On Nigerian Development

I just want to share some thoughts on my mind about Nigeria and our efforts at development.

When it comes down to it, development, while masquerading as economic is not quite that. A sufficiently developed country becomes a civilization. It evolves rules, institutions, cultural touchstones and all of these shapes the citizenry, with spillover effects on it’s economy, foreign policy, domestic affairs and more.

One thing I’ve realized is that Nigeria fixates too much on economic considerations when we talk about development. Yes, these have their proper place. But China was China, before it became the current prosperous nation it is. America was a culture first, a nation, and then an economy. When the colonies first became independent, their economy was shaky, public investment was low, their military ability was low, rules of commerce, industry and all could not stick. They tried different ways to make the American project work, to no avail. No reform, policy, agenda or anything could go the distance. It was Alexander Hamilton that finally diagnosed the problem: the states were too disunited, their interests too divergent, their trust in and commitment to a unified national government was too low. Therefore, everything else was never going to take on a solid footing. He and other Founding Fathers worked tooth and nail, across many congresses, traveling over the country to canvas for a new constitution. It was over a decade after Independence that the new U.S. Constitution was ratified, binding the states together in a true Union, and aligning their incentives so that they could trust one another and work together. That was when a National Bank was built, national policies were made, and the seeds of American greatness took root. That is why today, over two hundred years later, the American President still gives a State of the Union address.

What is my point? The structure of a nation is important. The underlying relationships between its component parts is important. The spiritual and philosophical foundations of a nation are important. When we call Nigeria a Federal Republic, we need to understand that these aren’t just empty words. There is a reality they are supposed to describe, and right now, Nigeria isn’t it. We are less like a family, and more like a foster home full of kids who happen to sleep in the same room and get fed from the same purse, while only marginally caring for each other. That is not a nation. Until we come back to the drawing board, discuss our nationhood and the terms of our relationship,  draw up a true constitution and framework for our country and enforce it through a cohesive state, our incentives will continue to be all over the place and we will keep rowing in different directions and going nowhere.

True federalism might be an answer but it is only partial. The true ‘federating units’ in Nigeria aren’t the States, they’re the different ethnicities. We deny this forever, to our own detriment. I am Nigerian first, but pointing out that ethnic considerations govern almost everything in Nigeria is like pointing out that water is wet. It decides who goes to what school and who doesn’t; who lives in what area under what terms and who doesn’t; who governs where, who is tried in a case and who is absolved of blame, who is elected and who is shunned, who wins what contract and who gets which job. No country ever got anywhere by making decisions like the above based on ethnicity instead of competence and merit. But unless we properly design our country, that will remain our reality. The reason is that people are rational. They may all want what is best for Nigeria deep down, but they understand that there are more pressing considerations, and therefore they play the game.

It’s time we acknowledged that, and did something about the rules of this game before we play ourselves. It’s just as important, if not more, that we address this if we are going to build a nation that works. Otherwise, the incentives to scatter or do nothing will always be more than the incentives to build. Like a body needs a soul, a nation needs a civis, a core bond that animates the whole. We need to find ours in Nigeria, and build our country around it.


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