Nigeria is a failed state, 2020 edition

Over the weekend past, the newspapers were agog with the news that President Obasanjo had hit out at his current successor, saying that “Nigeria is becoming failed, and badly divided under Buhari.”

As is his wont, Garba Shehu reached for his pen and responded immediately, calling Obasanjo a choice new expression, “Divider-in-chief”.

Uncle Sege has made a habit of calling out his successors. Remember the famous one he wrote to Buhari’s predecessor where he said that Jonathan was destroying Nigeria. You see, of all our living leaders, Obasanjo is the most educated (I’m not counting Ernest Shonekan for obvious reasons), so he knows how to write, and I find it interesting that many of those who praised his letter to Jonathan seven years ago are now abusing the man. Let’s ask, what really has changed?

Since the first one in 2011, I’ve published four versions of what you’re about to read, with minor updates each time, to reflect the fact that things are actually getting worse. I think that Obasanjo did not even go far enough. I don’t know if I can tell you to enjoy reading…

This morning (14/9/2020), unions shut down the operations of Arik Air because of seven months of unpaid salaries. It will be in the newspapers tomorrow. At the same time, at the height of a pandemic, our medical unions have gone on strike, for pretty much the same reasons. Months of unpaid salaries and/or allowances. In what kind of country will both the government and private sectors look upon the wages of people who have performed their contractual obligations as optional? Yes, a failed state.

In the four years since I wrote the last version of this piece, there has been one improvement in my area. Power has improved because of the Willing Buyer Willing Seller Programme, but I will not be selling my generator, because it could all be a mirage. For my parents in the village and many others whom I interact with, and who live outside of nice little estates such as mine, they still have it really bad when it comes to power.

If you live and work in Lagos, chances are you have an early start to the workday. This early start is occasioned by the not so good roads in our state; and the dearth of reliable alternatives (very limited use of rail and waterways), this means that millions of other people in the city have to wake up at unholy hours in order to beat the massive rush-hour traffic and get to work on time. You should spend some time listening to Sandra Ezekwesili’s excellent episode of Hard Facts on this issue. So many Lagosians still spend an undue amount of time in traffic and as a result, they have collectively become very irritable, and many have developed stress-related ailments such as high blood pressure. All this contributes to Nigeria’s rather low life expectancy of 54, the third-lowest in the world according to the World Bank.

Traffic and electricity are not the only issues that bother Nigerians. A cursory look at any of today’s papers shows the following: lawyers are rebelling against the Attorney General because he has turned himself into a one-man arbiter; health workers have gone on strike in the middle of a pandemic; yet another state has jacked private enterprise; some chap will be executed in a few days for stating an opinion that did not lead to anyone’s death; the former President’s statement has various ethnic fora at loggerheads; despite rising insecurity everywhere, the FG considers a state election more important than insecurity; an Abuja community is under kidnap siege, and a political party is accusing the ruling party of setting the electoral umpire’s office on fire. These are just samples. It’s a lot more.

Our hospitals are so bad that our President’s missus, when she had a small neckache some months back, despite a pandemic, buggered off to another country to take paracetamol. Well, our favourite critics informed us that she lied and was actually going shopping, but it makes the point that the lie she could think of betrayed her lack of trust in a health system her husband doesn’t use, kinda giving credence to the fact that her husband presides over a failed state.

Since 2005, Foreign Policy magazine has published an annual index called the “Failed States Index”. This index only assesses sovereign states (determined by membership in the United Nations). Several territories are excluded until their political status and UN membership are ratified in international law. Due to political correctness, it is now called the “Fragile States Index”, but na the same papa born all.

The FSI ranks countries based on twelve indicators of vulnerability: four social, two economic and six political. These indicators are not designed to forecast when countries may experience violence or collapse. Rather, they measure a country’s vulnerability to collapse or conflict.

One of the social indicators is demographic pressures occasioned by high population density relative to food supply and other life-sustaining resources. This means that the pressure from a population’s settlement patterns and physical settings, including border disputes, ownership or occupancy of land, access to transportation outlets, control of religious or historical sites, and proximity to environmental hazards. Does this affect Nigeria? Our population is very large, one of the top ten on the planet. Can we feed ourselves? Do we have border disputes amongst communities in Nigeria? Do we have conflicts over who owns what within certain areas? What about indigene-settler dichotomy?

Another social indicator is a massive movement of refugees and internally displaced peoples. Nigeria now has the seventh-largest number of IDPs in the world at par as the perpetually conflicted Yemen, and even more than the exotic tourist destination of Iraq!

