Nigeria at 59 and the quest for greatness: wishing, striving and thriving

07 Oct 2019


Nigeria can strive for greatness, if we really want to, if we know what to do and DECIDE to do it.

The text of the guest lecture by Professor Kingsley Moghalu, OON, former Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria, at the 2019 Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) of Nigeria Ltd’s Nigerian Independence Anniversary Celebration (NIAC) Lecture, on September 27, 2019.

In the Beginning

Let’s begin with the theme of this lecture, as set by the Shell Staff Club: “Nigeria at 59: Thriving for Greatness”. It appears politically correct. But you will forgive me if I begin by querying it. Because, when you are traveling from anywhere to any destination, you must be clear about where you are at present and where exactly you are going. Else, you are likely to get lost and miss your destination!
Why do I say this? Because the phrase “Thriving for Greatness” could be interpreted to mean that Nigeria is “thriving” or is seriously grasping for “greatness”. So, first, what does the word “thrive” mean? The dictionary definition of the word is “grow and develop well or vigorously”. For example: “the new baby thrived”. A nation is like a child – it can thrive if it grows from babyhood (Nigeria at independence in 1960) and do so “well and vigorously”. Synonyms for the word “thrive” include “prosper”, ‘flourish”, “bloom”, “blossom”, “advance”, or “succeed”.

Let’s look at the noun “greatness”. It’s defined as “the quality of being great, eminence, or distinction”. Synonyms for greatness include: pre-eminence, illustriousness, reputation, status, standing. From the real meaning of these two words, I conclude that Nigeria as it exists today is not “thriving for greatness” because we are neither thriving in the real sense, nor are we great, again, in the real sense of the word.

The real question is whether, at 59 years as a country, we are even striving for greatness. The word “strive”, a verb, means “make great efforts to achieve or obtain something”. Given our national condition today, it is quite debatable whether we are, even, striving for greatness. A full 59 years after independence, it looks as if we have been striving in reverse gear.

Nigeria can strive for greatness, if we really want to, if we know what to do and DECIDE to do it. We can achieve greatness if we do the right things and do them consistently. China and several East Asian nations, including South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have achieved much success in one generation, but were not always as great as they are today. Even the United States of America, the world’s pre-eminent power, was once a colony of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, an imperial power for centuries. Moreover, today, global power and dominance is shifting from the Western world to Rising Asia. What’s the point here? We too can rise.

What Makes Nations Great

The greatness of any country is determined by four factors. Nigeria, should we decide to strive for greatness, will be no exception. These four factors are:

1.    Technological capacity:  This is the foundation of national greatness, and it influences how far or how well a nation achieves the other conditions I will mention subsequently. The rise and fall of nations have frequently been determined by technological capacity. The rise of the western world was propelled by the beginning of the age of innovation and the consequent industrial revolution of the 18th century. Ancient Egypt, dominated by Nubian(black) pharaohs, achieved scientific wonders such as the Great Pyramid of Giza. But that epoch was ended by subsequent waves of invasions by Asiatic Hyksos and Assyrians in 671BC and by Persians in 525BC, all of which was achieved by virtue of the superior weapons of the invaders such as chariots and iron weapons. The western world was able to establish the transatlantic slave trade of Africans, started by the Portuguese in the 15th century AD, largely owing to technological superiority, in particular gun powder.

2.    Economic wealth: This is the wealth of nations, measured by the extent and diversity of economic production, the average incomes and quality of life of citizens. The United States has the world’s largest Gross Domestic Product with a numerical GDP of $20 trillion. China is the second with $15 trillion, while Japan comes in 3rd with $5 trillion. Nigeria’s GDP is estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be $440 billion in 2019, ranking 28th in the world. The combined numerical GDP of the 54 countries of the African Union is $2.2 trillion, slightly less than the GDP of Brazil.

Perhaps a more accurate measure of how well and inclusive the economies of countries are is the GDP per capita, the average income per person when the GDP is divided by the population. This is an indicator of standard of living rather than an accurate reflection of personal income. The annual GDP per capita of Switzerland is $82,000 (2nd in the world), Singapore is $64,000 (7th), Malaysia is $10,000 (63rd), and Nigeria is $2,000 (141st). At Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which takes into account the cost of living in various countries as well as realities such as the exchange rate, Nigeria’s GDP per capita is $6,000 (130th in the world) while South Korea is $41,000 (29th) and Singapore is $100,000 (3rd).

