Dr. Obadiah Mailafia and the Nigerian Story of Leadership Failure
By Toyin Falola
The interview with Dr. Mailafia during the Toyin Falola Interviews furnishes the audience with much information that helps to grasp the idea of failed leadership and state and problematize the concept of a failing state. The truth is laid bare for anyone confident enough to accept that the conversation around a failed state is a byproduct of the narrative of us versus them, civilized versus uncivilized, barbaric and modern, dated back to the 19th century as a prelude to the colonization of the less technologically advanced groups of people in Africa and other victims of colonialism. The binary prism generated around this characterization found the expansionist imperialists on the side of the coin where they are associated with modernity, civilization, and greatness, which, therefore, became the motivation for their expeditious colonialism embarkations on all of their colonies.
As it was then, the measures for civilizations and others did not have a universal appeal because it appeared that the moral and political requirements for being civilized represented a jaundiced view of the colonizers. Although this would help to drive an objective conversation when dealing with the mountainous challenges that have gripped the African, especially Nigerian, leadership by its jugular, it does not by any means undermine the importance of having common denominating factors with which it can be decisively concluded that a country is failing or has failed. In essence, one needs to address the issues of a failed state not exclusively by considering the factors erected by the Western world but by definitions given by the rational members of colonized societies who are impartial in their evaluation and examination of events.
One of the most compelling characteristics of a failing or failed state is a collapsed economy that is immediately trailed by widespread poverty. These two factors define the current topic of engagement because no civilization can claim modernization in its remote sense if its economy has collapsed. Therefore, it is challenging to avail Nigeria of this quagmire tagged “failed state” when one realizes that its economy has declined in recent years for reasons that are not unconnected to its excessive concentration on a single source of revenue. Such dependence, among other things, has killed the nation’s urge for creativity and diversification. And because the government has refused to be pluralistic in its economic approach, the political structure has been facing constant declination of values and worth.
It is difficult to compare the Nigeria of today and that of four or five decades ago. The declining economy has become the source of many existential challenges in which the country is currently circumscribed. Essentially, this has weakened its importance in the region of West Africa and Africa generally because not only has the country become the proverbial leaches of the international organizations that oversee the financial rescue of less economically viable countries and then serve donor countries that contribute to face-save them in time of crisis, the citizens have also been reduced to a diminished group of people who would retain no particular regard outside of their political and geographical outreach.
Various countries have emerged in recent years because they diversified their economies and concentrated intensely on ways to redeem their financial status in the comity of nations. However, Nigeria is stuck in the pit of economic debauchery because the government is too reliant on mono-economic sources of financial and economic income. This would not have been a problem if people’s economy does not affect their cultural and social systems. As Karl Marx argued in the past, when the economy, which is the basis for political engagement, collapses, there are usually devastating consequences that would be felt in other areas; hence the widespread poverty that Dr. Mailafia talked about in the Toyin Falola Interview Series.
Widespread poverty is one social problem that has faced Nigeria currently because its economy is in decline. The country’s economy is so weak that it cannot provide the necessary job security for the people, and the lack of employment opportunities has invariably increased the poverty level of Nigerians. Nigerians are embattled with the multiple problems of economic decline and poverty, which have inevitably increased the challenges they face day in and day out. Malnutrition and the inadequate health systems pervasive in the country are evidence that it has crossed the line and sunk into an abyss of terror. A few years ago, Nigeria was dubbed the world's poverty capital because its citizens are said to live on a dollar per day. Such statistics are dumbfounding, not mainly because many people suffer from poverty, but also because Nigeria, which used to be the beacon of hope for the African continent, especially at the economic front, has now been labelled the poverty headquarters of the world in just four to five decades. This speaks to the lack of foresight in the political domain. The lack of visionary leaders at the echelon of power is a strong reason behind the accelerated increase in poverty and deprivation.
A failed state does not stop with these challenges. A famous proverb among the Yoruba people says that when big challenges overcome individuals, smaller ones would feast on them; the rising level of insecurity in the country is another signal of its serious condition. Nearly in all the corners of the country, there is no safe place for individuals to conduct their activities freely without nursing the fear that they may be rounded up by groups of criminals who believe in their guns as the decider of people’s fate. Insecurity is so widespread that people cannot be absolutely confident of their safety whenever they step outside their confines. Even in the comfort of their homes, there are growing instances of attacks on people. Insecurity in Nigeria is pervasive and deadly, and this is one of the reasons the country cannot escape the profiling it has experienced in recent times.
