Why is Nigeria full of bad leaders

A vital faulty construction

Axel Harneit-Sievers is a historian and political scientist with a focus on Africa. Since 2007 he has headed the East Africa / Horn of Africa regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Nairobi (Kenya). Photo: private.

Nigeria's self-confident approach to its difficult colonial legacy

Nigeria provokes extreme assessments: with around 150 million inhabitants, it is Africa's most populous country, a regional superpower and one of the world's largest oil exporters. At the same time, the country is characterized by poverty, poor governance and violent conflicts. Half a century after its independence on October 1, 1960, Nigeria remains far behind its potential - why?

So far, little has been seen of the official preparations for the independence anniversary. The lack of interest is hardly surprising: in an everyday life characterized by poverty and ailing infrastructure, most people in Nigeria have other worries. After months of uncertainty about the state of health of the president, the country has only had a functioning state governance under Goodluck Jonathan since February 2010. Meanwhile, the upcoming anniversary gives cause for reflection. Newspaper articles and blogs fluctuate between basic pride in the nation and clear criticism of its reality. The colonial past is certainly taken into account, but hardly anyone in Nigeria today blames them for the country's current problems.

Due to its size and wealth of resources, Nigeria has had more chances than most other African countries to go its own way in dealing with the colonial past and to make use of its independence since 1960. Nigeria tried to take advantage of these opportunities, but the result remains sobering.

The cultural dimension

Some of the “depths” of Nigeria's colonial heritage still have an impact today, but very few people would see them as a sign of cultural dependency.
First of all, Christianity should be mentioned: Almost half of the population of Nigeria, especially in the south and in the central parts of the country, belong to a Christian church today. In the colonial era, membership of a Christian church was closely linked to access to modern education, which enabled a new elite to advance in society. The Islamic north has a much lower level of education to this day, even if a relatively small Muslim elite controls important positions in the state, the military and the private sector.

There is certainly criticism of the Western value system conveyed by Christianity. But hardly any Nigerian intellectual - let alone the man or woman on the street - rejects Christianity as an un-African colonial innovation. Instead, there have been and are countless attempts to define Christianity as an African religion, to found independent churches and the discrepancies between “Western Christian” and “African values” in the originally established colonial churches (Anglicans, Catholics) through “inculturation “And to cope with an African theology. The higher ranks of the established churches were mostly Nigerianized decades ago. In the last few decades, countless new (mostly evangelical) churches have emerged which, despite being integrated into international networks, bear a decidedly “Nigerian stamp”. The "Winner’s Chapel" - founded by Bishop David Oyedepo, who already represents the "Gospel of Wealth and Healing" in its name - became a successful Nigerian export product.

The conflict over the position on homosexuality shows how self-confidently Nigerian Christians deal with the colonial roots of their religion today. While Anglicans in Great Britain and the United States practice tolerance, their colleagues in Africa - and especially in Nigeria, which today has the largest single Anglican community in the world - strictly reject homosexuality in the priesthood and the recognition of homosexual partnerships. The conflict threatens to divide the Anglican Church.

Nigeria has also shown pronounced self-confidence for a long time when it comes to dealing with other cultural dimensions of the colonial past. The singer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who died in 1997, mocked the remnants of the colonial mentality in his 1973 song about the "gentleman" who dresses formally in a suit, tie and hat in tropical and humid Lagos:

Him be gentleman, him go sweat all over,
him go faint right down, him go smell like shit.
Me I no be gentleman like that, I be Africa man original.

The “agbada”, a long flowing garment, has long since achieved the status of a national costume that Nigerians also wear with pride abroad. Nigerian music and dance culture is internationally recognized.

The "Second World Festival of Black and African Art and Culture" (FESTAC), held in 1977 at the height of the oil boom in Lagos, was a high point of state-sponsored cultural self-expression that has never been reached again. Today private actors are more active, especially in the entertainment culture. "Nollywood", the Nigerian cinema and video industry, supplies the large national market and also reaches other African countries and the African diaspora via satellite television. In terms of the number of films produced, Nollywood is now the second largest film producer in the world (after Bollywood). Its narrativity and aesthetics have become style-defining - not always to the delight of subsidized African “art cinema”.

The "curse of resources"

Along with Ghana, Nigeria was one of the African countries that around 1960 had a higher per capita income than South and Southeast Asian countries with a comparable economic structure, such as Malaysia. Why, many ask, has Nigeria fallen so far behind Asia since 1960?

