Poverty, Dashed Hopes Mar 20 Years Of Democracy

Fidelity Bank

Today, President Buhari stands between the despair of the present and the hope of the future. But his government’s vacuum of ideas is legendary. He should stop blaming everyone else except himself.


INAUGURATED amid the euphoria of liberation from military rule and a schismatic upheaval in the polity, two decades of democracy have failed to banish division, poverty and insecurity in Nigeria. In the place of hope or material wellbeing and economic growth, despair and mass resentment thrive. The latent centrifugal forces are manifesting strongly, exposing inherent contradictions of the artificial state. Already, there are growing fears that Nigeria’s democracy is in imminent danger. Neither the 105-year-old fragile country nor the tainted democracy is working. Today presents another opportunity to either initiate the radical restructuring that can deliver progress, or dump the fake federalism that has failed so woefully.

The first is a tested, sure route to stability and progress for multi-ethnic societies; the other guarantees continued upheaval and stunted growth that are so evident in the Nigerian experience. As the political class marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth Republic, the majority of the 200 million estimated population is despondent. The old fracture lines of ethnicity and religion are simmering. Insecurity ravages the land; ethnic tensions and mutual mistrust are at the highest levels since the 1967-70 Civil War. Maladministration has peaked with its corollary; corruption, on the loose and defying mitigation efforts, while poverty, illiteracy and crime are prevalent. The fragility of the country has become ever more glaring, the mantra of “unity in diversity” more hollow and agitation for a fundamental restructuring, louder and more inclusive.

The truth is that Nigeria runs on the fulcrum of epic injustice.  Today, once a taboo subject for the elite, the imperative of upending and remaking the federal republic has lately gained adherents among some of the most ardent apostles of “one Nigeria” like a former defence minister, Theophilus Danjuma, and a former President, Olusegun Obasanjo; reality may have also finally dawned on the inflexible President Muhammadu Buhari, who also recently admitted that time had come for “true federalism.”

As this “democracy” has failed to bring its “dividends,” Nigerians are forced to confront the ugly reality of the country’s faulty foundation and its description 70 years ago as a “mere geographical expression” by an apostle of federalism, Obafemi Awolowo, whose wise advice was that a union of diverse nationalities could only prosper when properly organised as an effective federation, with wide autonomous powers reserved for the component units. Instead, Nigeria has sought vainly these two decades to deliver development and prosperity by sustaining the political aberration of beggarly, hamstrung states beholden to an excessively powerful centre in a national federation. The results have been traumatic; even more so when the country’s trajectory is placed alongside its peers.

In his inaugural speech as president on May 29, 1999, Obasanjo reviewed the decay, corruption, poverty, economic ruin, divisions and alienation among large sections of the polity and raised hope that the New Dawn represented by the return to civil rule would mark the beginning of a “genuine renaissance.” He promised an improvement in human development indices, good governance, security, harmony and an end to corruption.

Modest improvements have been made in certain sectors, but things have become indelibly worse in many others. To Obasanjo’s credit belong some reforms such as starting privatisation, financial sector retooling, debt exit, better external reserves management; re-professionalising the military and modest attempt to remake the civil service. His liberalisation of the telecoms sector attracted $68 billion investments between 2001 and 2016 and contributed $21 billion to GDP in 2017. Middling successes like the rice revolution and Treasury Single Account can be attributed to his successors; Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan and Buhari.

Failure writ large is everywhere else in evidence. Human development indices are horrible. Nigeria remains firmly in the low human development category, placing 157 among 189 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index in 2017, compared to Brazil at 79, South Africa 113 and war-ravaged Iraq 120. While Brazil moved 20 million persons out of poverty in eight years, Nigeria moved 93 million into “extreme poverty” to displace India as world champion in this category in 2018. Inheriting an exchange rate of N91 to the $1 in 1999, today’s official exchange rate is N302 to $1, interest rates remain prohibitively high and manufacturing that once added about 11 per cent to GDP, had fallen to 4 per cent by 2011, says the World Bank. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria reported that about 800 companies shut down in three years to 2012 and 272 others between 2015 and 2016. Unemployment, with its perils and penalties, has reached unprecedented levels, jumping by 30 per cent to 23.1 per cent in late 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics that says 16 million are jobless. Malaysia’s 3.4 per cent and Russia’s 4.9 per cent jobless rates are manageable. Our economy is wretched because the states are barely productive, leaving only the incompetent Federal Government to devise economic measures. What should have brought positive revolution and change, the power assets sales, were bungled and, today, the country cannot produce enough power for businesses and social life.

