By Carl Unegbu
The international criticism of the Nigerian government’s poor handling of the situation has been downright devastating since the Boko Haram terrorist group abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls from northeastern Nigeria in mid-April. Amnesty International reported after its own investigation that the Nigerian security forces had been notified of the attack hours before it happened and yet failed to prevent it. U.S. Senator John McCain even went so far as describing the Nigerian government as “practically non-existent” in addition to other personal insults he lobbed at the Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan.
Unfortunately, McCain is correct in his rather stark assessment of the Nigerian government. The good news, though, is that most current events inside Nigeria indicate that the situation may be headed toward positive change. The Boko Haram crisis pushed matters to a tipping point, encouraging the Nigerian government to act responsibly and to be accountable for its people. Indeed, the Nigerian government in all of its history has never been oriented toward the interests and aspirations of its people, a situation that worsened after independence.
But the explanation for the rather ‘irresponsible’ character of the Nigerian government is deeper than just corruption.
During its 99 years under British colonial rule, starting in 1861, the Nigerian colony served primarily as the source of raw materials (palm oil, cocoa, ground nuts, and more) to Britain, which then returned manufactured products to Nigeria. The natives asked nothing from the government and expected nothing from it.
To the extent that the British colonial administration provided social services like schools, hospitals, or electricity, or built critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and rail links, they were done merely as a cost of doing ‘colonial business’ in Nigeria rather than as a responsibility of the government to its people, as was done for British citizens back home.
At independence in 1960, the governmental apparatus inherited by Nigerians was not re-oriented toward the service of the people. Tragically, a rather perverse orientation emerged, as the governmental apparatus became a mechanism for the wholesale criminal sharing of the country’s wealth among the political elite.
Meanwhile, the oppressive apparatus of state power, established by the British largely to pacify the native population, remained in place—only this time the elite used it to keep the citizens of an independent Nigeria from making any legitimate demands on the government. (Notice the habitual heavy handed crackdowns on peaceful protesters in Nigeria, however legitimate their grievances.)
The morbid focus of the post-independence Nigerian government on the distribution of the national wealth among the political elite (starting with the proceeds of palm oil, cocoa, and groundnuts in the 1960s and continuing with the proceeds of crude oil sales since the 1970s) is the main reason that every other responsibility of government has been all but neglected, be it national security, provision of social services, or critical infrastructure. Concerning Nigeria’s large infrastructure deficit, a sad logic holds sway: one who merely distributes something one didn’t produce can scarcely boast the discipline and the capacity for patient investment of the one who actually produces something.
In Nigeria, the elite’s obsession with distribution of national wealth yielded the entrenchment of dangerous levels of corruption that never existed under British rule. Consequently, there was a disinclination to engage in the disciplined hard work of capacity-building in national security or people-oriented services (such as power supply) as well as the neglect to maintain or upgrade infrastructure previously built by the British.
Under the post-colonial paradigm of sharing the national wealth, joining the apparatus of the Nigerian government inevitably becomes each person’s own chance to “chop," which means to “embezzle public funds” in the Nigerian lingo. This phrase explains why senior military officers would embezzle funds meant to train and equip the military for the fight against Boko Haram and get away with it. Similarly, many of the extremely bitter and divisive controversies among the Nigerian elite in contemporary times, from the North-South power rotation at the presidency to the resource control debate at the ongoing National Conference, relate directly to the corrupt sharing of Nigeria’s wealth among its elite.
Nowadays, however, business as usual in Nigerian government, especially the distribution (or “chopping”) of the national wealth, is quickly becoming an untenable option: the current convergence of domestic and global pressures will force an expansion of the vision and orientation of governance toward other areas.
Thanks to the current pressures, additional obligations of government, so long neglected, will now be recognized. They include developing the capacity to maintain national security within its borders, playing its part in the global fight against terrorism, and, of course, building infrastructure and providing social services to its citizens.
Having little choice, Nigeria’s “practically non-existent government” now finds itself on an inevitable transformation course involving the taking of baby steps toward becoming a “responsible” government.
Carl Unegbu is a Nigerian-born American lawyer and journalist. He lives in New York City.