British colonialism had established an export economy in Nigeria based on agricultural raw materials (cocoa, palm oil, peanuts, rubber). However, no large-scale European "land grab" took place; the agro-industrial plantation economy remained an exception. The numerically small British administration, which tried to control millions of Africans by means of "indirect rule", had opposed such plans after the First World War: They feared socially and politically destabilizing consequences.

So the smallholder export economy remained the backbone of the Nigerian economy. In good times like the 1950s, cocoa farmers, for example, achieved prosperity with it. Economic historians have argued that it was this very survival of peasant structures that prevented the development of dynamic capitalism in Nigeria.

Late colonial development policy in the 1950s laid the foundations for an industrial sector. However, the typical neo-colonial structure initially persisted after independence in 1960. However, the former colonial power Great Britain lost its leading role, while other European countries, especially the USA, became Nigeria's major trading partners. Nigeria's foreign policy also initially remained strongly western-oriented, symbolized by a defense agreement with Great Britain. Nigeria from 1960 initially had nothing of the radicalism of the independence period, such as the one that characterized Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah.

The big upheaval came with the oil boom of the 1970s. It opened up completely new opportunities to break out of the colonial political and economic dependencies. Various governments - from 1966 almost exclusively military - tried to use these possibilities within the framework of the political and economic paradigms of their time. To this day, a statement is often quoted that the head of state Yakubu Gowon allegedly made to a foreign journalist at the height of the oil boom: Money is no longer Nigeria's problem - but how it should be spent.

This sentence, often criticized to this day as a symbol of the hubris of those years, was absolutely correct, even if it was different from what Gowon meant: Nigeria's problem was in fact the "how" in the use of oil revenues. The case of Nigeria shows that development is not primarily a question of financing (Nigeria has generated several hundred billion US dollars in oil revenues over the decades), but essentially a question of good governance. Today, the 1970s, which laid the foundations for post-colonial Nigeria, seems like a huge missed opportunity.

Within a few years an agricultural country became an oil exporting country. The military governments invested the oil revenues in the expansion of infrastructure (roads, education) and industries (vehicles, steel, chemicals). They pursued a “mixed economy” strategy: the “indigenization policy” specifically reserved individual economic sectors for the Nigerian private sector, while foreign companies had to show substantial Nigerian participation in other sectors. Large state projects and foreign investments were protected by foreign trade controls. In all of this, the "command heights of the economy" were reserved for state control.
Politically, Nigeria already saw itself as a regional leading power (especially vis-à-vis apartheid South Africa), with the right to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and possibly with the prospect of nuclear weapons.

Poverty has remained

Wrong developments could not be overlooked. Due to bad planning and inefficiency, but above all due to the proverbial corruption, large parts of the oil income were squandered. While agricultural production declined, oil revenues financed the rapidly growing imports of food, luxury goods, and equipment. Nigeria became a nation of middlemen and "contractors" who often handled government contracts rather poorly, but above all tried to cut their "piece of the national pie". Instead of promoting “national development”, a parasitic elite of civil servants and private entrepreneurs emerged who enriched themselves at the expense of the state - above all the changing political leaders, including many ex-military. The current term “curse of resources” was not yet invented, but Nigeria is a prime example of this phenomenon.

In 1982 the party was over: oil prices fell, Nigeria was over-indebted, and corruption had become endemic. The structural adjustment policy of the following years followed the recipes of the international financial institutions, even if Nigerian heads of state sometimes justified them as "homemade". They were of little use and are often criticized to this day as the real cause of the crisis that they were supposed to have overcome.

Only since the end of the 1990s, with the end of the military dictatorship, market-oriented reforms, the expansion of the service sector (e.g. banking reform) and the raw material price boom of the new millennium, has Nigeria's overall economic situation improved. But there was no radical change: Nigeria is still dependent on oil exports; Anti-corruption campaigns have had only limited effects; Mass poverty, disastrous infrastructure and political violence persist. Oil has transformed Nigeria's colonial economy, but Nigeria's underdevelopment has remained.

A colonial misconstruction?

Nigeria achieved its independence from Great Britain without a lengthy struggle for independence, which could have contributed to the formation of a national identity. Ethnic, regional, and religious identities dominated politics, and they continue to do so to this day. In 1947 Obafemi Awolowo, one of the most important politicians of the independence movement, described Nigeria as a "purely geographical expression". The country has weathered numerous existential crises since independence, but the national question remains acute - perhaps more so today than it was 25 years ago.

