KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future

NIGERIA The challenge of nation building and external relations


Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs

United Nations, New York


The Ado Bayero Lecture Series

Centre For Democratic Research ad Training


But against this backdrop, we have been warned by social scientists, that whereas a significant number of countries belonging to the international community may have embarked on varieties of democratization and the attending reforms, many of the institutions that are being created in support of the new governance structures are floundering and indeed, are not functioning at optimal standards.  Many more have not functioned as expected.  Indeed, our country is a case in point, which might explain why President Obasanjo has said in many instances, that we are still learning the ropes of democracy.  The question is for how long shall we continue to learn the ropes?

The challenge faced by any nation, ours included, is also a challenge to that nation’s leadership.  Also, since we live in an inextricably interconnected and interdependent world, it becomes a fact of life, that our domestic challenges are intertwined in one form of the other with our external relations. 

I recall that a not many years ago one of our leaders said, almost prophetically, that the contemplation of war and peace on the African continent couldn’t be possible with the exclusion of Nigeria.   It is also said that wherever Africa is going, Nigeria is likely to get there first.  These realities have immense costs for us as a people.  It also has immense impact on how we handle our own domestic affairs and the resources we devote to our domestic and foreign policy.

Those familiar with my professional views as an academician and a practicing diplomat will remember that as Nigerian foreign minister many years ago, I enunciated the Concentric Ring Doctrine in our articulation and execution of our foreign policy.  The key premise has always been a simple one: that foreign policy extrapolates outwards and will always be a key variable and by-products of a well articulated and sound domestic policy.  The other strand of this doctrine is that our emphasis should be on our immediate regional neighbours, our continent Africa, and then the rest of the world.

Today, Nigeria is able to play a critical and proactive role in various African conflicts, because it is itself, considered a democracy in good standing.   We must now translate our growing stature in Africa into incontrovertible grounds for seeking and gaining a permanent seat in a reformed and expanded United Nations Security Council.

But as we attempt to fast track our country into globalization with the promotion of socio-economic development, it is clearly evident that, charity must begin at home.  We must meet the aspirations for domestic peace, security and prosperity.   

If today there are pockets of agitation, political or otherwise, they can be traced to the real or imagined perception that the leadership has not done its utmost to uplift the people of Nigeria.  And when I speak of the leadership, I am by no means referring to the present government, which is just one out of the many that has ruled our country since independence in 1960.

Today, as a nation, we face more challenges than we have known hitherto.  Our population has ballooned from 55 million at independence to nearly 130 million.  Yet, we are told that in our country, children still go to bed hungry and most families subsist on less than one dollar a day.  It will, therefore, not be glib to state that in every household, community and state in this nation, where the top hierarchies of human needs are not being met, we certainly have a problem.  In a world awash with affluence, yet mired in poverty and hunger we cannot escape our culpability. This is more so in Nigeria, which once boasted of having agriculture as its primary industry.

But apart from the basic challenges, that confront many nations, new challenges and threats are surfacing daily.  Most of these are also transboundary and therefore, have consequences in how we interact with other nations.  Whereas the older threats ranged from the fight against poverty and disease and conflicts between states, today we face pandemics of enormous proportion like HIV-AIDS and terrorism which might become a scourge if unchecked and even growing religious intolerance. 

Most Nigerians will readily admit that what affects us the most, is poverty and underdevelopment, which are now buffeted by perennial bad governance and debilitating corruption.  Likewise, those who are outside Nigeria looking in, will say the same thing, albeit, with a qualifier; to them Nigeria’s myriad of problems is self-induced.  This often the argument advanced by those who were opposed to any debt forgiveness for Nigeria.  They refuse to accept that a nation with so much wealth could be so indigent.  To them, our country and the challenges it faces, presents a unique paradox.

In our traditional and cultural context these are banes traceable to leadership failings.  Interestingly, Nigeria cannot be considered in isolation or outside the African context. Those who perceive Africa as a “basket case” are not necessarily being derisive, dismissive, or paternalistic.  Such perception is rooted in actualities and is self-evident and inexplicably linked to the prevalence of poverty, conflict, hunger disease, famine, and homelessness. One must add to this, the collective numbing despair orchestrated by an unending sense of disenfranchisement.         But as Paul Theroux noted in a recent article in The New York Times, “the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help – not to mention celebrities and charity concerts – is a destructive and misleading conceit”.[1]  Therein, lies Nigeria and Africa’s dilemma.


