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Nigerian Exceptionalism: The quest for world leadership

The former External Affairs Minister, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, says Nigeria must address the issue of structural instability.  Akinyemi spoke, last Thursday, while delivering the 2016 Convocation Lecture of the University of Ibadan.  Extracts from the lecture:


These varieties tell their own stories as they reflect the swing in my mood from pessimism to optimism and then back again to pessimism. It is either courage or sheer lunacy, the kind of lunacy that scholars exhibit from time to time that propels me to stand before you and proclaim Nigerian exceptionalism, at a time when the Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun proclaims that Nigeria is in the worst economic recession ever, newspapers are carrying screaming headlines about millions being out of jobs and Senator Shehu Sani saying “We may die before President completes reforms” Let me lay this issue to rest right away. In the latest United Nations Human Development Index 2015 notice that both Pakistan ranked at 147 and Nigeria ranked 152 out of 188 are both grouped among Low Human Development countries, with Nigeria having N5314 Gross NATIONAL Income per capita and Pakistan having N4866 GNI per capita and yet, Pakistan is a not only a nuclear power, it is ranked no.13, while Nigeria is ranked 44 out of 126 countries in the Global Firepower Military Rankings. Of course, Pakistan did not spend about $7.4 billion on the importation of toothpicks, fish, milk, textiles, rice and furniture between 2014 and May 2015 as Nigeria did. Resources per se do not determine exceptionalism, it is the utilization of the resources or more accurately, the prioritization of the utilization of resources. For example, in terms of Defence Spending, Pakistan spent $7b, and is ranked at 27 and Nigeria spent $2.3billion ranked at 62 out of 128 countries. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi was Foreign Affairs Minister The debate between the social welfare school and the power school in the evolution of a Nigerian strategic doctrine dated back to the post civil war period. There were two schools of thought in the 1970s/1980s. One school which I championed was located at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs where I was the Director General. We espoused the power school.

We fought for a large army arguing that given the large land mass of Nigeria, we needed a large army that could occupy and secure territory rather than a small mobile army that cannot garrison captured territory. The other school, located at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and identified with Dr. Bala Usman argued for a small highly mobile and highly mechanized army. Bala Usman’s school won the argument then. But when the Boko Haram and Niger Delta militants came calling, the Nigerian army increased its strength from 3 Divisions to 6 Divisions thus proving me right. This kind of debate is not unique to Nigeria. Debate between those who want more allocation of resources to hospitals, schools, and bridges and those who want more allocation to the military and security sector bedevils public policy debate in all countries. One of the factors that determines the allocation is the expectation of the role of the country on the world scene. A major factor responsible for our present state is not a lack of resources but a scandalous application of resources, not by government alone but by we the Nigerians. How can you describe as poor a country which spent a total of N1.18 trillion (about $7.4 billion) on the importation of toothpicks, fish, milk, textiles, rice and furniture between 2014 and May 2015? According to figures obtained from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), fish imports gulped $1.39 billion while milk and rice imports accounted for $1.33 billion and $51 million respectively.

According to the Governor of the Central Bank : “most of you are aware of the often-quoted number of N1.3 trillion, which is what we spend on average importing rice, fish, sugar, and wheat every year. I am saying it is shameful that we have to import toothpick.   I am saying that it is shameful for us to import fish in sauce canned, fish in sauce and sardine. I am saying it is shameful. Before I was born palm kernel was taken out of Nigeria and taken to another country and today we go to that country and import palm oil. It is shameful. It is shameful that items that we used to produce in this country we now begin to import them. It is shameful and we need to stop them. That is what we are saying… Only last week, I met the Governor of Kebbi State and he lamented the unfortunate situation in that state. Where people, our own farmers, have committed themselves to producing rice and have produced paddy and we have paddy glut in Kebbi State today. As I speak, the government has spent its money buying paddy   rice from the farmers, almost close to 200,000 of paddy rice… aside from that, Kebbi State farmers have unpurchased paddy rice close to 800,000 tons. And yet we patronise imported rice. The misapplication in resources is not limited to those identified above. There are no figures for marriages in Dubai, in South Africa and in Brazil; or birthdays in Rome or Spain. The madness is not in our stars, it is in us. Another illustration of the quasi-criminal misapplication of resources is the pension package for ex-governors.

According to a Lagos Pension Law a former governor will enjoy the following benefits for life: Two houses, one in Lagos and another in Abuja. (Property experts estimates such a house in Lagos to cost N500 million and Abuja N700 million.) Others are six brand new cars replaceable every three years; furniture allowance of 300 percent of annual salary to be paid every two years, and a close to N2.5 million as pension (about N30 million pension annually). He will also enjoy security detail, free medicals including for his immediate families. Other benefits are 10 percent house maintenance, 30 percent car maintenance, 10 percent entertainment, 20 percent utility, and several domestic staff. Other states have copied this scandolous Lagos Pension scheme. Such is the state of public cynicism, that even expenditure which is justified under security considerations has aroused pubic condemnation.

