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Reversing the drift to terrorism and social anomie

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It took less than seven years for Nigeria under local leadership to descend into a civil war, less than 30 years for the first open resistance to the establishment in Islamic Northern Nigeria – the Maitatsine cult – from commoners to arise, less than 35 years for some Muslims in an unfortunate bid to force out Christians, to wantonly kill southerners and burn churches in cities in the northern sub-region such as Kaduna and Kano, less than 50 years for armed insurrection to arise in the Niger Delta and for the terrorist group Boko Haram to emerge.

It took less than six years after independence and full local rule for a military coup to be staged, less than seven years for a second one, less than 20 years for the third, less than 30 years for the fourth and fifth and less than 35 years for a civilian election to be annulled by military fiat. In between were unsuccessful coup attempts and rumors of coups that were said to have been quelled before their attempt. A notable case of an unsuccessful coup was one that included a broadcast that a certain part of the country had been excised from the rest.

Common to these coups, killings, uprisings, revolts and challenges to the establishment is a deep sense that change was required to reverse the arc of poverty that had held the country in its cold grip for so long. They were predicated on willingness of a group of individuals to lead efforts they felt would augur political changes that are the necessary precursor to the strong economic growth that would bend the curve of poverty. So for a while, Nigerian’s got used to hearing the solemn but hollow words “fellow Nigerians, it is with a deep sense of responsibility” after a coup and for the last ten years, the phrase “we shall deal decisively with terrorism”.

Nigeria as a country, is well endowed in natural resources that is yet to be close to being fully exploited, accursed with poor leadership. Successive governments could argue that they were strong and successful but that belies across the spectrum data on deep urban and rural poverty, poor educational and healthcare outcomes, massive brain drain and migration of talent to other nations an inability to diversify the economy away from crude oil in a meaningful way and increasing despair and social anomie. In essence, the data does not lie and perceptions and sentiments are real.

Many examine the makeup of successive governments and with the Fulani, Hausa and Kanuri having produced more presidents or head of states than other tribes, come to the conclusion that the rut the country has found itself can be directly traced to the quality of their rule. Whether this is a fact or conjecture, is open to discussion, but that individuals from those three groups have ruled the country the longest and have thus shaped outcomes the most is indisputable. Furthermore, many believe that the few southerners and middle belters that have ruled the country were beholden to the Fulani and that their governments, were in essence, indirect extensions of Fulani rule.

On closer inspection, there is a growing belief that Fulani, Hausa and Kanuri rule is based on a tribal agenda of redistributing the wealth of the country to their elites. But that in doing that, it was also essential to distribute wealth to elites in other tribes. However, the word elite is a misnomer in Nigeria, as elites are but one or two generations. In effect, there is growing belief that the agenda was to create elites beholden to the Fulani and Hausa and thus malleable in furthering an agenda of holding on to political power at all times for the unwritten aim of creating an economic structure that would guaranty sustained wealth in that sub-region. A goal that is illogical in the context of a complicated multi-tribe country.

Passive resistance and thus tacit encouragement of corruption has for decades been the primary tool for redistributing wealth and creating a group of elites. Authoritarianism in the form of the police, the military, the judiciary and prisons have been effectively used to control opposition to subpar governance. Over the last 20 years, successive population counts that were deemed fraudulent, has been weaponized in a national constitution, as the basis for determining the number of local governments and federal House of Representative seats in each state and more importantly for the creation of a fiscal allocation formula enshrined in a unitary central constitution. Distinct from the United States of America, where the current executive system of government was borrowed, the power gap between the House of Representatives and the Senate is much narrower. That is seen has a deliberate effort to enhance the power of a House with much more members from the far north sub-region relative to regional membership of the Senate.