Undoubtedly, if the situation of a country mirrors that of Nigeria, its challenges would grow in leaps and bounds. For example, the security crisis has taken a comfortable seat in the country, which scares potential investors away for obvious reasons. Business investors worldwide are known to pick interest in places where they are confident of financial returns. When this is threatened, they will look elsewhere to invest. To this extent, insecurity is a disease that silently kills people and provides them with no actual possibility of an antidote that may give them the relief needed from time to time. Candidly, there are limitless opportunities in Nigeria so much that if they had been confronted with increased unemployment, there would be an opportunity to turn the situation into something desirable through investments in the economy. But when insecurity is added to the challenges facing the people, they have little chance of attracting the right business people who would elevate their status by investing in their moribund economy.
One would think that Nigeria has demonstrated the highest of its shortcomings in its failure to function as a great country until one realizes that it is embroiled in many struggles. In essence, Nigerian problems are interwoven and interconnected. Apart from the fact that attracting the right people is problematic where the security challenges are pervasive, the realization that individuals are too psychologically weak to pursue any economic dream adds to the said problems. Sadly, the combination of these factors is grossly affecting Nigerian citizens in the contemporary world.
More appalling is that the Nigerian state cannot deliver the essential public goods expected of a state. One of the public services expected of a functional government is protecting human rights; however, it is more benumbing that the Nigerian government has been unable to protect these fundamental human rights. Now the country seemed to have slipped into anarchy in some states, notably in Zamfara and Borno. The freedom of communication, on which mandate the government of the day rode to power, has been carefully and methodically infringed upon so much that the people exercise conscious restraint in discussing issues that affect them in public or social spaces. The gross disrespect for human rights and the abuse that comes from such attitudes give the impression that the protection of the citizens no longer takes a particular interest in the hearts of emerging political leaders.
Positions of power have been ambushed by individuals using power to enhance their selfish interests. The media houses responsible for the government’s victory are now feeling the heat of totalitarian policies targeted at their operations. For example, the ban placed on Twitter reflects only one thing–the absolute disregard for human rights. Including, but not limited to this, is the clamp down on the freedom of association that is getting to the heart of the political system. Free association with others has experienced similar treatment. One cannot associate with groups without feeling insecure because the ongoing security challenges that have engulfed the country continue to scare people from being involved with others on issues that affect their social networking. If these are part of the indices used to measure a failing state, Nigeria cannot be exempted from the list. The country has failed to protect its citizens, which is a major contribution to the pervasive insecurities in the land. While the government continues to increase the level of funding dedicated to the procurement of arms and ammunition, the results do not complement the monies spent. Budgetary allocation for security increases annually with little or no results to show for it. In other words, people have taken the insecurities pervasive in the country as an opportunity to perpetuate corruption on a larger scale. Meanwhile, the administration of justice has equally been complex.
At the interview session, Dr. Mailafia hinted that although everyone believes that peace can follow the absence of all violent activities and criminal engagements, the fact remains that when there is no justice, there can be no claim to peace, primarily as the current state of affair in the country does not support justice. For instance, it is readily impossible to have justice in situations where security operatives have constituted themselves as a parallel government where they carry out activities that naturally defy the ethics of their calling. On an occasion where the representatives at the political system are siphoning the public resources for their provincial gains, displaying an opulence got from the sweat of the public, it is difficult to ascribe any form of justice to such a political behaviour. Thus, there would be problems in collectively advancing the objectives and goals of such a country. In a recent exposition by the United States of America, the scandalous involvement of Nigeria’s Deputy Commissioner of Police with a popular cybercriminal, Hushpuppi, demonstrates how institutions in the country have been taken over by overzealous individuals who would pursue their ambition even at the expense of the state. This is corroborated by the actions of Nigerian politicians with unexplainable wealth, who gallivant the globe on the citizens’ wealth.
It gets exciting when we realize that Nigeria is a heterogeneous country with different people and varying cultural orientations who, upon the understanding that there is a perceived lopsided nationalist treatment, could consider seceding from the country to become independent. When Ms. Bamidele Ademola-Olateju asked Dr. Mailafia if the country truly deserves to remain a corporate entity or has the potential to remain one in the nearest future, we should understand more about the political possibilities of the country remaining indivisible. Dr. Mailafia considered the question a two-fold one, and he approached them differently yet educatively. He answered the first part of the question in the negative, not being preposterous in his prediction but by considering several trends that have become synonymous with the country. The first is the country’s demographic which doubles its numbers every thirty years. Coupled with the diminishing social and infrastructural services, pervasive insecurities, rising injustice, and widespread corruption, the possibility of the country surviving the next phase of its national identity is uncertain. Nearly all the countries that have dissolved their colonial identities have experienced what Nigeria is going through in the current time. The fact that they eventually broke up to form new states explains why a similar condition awaits Nigeria.
