AFRICA IS PECULIAR. Many things have either happened or are happening within the continent, with wide-ranging implications, manifestations or outcomes. The prospects of a contemporary Africa may remain the same as those observed in the dark days in the immediate aftermath of a wave of independence from the colonialists. This is especially so, given the evident lack of determination to break with the past and open a clear path for future progress. The social, political and economic characteristics within Africa are causes and consequences of the continent’s backwardness. Africa has 54 countries and an estimated population of 1.37 billion people as of August 3, 2021, based on the latest United Nations estimates. This is equivalent to 16.72 per cent of the total world population.
But Africa is not having it rosy in many critical areas of life. Life expectancy within the continent as at mid-2020 was estimated at 62 years for males and 65 years for females whereas the average life expectancy globally was 70 years for males and 75 years for females. The 2020 GDP per capita, according to World Bank, was $1,483.8. Africa’s share of global trade in goods and services has remained consistent at just three per cent of global imports and exports for well over a decade, while intra-Africa trade accounted for 15 per cent of Africa’s total trade in 2019 and 2018 but slightly higher in 2015 and 2016 with 19 per cent and 20 per cent of total trade. Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria, three great national economies within the continent, have been rocked by various social, political and economic headwinds that have threatened their sovereignties to various degrees – from Arab Sprint to rising unemployment or terrorist infiltrations in Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria respectively.
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One country that is particularly most vital to Africa’s development is Nigeria. Its strategic geographical position is like the trigger of a pistol. Its current population estimate of 211.6 million people is 15 per cent of the Africa’s population, which means that one out of every six Africans is a Nigerian. Its economy, measured by GDP, since it was rebased in 2014, has clearly been the largest in Africa, valued at $442.98 billion in 2020, followed by Egypt at $361.88 billion and South Africa at $282.59 billion. Yet, social and economic life in Nigeria has been less than desirable in the past couple of years as various existential crises have taken over, threatening lives and the economy. Failing from within, Nigeria has been bungling opportunities to play Africa’s leadership roles. About two decades ago, a Ghanaian co-passenger employee of a multinational company, aboard an Accra-bound commercial aircraft told this writer that Ghana was waiting for Nigeria to take the lead in development initiatives and would be ready to follow. But, sadly, Nigeria has not been consistently responsive to such call to leadership within the continent.
Opportunities abound for Nigeria to lead in Africa’s regional diplomacy efforts. At the sub-regional level, Nigeria has led and partly funded ECOMOG, a peace-keeping military intervention that deployed in an attempt to end the civil war in Liberia and the neighbouring Sierra Leone. Nigeria has also sponsored and funded Technical Aid Aids Corps, an international volunteering programme set up by the Nigerian government since 1987. The only volunteer service of its kind currently operated by an African country, involving the sharing of Nigeria’s expertise with other African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, has been hailed as an innovative diplomatic initiative. On the food security front, Nigeria has been declared as the source of 65 per cent of commercial certified seeds sold to many West African countries in recent years. But the country was roundly criticised by Nelson Mandela as president, from what appeared to be his disappointment about failure of Nigeria to live up to its expected leadership role.
In a written report of a rare personal encounter with Nelson Mandela, gleaned from a write-up by one Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, published on December 09, 2013, the writer disclosed that the late Mandela told him that “the world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence. Nigerians love freedom and hate oppression. Why do you do it to yourselves?” This same quote was paraphrased in a write-up published about a fortnight after in a New York Times Opinion piece written by one Adewale Maja-Pearce, under the title of “The Patchwork Nation.” Cases abound to buttress the failure of Nigerian leadership to lead the African continent forward. Much earlier, in his book titled “From Third World To First, The Singapore Story: 1965 to 2000,” Lee Kwan Yew wrote – in reference to Nigeria – that: “I am not optimistic about Africa…….” With specific reference to Nigeria, he wrote about “tribal loyalties” being stronger than the “sense of common nationhood.” This, according to him, “was especially so in Nigeria” where he observed “a deep cleavage between Muslim Hausa northerners and the Christian and pagan southerners.”
