Politics of The American Report


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Politics of The American Report



Ebere Onwudiwe


June 8, 2005

Now that the dust has settled on the statement by the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) about a failed Nigerian state that could drag down much of West Africa, a brief political take. For one thing, the effect of the report is sobering and the president put it to handy political use by sending it straight to the National Assembly where the lower house was burning energy on yet another impeachment con.

When the corporate existence of Nigeria is alleged to be at stake, our quarrels and conflicts must be put in perspective. We should help others understand that we are building a united political community. That was all the argument the president needed to get the reps off his back. Good political instinct. And it worked. Never mind the warning in the report about the possibility of a coup by junior officers and its shattering potential for the corporate existence of Nigeria. It will not happen. Come 2007 the president will return to his farm, and our country will move another step towards democratic consolidation.

Serious students of Nigerian history and society will differ in their predictions of our country's future. But they are likely to agree that a prediction of its impending collapse is both irresponsible and unwarranted. I do not know the American scholars and officials who produced the NIC report, but I do know that most thoughtful, deeply informed, and best American academic opinion has consistently opposed the view that the Nigerian house is falling. Such preeminent American experts on Nigeria as Professors Richard L. Sklar of UCLA, and Richard Joseph of Northwestern University who are able to comprehend the national turbulence that accompanies the creation of national institutions agree that while there is a lot of room for improvement, there is absolutely no need to despair on the future of Nigeria as long as the political class continues to consolidate our democracy.

Even if one assumes that the NIC scenario rises to the level of prediction, Prof Sklar said he does not think it was based on "deep thinking about either Nigeria's national history or the cultural, economic, political, and social ties that bind the peoples and sections of Nigeria to one another." He continues: "Predictions of the future are always fallible. A responsible prediction of Nigeria's near future would reflect understanding of the many-sided national effort now in progress to create and consolidate durable democratic institutions. I view this era as a time of genuine progress, not deterioration."

Despite our unpleasant raucous style of politics, Sklar's optimism is not unrealistic. What holds Nigeria together rises above the clamor about who gets what and how. Neither Nigeria nor its much-maligned West African neighborhood is unique among emerging democracies in this type of chaotic phase of nation building. It may be the nature of the enterprise.

Social theorist and celebrated author of "The End of History and The Last Man," Prof. Francis Fukuyama of John Hopkins University recently argued in The Wall Street Journal, of May 25, that the transformation of some Asian countries such as Indonesia, South Korea and Philippines from authoritarianism to democracy was not pretty at the beginning, either. Just as in Nigeria, early experiments with democratic politics there were mostly driven by scandal and personality. Then as now, American experts made unflattering predictions about the future of democratic consolidation in those countries, as well. Today, those dismal predictions have fallen flat.

Fukuyama notes in the particular case of Indonesia that it was argued then that "Asian values" were not democracy friendly, that Islam was an insuperable wedge, and that the paternalistic authoritarianism of President Suharto was good for development. Today, "Indonesia contradicts all three points. It is unquestionably Asian and Muslim, and yet has evolved into a credible democracy in the difficult years since the crises that brought Suharto down in 1998." This example suggests that while the road to democracy can be rough and uncertain in countries like Nigeria where the institutions that sustain it are still under construction, it may be unwise to write off the future with hasty predictions.

But all said and done, the NIC report is only the messenger, not the message. And in the current case, to attack the messenger while ignoring the message could risk national disaster. Truth is that all is not well in Nigeria. That essentially is the central trigger of the NIC scenario. It is wise to go beyond it to evaluate the variables that prompted the judgment. These include divisive ethnic politics, poor governance, religious, ethnic and communal violence, disunity, and unrealised national citizenship among others. Add to these political pathologies a decaying infrastructure, including roads, universities, agricultural extension systems and an overall marginal economic performance and you have sketched a multi-ethnic country prone to failure.

But these problems mask some remarkable achievements since 1999 not least among them a national campaign against corruption, steady restructuring of the general economy, freedom of expression, and the steady inculcation of democratic values, all of which takes time to incubate. Even if the NIC worse case scenario is intended to be a prediction, as the president's message to National Assembly cleverly suggests, the reaction should call for quiet reflection, not anger. Assuming that a group of official pundits has given Nigeria "fifteen years" before it collapses, Prof. Joseph responds cogently: "Told that your house will collapse in fifteen years, how do you respond?"

His answer is instructive: "You could chastise the foreign surveyors, dismiss their predictions, and continue on as before. Or, you could set out to prove them wrong by making your house even stronger than ever. If the Nigerian political class is so angered by the report of the Americans that they decide on the second course, then the greatest beneficiaries will be the masses of Nigerians so poorly served by their nation's institutions after 45 years of independence."

But the NIC statement is only a "scenario," at best, a statement of probability, that President Obasanjo has shrewdly tried to use to get the National Assembly to focus on the important job of national building, rather than impeachment. The president could have highlighted NIC's "upside surprises" just as well. The NIC report suggests also that Nigeria could be stronger with better management of her oil resources and debt among other things to boost public and private investments in her economy. But you never can tell this from reading the rushed accounts in our media, which is all sweet music to the ears of the fox of Aso Rock.


bulletProfessor Onwudiwe lives in the United States



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