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While authoritarianism and corruption have succeeded in wealth transfer neither is able to mute the effect of the poor governance it inherently entails. The deepening poverty that has generated, is the direct precursor to increasing levels of tensions that eventually resulted in armed internal opposition and previously unknown dysfunctional behavior. That manifestations of discontent in the form of armed opposition, have deeper roots in the far north sub-region is not surprising. Being closer to the Sahel, life in the sub-region is more challenging than in areas directly south. To the sub-region’s revolutionaries, an Islamic system suggests a counter-position in form of governance structure, law and order, and to a lesser extent education even though to be successful, institutions in a multi-tribal and multi-religious Nigeria must remain secular.

That the political establishment remains unwilling to take effective corrective action is surprising even when it’s not. Nigeria was created by the British and is an amalgamation of many tribes and the two largest global religions. The most far reaching formal policy action, has been the implementation of a federal character principle that on its face-value, is meant to protect proportional representation of all tribes in government positions at the federal level, especially in top and strategic positions. The policy is a miserable failure as successive governments in prioritizing a tribal agenda and regime survival, have packed the leadership of key offices – supreme court, military formations, census bureau, election organizing, revenue generation and allocation positions, the police and prison service and the National Assembly – with loyalists from the tribe of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and loyalists from other tribes.

Rotation of the presidency and key political positions (chairmanship of major political parties, Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives) between the north and the south, has been the informal policy. Rotation of those position, is meant to placate the three major tribes in the country and thus be a pillar for peaceful coexistence. However, in effect, rotation has baked in a culture that is anti-merit and spurred the emergence of powerful politicians, who select individuals to run for critical political positions and those appointed into key administrative offices. That in turn has corroded political (office seeking) practices in major political parties, ensuring that they don’t nominate the best talent for political offices.

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The Nigerian politician knows that poverty is the root cause of the grave and existential challenges the country is facing. Politicians know that there is no solid and sustainable military solution to the nationwide menace of poverty and terrorism and that governments in the middle belt and south, facing their own issues with slow economic growth, job creation, high unemployment and poverty, will not wave an olive branch and relieve the far north political establishment of the challenge of Fulani herdsmen and their poor by allowing them to freely relocate and settle in their also impoverished sub-regions.

Nigerian politicians must know that political reform and hence rapid economic transformation is the sole way out of the crisis of poverty outcomes that is afflicting the country in ever more menacing and existential ways. They must understand that a federal structure, with limited power at the center, a fair revenue allocation formula, state control of policing, merit-based pathways to political office and appointment to key positions that are based on demonstrated expertise, are key to restructuring the economy.

They must understand that until political risks are muted, private investment will continue to deem the country as risky and that the economy would not be restructured, jobs will not be created in their millions, revenue will remain stunted, and the Central Bank and the Finance ministry will continue to be severely hamstrung in their ability to use the full range of policy instruments in managing the economy.

Yet, the bulk of the far north sub-region’s establishment and some of their southern cronies, by standing with the current structure, effectively oppose restructuring. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out their fears and why, as much as some present a narrative of readiness to restructure! How long slow economic growth and poverty, in the midst of a population explosion and greater enlightenment of the ordinary person, can continue without resentment and agony turning even more vile, is an open question for Nigeria and Nigeria watchers.

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History demonstrates in a powerful manner, that poor governance is directly responsible for its demise. It may take time, disintegration may be long in coming, but slowly and surely pressure builds. The challenges facing Nigeria are not cyclical they are long-term structural. An astute political and business establishment does not wait for a country to enter the iron grip of existential and irreversible disintegration, more-so one that is as naturally endowed and potentially globally significant as Nigeria.

The country would be well-served by quickly truly federalizing its constitution, finding an effective way of enthroning merit in party politics, and strengthening its institutions. This will take significant political will but it’s the only way to unleash the needed broad-based economic dynamism and leverage the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians for massive job creation.

The current structure and its institutions and systems have proven to be grossly deficient. More than ever, everyday counts and the hope is that politicians in power at the center, those in the shadows with the real power, captains of business and military commanders are listening, paying attention and that restructuring is not too late!

Prof. Ijose is a policy analyst based in the United States of America.

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