The most widespread criticism of the colonial legacy today is that Nigeria was a bad design. Only: what follows from such a statement? Very few derive from this the demand for Nigeria's dissolution as a unified state. But the construction of Nigeria as a functioning state has remained a permanent challenge to post-colonial politics.

Nigeria's current borders are the longest and most difficult legacy of colonialism. They were not established until 1914 after several differently structured territories had been amalgamated. The result was a country with great diversity, characterized by the contrast between a conservative, Islamic north and the economically more developed, increasingly Christianized south. This contrast shapes Nigeria's politics to this day, and it is painfully brought into consciousness by the religiously based violent conflicts that have become more frequent in the last decade.

By introducing constitutional reforms, the British administration set the course for independence as early as 1948. Great Britain was weakened by the World War and feared the emergence of an independence movement based on the Indian or Ghanaian model. The decolonization of Nigeria was largely peaceful and based on consensus. Without the resistance of the elites from the north, who feared that their region would be permanently dominated by the south, Nigeria would have gained independence as early as 1956 - before Ghana.

For independence in 1960, the three regions that emerged during the colonial era (each with a dominant ethnic group but numerous minorities) were preserved. They had internal autonomy and their political leaders had to form alliances at the national level in order to take power in Lagos. But in 1966 the fragility of the new state became apparent. After a military coup and pogroms in northern Nigeria, the southeast region declared its secession as "Biafra". The civil war that followed cost the lives of at least one million people and ended with the surrender of Biafra in January 1970. The former colonial power Great Britain, but also the Soviet Union, which was looking for new allies in West Africa, had provided military support to the central government.

A fragile perspective

A new federal structure emerged from the crisis, initially with 12 and now 36 states. This departure from the colonial administrative structure has become the linchpin of a decidedly Nigerian model of managing ethnic-regional diversity. The new federal order has not diminished the importance of ethnic-regional political loyalties in Nigerian politics (it has almost institutionalized it), but it gives them a new framework for action: large ethnic blocks have been split up; the new states allowed ethnic minorities more self-determination.

However, the functioning of Nigerian federalism remains incomprehensible without considering the oil export factor. The income initially goes to the federal government, which in turn forwards some of it to the states that are almost completely dependent on these transfers. The Nigerian state has become an oil money redistribution mechanism. Since the return to democracy in 1999, the central government in Abuja has been provided by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a pool of regional political giants whose common interest is access to oil revenues. With so-called "zoning" mechanisms, the PDP tries to ensure the sharing of power and oil revenues between the regions of the country.

However, oil production is concentrated in a few states in the south of the country, which as minority areas were politically marginalized for decades. The result was uprisings in large parts of the production region since the late 1990s, which in the meantime paralyzed substantial parts of oil production. Individual groups in the oil regions are calling for secession, and in the Igbo-speaking southeast, 1967-70 the core area of ​​Biafras, calls for secession have become louder again. It is true that the oil-producing regions now receive a higher share of the income, and the amnesty granted in 2009 has reduced violence in the region. But lasting pacification remains questionable, since the militant groups operate in the gray area between political action and crime and have little confidence in the state and its institutions.

Torn by internal disparities and conflicts, Nigeria remains trapped within its colonial borders. A dissolution of the country would have dramatic consequences - violence, chaos, economic collapse of large parts of the country; it is at best endorsed by radical minorities.Since the civil war, Nigeria has tried to deal with this colonial legacy through political reforms and the management of its ethnic-regional diversity. It was successful in that the country did not fall apart. That is more than some skeptics expected. And last but not least, it means prospects for millions of Nigerians who live in other parts of the country than their home regions and for whom Nigeria - despite all its problems - remains a large country full of opportunities.

Axel Harneit-Sievers is a historian and political scientist with a focus on Africa. From 2002-06 he headed the Nigeria office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Lagos, and since 2007 the regional office East Africa / Horn of Africa of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Nairobi (Kenya).


50 years of independence in Africa

1960 was a year of hope for many Africans. 17 countries gained independence from the colonial powers. The dossier is intended to throw lightning bolts on the countries that became independent in 1960: with very personal contributions. There are also background articles by well-known authors from Germany and various African countries as well as excerpts from the speeches, writings and short portraits that illustrate the spirit of optimism in 1960.