Overcoming the Odds

One out of every five Africans is said to be a Nigerian.  Hence to measure the challenges Nigeria faces, especially in the external context, one must also have a grasp of the challenges facing Africa.  And the reality is that today Africa contains 32 of the world's 48 poorest countries.  It has the lowest primary school completion rates of any continent. Also, Africa has a largest percentage of the 100 million children, mostly girls; who are out of school worldwide.  


Just as life expectancy has declined from 50 to 46 years since the early 1990s, Africa’s per capita income has plummeted, falling by 13 per cent since the 1980s.  Here in Nigeria, we have witnessed the gross devaluation of our currency, the naira, and concomitantly, the erosion of our buying power.  Consequently, the number of people mired in "extreme poverty" has doubled over the same period, even as the wealth of the few who are rich have expanded by a quantum leap.  However, the correlation between the wealth of those who have it and the creation of wealth through employment, building of industry, and the labour force is minimal.  It is ironic, that as a people, who do not necessarily invest in our country or have faith in investments in our country, we still expect outsiders to come to our country to invest.   The reality is that international capital, with the exception of the oil and gas sector and communications, are unlikely to significantly flow into Nigeria until our own people of means lead the way in investing at home.  Furthermore, an enabling environment for investment and production must be created.


Enabling Environment

A key challenge, therefore,  is the way we manage our affairs. 

For instance, our manufacturing sector is hamstrung, since our economy is characterized by competition with foreign imports, low capacity utilization and the dominance of light-assembly-type consumer goods.  This is quite in contrast with the basic objective of the government, which is to make the manufacturing sector the engine of growth.  At a time when the scale of our country’s production capacity should be commensurate to our export earnings through external trade, we find ourselves exporting less of our prime commodities and importing more of basic materials and even food and petroleum products.

Wherein lies the problem?  First, we have failed to follow up on our top priorities.  Diversification of means of production has not taken off the ground.  There continue to be major difficulties in the preparation of feasibility studies, the identification and funding of projects and maintenance of existing infrastructure.  But the devil might well be in details and the faithful implementation of projects and our lack of a maintenance culture.

It would be quite difficult to see how as a nation we can make a headway, when we do not maintain our infrastructure.  In the end, the cost of building or totally rebuilding these infrastructures will far outstrip the recurrent cost of maintaining them.  But it needs to be admitted that the efficiency of the private sector of any nation is heavily dependent on an effective and adequate infrastructure.  Whereas this is a given in most newly industrialized nations, this, unfortunately, is not yet the case in Nigeria.  Therefore, the development of infrastructure remains a key challenge and should be one of the important areas of focus for Nigeria.


Capacity Building

A major challenge and paradox for Nigeria is that it is increasingly in dire shortage of skilled labour, not because such labour does not exist, but because they reside outside the country.  Invariably, this undermines our human capacity building, which is a crosscutting issue for all sectors of socio-economic development.  A glimpse at the trends in Nigeria will show that our parlous economic state and the subsequent recession gave rise to a sustained brain drain, while at the same time denying academic and research institutions the much needed funding for research and development.

It would certainly be a hard sell, to ask many Nigerian professionals and skilled hands servicing the industries of the developed world to return home.  Concerns about security of life and property are valid, as are concerns about instability and government meddling in private sector affairs and thus stultifying free enterprise.   We need to overcome these challenges.  Self preservation, I might add is not tantamount to lack of patriotism.


Capital flight

A major challenge facing Nigeria has been capital liberalization.  Only recently did we start privatizing in earnest and opening up sectors like telecommunications to competitive bidding.  Likewise, only recently have we deemed it fit to reassess the capacity of our banks and consolidate them through recapitalization.  Before now, our banks, even the major ones were perfuming at sub capacity in terms of their scope and holdings.  But we are not yet out of the woods. Corruption remains a core issue and challenge.  There is a clear nexus between corruption and capital flight.  Indeed, it has been said that capital is a coward and would escape from a corrupt environment.

