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Beyond survival: Remapping Nigeria for greatness -By Ayo Olukotun

“Nigeria go survive, I say if dem drink the oil ooo. No matter how dem try ooo (Nigeria go survive). Our roots dem strong for ground o”

Hip-hop and rap musician, Veno Marioghae

Part lamentation for the tragic misdeeds of its vision-less leaders, part melodious balm for an anxious nation caught in ruinous adversity, there is an abiding relevance of the 1984 song of hip-hop and rap musician, Veno Morioghae, quoted at the beginning of this piece. Then, in 1984, and now, the nation groaned in a limbo caused by the unharnessed prosperity of another oil boom suddenly gone burst. By some coincidence, it was Maj. Gen Muhammadu Buhari, then Nigeria’s military ruler, who had the unpleasant task of picking up the pieces and of ensuring that Nigeria survived a downturn occasioned, characteristically, by the crash of oil prices and the looting frenzy of the rapacious politicians of the Second Republic. As many will recall, beginning from 1966, when the First Republic imploded, and yielded way to the military takeover of that year, coups became, until 1999, the only way for changing reprobate and non-performing governments, military or civilian.

But the military, called to perform a role it was unprepared for, soon developed an appetite for power and its plum dividends. Buhari, while still perfecting a strategy for disciplining a wayward political elite, succumbed to another coup led by military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, whose “transition without end”, signaled that the military or the section of it that had tasted power, was seeking to entrench itself through one model or another of civilianised praetorian rule.

The return of the oil boom through the accidental Gulf War windfall of the early 1990s spawned another season of monumental sleaze, this time under the military, in which, to borrow Marioghae’s educative imagery, public officials “drank the oil” as huge sums disappeared into multiplying bottomless pits. But Nigeria survived that, as well as the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which, opened up cardinal fault lines in Nigeria’s ethnic architecture. For a country that survived a costly civil war, which pitted one ethnic group against another, push easily gets to shove when a crisis evokes the antagonistic divisions of Nigerian politics. Nigeria survived, but only just, as the liberal dictatorship of the Babangida years gave way to the maximum rule of Gen Sani Abacha with its dark horrors of assassinations, repression of civil liberties, not to talk about the familiar massive corruption, which accompanied his reign of terror.

So, Nigeria wobbled into civilian rule with a large overlay of the military years and military culture epitomized by what Prof. Bayo Adekanye has called the emergent phenomenon of retired generals in office. Enter Olusegun Obasanjo; the period between 1999 and 2007 saw Nigeria relearning the ropes of democratic rule, which had been suspended since 1983, replaced by a succession of dictatorships, showing occasional flashes of brilliance, but for the most part, settling into a familiar mould of mediocrity and the entrenched culture of “drinking the oil”. Obasanjo promised much, but gave far less than he promised. However, he tackled frontally the recurrent cycle of boom and bust caused by instability in oil prices, by setting up an Excess Crude Oil Account and a burgeoning but not consolidated Sovereign Wealth Fund. He also paid off the lion’s share of Nigeria’s foreign debt, seeking thereby to put public finances on a sound footing. Had the political elite, Obasanjo’s successors in particular, followed this prudent path of saving for the rainy day, successive recessions, including the current raging one, would have been far less biting. But no, the feasting frenzy and the use of oil as a gift of nature rather than a resource to be carefully husbanded soon returned.

Obasanjo gave way to Umaru Yar’ Adua, who in spite of personal virtues and his commencement of an Amnesty Programme that brought peace to the restive Niger Delta, did little to stem the tide of the criminalisation of the state and the plundering instinct of the politicians. Under the Peoples Democratic Party, which operated under the banner of One Nigeria, Yar’Adua yielded way to Jonathan, not without some rumpus, and the bottomless pit grew larger and longer.

To be sure, Jonathan is not the dim-witted politician he had been caricatured to be, he attracted some stars to government and recorded some achievements, such as the 2014 National Conference, which sought to grapple with two of the endemic problems of Nigerian politics, namely, the recurrent problem of nationalities and the devolution of powers. However, he ran a no-holds barred administration, hardly condemned corruption in public life and opened the floodgates to politicians of every stripe in what will go down in history as, arguably, Nigeria’s most corrupt government. Nigeria survived, again narrowly, as the worst recession in Nigerian history welcomed Buhari into office, virtually making nonsense of his rhetoric of change beyond a catch-the -thief model of fighting corruption in a manner not devoid of partisanship. That apart, the crisis of nationalities, accentuated by a departure from the inclusive engineering envisaged by the constitution, had begun to take its toll on the nation-state, with the clamour for restructuring getting insistent and deafening.

Official sources have it that the country has peeped out from a traumatising recession, but the feeling out there and the biting reality raise doubts about this claim, which has yet to translate into improved living standards, lower prices and a lower unemployment rate. To connect back to Marioghae’s lyrics about a criminalised political elite “drinking oil” and leaving a trail of human woes, there is little evidence that the nation has learned any enduring lessons from the man-made disasters of paralysing ebbs of adversity, succeeding vibrant flows of prosperity. Look at it this way; if the price of oil in the world market was to cascade upwards today to pre-recession levels, most of the windfall will go into servicing office holders at the centre, the two legislative houses, whose salaries and emoluments remain a source of mystery, the 36 states and their houses of assembly. The point is that if Nigeria is to move from survival to greatness, it must cut its cloth according to its size by reducing drastically the opulent character of governance in a situation where politics remains the preeminent vocation in town. It will take painful decisions to achieve this, but the sooner we start the better.

Besides that, great nations proactively save for the rainy day by building up reserves in the good days against the onset of slumps. We must begin to do that in earnest beyond the current feeble gestures. That is not all. To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done, was the official refrain in the civil war years; today, the mantra is that the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable. Those slogans can only find meaning in a context of inter-ethnic concord and ethnic justice, where buffers are built against the monopoly of national resources by particular groups. This is very much an unfinished task.

Finally, as Nigeria marks her 57th anniversary, it must urgently invest in reversing the governance underbelly that has limited the nation to celebrating survival, rather than making rapid strides to greatness.