The Saturday Punch of September 24, 2016 drew the following to public attention under a screaming headline which read: Recession: Governors lavish billions of naira on bulletproof cars for selves, wives Let me make one thing absolutely clear. I accept that there is a lot of suffering in the land. I am not denying that there is a lot of poverty now and that we are in a recession. But I am also claiming that we (not just the government) bear our share of responsibility for this financial peculiar mess. It is not government alone that is responsible for N62.8b of imported French fries rather than the potatoes produced in the Middle Belt, for the $6m daily of imported rice while 800,000 tons of rice go unbought in Kebbi, for the N7.2b spent on imported tooth pick and billions of naira spent on Brazillian, Japanese, Indian etc hair pieces. Was it government that was travelling and bringing in goods from China, Dubai, Italy etc? Another issue to put to bed is the proposition that corruption has had a negative effect on Nigerian exceptionalism, what with the fantastically corrupt jibe. The latest figures on corruption are quite illuminating. We are not even the most corrupt country in the world. China leads the world over the 10-year period from 2004 to 2013 with US$139 trillion in illicit outflows, followed by Russia, Mexico, India, and Malaysia with Nigeria at no. 10 with $18trillion. China also had the largest illicit outflows of any country in 2013,  amounting to a  staggering US$258.64 billion  in just that one year. Here is a message on social media that aptly summaries the culpability of all of us and is titled: STATE OF THE NATION.. I have been following closely the activities of this gov’t and whenever I have the opportunity, I try to find out the opinions of people as regards the performance of this government. I just realized that the hardship faced by many Nigerians is simply as a result of the fact that almost everyone of us benefited from the cycle of corruption.

The bricklayer, plumber, laborers, tiler are all complaining because building construction has slowed down massively because the thieves no longer have money to spend on real estate. The car dealers are grumbling because their cars are begging for buyers. Thieves can no longer spend wastefully. The private school owners are shouting because parents can no longer pay outrageous sums and are withdrawing their wards. The fact is, We mostly have been living above our REAL MEANS. We have been staying in houses that ordinarily our incomes can’t afford. Our children going to schools we can’t afford. Driving cars we ordinarily can’t maintain. We have been living a FAKE LIFE all along. Now the reality is before us and we don’t want to accept it. This shows how morally bankrupt we are. You can’t eat your Cake and have it. Take Note…”GOD HELP AND BLESS NIGERIA” You got billions from bank without collateral using your political influence. You put half into your business and spent the other half on exotic cars, jewelleries’ etc. Your business employs 100 people normally. You get illegal waivers and concessions to import raw materials at rock bottom prices, you get over-inflated contract to supply gov’t some goods your company produce….in short your company is kept afloat by corruption. Now the new SHERIFF in town says: no more ridiculous waivers, no more inflated contracts, no more bank loans without collateral, in fact its time you or your company pay off the billions of debt owed….. AMCON takes over your company, staff are laid off……And you go on air and say the new sheriff is killing business and causing unemployment.. The truth is….you and your company were never in business, you were only feeding off the system. Too many companies and banks are funded by corruption. Remove corruption from the system and they collapse…….and we end up blaming the person that removes corruption for the collapse of the corruptly run fake company. Its like our system and corruption are so interwoven and inseparable that removing one will kill the other.” The commentary ended on a sarcastic note: “Maybe we should tolerate and learn to live with corruption so that Nigeria can survive?” Corruption is relevant in the misapplication of resources which undermines the corpus of resources available for development.

If we do not understand all these issues, as soon as we start to come out of the recession, we will make the same mistakes all over again as wee did with the recession of the 1980s. THE CONCEPT OF EXCEPTIONALISM: What exactly is the concept of exceptionalism? Collins English Dictionary describes it as “an attitude to other countries, cultures, etc based on the idea of being quite distinct from, and often superior to, them in vital ways” It has been suggested that the first reference to the concept by name, and possibly its origin, was by French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835/1840 work where he wrote “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Even though the concept of exceptionalism is now wrapped around the global image of the United States, the consciousness of a concept predates the naming of the concept. The consciousness of exceptionalism is much older than the United States. When Ruyald Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden” in 1899 to celebrate the United States occupation of the Philippines, it seemed to have confirmed the United States exclusive claim to Exceptionalism. But in fact, Kipling had originally written the piece to celebrate the British Empire and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. While the piece was not used, it confirms my thesis that colonialism and before then slavery had embedded in them the consciousness of exceptionalism.

