Good luck Nigeria

Fifty years after independence, Africa’s most populous country is finally trying to clean up its act
September 22, 2010

Fifty years ago, on 1st October 1960, the word “freedom” dominated the pages of Nigeria’s Daily Times. It marked both independence from Britain and the wave of optimism then surging across Africa. “Two great assets we have inherited from the British: parliamentary democracy and the rule of law,” read the editorial. “We shall firmly uphold these principles… ”

Less than six years later the military took over, and ruled for most of the next 33 years. But looking back, it is amazing that Nigeria held together at all. Named in 1914 by the wife of Lord Lugard, the territory has no logical borders, no sense of common identity or purpose. It encompasses 400 languages, widely diverse cultures and deep religious divisions. Nigerians can’t even agree on how many there are of them.

Under military rule a lid was kept on the division between the Muslim north and the Christian south, and on rivalry between the three competing regions; north, east and west. The three-year civil war, sparked in 1967 when the newly oil-rich southeast tried to secede as the Republic of Biafra, left millions dead. But the defeat of the rebels prevented a break-up and, thanks to the generals, allowed oil to flow to the west with little benefit to Nigerian people.

Today, there is still no agreement on how the vast natural wealth should be shared. Nigerians are united by little but the football team, and when they failed to win the World Cup this year, the president banned the footballers from playing for two years. How does such a country continue to exist?

The answer is a frantic, often brutal and dirty scramble for education, work, money and power between 120m—or is it 140m?—people. It’s a vast cauldron that seems to produce hotter, sharper, more creative and energetic human beings than anywhere else in Africa. Those who succeed indulge in stupendous exhibitions of power and wealth.

Most Nigerians welcomed the return of elections and a civilian presidency in 1999, but politicians have awarded themselves some of the highest salaries in the world. In May, they put in for a pay rise that would have given them each £82,700 a month. (More than half of Nigerians live on less than £1 a day.) At the last election vote rigging was not only organised by government and state officials—everyone was at it. This is the way Nigeria works. It’s a system too strong for one person to change; progress will require a whole new generation committed to cleaning things up.

Could this ever happen? The country’s vast oil reserves created a single source of wealth and power. Under military rule, no one paid taxes; government revenue came from the oil companies. In his new book, My Nigeria: Five Decades of Independence, Peter Cunliffe-Jones draws comparisons between Nigeria and Indonesia, another vast, diverse, oil-rich country, and points to two key differences. In Indonesia the generals and their friends did not steal 100 per cent of the oil money, and they invested it in productive domestic industries. Nigeria’s billions lie in foreign tax havens. Those who rule Nigeria do not believe in the country.

Yet there is hope. In the last few years, four new developments have taken place. Oil has diminished in power, and other forms of wealth are emerging. Aliko Dangote, said to be Nigeria’s richest entrepreneur, made his billions from cement and transport. Second, there is a growing class of business professionals who are handling international capital and cannot do things “the Nigerian way.” They are matched by a group in President Goodluck Jonathan’s government committed to change—led by the finance minister, Olusegun Aganga, former managing director of Goldman Sachs. Third, most government funding now flows through Nigeria’s 36 state governments. The president no longer has absolute power. And lastly, there is a frustrated young population, with access to the rest of the world, who want things to be different—and know they can be.

In June I witnessed a furious debate at the British Museum on the question “Why isn’t Nigeria a cultural, political and economic superpower?” An angry man accused one of the speakers, Father Matthew Kukah, of complicity in genocide. In his final flourish, he proclaimed: “But, Father Matthew, if you were running for president, I would vote for you!” The audience, about half Nigerian Londoners, collapsed with laughter. Father Kukah gently replied that “If someone is not angry, we ask, ‘Who is paying them?’” Rage, laughter and courtesy all at the same time—only Nigerians could manage it. It is how they, and Nigeria, survive.