The third social indicator is the legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance. I don’t even know where to begin here. There are so many groups in Nigeria now that are angry and are looking for how to hurt people. There is no geopolitical zone in the country that is not spared of violence of ethnic or religious colourations, and these particular sorts, do not just go away.

The final social indicator is chronic and sustained human flight, where both the “brain drain” of professionals, intellectuals and political dissidents and voluntary emigration of “the middle class” and the growth of exile/expat communities are indicators of a failed state. To check the truth of this one, with regards Nigeria, all you need to do is take a census at our airports. The sheer number of people who are leaving the country with no intention of returning in the near future is mind-numbing.

Now, the first economic indicator is uneven economic development along group lines. This is usually determined by group-based inequality, or perceived inequality, in education, jobs, and economic status. It is also measured by group-based poverty levels, infant mortality rates, and education levels. Again, we do not have to go far to see examples of this. The constant cry of marginalisation by groups from all parts of Nigeria, be it from the East, from the Delta, from the West and even from the North, is testament to this. And they are indeed marginalised. The Delta, which produces 90% of our country’s current wealth, has seen a lot of its youth take up arms because they feel cheated. The East constantly cries out about marginalisation. Outside of Lagos, the rest of Western Nigeria is nothing to write home about, not that Lagos in itself is an example of paradise. Then there is the North…

The fact is, Lagos, our economic capital, is an almost extreme example of what we call in socio-economics, a prime city. In economic terms, Lagos is roughly 40% of Nigeria. All 19 states of the former Northern Region, Abuja excluded, makeup just over 20% of Nigeria’s economy. The remainder is shared by the 16 remaining states. A country cannot work that way. Not at all.

The second economic indicator is sharp and/or severe economic decline, which is measured by a progressive economic decline of the society as a whole (using: per capita income, GNP, debt, child mortality rates, poverty levels, business failures). What this means is a sudden drop in commodity prices, trade revenue, foreign investment or debt payments. Other criteria for measurement include: collapse or devaluation of the national currency and growth of hidden economies, including the drug trade, smuggling, and capital flight; failure of the state to pay salaries of government employees and armed forces or to meet other financial obligations to its citizens, such as pension payments. Where does this sound like?

Should I remind you? Growth is negative, inflation has stubbornly remained double digits, and the number of people in the country without a full-time job is more than the population of Ghana.

There are four political indicators of a failed state.

The first one is criminalisation or de-legitimisation of the state which is exemplified by endemic corruption or profiteering by the ruling elite and resistance to transparency, accountability and political representation. This also includes any widespread loss of popular confidence in national institutions and processes. With the exception of the recent presidential elections, which were largely seen as relatively free and fair, the average Nigerian has zero confidence in the ability of the Nigerian state to get anything done. Corruption is endemic in our country, and it is a stunning indictment that even during a pandemic, when you’d have thought that our people would exercise some restraint, well, some people made a killing. Incidents such as this, and many others, have led to shockingly low levels of trust in the government.

The next political indicator is the progressive deterioration of public services. A disappearance of basic state functions that serve the people, including failure to protect citizens from terrorism and violence and to provide essential services, such as health, education, sanitation, public transportation and power. Medical personnel have downed tools during a public health emergency. Need I say more?

There is an increasing abuse of human rights. Dadiyata is a tale that we all know about. A whole human being disappeared in our country because people in authority did not like what he said. Our governors have disappeared people. Abia, Cross River, Kaduna, among others. Then there is the fact that our leaders think that court orders are suggestions…

Factionalised elites is another indicator, and a good example of that is the reaction to Uncle Sege’s statement. Arewa Consultative Forum has insulted him, Afenifere and Ohaneze have supported him. We’ll soon hear from PANDEF (they will support him), while the Middle Belt elders will probably divide themselves along religious lines. Or is it the NBA thing?

The final indicator of a failed state is the intervention of other nations. This is the only one not present in Nigeria of the 12, but if we continue on the path we are on, who knows, we might have US Marines on our shores seeking to “protect the energy security of the United States”. After all, Boko Haram has consistently proven that we do not control the entirety of our territory.

The sad reality is that 11 indicators out of 12 are present in our country in one form or the other. The 12th is one that will come if we continue living in denial and pretending that there’s nothing seriously wrong in our country.

Now, state failure does not mean that it is all over. There are two things: either the country will continue trudging along on this hopeless path for another “God-knows-how-long” before it all falls to pieces, or we will snap out of our lethargy and get to work. After all, South Korea was once a failed state, but look at them now.



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Cheta Nwanze

Using big data to understand West Africa one country (or is it region?) at a time.