhere acting on wrong information or even misreading the right information or just being human.
To the extent of this comparison between Nigeria and the nuclear bomb in terms of the possibility of what the Nigeria Police would call “accidental discharge”, the notion of MINTing Nigeria looks an oracular misstep. More so that there are no signs of a collective rethink. This claim can be illustrated with the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP), the ruling party today in Nigeria.
The PDP has a fascinating history if we discount the angry and justifiable abuses thrown at it today, the most remarkable and most recent being Kashim Shettima, Borno State governor’s piercing declaration that “apart from colonialism and slave trade, nothing so terrible has befallen Nigerians in the last 14 years more than the emergence of PDP rule at the national level”. Coming from one of the few educated and qualitative governors in Nigeria, this is a real statement for reflections, especially the coupling of the PDP with the slave trade.
Still, the PDP remains an exemplar in successfully contesting Sani Abacha, the late rugged military dictator who wanted to transmute into a civilian president in 1998. The PDP is also the first Nigerian post Independence political party which successfully transcended Nigeria’s impossible ethnic, religious, cultural, geographical/geo-political and tendency diversity. For these reasons, its disintegration is a cause for alarm because it will take time to build another such party which no one can associate with any ethnic, geo-political, religious or even tendency identity.
I always consider the activists of the defunct Institute of Civil Society the real founders of the PDP of today because that was the point at which the more difficult task of conceptualizing the party took place, making that level and those who worked on it the real founders of the PDP. That is why my list of founders of PDP is always a very essentialist list encompassing no more than Alex Ekwueme, Vice-President in the Second Republic; the late Bola Ige, Adamu Ciroma, late Solomon Lar, late Abubakar Rimi, late Francis Ella, Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, Sule Lamido and Jerry Gana. My list is, therefore, not a denigration of the founder status of other actors in PDP’s process of becoming.
Historically, founders everywhere have a resistance to the collapse of their own creation. That’s why they are almost always the guardians of orthodoxy because they are expected to feel the pain of a break-up of an organisation they built more than anyone else. It was, therefore, expected that as things began running out of control since 2010, these founders would quickly bridge all divisions between themselves and come out to say it was time to halt the descent of the party into nothingness. It was assumed that the high mindedness which got the gentlemen listed above to overcome the politics of tendency in 1998 by coming together to form an inclusive national party would equally compel them to re-think and change course.
Unfortunately, Alex Ekwueme never stepped forward to move in that direction. And Adamu Ciroma never did too, perhaps understandably but unacceptably so. This is not to talk of Iyorchia Ayu who has gone totally quiet. Governor Sule Lamido got so embattled that he must have even mulled decamping. In Jerry Gana’s case, he has, acceptably and unacceptably, been very tight with the incumbent. There is a sense in which it is important that someone like him should be close to any PDP regime at all because no one has worked harder for PDP than Gana but it was not expected that he would be tied up with any regime to the point that he could not say it was time to rethink once things reached a certain level in which Nigeria itself is on the slaughter slab.
At such times, nothing should stop members of such a solid collection that created the first truly pan Nigerian political party from doing what they probably never done before. What that cream did or didn’t do at a political injury time like the last few years can be a source of worry because no nation is ever wiser than the cream of its elite.
My argument here is that the incoherence at the level of what should have been an impregnable core within the PDP is also the incoherence across the entire Nigerian establishment and that this should worry all students of stability and instability in Nigeria. Particularly that this attitude of the founders of PDP has, historically, been problematic.
They split over the question of a presidential candidate in 1999. While some went for the candidacy of General Olusegun Obasanjo, (rtd), others went for Alex Ekwueme. How can a core fail this test? Even those who went for Obasanjo suffered another split again in 1999. By 2007, Obasanjo gave nobody any room for split because he allowed no iota of democracy in selecting the flag bearer. So, ‘dictatorship’ saved ‘democracy’.
In 2011, the same Obasanjo exploited the incoherence of the establishment at regional and religious fault lines to install the incumbent against the rotation of power pact. That was the climax of the splits within this core. It is from the wounds sustained there that ‘democracy’, the PDP, Nigeria and Obasanjo as well are all bleeding miserably. The wounds are so deep that these men (sorry, no women among them) I listed above could not, individually and collectively, rise in defence of the legacy of the PDP.
But if the PDP core could so easily disintegrate, what is the hope for Nigeria? Where again and how soon is another core going to assemble something similar to the PDP? In the fledging All Progressives Party, (APC)? Possibly! Or hopefully! The party does have experienced politicians, among them the corruption free General Muhammadu Buhari, the ‘godfather’ Bola Tinubu, the cosmopolitan Audu Ogbeh, organisational tacticians like Usman Bugage and a few well educated governors. They have been joined now by Atiku Abubakar, former Vice-President and a skilful manager of diversity. But this core has yet to demonstrate its coherence because it has yet to confront the hard choice issues.
There are other equally daunting dimensions of the exceptionalism under reference. Nigeria, for instance, must be one of few countries in the world with six or so living former heads of state or powerful retired Generals, each of them a republic within the republic and with great capacity to breathe down on any incumbent’s neck.