Let me stretch this further: To the extent that each religion lays claim to being the repository of the whole truth, each religion lays claim to exceptionalism. In ancient times, the phrase “Civis Romanus sum” was a recognition of the exceptionalism of the Roman empire. I am sure that when I delve into Chinese and Greek histories, I will find evidence of exceptionalism to explain their empire-building exercises. Thus it is obvious that at different times, different countries have laid claim to exceptionalism and one factor common to all of these countriesis the possession of power which lent credence to the claim. A more apt illustration of the nexus between power and the concept of exceptionalism, nearer home, from contemporary times can be drawn from the example of Ghana. Ghana became independent in 1957 and immediately sent out signals to lay claim to leadership of African and Black Diasporic affairs. A country formerly called Gold Coast, named itself Ghana after one of the most famous and powerful pre-colonial indigenous African empires, adopted the Black Star as a national symbol, and named its national football team, the Black Stars. It pursued brilliant and activist policies designed to mobilise Africans and Africans in the Diaspora. But without a power base, economic and military, to project herself, the concept of exceptionalism could simply not be creditably applied to Ghana. It is absolutely critical and crucial to bear in mind that of significance is the fact that critical to the concept of exceptionalism is the issue of the purpose of the policies designed to actualize the exceptionalism.

The purpose is usually designed to promote dominance internationally. Rome bred a Roman Empire, Britain, Spain, Portugal and France, each bred an empire, Russia bred an empire under the cloak of a worker’s revolution and was clever enough to mask it by calling it a Soviet Union. NIGERIA AND THE HISTORICISM OF EXCEPTIONALISM Let us now situate Nigeria within the narrative. The past is always with us and influences us more than we realize. The influence may be on our subconscious but it is there. The concept of exceptionalism manifesting itself in a world leadership role is one that may resonate with an elite from an environment that has a tradition of empire-building. Among the Kanuri political elite in Borno with a heritage of a Kanem-Borno empire in the not too distant past, and an eschatological expectation of a reconstituted empire, exceptionalism of a world leadership role is not likely to evoke a blank stare of incomprehension. The Hausa/Fulani original empire extended way beyond the northern shores of Nigeria while the Oyo empire in the South-West extended to the territory of modern Ghana. This makes that political elite to be responsive to this kind of exceptionalism message. But this is not a trip down the deterministic path. The effect is not automatic. But it is of high probative value. How deep is this concept of exceptionalism in Nigeria? On Thursday 30th September 2010, an independence anniversary colloquium was held in Abuja and the title of the Colloquium was  “NIGERIA’S LEADERSHIP ROLE IN THE WORLD”.  Of even more significance is the caliber of the participants at the colloquium which included President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Former President of Namibia, Dr. Sam Nujoma, Former President of South Africa, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, Former Executive Secretary, ECOWAS, Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas and myself. The significance of these facts speaks for themselves. How many countries in the world would host a national symposium and have a sitting President, two former Presidents and two eminent personalities as discussants. Equally significant is that two of the countries represented are Namibia and South Africa, two of the powerhouses in Africa. Furthermore, how many countries not just in Africa but in the world would put on a symposium where the topic would be couched in what some may regard as grandiose terms or a delusional exercise? The riposte has to be: what is the gain to someone like Thabo Mbeki or Sam Nujoma to take part in a delusional exercise? Surely their participation should be regarded as empirical evidence that there is some reality behind the discourse. In 2014, a News Agency of Nigeria carried a story under the title “Centenary: African leaders commend Nigeria’s leadership role in Africa” (01 March 2014). The participants included President of Namibia, Hifikepunye Pohamba, who said: “We salute the tenacity, the solidarity and commitment to peace that Nigeria has demonstrated in the peacekeeping operations…”, President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, who said that Nigeria had invested human, financial and material resources to bind the continent together. Jammeh, who earned a standing ovation for his eulogy of Nigeria’s qualities, opportunities and continued leadership role, said Nigeria held the key to the continued relevance of the continent on the global map.” President Joyce Banda of Malawi was also full of praises for Nigeria for its commitment to peace, security and the development of the continent. Banda, who joined her Liberian counterpart to condemn the recent Boko Haram attack on students, expressed confidence in the ability of Nigeria to realise its greatness in spite of the security challenges. In his goodwill message, the President of Arab Sahawari Democratic Republc, Mohammed Abdelaziz, congratulated Nigeria for surviving 100 years of nationhood. Abdelaziz, whose country’s independence day celebration was the same day as Nigeria, had marked the day, a day earlier, to enable him to attend Nigeria’s centenary celebration.

In September 2015, The New Diplomat carried a story under the headline “EX-BRITISH ENVOY: NIGERIA CAN BE AFRICA’S ECONOMIC HUB”

Even though I will backtrack later to what I believe are the historical factors underlying the leadership syndrome as an element of Nigeria’s manifest destiny, the three episodes referred to earlier encapsulate the core theme of this paper. Firstly, Nigerian government officially picked a topic laying claim to Nigerian leadership role in the world. For the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe that Nigeria was laying claim to being the leader of the world in the way the United States would use the same phraseology to signify that. Even Nigerian officialdom does not suffer from such delusion of grandeur.

Read more at: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2016/11/nigerian-exceptionalism-quest-world-leadership-bolaji-akinyemi/