OLUTAYO CHARLES ADESINA, a professor of History at Nigeria’s Premier university, the University of Ibadan, has some grand ideas of the way Nigeria should work for the good of all and for her to be respected among other countries of the world.
Adesina appears irked by the state of affairs and feels that the leadership has remained insincere to earn the trust of the followership. The outcome is a topsy-turvy atmosphere that stunts growth. His words in this special Nigeria-at-60 interview with NPO Reports are those of the average bitter Nigerian who silently sheds tears over the hard fate of a country that has all its takes to make her great but fritters away all the goodies. He speaks with the NPO Reports:
Nigeria is about to be 60 years old, what do you make of it from a historian’s perspective?
Nigeria has remained a conundrum. It is a country that is so well endowed but has failed to satisfy its disparate parts. We have made some strides nationally and globally in becoming a modern state in several respects. Yet, we have also made glaring mistakes not expected of a ten-year old. Even then, the most enduring aspect of the country’s history is that of a formation whose soul and desires are working at cross-purposes.
The first two decades after independence constituted the critical, formative periods in the evolution of this country. But what did we see? Acute corruption, military coups, a horrendous civil war, an economic prosperity that led to economic and social misalignments, crime and criminality, unemployment – all these in a country so well-endowed materially.
Foreigners have continued to look at us and wondered why we have not settled down since 1960 and gotten together as a people to establish a proper nation out of this huge and well-endowed territory. And they are right! It is a country that we have all taken for granted and pulverised from every angle. We have had several wrong turns and innumerable misses. All because the affairs of the state had usually been piloted by people with stunted visions and archaic assumptions. We have been expecting too much from those who ruled Nigeria. Unfortunately, we are living in a fool’s paradise. If we had been true to ourselves, we would have seen that we would be unable to satisfy the pre-conditions for a take-off as a nation with the kind of ethnic nationalism and regional divisions that have assailed the country from the very beginning. This is because Nigeria had been unable to learn to put its best foot forward. That has been consistent since 1960 but with a worse turn since the 1990s. It is in our character to fritter away all good opportunities and throw overboard those things that would have set us on the path of sustainable development. We waste our well-endowed people in the same manner that we waste all manners of resources. Yet, we pride ourselves as the leader of the continent and of the Black race. Nigeria is an unfortunate country.
60 years after, is Nigeria acting its age?
Nigeria has not approximated its potentials as a country. We have continued to grow in age, but we are still in our diapers. People will point to physical growth – by the number of our expressways, universities, skyscrapers etc. But these are not the best indices of development. They are mere playthings. Development comes from the quality of the people and the quality of livelihood. Now, poverty stalks the land. Yet, we construct buildings and other infrastructures in a country that really has no direction. People celebrate our transitions from a one-lane road country to a ten-lane expressway and we bask in the euphoria of constructing things that history has shown are not only poorly constructed but also have been poorly maintained. Should we continue to participate in sharing in theses ephemerals? Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, the French writer, once remarked, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose ("the more things change, the more they stay the same").
How much has really changed in Nigeria since independence? Independence, which some have characterized as mere political independence, was a welcome development and the euphoria this brought had much to do with the promise represented by the new state and our leaders. But less than a decade after independence and several years thereafter, Nigeria, which held so much promise initially, has dissolved into all manners of crises. Since 1960, historians, development experts and policy makers have continued to pore endlessly over the Nigerian conundrum to try to understand where things went wrong despite the immense resources and opportunities available to us.
People talk more of leadership being bane of Nigeria. Is it that Nigeria got it wrong from the onset or at what point did things begin to whither?
We have a greedy and corrupt elite. To make matters worse, they are also incompetent and self-centred. Yes, leadership is our bane. But there is no way you will blame the leadership without blaming the followership. Followership is equally crude and illiterate. They edge on their traducers. It is therefore impossible to achieve development in such an atmosphere. The day the followership begins to demand accountability is the day the old type of leadership will end.
What are the similarities between leadership of the early independence days and what make the differences?
They are both Nigerians. I think that is where the similarities end. The leadership in the early post-independence period was urbane, sophisticated, well-educated and visionary. Leadership now seemed to have attended more schools but are neither educated nor visionary. In fact, the leadership now despite the degrees and certificates is illiterate. They lack that sense of mission and purpose that the earlier ones had. I really do not think there is any basis for comparison. Major Kaduna Nzeogwu during the January 15, 1966 coup, accused the earlier ones of being corrupt. What then do we call the ones we have now? The earlier ones tried to work on solid national development based on a blueprint. The current ones work first and then develop a blueprint to cover up their mistakes and ineptitude. They may say I am wrong and lack information, but that is what it appears to be. I think the coup of 1966 (in retrospect) was a grave mistake. They should have allowed those leaders to incubate new ideas and new leadership structures. That was, unfortunately, short-circuited. As a historian, reading about the 1960s and now, and reading about the historical experiences of other countries, I can only come to one conclusion: We are in trouble.
