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Strategising the Nigerian project

By Tunji Olaopa
25 November 2019   |   3:04 am
There is only one thing that unites driving a ship through a terrible storm, marshalling an army for an offensive against the enemies and governing a state in ways that ensure the empowerment of the citizens.

There is only one thing that unites driving a ship through a terrible storm, marshalling an army for an offensive against the enemies and governing a state in ways that ensure the empowerment of the citizens. These three significant endeavors require some blueprint or methodology; an approach or some kind of technique by which the ship would weather the storm, the army would limit its casualties and still win the war, and the government would harness all its material and human resources to facilitate good governance. It is very interesting that the Greek word that ties these three endeavors together is derived from the metaphor of war. For the Greeks, the word strategia stands for “generalship.” Strategia or strategy is the blueprint or approach by which a sailor pilots a ship through a difficult wind, the stratagem by which a general overcomes enemy maneuvers, and the policies by which the strategic president or governor transforms the lives of the citizens. The sailor, general and the president are therefore critical strategists with specific plans and tactics by which to get some unique and definite visions achieved.

Strategia, as the Greeks used it, speaks to an important element in nation-building, especially in a state like Nigeria. Strategy in this sense underscores the urgent need to fashion an integrative framework by which people, cultures, religions and other variables are brought together into one coherent and united whole. Nigeria is a plural state. By this, we mean that as a state, it is made up of too many disparate constituents that task, and sometimes hinder, the possibility of nationhood. After the amalgamation of 1914 that lumped too many square pegs into one round hole, it became the responsibility of the postcolonial leadership in Nigeria to find some blueprint by which the centrifugal forces of religion, culture, ethnicity, and language could be integrated into one civic and indivisible form called a nation.

This is the reason why we refer to the Nigerian state as a project. Who calls her country a project? And the task underlying that project is that of national integration—making out of many nations, ethnicities, and peoples “one nation bound in freedom, peace, and unity”, as Nigeria’s national anthem demands.

Unfortunately, and since independence in 1960, Nigeria has remained a project that has defied consummation into a fulfilling completion, the sense in which Chief Awolowo was right in describing Nigeria as a “mere geographical expression.” And the reason is simple: national integration or social cohesion has eluded the Nigerian state, despite the best efforts of her leaders. Nation-building anywhere has never been an easy task. From the United States to India, we see the arduous dynamics of trying to wield disparate elements into one national frame. From the former Soviet Republic to Rwanda, we see how centrifugal challenges could tear any state apart—either a state confronted by many ethnic components or another with just two major ethnic groups. The Soviet was fragmented out of statehood, and Rwanda had to go through a genocidal war.

In Nigeria, the challenge is not any bit easy as the 59 years of postcolonial politics and governance have revealed. The Nigerian Civil War, barely seven years after independence, is an attestation of how nation-building has never been a smooth walk in the park. The challenge is a complex one: how does a state harness its ethnic diversity into national capital? Nigeria has over four hundred ethnocultural and national groups, two major religions that operate on absolutist theologies, and three major ethnic languages, all of which demand a framework of national cohesion. To use Professor Peter Ekeh’s analysis, Nigeria after the amalgamation is made up of primordial loyalties that needed to be converted into civic oneness. In other words, when Nigeria came into existence, those who found themselves in the political entity called Nigeria do not automatically feel a sense of responsibility to that political space. There were Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Urhobo, Nupe, Igala, Tiv, Ebira, Fulani, Ijaw, Ibibio, Kalabari, Itshekiri, and countless other ethnic groups who identify themselves in terms of their ethnic affiliations, but whose sense of belonging needed to be converted into loyalty to Nigeria. And this is because there has not surfaced yet a common national ground which unites all those who would be Nigerians.

The idea of social cohesion is founded on the search and the strategy for achieving national integration. There is no state in the world that can ever make any substantial or substantive developmental progress if its centrifugal forces are not converted into a centripetal framework of the national capital. And the key factor in achieving this is to seek a common ground that will serve as the basis for social cohesion. This implies reducing polarities and minimizing as many forms of disparities as possible. The starting point for a project of national cohesion is invariably ideological. That implies that there is a leadership that has crafted a compelling vision. Such a vision is then translated into a strategy for action in the measure that matches rhetoric with action in developing and promoting an overriding philosophy that can serve as a touchstone for defining national goals and for developing strong national consciousness which will, in turn, drive the process of national integration. Critical to that whole dynamic, therefore, is the need to articulate a vision of the sort of country that Nigeria aspires to be. A vision that is matched by the leadership committee that will bring it about.

Social cohesion is essentially about the management of national diversities. This is the core of nation-building. And this is the reason why many states have had to contend with internal conflicts that ultimately challenge the sovereign authority of the state itself. Social cohesion, therefore, refers to the ability a state has to facilitate good governance that ensures the well-being of the citizens. The essence of good governance is to ensure that citizens are sufficiently empowered to live good lives and achieve self-realization.

There is no doubt that a leadership that is polarized along the fault lines of ethnicity, religion and extreme parochialism cannot generate the united voice and front that are urgently required for harnessing the human and material resources necessary for transforming the fortune of the society. Unfortunately, that is the Nigerian predicament. What we have is a cacophony of discordant voices shouting at cross purposes over a wide chasm of seemingly unbridgeable differences. The discordant infighting is further complicated by the instinct for primitive accumulation that turns leaders into looters of the commonweal. From religion to academics, and from politics to society, it becomes extremely difficult to identify a critical mass of exceptional leaders with the consummate professional vitae, attitudinal and cultural mindset as well as a value dynamics that could inject them right into the problematic of the Nigerian society and its resolution.

