How Not to Build a Nation: Reflections on Nigeria @ 52 (Part 1) By Chido Onumah

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“Except in the eyes of the extremely naive and incurable swindlers in the corridors of power, this country has already collapsed; only that the horror of its probable disintegration would be difficult to face.” This fascinating quote by journalist and activist, Godwin Onyeacholem, truly captures the Nigerian reality today. It’s been 52 years in the making.

On October 1, 2012, the Nigerian State under the supervision of President Goodluck Jonathan will perform the ritual of celebrating the country’s independence. It is noteworthy that the Jonathan administration has decided not to go for the pomp and circumstance associated with such celebrations which really would have added insult to our collective injury. But typical of our ruling elite, the planned sombre celebration is  just another ruse, meant to pave way for a more elaborate, yet misguided, multi-billion naira celebration in 2014 to mark the centennial anniversary of the creation of Nigeria in 1914.

By every standard one decides to judge Nigeria, it has failed woefully as a nation. It is worth repeating because there are those afflicted with eternal delusions about, to use the weasel words of our politicians, “moving it forward”, the way it is presently constituted. It is mere wishful thinking. No amount of fancy talk or transformational balderdash can alter the fact that Nigeria is a full-blown “kleptocracy”, a state ruled by thieves, in the words of Prof. Niyi Osundare, on the way to imminent implosion.

It has been said that Nigeria is a country of great potential and promise. It remains just that after 52 years: a country of great potential and promise. The reality, to quote Chinua Achebe, is that “Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is one of the most expensive countries and one of those that give least value for money. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth.”

That was almost three decades ago. We have since raised the stakes. “Today, rogues, armed robbers are in the State Houses of Assembly and the National Assembly,’’ former President Olusegun Obasanjo – a man who ought to stand trial for his unqualified misgovernance of Nigeria — said a few months ago. Obasanjo should know. He, more than anyone else, facilitated the emergence of these scoundrels who have taken over our democratic space.

Very few countries in the world can take the unrepressed pillage, outrageous abuse and unmitigated violation which the self-acclaimed giant of Africa has received and remain standing. David Cameron, British PM, has been quoted as saying, “If the amount of money stolen out of Nigeria in the last 30 years was stolen in the UK, the UK would not exist again.” There are many figures in the public domain about how much our leaders have siphoned from the country since independence. From Nuhu Ribadu, former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), we learnt that the amount is “more than six times the total sum that went into rebuilding Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War via the famous European Recovery Programme, ERP programme or Marshall Plan”. The ERP programme was $13billion. Interestingly, Germany, the choice location for medical care for our leaders, was one of the beneficiaries of the Marshall Plan.

We can spend the next few weeks cataloguing the problems of Nigeria and we would not have scratched the surface. Where do we start? Is it something as basic as education where it has been revealed that “Nigerians commit about  N160 billion ($1billion) to the education of their children and wards in Ghanaian universities every year”. A recent newspaper report quotes the Chairman, Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, Dr. Wale Babalakin, as saying “the cost excludes huge amounts also spent on education of Nigerians in other countries such as the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada and Malaysia”. From Dr. Babalakin we also learnt that there are about 75,000 Nigerian students in Ghana, a country which, in the last decade, has been spending up to 35 percent of its annual budget (far beyond the UNESCO recommendation of a minimum of 26 percent) on education.

Let’s take a minor issue like polio eradication. Just recently, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) issued a report which noted that “of six global sanctuaries for the poliovirus (which stand against the anticipated eradication), Nigeria’s Kano and Bornu States are the most problematic”.

“Apart from Afghanistan, Nigeria’s northern region specifically constitutes major concern for global polio fighters, who now worry over the quality of local personnel and efforts. Although Kano, Bornu, and four other global (problematic) spots represent a relatively tiny proportion of the earth’s land surface area, the Monitoring Board had hinted that they ‘pose disproportionate risk to the likelihood of success for the entire globe’”, the report noted. “There are now just six countries with persistent polio transmission. Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan have never interrupted transmission. Angola, Chad and DR Congo have ‘re-established’ polio. Nigeria has slipped back in a quite alarming way. Afghanistan’s programme is consistently performing at a reasonable level.”

This is a snapshot of the sorry story of Nigeria. We are not just the poster child for corruption. Whether we are talking about education, maternal or infant mortality, security, justice and rule of law, we rank at the very bottom and are constantly in competition with the world’s most retrograde countries.



