Nigeria and the failure to learn from history

Eze Onyekpere

The human being and the human society have been in a constant state of evolution. Evolution in the sense of drawing lessons from previous activities, using precedents to guide future action and charting new pathways for action. The society has evolved by refusing to stagnate; it has always opened up to new ideas. The society constantly inspires itself through innovation, generation of new ideas to solve extant and new challenges as they arise. In the course of human action, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are identified. We capitalise on our strengths and opportunities, take action to reduce our weaknesses and minimise, mitigate and avoid risks, so as to improve governance, livelihoods, etc. and make our society more humane and better for the present generation and generations to come.

Any society that refuses to adapt and learn from previous and ongoing activities is bound to stagnate and to be left behind by other peoples and civilisations. Such a society will be underdeveloped and will only be part of the backwaters of human civilisation. The evidence of societal learning manifests in good governance, observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, human, physical and cultural development, etc. It seems that the failure to learn and draw the right lessons is at the centre of Nigeria’s developmental challenge. Suffice to say that there are positive and negative lessons that can be drawn from any human development. The positive ones will propel human development that moves the nation in the right direction through good governance and economic growth. On the other hand, the negative lessons can perpetuate conflict, inequality, violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, etc.

With a few examples, this discourse intends to show that if we have drawn the right lessons from our history and governance, the country would likely have been among the top 15 politically and economically advanced nations of the world. Let us start from the 1960 independence era when we had a federal constitution that took cognisance of our diversity and capacities and utilised them as strengths and opportunities to propel development. The First Republic had a cake-baking mindset. Everyone was invited to come with their implements to the economic farm and to generate wealth and contribute something tangible to the pool of human and national civilisation. No one expected to be spoon-fed and no one was actually spoon-fed.

Following military interventions, the country abandoned the federal arrangement which worked as a facilitator of development. We exchanged democracy for dictatorship; federalism and decentralisation for a quasi-federal structure with little or no devolution of powers. Even when the military exited power, we refused to draw the right lessons to retain the initial devolution of powers that propelled our development. We started a journey to perdition, to centralisation, lack of accountability, etc. Following the discovery and exploitation of oil in commercial quantities, the mindset of cake-baking and wealth creation gave way to the mindset of a national cake, that is already baked and all anyone needed was to fight for a place at the table to share the cake. It was an eternal cake that needed no replenishing. Simply, cut and cut, and it will replenish itself.

The oil boom of the 1970s collapsed in the early 1980’s leading to austerity measures and structural adjustment programme. We were supposed to save for the rainy day in the periods of boom but we failed, refused and neglected to do so. Also, we were supposed to have invested for the diversification of the economy away from depending on the proceeds of crude oil sales and we did not do so. When the price of crude oil picked up again during the Gulf War, we mismanaged the proceeds and again failed to provide a buffer for the economy. Fast forward to the return to civil rule in 1999 and again the price of crude oil moved to an all-time high after 2011, we again failed to save. To recession, we fell back and we are still not out of the woods despite the fact that we may be technically out of recession. So, did we learn? The same band of charlatans (especially the governors) who refused to accede to the pleas of the fiscal authorities during the period of high oil price for a national saving is still around.

The competition of the regions gave way to unviable states that looked forward to the centre for survival. In the first place, Nigeria lacked reasonable criteria for state creation. It was done whimsically, at the call of the poorly educated and poorly exposed military autocrats. The battle cry of restructuring has been in the air for some years now and several conferences have been held with tonnes of documentations done. What did we learn and what lessons have we drawn from our history and these conferences? Absolutely nothing! We still have renegades in the control of the levers of power. Men and women who cannot see beyond their nose still call the shots and this makes it a clear case of the blind leading those who can see. We had decentralisation and devolution of powers in the First Republic and it served us well and produced results; but we currently insist on working on a structure that has so far failed to match the achievements of the previous structure.

There was a time merit was the cornerstone of our education, public service and governance structures. It produced results that rated us highly in academics because our best could match or surpass the best in any part of the world; in governance where the majority worked for the public good; very little corruption compared to what we have today, etc. But today, all those niceties have been thrown to the dogs and you can rise to any position whatsoever whether you qualify or not. All that is important is who you know and where you come from. This brings me to the abiding folly – being the folly of playing a football match with a fourth eleven against a team that parades the best in the world of football. The results are quite predictable, in a society where incompetence and its twin brother, corruption, reign, stagnation and backward movement will be the order of the day. This is the story of Nigeria where the society sows corn and expects to reap cassava!

Now, we are stuck with killings and shedding of innocent blood on a daily basis and the authorities pretend that all is well. Do we need a prophet to predict that if this trend continues, sooner than later, some Nigerians are going to stand firm with all their might against these serial killers and those who are supporting them either directly or by abdicating their duties. From our history, where will these lead Nigeria?

There is no need to continue to pretend that Nigeria is making progress, developing or about to develop. We are stagnated as a people left behind in time and space. We are not going to make any forward movement until we begin to draw the right lessons and act like reasonable fellows. We cannot be sowing underdevelopment and expect development; bad governance whilst expecting the dividends of good governance, etc.

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