Nigeria was once an indisputable leader in Africa
The traditional leadership and redeemer posture of Nigeria in Africa has, in recent years, been put into question.
Issues like corruption and infrastructural decay have held the country down from playing a leadership role in Africa. As have transitions from one poor leadership to another. A visionary leadership is lacking while public institutions are weak, inept and compromised. Decades of political patronage and nepotism have seen a corrosion of quality and performance in the public service.
In addition, the intractable problem of Boko Haram and Islamic State, coupled with kidnappings, have created a security crisis. All continue to shatter the myth of military invincibility and the might of the Nigerian state.
In the beginning, it was not so. From independence in 1960, Nigeria took upon itself the role of uniting Africa against western recolonisation. The continent, from then on in, became the centre-piece of its foreign policy. The fact that nations were living under foreign rule made it possible to galvanise them around a common cause. This led to the creation of the Organisation of African Unity – now the African Union – in 1963 and Economic Community of West African States in 1975.
Nigeria assumed a leading role in these events as it forged a foreign policy with a strong Afrocentric posture. In fact, so frenetic was its involvement in this role that it sometimes paid little attention to the home front.
Nigeria’s leadership role on the continent was a product of the vision, dreams and, sometimes, whims of the founding fathers. They were nevertheless premised on real national capacity. Jaja Wachukwu, Nigeria’s first external affairs minister noted in 1960 that:
Our country is the largest single unit in Africa… we are not going to abdicate the position in which God Almighty has placed us. The whole black continent is looking up to this country to liberate it from thraldom.
This defined the country’s behaviour and continental outlook and has continued to influence successive administrations – weak or effective.
Assuming a leadership role
The sheer size of Nigeria’s population – the largest on the continent which rose from 48.3 million in 1963 to over 200 million in 2020 — gave the country the idea that Africa was its natural preoccupation.
In addition, its colonial experience and the abundance of its oil resources and wealth have empowered Nigeria economically. This made it possible for the country to pursue an ambitious foreign policy. It also permitted Nigeria to finance its Civil War, strengthening its international independence. And oil made possible an unparalleled post-war recovery.
Nigeria has used its influence to good effect and to good ends. For example, it worked with other countries in the West African sub-region to establish the Economic Community of West African States in 1975. It went on to push for the prevention and resolution of devastating conflicts that engulfed Liberia in 1992. The conflict spilled over into Sierra Leone and other countries in the region. Nigeria spearheaded the cessation of hostilities and created the cease-fire monitoring group to bring a total end to the civil strife and restore democracy in both countries.
Many observers agree that the sterling performance of the monitoring group is unparalleled in the history of regional organisations the world over. It has now become a model to emulate for its operational efficiency and for giving regional actors pride of place in the resolution of regional conflicts.
Nigeria exerted similar efforts to ensure that democratic governments were restored to Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire and Sao Tome et Principe, after military take-overs in those countries.
It spent over US$10 billion in these peace campaigns and also lost soldiers in the process.
Nigeria has not limited its peacekeeping role to West Africa. It has also been engaged in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia-Eritrea.
The country also played the most important role in fighting apartheid in Southern Africa and supporting liberation movements on the continent.
But Nigeria has not been immune to challenges facing countries on the continent. Corruption, misappropriation of public funds, electoral malpractices, insurgency and terrorism have devastated its capacity and weakened its moral fortitude to lead the continent.
Amidst enormous wealth, poverty in Nigeria is endemic . It could even become the poverty capital of the world, according to The World Poverty Clock. Nigerians have been reduced to the behest of the politicians that tie them to gridlock of “stomach infrastructure”. This is a new trend which reflects institutionalised and structural poverty. Deprivation puts people in a vulnerable and compromised position where the desperation for survival makes them sell their votes and conscience.
The slow movement of the current administration is also killing the Nigerian spirit and leadership posture. South Africa, Ghana and even Madagascar have acted faster in continental and global politics, including during times of emergency such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. But Nigeria seems content with a spectator position.
Nigeria has been relegated to the background of international affairs. To turn this around requires a revisit to the roots – and mowing the lawns afterwards. Nigeria must take stock of its own performance and capacities and re-position itself – first from within.
If Nigerian leaders are increasingly determined to proffer African solutions to their problems, then political structures and institutions must be reformed to reflect conditions suitable for sustainable development. Without a formidable political base, the economy will remain weak and fragile. The political base is crucial, because, the state is the repository of all ramifications and dimensions of power – political, economic, technological and military. And the purpose of the state is to authoritatively allocate these resources.
There is also a need to empower people to mobilise their local resources and to use them for development. And, of course, public funds should not be concentrated in the hands of few individuals, who may be tempted to steal them. An accountable system is one in which money management has several checks.
Oil wealth has been the country’s nemesis, a curse that has promoted corruption and blatant bleeding of the economy. But it is declining in value and as source of national revenue. Now is the time for Nigeria to make good its repeated and well-advertised intentions to diversify the economy.
A de-emphasis on oil would open the door to smarter ideas about how to create wealth. It would also herald in getting rid of a great deal of the phlegm of corruption which has played such a central role in Nigeria’s infrastructural decay, eroded its influence and given it such a negative image.
Added to this is the succession of weak rulers since 2007.
African leaders do not look towards Nigeria anymore for counsel, inspiration and help. They think Nigeria has a lot on its plate already and needs help. The potential is still there for Nigeria to return to power; but it takes leadership to (re)build the auspicious atmosphere and to activate the country’s potential – the two steps required to regain that enviable frontliner spot on the continent.
*Professor of International Relations, Covenant University