On the second question about if Dr. Mailafia would want the country to collapse so that different nations would emerge from its decay, he responded that it is not his wish to see the c collapse of Nigeria. He argued that one of the reasons for his position is that apart from his nationalist spirit, he has grown so fond of the country and believes it can achieve an incredible potential if only the leaders take very decisive steps to salvage it. Whether the country deserves to survive or not is another thing entirely. Dr. Mailafia was unpretentious when he said he does not, in good conscience, think that the country deserves to survive, considering the numerous evils that have been perpetrated by the people in whose hands the country’s management is kept. This evil persisted beyond the corridors of power. The people who are nudged on by the leaders’ silence committed grave crimes and misgivings that are naturally irreconcilable and incompatible with progress. Civil strife in the 1960s and 1970s led people to kill others who were considered different from their ethnic identity. This civil war in the country between 1966 and 1970 was another offence against humanity. The fact that the blood of the innocent was used as the sacrifice to keep the country as one contradicts natural order, and for this reason, it is difficult to say if the country is deserving of remaining indivisible. Ethnic cleansing, religious killings, banditry, among others, characterize the Nigeria of the current time, making it difficult to say it deserves to remain one.
Security challenges and the political theatre that prepared the stage for the proliferation of violence cannot be dissociated from the socioeconomic conditions that necessitated the horrible development in the first instance. Suppose by luck, a country is given a pass mark of credibility irrespective of the pervasive and constant violence and hostilities. In that case, there cannot be redemption for countries that have failed in their economic prosperity, for they would be vulnerable to all manners of threats that would potentially come their way. The Nigerian situation is exemplary of this condition strictly because the decline of its economy in recent years has reached an unprecedented scale.
To understand the relationship between a failing state and those whose financial oxygen has been infiltrated by particles and pebbles that are disastrous to the country's health, a question was raised about the causes and effects of the continually reduced value of the country’s currency. By his age and experience, Dr. Mailafia qualifies as a historian on issues that border on Nigeria’s past events, especially from the 1960s onwards. His mind-opening input would enthuse us. According to him, the devaluation of the Nigerian currency is a product of many factors that need to be studied or appropriately contextualized for us to grab the knowledge of its status. For a currency that was far ahead of the American dollars in the 1960s and that was giving the British pounds a run for its money in the same period, one needs to address emerging situations that suddenly led to the surprising displacement of the values less than seven decades after.
However, the point of waterloo to the Nigerian Naira came in 1985 during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, under whom the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) sapped the values that the currency had managed to enjoy for a considerable number of years. As argued by a technocrat, the program was geared towards the de-industrialization of the country and the despoliation of their economic systems. The Nigerian currency began to drastically lose its values against the European and American currencies from that period. As if it was in a self-competition to outdo itself in the areas of value erosion, the Naira has been witnessing rapid declination from that period to the current time. This, according to Dr. Mailafia, is caused by several factors.
First, the high inflation rate in the country has predominantly affected the way the Naira presently stands, among other currencies. Also, the excessive dependence on importation accounts for the devaluation of the Nigerian currency. This particular variable resulted in a deficit in the country’s account balance and a trade deficit. Misguided economic and financial policies created by people unaware of how their government’s activities influence the Naira and thus act rashly also harm the country in this area. It is nauseous to be educated on the devaluation of the currency and then know the people who brought the calamity on their people. For example, the dollarization of the Nigerian economy, apart from the oil industry that was not covered by the sanction of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), also contributes to the devaluation of the nation’s currency. Coupled with the fact that some top politicians in the country have also been engrossed in the cultural tradition of using dollars above their currency, the devaluation of the country’s money does not always concern them. They have made a substantial amount of money through their deliberate act of disobedience to the standard regulations by the government. As such, they have more purchasing power when the Naira loses value.
All these factors combine to tell us that Nigeria is failing the test of being a solid state. To Dr. Mailafia, Nigeria lacks the power to control its profound contradictions and infractions. Where does Nigeria go from here?
(This is the first report on the interview with Dr. Obadiah Mailafia on August 15, 2021. Well attended, the number of a live audience was 1.3 million on six platforms. For part of the transcript, see Facebook https://fb.watch/7q9qf8tqEd/ Or YouTube: https://youtu.be/vskrSktBGJY).