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Three reasons Nigeria is the toughest country to govern

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Much has been said about the meteoric rise of Rwanda from the ashes of civil war to its capital Kigali being named the most beautiful and the greenest city in Africa by the United Nations. Similarly, economists and scholars alike have marveled at the dramatic turnaround of the Chinese economy from population powder keg to economic powerhouse in less than a half-century. The spectacular transformation of the United Arab Emirates has also been the subject of many case studies. Its shift from primarily oil exporting country to a highly diversified economy, developing into a global hub for tourism, retail and finance has been impressive to say the least.

In stark contrast, the struggles of Africa’s largest economy have been well documented. Its disproportionate reliance on crude oil exports, lack of uninterrupted electricity, crumbling infrastructure, a sluggish economy, an inability to tackle corruption and provide adequate security for its citizens has brought up the conversation of Nigeria being a failed state – a massive leap if you ask me. But comparisons of this kind fail to factor the three key metrics I look to, in comparing the development of nation states. The population size, ethnic diversity and the kind of government. These three factors and how they work together are ultimately what makes Nigeria a unique experiment, unlike any other in the world, and also explain why Nigeria is exceptionally difficult to govern.

The population of a country and its growth rate might be the single biggest determinant of economic growth. On a simplistic level, the relationship between growth in population and growth in per capita income is clear. After all, per capita income is directly related to the population size. The current population of Nigeria is estimated to be about 195 million – the 7th largest in the world, compared with Rwanda’s, which is about 12.5million ranking 77th. The United Arab Emirates boasts a population of 9.5million ranking it 93rd, while China leads the world the pack with 1.4 billion. Based on simple mathematics, one can deduce that it’s grossly unfair to compare governing a country the size of Nigeria to Rwanda and The United Arab Emirates. For any set of policies to make any significant impact, it has to affect a much broader swath of the population – a feat that is much more difficult when you have a population bursting at the seams. But China is almost 10 times bigger – you say, which brings us to our second point.

A landmark 2002 Harvard Institute for Economic Research paper found that African countries are the most diverse in the world, compared to Japan and the Koreas, which it found to be the most homogenous. It found that the world’s 20 most diverse countries are all African, likely owing to the continent’s colonial legacy. The study also found a correlation between diversity, latitude and GDP per capita. Finding that the more diverse a country was, the more likely it was to have a lower GDP per capita. Concluding “it is quite difficult to disentangle the effect of these three variables on the quality of government.” This would explain why Nigeria – a country with about 250 identified ethnic groups might be harder to govern, than a country like Rwanda with 99% of its population being either Hutu (85%) or Tutsi (14%). China by contrast, has 56 recognized ethnic groups still a far cry from Nigeria’s but significantly more than the six to seven in the United Arab Emirates.

The final factor that serves to further complicate the ability of Nigeria to catch up to other emerging economies is its democratic governance structure, which is in stark contrast to the Unitary (one party) state in Rwanda and China, and the Absolute Monarchy in the UAE. There has been an age-old debate dating back to Plato and Aristotle, about whether democracy encourages or stifles political and economic growth. Harvard Macroeconomist Robert Barro in his seminal study in this area concluded there was no correlation between more political rights and economic growth. But the previously cited Harvard Institute for Economic Research study found that strong democracy correlates with ethnic homogeneity, finding that diversity might make democracy tougher in some cases. With a country with the population size and ethnic diversity as Nigeria, it is no wonder democracy is especially difficult, with leaders having to manage varying interest groups, which at times are in opposition to one another.

So, as we inch ever closer to another general election, and political tensions flare with the main political parties calling for the other to be unregistered, the perennial questions are bound to resurface: “why are countries that don’t have nearly the same amount of human and natural resources, doing better than us?” As we contemplate what direction to go in the next 4 years, let us be mindful that we can’t change the population size or our ethnic diversity, the only thing we can change is our style of government. So let us ask ourselves, if we would rather have a unitary state or worse yet a dictatorship, or dig in and do the extremely difficult but necessary work of defending and perfecting our tough and complex democracy.


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