There is no gainsaying that when public trust is abused and national resources are wasted through corruption and maladministration doubts about governance, regulations and transparency become rife.  But reform which is meant to overcome these problems and the prevailing challenges must include amongst other things, the establishment of market exchanges mechanisms, the creation of more efficient financial institutions and a better investment incentives, climate and environment.  This is a role for the government and the private sector too.


Our Experience in Nation Building

In real terms and the life span of nation states, Nigeria is historically a youth.  But it has teetered between confidence and conflict, and between exuberance and exhaustion.  Haltingly, there have been fits and starts with several crises have shaken our nation’s unity to its foundations.  Three of these are noteworthy; the state of emergency declared in the old Western region in the early 1960s; the civil war 1967-1970; and the imbroglio over June 12, 1993 annulled elections.  In the main, these crises were by and large the consequences rather than constructs or the causes of the errors in various areas of public policy.  What they stand for today, are historical reminders, of how the failures in public policy have impeded our efforts in nation building.

Regrettably, we seem not to have recognized yet, that the negative use of ethnicity can hinder the orderly development or enforcement of the rule of law as well as the overall conduct and management of national affairs.  Today, there are still pockets of ethnically induced restiveness, replete with growing violence.  These ought to be troubling developments.  Indeed, they make our foreign interlocutors to shudder. 

But it needs to be said also, that this restiveness continue, because some elect to exploit them for political and material gains.  Thus, the real culprit in managing inter-ethnic relations in Nigeria is not the diversity, which we cannot abolish.  Rather, it is the elite manipulation of ethnicity and religion and the failure to define and agree on national rules of the game on which to base our political and economic processes.

I cannot in good faith skate around the Niger Delta problems, which have been allowed to fester at the expense of our national peace and security.  This crisis has also drawn unwanted external attention to us, with friends and detractors alike expressing their concerns about Nigeria’s human rights credentials and especially its policy towards its minorities.

The crisis in the Niger Delta has several causes.  Most prominent among these are the perceived lack of fairness in revenue allocation; the near total absence of development in the area; environmental degradation; and the feeling of political powerlessness to effect needed changes which have pushed the youths to violence. The list of causes can be multiplied endlessly but in the main, these are the concerns that government must address in any major review of public policy towards that area.  Power and resource sharing, however, cannot be adequately addressed in the absence of concrete demographic figures and a solid taxation system in place.



In closing, let me say that no challenge, more so those related to nation-building was ever overcome by good intentions alone.  Concrete action required to back any good intention is a prerequisite for good governance.

Nigerians have bought into the argument that the trouble with their nation is the trouble of leadership.  True as it might be, overcoming the challenges of nation-building requires collective effort as well as a quintessential leadership that goes far beyond the capabilities and vision of a single leader, and indeed, well beyond the ability of one man to uplift a nation. 

Undoubtedly, for those who lead a nation in times of crises and in times of great challenges, two key virtues  – moderation and compassion as well as passion, commitments and critical and creative thinking are a sine qua non for overcoming the most intractable challenges, be they internal or external.

From my vantage point, I see Nigeria as a nation in transition given it present challenges.  I must hasten to add also, that transition periods in the lives of nations are like anniversaries.  They are moments for looking at the past in order to improve our understanding of the present; for examining the present with a view to gaining insights into the future; and for anticipating the future in order to better prepare for its many challenges.

What we today consider great challenges, I believe are the stuff of which a nation’s history is made.  Political upheavals frequently throw up economic, social and political policies that have defined critical moments and experience in nation building.  What one sees as a challenge that looms large in the foreseeable future, if well diagnosed and addressed, in time becomes the defining moment or tipping point in a nation’s life.

But all said, there could be no logic against the fact, that by strengthening democracy, civil society becomes a tool with a capacity to enhance sustainable peace, security, stability and development; and that there can be no civil society without our collective and direct involvement.   As the Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminds us all, there can be no national development without domestic peace and neither development nor peace without democracy, durable institutions and respects for the human rights of the people.

We must all get involved in all spheres of leadership is half of the battle in overcoming the challenges we face in nation building.  History and great accomplishments after all, start and end with us as individuals and the commitment and sacrifices we are willing to make in the public interest and in the interest of our native land.


I thank you for your attention.


[1]  Paul Theroux, “A Glimpse of The World”, The New York Times, December 15 2005.

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