The difficulty in recruiting this new generation of leaders is consequently due mainly to the percolation of an inimical dynamics of negative values trickling down from the current set of leaders into the impressionable consciousness of the emerging community of possible leaders.

In summary, what we have in Nigeria is a problem of lack of firm direction regarding the envisioned great Nigeria of the future that we are building. There is as yet a nationally shared vision regarding the Nigerian of our dream to which the leadership is committed in spirit and in truth. Rather, Nigeria is being piloted metaphorically by three pilots in the cockpit. While one is looking to Saudi Arabia for vision, the other is looking to Israel in a manner of speaking.

The third pilot, however, wishes that the plane should crash after he has escaped using the parachute so that whatever is left could be his as the ‘biggest contributor’ to the commonwealth. The consequent sociology from these confused ideological underpinnings of the envisioned Nigeria is contrived in the dubious behavior of a political leadership class that repeats the same old game of playing chess with the destiny of the Nigerian nation. It is this leadership failure to come up with a shared vision of the direction that they are leading the nation that makes it difficult for them to promote, through such policies as the quota system, Federal Character, NYSC, the rebranding Nigeria project, Change Begins with You, and any such initiatives, and active citizenship in Nigeria. That would be the kind of citizenship that encourages individuals to work beyond their personal interests in deliberation and action, and to take their civic responsibility seriously – as common national aspiration that the political leadership is trusted in all its actions to achieve.

And the first condition a state must facilitate before it achieves social cohesion is to achieve the principle of social justice. This principle demands that all forms of social inequalities—gender, income, class, political and material—are minimised as much as possible. In any society, like Nigeria, where the wealth gap between the rich and the poor is excruciatingly wide in ways that are even facilitated by the government through its tax regime, the social strain of such an inequality undermines social cohesion. In any state, again like Nigeria, where the ethnic diversity is so virulent as to constantly undermine the government’s civic efforts, social cohesion also becomes near impossible. And lastly, in any country where there is a disproportionate sharing of scarce resources in ways that enable one group to have more than the other, we already have a recipe for social disorder.

Social cohesion is about stability, and this is a function of the level of trust that can be generated within any society. Unfortunately, Nigeria is a low-trust society. Nigeria’s plural diversity facilitates a level of ethnic and religious distrusts that operates at both the individual and group levels. Again, this can be explained as one consequence of the primordial loyalty that Nigerians hold on to. Being a Hausa, for instance, is almost a sure sign that one will find relating with an Igbo a distasteful possibility. Low-trust societies generate stereotypes that undermine social cohesion.

Essentially, social cohesion demands a strategy of governance. And this is in the full recognition that good governance is the framework within which the transformation of ethnic diversity into nationhood can begin to unravel. There are two dimensions of the strategy of governance that are needed to ground social cohesion. The first is the urgent need to leverage education and value reorientation as the dynamics which engage with the citizens’ mental sets and worldviews.

The way people perceive the world and their relationship with others has a lot to do with what they have learned or refused to learn as they go through life. Such citizens might have learnt but there is a sense in which learning undermines the basis of a relationship when it is founded on crass individualism and selfish understanding. A state that desires social cohesion must, therefore, invest in an educational policy that encourages the growth of reflective, respectful and ethically-minded citizens who are willing to learn to trust others and live with them intolerance. Ultimately, this kind of value reorientation helps the citizens to learn skills, competencies, and values to live with others. The second dimension of the strategy of governance required for social cohesion is a reform blueprint that leads to a capacitating social policy. This refers to policy initiatives, social relations and institutional arrangements which energize human well-being. It constitutes a deliberate attempt, on the part of the government, to intervene in the redistribution of resources among its citizens as a means of achieving welfare objectives that empower the citizens. This involves investing in healthcare, employment, housing, and so on as well as opening up the society in ways that undermine inequalities, protect the vulnerable and facilitate democratic relations.

The thesis behind this second strategy which is the global paradigm underpinning the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI), the SDGs, a perspective that benefitted from the works of the likes of Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and which is a dominant emphasis even in current global conversation, a wave that inspired the 2019 Nobel laureates in economics, Michael Kremer, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo awarded for their novel approach to research in tackling global poverty. Achieving these in a sustainable manner also requires institutional creativity to get such innovations as NYSC, the Federal Character policy, free and compulsory education, social security system, etc. to keep evolving, deepened and consolidated in a manner that does not supplant equally noble principles as competitiveness, meritocracy, etc.

Within this framework of imperatives demanded by the need for social cohesion, a little reflection is required to understand precisely what the role of professional strategists, the types that coalesce under a preeminent body like the Institute for Strategic Management of Nigeria (ISMN). This is an association of strategists specialising in “strategic leadership and governance” through research, education, training, certification, education, and regulation of students. The strategic management that the ISMN is concerned with is a significant component of the strategic engagement with the Nigerian national project demands. Strategic management implies a fundamental understanding of how strategy formulation, implementation, and evaluation become essential to Nigeria’s development and progress. The challenge, therefore, for the professional strategists under the ISMN, is to find a broader platform through which to articulate the strategic imperatives that ought to go into Nigeria’s quest for national integration and social cohesion for development and democratic governance.

The Nigerian project at present lacks coherent strategic dynamics that would ensure that the leadership deploys the significant elements of social cohesion, as outlined above, towards ameliorating the Nigerian plural condition and its negative effects that have undermined the positive dimensions of diversity which countries like the United States have converted to social capital for national development.

Prof. Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), Bodija, Ibadan, delivered this keynote lecture at the Institute of Strategic Management, Nigeria ( ISMN) Annual Strategist Dinner in Lagos on November 22, 2019.