Chamberlain S. Peterside, Ph.DFriday, June 25, 2010
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New York, NY, USA



…How Time Flies

oon, Nigeria will be celebrating 50 years of political independence from Britain. I hear preparations are already in top gear, such that 10 billion Naira (about $66 million) has been allocated for activities marking the milestone. To me the question we should be concerned about and must reflect upon is whether there is any measurable progress over this long historical time-frame worth celebrating at all.

Am sure this question will precipitate keen interest across various sections of society both at home and abroad. I happen to have participated in such informal discussion in a social outing here in New Jersey. I raised the hot potato and controversial question of whether Nigeria might have been better off if the British colonial administrators stayed beyond 1960. National or African pride aside, this is an issue, which everyone ought to reflect upon in light of current despicable economic and political climate in the country.

Not to trivialize the dreams and drive of our patriotic nationalists like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Herbert Macauley, Obafemi Awolowo, Alvan Ikoku, Tafawa Belewa and numerous others, the crux of my argument is that given what we know now and see in Nigeria, I doubt if the country might have been worse if colonialism exceeded 1960.

…Futile Debate or Not, You Be the Judge
Yes, you might say effort to delve into this debate or draw such parallels is merely a futile intellectual discourse, but why not? If current state of the nation causes you enough mental anguish and pain, why wouldn’t you consider other scenarios or how the country might have fared under different circumstances, if nothing else for the sake of argument? There are multitudes of views as to why the situation is so precarious today. Everyone has an opinion, ranging from prevalence of corruption to absence of law and order, indiscipline, nepotism, decedent leadership and whatever comes to mind.

Appalling statistics that underscore level of underdevelopment are already well known - major quality-of-life indicators on per capita basis is worse today vis-à-vis 30-50 years ago. According to recent World Health Organization (WHO) survey of 190 countries and territories, Nigeria ranks 187th in quality of healthcare – meaning you are more likely to die earlier in Nigeria than in Somalia (ranked 179). What’s more, you are better off living in the colonial era or early post-colonial period than today. All this leaves you wondering whether there is any flicker of light over the last 50 years – no matter how deep you looked.

I personally don’t see too many outstanding achievements. What I notice more is hope for the future due to reasons I will adduce later in this essay. Because there can hardly be unanimous opinion on this, to better understand the issues at stake, I will attempt to look at them from two major angles; Political and Socio-Economic perspectives so you draw your conclusions.

…Political Environment (Democratic Governance and Rule of law)
On the political front Nigeria hardly merits any accolades. From a historical context the sins of the past continues to haunt the country so badly till date. Few years after independence with the first military coup led my Chukwuma Nzeogwu the country was plunged into civil war and thereafter political instability that saw successive military regimes (except a brief interlude of civilian rule in 1979-1983) take a stab at running the affairs of the nation, albeit with very poor outcome. You could argue that by its sheer nature (except maybe during serious national threat and civil unrest) the military establishment, especially in Africa is hardly suited to efficiently and progressively govern modern societies, not withstanding the spurious notion that Nigeria needs benevolent dictatorship to advance.

By all accounts, prolonged military leadership in Nigeria deprived the country opportunity to naturally evolve or develop homegrown democratic culture and strong institutions, leaving behind a legacy of impunity and triumph of mediocrity and incompetence.

But then, hard-nosed proponents of dictatorship might imply that the experience prepared the country for democracy or that after all, the co-existence of western legal framework during those years might have spurred growth of virile judiciary and law courts that are today the bulwarks of our emerging democratic experience. My counter question is whether the resultant judicial system was an achievement of the military hunta or one of the positive vestiges of colonial rule?

To my mind, the net effect of military dictatorship spanning more than 30 years in post-colonial Nigeria contributed very negatively to civil/political advancement and impacted immensely on unabated decline and inability to build upon little infrastructural progress of the colonial era. This resulted in endemic poverty and continued political dichotomy along social strata as well as regional, ethnic and religious lines. Fifty years after, many inhabitants see themselves first from prism of their ethnic origin, then as Nigerians.

To the extent that even in a nascent democratic dispensation decades after independence, polemics on national leadership are still mostly built around god-fatherism, ethnicity, religion and myopic self-interest, one can only pray that with time that imprint on the psyche will wane.

…Economic and Social Infrastructure
Nowhere is the footprint of mal-administration more visible than in the economic sphere, symbolized by institutionalized corruption, ineptitude and numerous other vices. Anecdotally, growing up in Nigeria most people will recall with nostalgia existence of well-planned and clean city streets and functional public infrastructure – street lights, pipe-borne water, public schools, hospitals and even civil-service that collectively defined life-quality.

Decades later, most of these amenities have fallen into utter disrepair or virtually disappeared. Aside from initiatives to build overhead bridges in Lagos and develop Abuja (new capital city from scratch), as well as construct network of new federal roads, airports and universities, there hasn’t been constructive stride to diversify the economy or improve upon what colonial rule left behind (especially the railway system) to keep pace with time and rapidly growing population. To be sure, some major cities in Nigeria were planned and constructed during colonial period.

Not even the huge inflow of export proceeds from crude oil production did enable subsequent local administrations maintain critical infrastructures built in the 1970s or sustain the tempo of new development in the 1980s, while modernizing management processes. Consequently, existing infrastructure assets have all but decayed leaving in its shadow horrendous service-quality and life-standard similar to late 19th century in Europe.

You may be forgiven to say that no single administration since independence (including military and civilian) merits a pass mark in electric power and broad-based infrastructure development. Despite the constant tinkering with ideas, planning, appropriation and spending of financial resources Nigeria is yet to achieve befitting and worthwhile industrial and technological advancement comparable to its peers in Asia that attained independence around the same time. Reform efforts in recent years however have given rise to some ray of hope that is helping drive the economy, especially in the telecommunications and financial services sectors.

…Moving Forward
It is known fact of life that the past is not always indicative of the future. Quite often a bright future can be shaped by tough historical experience and lessons learnt from daunting challenges in the life of a nation. That is indeed where my hope and consolation reside. Nigeria has had the good fortune of sticking together despite intermittent crisis and a bloody civil war of 1967-1970. Thanks to abundance of natural resources Nigeria has been able to wither political, social and economic storms that might have dismembered other nation-states.

In fact without those natural resources it is inconceivable that political elites of various ethnicities in Nigeria could have achieved consensus on any issue or co-habited harmoniously today. More importantly the resilience of ordinary folks in the midst of such widespread angst has helped maintain a fragile tranquility. Even when the nation was on the brink with the recent militancy in Niger Delta a temporary solution helped bring about some reprieve. All these are not necessarily achievements of any particular administration; the credit must go to the people themselves for being stoic in the face of enormous obstacles. The human factor essentially is vital attribute that should be capitalized upon to build a fair and progressive Nigeria.

Obviously any ambitious future would demand sorting out current burning issues of who should and shouldn’t contest for presidency and what ought to be the criteria for selecting a candidate, especially in the ruling party – based on geographical zoning, religion, ethnicity or what have you? Beyond that, other very serious problems portend - like addressing prolonged inequity in the Niger Delta, restructuring the electoral system and deeply entrenching the rule of law, so that some measure of predictability in the economic and business arena can be achieved that will energize entrepreneurial and creative instincts of the citizens.

With such fundamental catalysts in place, it is possible that Nigeria might have better independence cerebrations in future just as the people will see more things to be proud of in years to come. Without that it is doubtful that there will even be a Nigeria to celebrate come the next 50 years – I hope am wrong.

Chamberlain is a New York based financial professional and member of Rivers State Economic Advisory Council.