Nigeria's Uncertain Way Ahead
Mar 01, 2023
We shall soon see if Nigeria, this enormous and fast-growing giant of Africa, will provide a living example to show that Western liberal democracy can be made to work, with an orderly and peaceful transfer of power, even in a context of a mega-size country ridden by poverty, corruption, ethnic divides, and violence, defying global authoritarian trends, or whether these elections will take the country into an era of instability and protracted violence.
How to rule a large and fast-growing country, like India, like Pakistan, like Brazil, and, yes, like Nigeria, balancing stability, rule of law, democratic freedoms, and welfare/development, has been debated among scholars and politicians for decades. In most practical cases, this balancing act has landed in some form or other of justifications of authoritarianism. But Nigeria in recent years – like India, for all the differences – defied authoritarian temptations and stuck, so far, to the principle that liberal democracy is the best, or only, lasting way to solve “the problem of legitimacy”. Even though, it should be reminded, the country´s earlier post-independence history, from the Biafra war 1967-72 and onwards, was marred with repeated military coups and temporary military governments.
Muhammadu Buhari represents the transition in Nigerian politics, the northerner who first came to power through a military coup, in the early 80s, then was ousted in another military coup some five years later, then turned civilian and competed for presidential office several times, mainly on an anti-corruption platform, then, in 2015 defeated the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and assumed the presidency (Nigeria´s first orderly and peaceful transfer of power!), then was re-elected four years later after orderly elections, and now retires, constitutionally, after serving his allowed two terms. So he can now – his frail health allowing, and in spite of leaving behind a mountain of socio-economic and security problems – bow out and observe whom among three main contenders, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar and the youngish newcomer Peter Obi, the vast Nigerian electorate will pick as his successor.
It seems that Tinubi, although having lost giant Lagos state to establishment-challenger Obi, is the winner, according to early results produced by a new electronic counting machine, but we shall see, and even before the electoral commission formally announced results from the nowadays 36 states there were clear indicators of political protest and accusations of fraudulence.
But even if this experiment in giant-country-democracy – with the costs of election operations estimated at some 700 million USD – were to be internationally respected and domestically at least in the end tolerated as reasonably free and fair, it remains only too clear that Nigeria is facing tremendous challenges, regardless of type of governance. Independent domestic and international scholars, such as Uzodinma Iweala in Foreign Affairs, Volume 101, Number 4, 2022, warn that Nigeria now direly needs a new start, a “new independence” after all these years of trial and error, and of continuous struggle against the forces of disintegration, for viability as a multiethnic and multireligious mega-state. “Like a chronically sick patient”, Iweala writes, “who lacks a proper diagnosis and thus adequate treatment, /Nigeria/ soldiers on, its condition steadily worsening”, adding that “Many of Nigeria´s economic and social indicators are improving too slowly to support a rapidly growing population – some are heading the wrong way altogether”.
Mere size is a factor here. Nigeria is the giant of Africa, by far the biggest with some 215 million people, currently, and growing so fast that projection indicate it will by 2050 have replaced the United States as the world’s third most populous country, and beyond that fast reducing the distance to shrinking China.
So by virtue of sheer size Nigeria’s future, in the balance between benign and ominous scenarios for the state in terms of stability and prosperity, will unavoidably be a decisive determinant for the future of Africa as a whole, and well beyond. Hence the importance of the elections now, as a broad and relevant indicator.
The Buhari administration may have been initially well-intentioned and broadly appreciated, back then, during his first term, but now that he bows out his testimony is one of considerable and broad-based disappointment. Socio-economically, in spite of the country’s potential (oil-based) wealth, since Buhari took office the number of people living in extreme poverty has risen from 70 to 88 million, the unemployment rate quadrupled to 33 percent and the currency (the naira) has lost some 40 percent of its value against the dollar. Annual inflation reached 16 percent in April last year. Roughly 85 million people, some 40 percent of the whole population, still have no access to electricity, and a third of all children under five are stunted or malnourished, some 10 million children not being in school. These are but some indicators of massive – often rising - socio-economic problems tormenting the country, in spite of perceived potentials and hence popular expectations.
Then there is the clear and present link between this scene of massive socio-economic malaise and, on the one hand, glaring corruption, suspected or real, and, on the other hand, the phenomenon of persistent violence of various kinds and roots, tormenting average Nigerians, criminal and/or political, religious, or secular. For long, the problem was mainly the Boko Haram threat in the North-East, this giving rise to state-sponsored counter-terror in a vicious circle. Lately the scene has been dominated by a widened pattern of violence, both religious, political, and criminal, with acts of terrorism, for-profit kidnappings, and armed robberies.
Given these miseries, it can be noted that a very large state is producing, or leaving behind, a very large army of young men (mostly men) in despair at the absence of employment opportunities and hence desperate enough to turn to crime or religious extremism as the only solution. Or to leave, “to vote with their feet”, if given a chance. Again quoting Iweala: “Today, it is not uncommon to hear even the most patriotic young Nigerians offer a wry definition of the Nigerian dream: to leave”.
It is against the backdrop of these massive problems, the addressing of which the political elites of Nigeria have kept kicking like a can down the road, for decades, regardless of regime type, civilian or military, that many or most observers are now conceiving of need for a drastic make-over of the state’s system of governance, a “new independence”, comparable to the first one of 1960. Simply limping on, albeit under a façade of democratic institutions, with an utterly non-responsive, “half-authoritarian” elite regime based on a rigid two-party system will prove increasing incapable of giving relevant answers to the calls for, and need for, real change, whatever such “change” would mean, more exactly.
In this, conducting free and fair elections and having an orderly and peaceful transition of power is a necessary minimum. But Nigeria does face enormous challenges, and the way it handles these will determine the fate of Africa. For starters. One remembers the slogan of the Gowon regime in the context of the Biafra war of the late sixties: “To keep Nigeria one is a job that must be done”. But it must be done democratically.