Have the events that led to independence influenced the current political pattern in any way?
No, they have not. While the pre-independence era were years of decisive battles against colonial administration and underdevelopment, the current political pattern smacks more of an accommodationist philosophy. We have had reinforced more than ever a consumerist philosophy. The anti-imperialist stance also fizzled out. The pre-independence nationalists wanted progress, development, and freedom from colonial control. The ones we have now deepened our dependence on the imperialists in every way. The ones before independence were interested in education, industrialisation, agriculture, and commerce, and they did everything to encourage their people. The ones now do not understand the role of education in national development. They have ruined that sector and I am not too proud of what we have. The events of the pre-independence period were years of good experimentation. See what Chief Awolowo did in the Western Region with his tax holidays for pioneer industries, free education, great strides in agriculture through the farm settlements etc. They had their weaknesses, but we saw great results for the people. Nowadays, infrastructures are more modern and have grown in leaps and bounds but have this really translated into progressive change? I think the population we have now is of poorer quality than we used to have in the 1960s and 1970s. We are better educated now but more ill-mannered and selfish. It is because the current leadership does not have astute leadership qualities as the ones in the past. They have failed the leadership requirements and tests. What led to the fight for independence was the desire to build a nation we could all be proud of. I am not sure that project is being continued now.
Where do you place the roles of the military in all of Nigeria’s affairs?
Several military apologists would point to the development of infrastructure, the establishment of ECOWAS, a stout foreign policy, laudable policies of all the military leaders (even for the syphilitic Babangida and Abacha years) and even the respect that the country garnered from the international environment in the late 1960s and 1970s. The anti-military group would point with glee to the depredations of the Babangida and Abacha years. But taken holistically, the military ruined us. They did not have the knowledge, capacities and understanding of how to build a nation. They were adventurers and ended up doing things by their whims and caprices. They should have left the First Republic alone. The soldiers were locusts and I hope they do not shoot their ways back into power as it is being done elsewhere on the continent. We really took one step forward and fifty steps backwards with them. They ruined our psyche, economy and our collective future.
Which system of government would you say is best suitable for Nigeria to overcome her travails?
The Federal System under a constitutional democracy is still the best. But you must still convince our people as to why this is the best. There are three main systems used today – unitary, federal, and confederate systems. What differentiates each type is the way in which each distributes power among different parts and levels of the state. Historically, the three had surfaced in different countries based on their compositions. Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe had even once suggested the adoption of a diarchy- a form of government characterised by co-rule, with two people ruling a polity together either lawfully or de facto. When the Federal Constitution (1951 McPherson Constitution) was going to be adopted, Chief Awolowo had pointed out some problems what would prevent federalism from working effectively here in Nigeria. He had criticised the imbalance that would be created by having three unequal regions knit together by a strong central government and legislature. He asserted that the federal constitution introduced into Nigeria failed to satisfy the three criteria by which a federal constitution should be judged and concluded that the constitution was ‘a wretched compromise between Federalism and Unitarianism. Awolowo saw far into the future. We are facing that problem today. In Nigeria, are we really running a federal system? We now run a combination of bastardised federalism, the unitary system, and a backward-looking oligarchy. The country is confused. A major question that Nigerians ask is, if we favour a federal system, should we return to the existing regional structure that we had in the 1960s? The answer is of course, no. That would likely precipitate another round of domination debate and lack of inclusive development. What we should do is to retrain our political leaders, the civil service, and the citizenry to understand inclusivity and democracy. Of course, not much training is being done about anything in this country. Everyone just takes the key and jumps into the driver’s seat and off we go.
What’s your assessment of Nigeria within the African continent?
Nigeria has lost both its bark and bite on the African continent. We were in total control of affairs on the continent but now the Americans, Chinese, and pirates off our coast have effectively upstaged us. Nobody respects us any longer. We are now the whipping boy of South Africa and Ghana. It is a pity. Chad now helps us to battle Boko Haram. We now want to buy fuel from Niger! Benin Republic gets rude to us at will. We are now all playing in the sand together – just like some naughty children. Our Army, once the pride of Africa, is no longer feared having received a bloodied nose from Boko Haram. Except for one short lived period when Nigeria spearheaded the ouster of Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia, Nigeria has become lame. We really need to work on a lot of things.
Insecurity seems to be worsening, how would you assess the capacity of the current administration to deal with that?