Infrastructure has hardly improved, with no signature projects to speak of; education is in a mess, only 30 per cent have access to clean water, reports USAID, while the highest number of out-of-school children, girl-child illiteracy and child brides are found in Nigeria.

Nowhere is the evidence of our failed federalism starker than in the security situation: Nigeria now hosts the world’s third and fourth most deadly terrorist groups – Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen/militants. Heavily armed bandits in the northern states are vying to upstage them; kidnapping has become the biggest industry; add gang violence, militancy and vandalism in the Niger Delta, armed robbery, piracy on the coast, political violence and random criminality, and one sees a country falling apart.

Change will have to come peacefully or the country risks an implosion of unimaginable repercussions. The alternatives for the country are bleak indeed.  The grand injustice embedded in the lopsided federation engineered by the departing British colonialists is unravelling: cries of marginalisation and the need for restructuring have reached a crescendo. Since amalgamation in 1914 and 59 years after independence, there are still no “Nigerians” as you have Ghanaians, Russians, Irish or Spaniards. Instead, our ethnic nationalities are restless and pulling in different, increasingly divergent directions. Fulani militants are engaged in an orgy of pillage, helped by a weak, often indulgent government, while 12 states impose criminal aspects of Sharia law on all in violation of the Constitution. Southern and North-Central Nigeria have totally differing concepts of development from the elite in the North-East and North-West regions.

Nigerians are not the same; moving forward requires first admitting this fact. To peacefully manage the inevitable dispersal of the centres of power, all stakeholders must begin the process of fashioning a real federation where the 36 states will have greater control over their resources, become self-reliant territories organised for productive activities, complete with their own constitutions, state police and the freedom to organise their local administration. In their wisdom, the framers of the United States constitution wrote a document recognising the diversity of the federating states that has underpinned the world’s most successful “melting pot” 230 years after its ratification; though ethnically homogeneous, the German and Austrian states took cognisance of their disparate past to fashion formidable federations that have made them the world’s fourth and 26th largest economies respectively despite defeat and devastation in World War II. India’s resilient federalism has enabled her survive uncommon political and sectarian upheavals since independence in 1947 and is now a major player in the global economy.

We should avoid the dire prediction by Olu Falae, an elder statesman, that unless we peacefully remodel into a real federation, a time would come when the opponents of change would desperately plead for dialogue, but would be rebuffed as events would have run out of their control. Policies that will empower the states even before a constitution amendment such as an immediate increase in derivation and decentralised policing should be put in place.

Today, President Buhari stands between the despair of the present and the hope of the future. But his government’s vacuum of ideas is legendary. He should stop blaming everyone else except himself. Nigeria is at a crossroads where delay in restructuring is very dangerous. It is his responsibility to lead the movement for real change and purposeful governance. There is no need for further futile, time-buying constitution conferences; the reports of 1995, 2005 and 2014 should be harmonised and all state assemblies, political parties and national legislators mobilised to pass the necessary amendments as provided for in the 1999 Constitution.

Nigeria is like a vehicle whose engine has knocked:  it needs replacement; it is not repairable and cannot deliver progress, curb criminality or tame poverty as presently structured. With sincerity of purpose, however, there is no problem that cannot be solved. Sunnis, Shias and Kurds have worked out a federal system in Iraq; Belgium’s Flemish, Walloon and minority nationalities have reworked their country for greater harmony. Nigeria’s 36 states have to be unshackled to compete for investments and markets. The healthy rivalry among the defunct Nigerian regions saw rapid development in all four.

As we mark 20 years of civil rule and reflect on its failure to deliver cohesion welfare and national pride, all efforts should be geared towards restructuring the country into a genuine federation today in name and indeed. Further delay endangers our corporate existence and signposts an uncertain, unpalatable end. (PUNCH)

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