The failure of Nigeria is essentially the failure of leadership. For some strange reason, it appears, we have been cursed with bad leaders right from the moment the colonialists departed 52 years ago. Unlike in places like Ghana and Tanzania, our post-independence rulers, rather than building a new nation and an egalitarian society, were more eager to replace the departing colonizers and subsequently initiate a more malicious brand of internal colonialism from the contraption that was handed over to them.

Over the years, the quality of leadership has degenerated, breeding various vices and entrenching unparalleled corruption which has now become a directive principle of state policy. There are those who accuse “ordinary” Nigerians of complicity in this rot. A typical example would be to point to the policeman or woman at a “road block” and conveniently say corruption is a Nigerian and, therefore, there is nothing we can do about it. I disagree. If the man on the street is corrupt, it is simply because the country’s leadership has not led by example.

Where is the incentive for the policeman to be upright? Is it that his take-home pay can take him to and fro work in a month? That his children can get basic education or that his family can afford adequate medical care when they  need it? Never mind that he is more likely to buy his own uniform and other paraphernalia of policing. That’s after he must have paid around N200,000 ($1250) to middlemen to join the police. Meanwhile, his Inspector General is the proud owner of numerous housing estates and companies and would rank amongst the richest men in the country.

Can a people really rise above the leadership they are confronted with? Leadership is everything! Since my encounter with Chinua Achebe’s book, The Trouble with Nigeria almost three decades ago, I have found it a constant companion. Achebe’s book goes to the heart of the Nigerian problem. But it is also a book that gives us hope that Nigeria is redeemable and we shouldn’t give up on the country.

At his pedagogic best, Achebe wrote: “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. Leaders are, in the language of psychologists, role models. People look up to them and copy their actions, behaviour and even mannerisms. Therefore if a leader lacks discipline the effect is apt to spread automatically down to his followers.”

Nigerians are good followers. So, it is only proper that if our leaders have shown themselves  to be lawless, Nigerians have learnt not to be law-abiding. ‎Achebe talks about indiscipline on the part of our leaders. I would add impunity. Ours is s system built and sustained by  impunity. Our leaders know they can do anything and get away with it.  It is their despicable philosophy of “there is no going back,”; “no shaking”, “I dey kampe” that has brought us to where we are today. As someone noted on one of the ubiquitous social media sites, we have failed repeatedly to win any form of medal in the Olympics of leadership. And the reason is evident: Our worse eleven have always emerged each time the opportunity rears its head.

But there is no use lamenting our leadership deficit. There is no chance things will change until the Nigerian people rise and take charge of their destiny. A little over a year ago, a “transformation train” predictably destined for disaster  took off from Aso Rock, the seat of power. If Nigerians thought they had been taken for a ride by their leaders in the past, this is one bumpy ride — no pun intended – in a “One Chance” transformation bus. Every action provokes an unsurprising feeling of deja vu. It has been a month since the First Lady went AWOL. There hasn’t been any coherent or intelligent explanation from the Presidency or Bayelsa State, her official workplace. It says a lot about a regime that rode to office on the back of a president that went AWOL for months. And for those who have been hoodwinked into believing that the First Lady is not a public official, let’s be reminded that she is also a permanent secretary in Bayelsa State.

For all we know, we may have a putative dictator on our hand. “The demonstration in Lagos, people were given bottled water that people in my village don’t have access to, people were given expensive food that the ordinary people in Lagos cannot eat. So, even going to eat free alone attracts people. They go and hire the best musician to come and play and the best comedian to come and entertain; is that demonstration? Are you telling me that that is a demonstration from ordinary masses in Nigeria who want to communicate something to government? I am hardly intimidated by anybody who wants to push any issue he has. I believe that that protest in Lagos was manipulated by a class in Lagos and was not from the ordinary people.”

That was President Jonathan – a man who came to power two years ago on the strength of public demonstrations on his behalf — responding recently to the nationwide protests in January against the removal of so-called oil subsidy. That insensate action was premised on the theory that there was an oil cabal that was ripping off the country through the oil subsidy scheme. As it turned out, this cabal so-called is an integral part of the current administration and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Is it surprising, therefore, that nine months later, no one has been brought to justice for the billions the government freely paid out to its dubious partners in the private sector?

To be continued.


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*Onumah is author of Time to Reclaim Nigeria and coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy.

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