With a high degree of validity, it can be inferred that Nigeria’s governance and public resources have been consumed by too much focus on internal politics, done rather poorly and ineffectively, to the neglect of regional peace and economy of Africa in general and the West African sub-region in particular. Could these be responsible for the insidious infiltration of terrorist groups into Nigeria to the extent that a significant part of the country has been devastated and rendered ungovernable by such insurgents? The weak sense of nationhood and an obsession with tribal loyalties have been at the root of the current social crisis in Nigeria. These have provided fertile ground for the prevalence of policy inconsistencies, tribalism, instability, lack of accountability, ineffectiveness and lack of weaknesses in the application of the rule of law, embezzlement, contract inflation, mismanagement of public resources and all forms of corruption. They also provided safe haven for irresponsible, non-accountable and clueless leadership to thrive and jeopardise the development opportunities of Nigerians while denying Africa the benefits derivable from a more prosperous Nigeria.
An absence of built-in mechanisms to ensure sustainability in development interventions and security infrastructure has rendered Nigeria vulnerable to a lot of threats from internal and external sources. Nigeria presently runs on flawed official procedures. Population figures are currently derived from mere extrapolation as no census exercised has been carried out since 2006. Even the results from census exercise done some 15 years ago have never been transparent because of geopolitical bias and the basis for national and sub-national planning and budgetary allocation remains subjective and unscientific. Elected officials do not govern with statistics. Election rigging remains rampant and aided with violence and fraud. Public service is weak, more internally-focused than service oriented, riddled with incompetence and operates on autopilot and strict bureaucracy rather than as development machinery. It is now more of a cost-centre than value creating arm of government.
While Nigeria still struggles with development, it runs one of the most expensive democratic governments, involving profligate executive and luxurious legislative structures, particularly at the national level, although the sub-national levels are not any better. Corruption and malfeasance in public offices have worsened Nigeria’s economic performance in the past few years such that wealth-generating activities in the public sector are gradually but consistently being hindered by the politicians and public officers. For instance, from econometric models by Trading Economics global macro models and analysts’ expectations on Ease of Doing Business projected that Nigeria was expected to reach 128.00 by the end of 2020. In the long-term, the Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria is projected to trend around 133.00 in 2021 and 135.00 in 2022, clearly a deterioration of fortune of a nation and worsening of the investment climate, with heavy presence of government but little development impacts.
In addition to dominant negative press, very poor efforts are made to burnish Nigeria’s image to boost its standing in the global community in sports, education, health, tourism, aviation, finance, manufacturing, and many other areas of the real sector. Too much fixation on revenue from petroleum exports with feeble efforts on diversification of the economy is inextricably linked with the rising profile of external debts, some of which are tied down to infrastructure projects that are unlikely to yield sufficiently enough to pay back. In the case of infrastructure loans owed to China, Nigeria may soon risk giving up some strategic national assets when the repayment period of grace is over and the lender nation comes asking for its money back.
The growing spectre of insecurity within Nigeria, caused by terrorist militia and Fulani herdsmen will significantly worsen food insecurity situation in Nigeria. As the rural countryside becomes unsafe and many farmers abandon farms, Nigeria is faced with the reality of food shortage and food price inflation. A country that should be giving out excess food in form of aid and donation, reportedly embarked on borrowing food in 2020 from the West African sub-regional body. In a widely published report last August, a minister in Nigeria’s Agriculture Ministry was quoted as saying that “we borrowed 5,000 metric tons of grains from ECOWAS,” signifying the impact of food crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and absence of food security emergency preparedness in place.
The border closure drama embarked upon by Nigeria when the entire African continent was preparing to begin the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was another clear instance of Nigeria’s failure and reluctance to lead Africa. The successful implementation of AfCFTA will depend so much on Nigeria’s active participation, providing a sense of direction. The hard stance on border closure was clearly at variance with the ideals and requirements of AfCFTA. Just as nature abhors vacuum, so does international relations. The reluctance of Nigeria to take the lead has provided great opportunities for far smaller countries such as Rwanda, Ghana, Niger to position themselves at the forefront. Continued failure of Nigeria to take the rightful leadership position remains a bad news for both the country and for Africa in general.
It is time for those in power in Nigeria to begin to look beyond the parochial and broaden their horizon. Leading the charge for a fast developing Africa will be a win-win and worthwhile venture. Nigerian political leaders need to see beyond the narrow, local and sectarian politics. They need to think more broadly about Nigeria’s space in the continent of Africa. They must ensure that Nigeria progresses and prospers; the progress and prosperity must also be extended to other African countries through worthy examples and good leadership. No more room for further delay. Nigerian political leaders must rise up today and live up to expectation. They fail as long as they are unable to bring their impact to bear on the development of the continent, no matter how much they achieve at the local front. Here is the challenge of the moment. Nigerian leaders must heed the call to lead, not only the country but also the continent; and they must do it responsibly.