Just last December, Olusegun Obasanjo, the immediate but one former president fired a letter to the incumbent that, but for the exceptionalism I am talking about, had all the capability to wreck any regime. Most analysts of the letter started from the point of view of whether Obasanjo, the only Nigerian who has ruled the country twice, has the moral authority to write the letter.
But they forget that once that letter left his hands, he ceased to be the author and the meaning of the content no longer depended on what he, Obasanjo might have meant but what a particular reader makes of it. And that by the time that letter becomes processed information, it advertises a lot about the degree of ruling elite incoherence and, by implication, degree of vulnerability of the Nigerian State. It is an illustration of one dimension of the exceptionalism under reference. I don’t think this is the case anywhere else.
When you move from former presidents, most of whom are retired Generals, versed in the management of state power, worldly and lacking not in resources, you meet another expression of the diversity component of Nigerian Exceptionalism still within the ruling class in the layer of well educated, worldly and well established traditional rulers. There is no mention of them in the constitution but a number of things cannot happen without their endorsement.
So much for the different dimensions of Nigerian Exceptionalism except to briefly mention the fact that Nigeria is about the only federation in the world in which no ethnic or geo-political unit can call all the others to attention. This is not the case with American, Australian, Russian, Chinese, Indian or UK federalism, (it is not intellectually scandalous to say that the UK is not a federalism only in theory for it is in practice). In each of these, there is either a class fraction or a religious or an ethnic group that is predominant or capable of prevailing. In Nigeria, this is lacking and because of that, the simplest issue becomes a subject of protracted regional or ethnic or religious contestation, including the composition of national soccer team for international competitions.
The current contestation is over presidential succession in the 2015 elections. The Federal Pact worked out in 1998/99 has been compromised by the death of an incumbent president in office in 2010 and the subsequent succession politics in 2011. The incredible diversity under reference as well as the opportunism, shallowness and amorality of Nigerian politics have complicated the process of re-working it but without it, the struggle for political office will destroy Nigeria sooner than later as we can see from the post election violence in 2011 and from the clouds around the 2015 election.
Those clouds and the pregnancy of 2015 have more to do with the fear that the success of the incumbent in that election would mean the death of any elite pact around which politics will flow. It is the most frightening scenario for politics in Nigeria not to be underpinned by such a pact. It is possible that this is the point Obasanjo has lately come to appreciate and hence his December letter to President Jonathan warning him against contesting in 2015.
So, while O’Neill’s proclamation is healthy for Nigerians and provides any sensible government and elite a wake up sign tune for transcending an embarrassing developmental slumber, this would not be the case in Nigeria for the reasons above. If a particularly oracular proclamation will move neither the government of the day nor the ruling class, then we all need to think about Nigeria more deeply before it implodes under the weight of its own contradictions.
Nigeria’s implosion is something every humanist must contemplate seriously and urgently for a number of reasons. There have been so many categorical scenario analyses which said this, most especially the 2005 US National Intelligence Council, NIC scenario analysis which went as far as ticking 2015 as the D-year for the implosion. A former ambassador of the US to Nigeria has written a full length book titled Nigeria: Dancing on the Brinks. If you are tempted to take these as America’s machinations, what of the fact that several retired Generals of Nigerian extraction have drawn attention to this? One of them even said that Nigeria is basically at war in 2013. Lastly, the state of siege in Nigeria today must worry anyone at all.
So, Nigeria is such in an impasse about which something must be done immediately before we even begin to pose the prospects of its global power status in another three decades hence. And this calls for concerted actions by all, including the O’Neills of this world. There is no knowing precisely which such actions will best resolve the impasse but one of them must be the election of a national leader who satisfies the Alison Ayida criterion.
I keep returning to Ayida because he got it right. Ayida, a former Secretary to Federal Military Government in the 1970s has made the profound submission that “as a nation, Nigeria has not been blessed with charismatic leadership universally acclaimed or generally acceptable to all. Neither have Nigerians been fortunate enough to have such a great leadership imposed.
A charismatic leader must fire the imagination of the people and reflect their collective ego with pride. There is no historical necessity for this to happen in a heterogeneous society such as Nigeria but if it did, it will assist the process of restoring national self-confidence and arresting further decline of the nation”.
To those who would say that this is putting too much faith in the individual, there is no better reply than what Professor Ken Booth of the University of Aberystwyth has said about the structure-agency debate: yes, the individual cannot counter balance the system because the system socialized the individual but the individual is not a prisoner of the system.
When Nigeria has magically got that sort of leadership, then rule of law will become an issue. With rule of law, the current choking chaos would be taken care of. When that happens, then there will be the atmosphere where development strategy/business model can be an issue on the agenda of politics. Then we can talk of attaining great power status. Otherwise, it is shadow chasing. But as it is dangerous to be sure about Nigeria because Nigeria can change full circle before anyone knows, this article would have no concluding section.
Onoja is in the International Security Programme, Dept of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick, UK