When we come to the Human Development Index, perhaps the best measure of quality of life in terms of such things as access to and quality of healthcare, education, potable water, as well as life expectancy, Nigeria ranks in the low human development category at 157 out of 189 as at 2017. In 2018 the World Bank Ranked Nigeria 152nd out of a total of 157 countries in its Human Capital Index. We are also known ingloriously as the poverty capital of the world, with 92 million of our citizens living in absolute poverty.

3.    Military capability: According to a global military ranking institution, Global Fire Power, Nigeria ranks 43rd in global military strength as at 2018. But Egypt is ranked as Africa’s leading military power, followed closely by Algeria, South Africa, and Nigeria. The United States retained the first place in the rankings, followed by Russia and China.

As we know from the conflict with Boko Haram, our military capabilities are clearly inadequate for a country of Nigeria’s size and population. Regrettably, our military has increasingly been deployed in our domestic civilian space to quell domestic dissent because our internal security capabilities are extremely weak. Nigeria has also been rated as having the worst police force in the world.

4.    Diplomatic Influence: We cannot be abroad what we are not at home. Effective foreign policy can only be sustained by strong domestic foundations. It is without dispute that, over the past decade, Nigeria’s standing in the world has declined as its economy and internal cohesion have been severely weakened by incompetent leadership and management. Our foreign policy has no clear focus, and our country’s ability to protect its citizens and other interests abroad has waned. The current diplomatic crisis created by xenophobic attacks against Nigerian immigrants in South Africa is the latest demonstration of this reality.

I have discussed these indices of global power and influence in order to establish clarity in our mind that Nigeria is certainly not thriving for greatness. We are not great because we frequently invoke the rhetoric of greatest, or because we have the potential to be a great country. After 60 years of independence, it is time to move from wishful thinking to real national ambition, from rhetoric to purposeful action, from potential to real achievement. All of this requires that we must strive before we can thrive.

How to Rebound: Three Strikes and We are China

That striving must focus on the right things if we are to make a headway. Our country faces many challenges, not least of which is the challenge of nationhood. We are a country but not a nation, really. We are still a disparate collection of ethnic groups that still cannot agree on the basis of nationhood in one country. Because of this reality, we lack unity of purpose, and our politics is both Hobbesian and Darwinian. It is a zero-sum game in which ethnic, religious and class interests compete for domination over national and natural resources, recycling poverty in the process, rather than one of competing visions and ideas that can create progress and prosperity. It is a game dominated for far too long by “career politicians” who broadly lack the vision and competence to create a thriving economy that is the backbone of greatness.

Against this background, I recently posted on the social media as follows: “Nigeria today is on shaky ground, but three strikes and we’re the next China; 1. Electoral reform (e-voting) so our citizens can truly choose their leaders; 2. Re-establish fiscally autonomous regions (Restructuring); 3. We elect a leader who’ll face the future and not the past.”

