Recently, WhatsApp began trending with the article version of a panel discussion of the former United States Ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, the late Princeton Lyman. The panel discussion was at the 2009 Achebe Colloquium at the Brown University, United States. The article is titled “The Nigerian State and the US Strategic Interests.” That Lyman’s presentation still resonates almost nine years after its thoughts were brilliantly and forcefully presented from the deep perspectives of experience and perspicacity is a testament to the fundamental significance of the arguments of the seasoned diplomat as to the present global condition of the Nigerian state. The ambassador deconstructed the basis of Nigeria’s strategic influence in Africa and the world. He argued eloquently that to still insist that Nigeria’s population, for instance, constitute a strategic strength for Nigeria is to simply be playing the ostrich while other truly strategic states have already transformed the dynamics around the issues of global strategic thinking. And they have done this in ways that have truly transformed their global positioning. According to him, to keep repeating the national cliché that Nigeria is a great nation (or that one out of every five Africans is a Nigerian) is a national sentiment already defeated by Nigeria’s underdevelopment.
I understand where Ambassador Lyman’s conceptual and practical challenges are coming from. The idea of “strategy” is a strategic discourse in international and global relations. It points at those significant elements of a state’s sovereign existence that could count as bargaining chips in the state’s relationship with other states, and in ways that could also enhance the state’s developmental efforts. It is in this sense that Nigeria’s huge population and status as a global oil player become critical strategic factors. We all are familiar with the stakes of crude oil and the politics of international regulatory organizations like OPEC. We all are equally familiar with Nigeria fundamental roles in shaping the political and cultural discourses and dynamics on the African continent. When the last xenophobic attacks occurred in South Africa, Nigerians indignantly reminded the South Africans about the role of Nigeria not only in the agitations against apartheid, but also about the critical assistance Nigeria provided in securing the release of Nelson Mandela and ultimately in ending the apartheid system. We have equally pointed at the various peacekeeping campaigns in ECOMOG in which Nigeria is a critical partner.
What we are missing in this rhetoric of relevance is the crucial fact that the concept of strategy in international relations is not founded on any static framework. Strategy is strategic because it keeps evolving. States adjust their strategic reflections to deep global challenges and the dangers or possibilities that such challenges and events pose to their existence and development. Let us return to the politics of global oil. It is increasingly becoming clear that the strategic role of crude oil in the international markets has changed radically, especially for countries like Nigeria where it constitute the major economic product. The United States that once was Nigeria’s biggest buyer of oil has ceased been so. And this is because the United States, like most other states, keep reflecting on their economic status and how they can cancel out their strategic weaknesses. It is simply bad strategy for the United States to keep itself enslaved to Nigeria’s oil and the terrible fluctuations of the global oil market and pricing dynamics. Immediately the United States stopped importing Nigeria’s oil the reality of global strategy ought to have dawned on us. That was the period the Nigerian state ought to have commenced another level of serious national conversation and strategic reflection on the economic dangers of perpetual monoeconomy as well as the inherent virtues of getting diversification to happen as not just an emergency, but a national survival issue. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. Nigeria is still marinating in the illusion of national and continental grandeur founded on a rapidly diminishing sense of our relevance and significance.
I read this illusory sense of grandeur and Nigeria’s present underdevelopment as arising from a fundamental difference between triviality and the substantive elements that makes for strategic decision making in any state. As far as I am concerned, the difference between strategic relevance and strategic irrelevance of any state is a function of such a state’s decision-making quotient. By “decision making quotient,” I refer to the state’s decision-making processes and institutions, and their outcomes vis-à-vis the objectives the state has set for itself in development terms. The difference between Nigeria and the United States (or other developed states for that matter) is the differentials in the decision-making quotients of the two states. When a state ultimately fails and another does not, we must look to the functional optimality of their decision-making apparatuses. Larry Diamond once warned that there are four possible factors that could lead to state failure. One, the administrators failed to anticipate a problem before it surfaced; two, those managing the decision-making apparatuses fail to see the problem for what it is when it surfaced; three, they ignore the problem even when properly perceived; and finally, failure of attempts to resolve the problem.
The real problem with the decision-making processes and institutions of the Nigerian state is that the logic of strategic developmental reflection on the past and future of the Nigerian state has been subordinated to the superfluity of politics. Politicians always look for political capital that will assure their place on the scheme of power. Every decision is weighed critically to ensure that they yield the most political possibilities. The difference between releasing money for the upgrade of a minor road and the rehabilitation of a major teaching hospital is that the former provides more political capital for the governor’s reelection bid. Thus, politics in Nigeria, like in most states across the world, manifests the worst form of self-centeredness. In essence, politics detract from the strategic significance of a larger picture by reducing everything to the immediate and to the present and the now. Development does not matter as long as the politicians keep a tight hold on power while satisfying the network of clients and patrons.
Permit me to cite an example in the administrative history of Nigeria. It is a worthwhile example since its consequences are still with us today. In 1974, the Udoji Reform Commission was set up and it released its recommendations as to how Nigeria’s administrative framework could be transformed in line with the managerial revolution which have impacted other states’ decision-making quotient. The Udoji Report recommended the institution of a performance management dynamics vide what then was understood as planning, programming budgeting system (PPBS) and management by objective (MBO) backstopped by project management tools and techniques that would change the performance output of public servants as well as increase the productivity profile of the Nigerian state. Unfortunately, the military regime, at the time, calculated the political capital of this Report rather than see the developmental consequences. In deciding to implement the monetary aspect of the Report, the administration gained sufficient popularity. However, the failure to put in place a performance management metric that would have put Nigeria’s administrative framework on an optimal basis has constrained the functionality of the public service to date.
How then can we say the Nigerian state is making progress if we are locked into the timelessness of present selfish considerations that fails to see the trees for the wood? What then is strategic reflection if we persistently insist on trivial national pursuits rather than generating national conversations on the status of Nigeria in the eyes of Nigerians themselves and in the eyes of others? Nigeria’s foreign policy statement has become a documentary narrative of what greatness we used to have. It fails to feed into current and evolving global strategic positioning that is founded on economic strength and power. Nigeria’s major challenge since independence is that of facilitating a nation building framework that would enable the emergence of a genuine nation out of the diverse constituents the colonialists cobbled together. After fifty-nine years of independence, Nigeria has still not managed to appropriate the decision-making dynamics that would have fashioned a civic orientation that answers the national question. We are still as divided as we were at the immediate post-independence period. The kind of insecurity and violence that engulfed the first Republic in the 60s is threatening us again. And yet we have not found a way out.
Becoming strategically relevant is not a function of dwelling on Nigeria’s historic relevance. Rather, it has to do with increasingly firming up those historic moments with a fundamental perception of global and regional circumstances, and responding to these circumstances with a deep sense of national significance. Such significance derives from deep thinking Nigeria’s development and national challenges. Nigeria’s national question is deeply connected with Nigeria’s economic development. Answering the national question is a developmental issue. And to make sense of this challenge is to deflect the decision-making apparatuses of the Nigerian state into substantive matters devoid of the egoism and narcissism of bad politics. The politics that is strategic is the one that focuses on the destiny of the Nigerian state vis-à-vis its continuing relevance in the global world. Nigeria’s present political architecture will make us increasingly irrelevant not only in Africa but in global reckoning ultimately.
The Nigerian state is situated in the context of so many moments of history.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor of Public Administration. Emails: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com