This government cannot handle the problem. This is because we have been using the same paradigm of governance since 1960. We need a National Grand Strategy. At present there is none. When you ask, they point to some National Development Plans, or National Strategies or Policies etc. That is different from a Grand Strategy. Go and read up on this and find out what is lacking in the national scheme of things. We cannot win this battle by deploying old tools of governance. It is a different world now. The material conditions of the people and insecurity are intertwined. Nobody would invest in an insecure nation. So, no matter what the government says, all the other sectors of the economy would not improve until the security angle is resolved. This government has tried its best to resolve matters of insecurity. But it is neither the military nor the security services that would solve this problem. It is like putting 11 players on the football field without a well-honed and articulate strategy. It will be 11 players on the field doing 11 different things. You need an orientation change to build them into a coherent and effective fighting force. What you need in Nigeria now is something more effective. So, without the evolution of a National Grand Strategy, nothing will change. A Grand Strategy is different from policy. It is also different from Strategy. A Grand Strategy clearly states the means that will be adopted and utilised to achieve long term and sustainable objectives. It is the plan for the future, the highest level of national statecraft that establishes how states prioritise and mobilise diverse sources and resources to ensure what they perceive as their interest (locally and internationally). These are big ideas that change paradigms. Nigeria does not have one. China’s Grand Strategy changed over time to what they now call the ‘Peaceful Rise/Peaceful Development.’ It was an official policy adumbrated by the then Chinese leader, Hu Jintao. For them now, they are ready to partner with everybody to achieve their national objectives. It is a ‘One World Strategy’ viewed within the prism of a long-range development plan where the country plays a different role than it has in the past. Both the domestic and foreign policies are brought together to achieve a national and inclusive development. Chinese Grand strategy now has two prongs. The first is technological supremacy and the second part is the export of the Chinese model to other countries in the global south that may lead to their absorption into a Chinese economic empire. It is a perspective plan. With these, China will not only acquire comprehensive national power but also create conditions that will empower its people materially back home. See how Cuba is using its doctors as part of its Grand Strategy. What is the Grand Strategy of the Israeli State that has allowed her not only to survive among its enemies but also get her enemies to work for her? What propels the average Israeli to defend Israel with all her might? The US and other developed world have their own Grand Strategies that both take a cue from and contribute to national policies. In Nigeria, no sector talks to the other. There is no Grand strategy per se. We must work on developing one. Try and create a nexus between our health, education, security sectors etc to assure us of a synergy that would help the country to achieve sustainable development. But there is no unity of purpose in the country to help achieve the kind of thing we are talking about. So, first we must rebuild ethnic relationships in this country that would enable everyone to see this country as theirs. A National Grand Strategy can help us to achieve the strategy to do that. In future, when you send our diplomats abroad, they will come back home rather than taking their family and settling in the country of their last postings. That is the kind of country we want.
This country is in dire straits. So, insecurity cannot, therefore, be dealt with in the chaotic way we are handling things. There must be an intellectual approach to governance here. Right now, there is none. Governance here is anachronistic and antediluvian. It is an analogue government in a digital age.
Then, you need to take care of the moral order in the country. Nobody seems to be working on that. The schools are comatose, the family system is in disarray, religious houses now love money more than moral instructions. You can now see how everything is interconnected. Both the political class and the civil service are handling everything in a cavalier manner. We need to retrain them in new ways. Even if you achieve peace in the way we handle things, it will only be for a few years. In a few years’ time another kind of threat would emerge. We need to work on a Grand Strategy. That has a deeply intellectual bent. All the serious countries of the world have theirs.
If you are to advise President Buhari, what would you suggest as solution to the country’s most pressing problems?
The President has tried his best. But he needs to do more under the circumstance. The country has to face its problems and not sweep them under the carpets or be in denial. He should settle down to a more proactive and more inclusive governance. First, I am not sure that his cabinet is the best we can have. He needs to rejig that now! Secondly, mutual suspicion in the country should end. There is too much talk of nepotism from the civil populace, which is fuelling anger, discontent, and disagreements. I am sure if you asked Mr. President himself, he would tell you that he is the father of the nation and that he is doing his best to create a united country. But his opponents have demurred. They accuse him of being a sectional leader. I have even seen a writer recently who quoted Sheik Uthman Dan Fodio in identifying ethnic identity and solidarity as a problem in any plural society. Fodio was quoted as saying: ‘One of the swiftest ways of destroying a kingdom is to give preference to one particular tribe over another, or to show favour to one group of people rather than another.’ This feeds into the National Question. We must exhort the president and in tandem with that, every Nigerian to begin the restoration of the national identity rather than the primordial one. It will be a dreadful thing if Nigeria loses her God-given advantages to irreconcilable differences. Let us begin the ritual of genuine reconciliation and mutual understanding now!