Electoral Reform

Electoral reform is job number one for Nigeria because we have chosen the path of democracy, and so far, our record as a democracy in which the will of the people determines electoral ones is a sorry one. Our elections since 1999 have been trailed by a culture of rigging, electoral violence, voter intimidation, and more recently, direct vote buying.
Nigerians are losing faith in our country’s electoral process because they believe, with significant justification that their votes do not and will not count. To quote the Russian dictator, Josef Stalin, in the early 20th century, “It is not those who vote that count, but those that count the votes”. It is no surprise that voter apathy is high. A total of 84 million people were registered to vote in the 2019 elections. Only 27 million people voted. Given the generally poor performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which as confirmed by the reports of independent election monitors was a retrogression from that of the 2015 elections, we are likely to see even worse levels of citizen and voter apathy in the 2023 elections without fundamental electoral reforms.
Electoral reform, because Nigeria is simply not practicing real democracy if we are to be honest with ourselves. Without electoral reform we cannot elect good and competent leaders because broadly corrupt and governance-incompetent politicians who have captured the system will continue to emerge as our “elected’ leaders. Nigeria cannot attain real development on this trajectory.
We need reforms in four major areas. First, the whole process of registering to vote and voting is onerous and burdensome. Voter registration and voting must be made easier for citizens.     Second, we need to create an informed, educated electorate in order to achieve better electoral outcomes. Illiterate and poor citizens form the bulk of voters in Nigeria. We cannot expect them to assess political parties and candidates in an independent and informed manner. The result is that they vote for the same parties and politicians that have kept them poor. Here, I must note that our educated elite and professionals are the most politically apathetic citizens. This must change. Your personal success is increasingly meaningless in a sea of kidnapping, killer herdsmen, poverty and unemployment. We cannot permanently fence out the poor and desperate from our high walls and gated mansions.
Third, the voting and collation of results must be made more transparent. There is too much room for fabrication of voting results under our current electoral system. The best answer is electronic/ digital voting, backed up with blockchain technology to manage the risks peculiar to this approach.
Fourth, the Nigerian Constitution, which established INEC, and the Electoral Act need to be amended and brought into alignment. The independence of INEC needs to be guaranteed by removing the power to appoint the Chairman and Commissioners of the Commission from the President, and placed in the hands of a judicial body such as the National Judicial Council.

Constitutional Restructuring

Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution has put a ceiling on our country’s possibilities to strive and thrive as a nation. We are a federation in name only, because constitutional powers, including over natural resources and fiscal revenues therefrom are excessively concentrated in the federal government, with 68 items on the Exclusive Legislature List of the Constitution. Politics in Nigeria is thus all about control of central power and its resource rents. Regional fiscal autonomy will spur more rapid development. Most large land-mass, high-population and ethnically diverse nations practice federalism, a form of government in which constitutional powers are shared and balanced between national and sub-national units. Examples include USA, India, Brazil, and Canada.
I recommend a constitutional arrangement of Nigeria based on geopolitical/geo-economic zones, with devolution of powers, including “resource control”, abolition of local government as a constitutional tier of government (regions should create local government structures) and full separation of religion from the state. Regional governments should contribute a portion of their revenues, say 40 percent (including from mineral resources) to the federal government. This arrangement, closer to what obtained under the 1963 constitution, is what is best for Nigeria. It will enable the regions grow at their individual paces and competitively, too. Key functions such as the military, foreign affairs, and the central bank, will remain the responsibility of the federal government. A regional structure will also have the advantage of economies of scale in manufacturing, trade and other economic activities.

Transformative Leadership

Nigeria needs leadership that faces the future and not our past which should only serve as lessons on what we should avoid or strengthen. We need leadership with a worldview, a national ambition based on which we can build unity of purpose without which we cannot strive, let alone thrive. Without fundamental electoral reform, it will be difficult for this kind of leadership to emerge in our country.
We often speak of leadership failure, but we as citizens also have a responsibility to engage actively in the political process to ensure the emergence of visionary, competent leaders. This is precisely why I sacrificed my personal resources and comfort, at the risk of life and health, to run as a candidate for the Office of the President in 2019. All too often, our citizens have failed to do their part, but spend much of their time complaining about the status quo while empowering its continuity. It is thus true that every nation gets the leadership it deserves.


I returned to Nigeria two days ago from Lake Como, Italy, where I participated in a very useful dialogue on the question; “Can Africa Be the Next Asia?”. The meeting, organized by the Johannesburg-based Brethurst Foundation, was co-chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Thirty scholars, diplomats, policymakers and emerging African political leaders tackled what I consider an existential question for Africa in general and Nigeria in particular: Can Africa, facing high levels of poverty and rising population, achieve East Asia’s feat of taking hundreds of millions of their citizen from poverty to prosperity in one generation?    
It is possible, but first we must change the Nigerian and African mindset and become a people with a collective sense of urgency about our condition, and “development-obsessed” leaders. China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam have had leaders and citizens with such a mindset. We must have it, too. Only then can we begin to strive and eventually, thrive in greatness.