Sixty years ago this month, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa became the first prime minister of an independent Nigeria. The population was 45m, Lagos was the capital and Nigeria was pumping a mere 45,000 barrels of oil a day. The Nigerian pound, which remained the currency until it gave way to the naira in 1973, carried a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, monarch of Britain, the departing colonial power.
Much has changed since then. Nigeria’s population has more than quadrupled to 206m, the capital is Abuja and the treasury is hooked on revenue from the 2m barrels of sweet crude oil the country produces each day.
Nigeria now has a US presidential system rather than the parliamentary one it inherited from Britain. No longer are there three administrative regions, representing the largest Igbo, Fulani-Hausa and Yoruba communities in a country of 250 ethnic groups and 500 languages. Instead, Nigeria is subdivided into 36 states, many virtually bankrupt, and one federal territory that holds the purse strings.
36 Number of states in Nigeria
After three decades of near-successive, mostly ruinous, military dictatorships in which generals grabbed power, democracy has held for 21 years.
Seen by many as the country’s most important postcolonial achievement, democracy brings the prospect, if not yet the reality, of a government more accountable to its people’s pressing needs. Protests that erupted across the country this month against police brutality were also an expression of a deeper frustration with authority, especially from young people.
“Democracy brought voice to Nigeria,” says Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the UN and one of many Nigerians to have scaled the heights of international diplomacy. “Democracy also brought hope, and with hope came a clear view of the possibilities.” For tens of millions of Nigerians living below $1.90 a day, hope is all there is. As bad as state violence is the lack of opportunity.
Nigeria’s leaders have largely failed to provide the public goods that could help unleash the people’s potential, says Ms Mohammed.
“Basic service delivery on education, health, water and sanitation have not reached millions of Nigerians, especially women and girls. This has made the foundation of our home weak.”
Millions of girls receive little or no education, especially in the north, where many are married off early.
Throughout all the ups and downs of a political system that historian Max Siollun describes as “a cut-throat Game of Thrones”, one thing has stayed more or less constant: Nigeria’s borders.
Despite the attempted secession of Biafra in 1967 and continued tension between the three main regions — each of which feels marginalised or aggrieved — the country cobbled together by British imperialism has stayed largely intact. More than that, it has forged a genuine national identity stronger than the centrifugal forces threatening to pull it apart.
Still tensions are very much alive, both in the scramble for resources between states as well as in conflicts caused by the militant Islamists of Boko Haram in the north-east, militancy in the oil-rich Delta, and clashes between herders and settled farmers.
“We can’t figure out how Nigeria should be, how the parts should relate to the whole,” says Wole Soyinka, the playwright, poet and Nobel laureate.
If democracy is entrenched, the regular exercises in voting — lubricated by vast amounts of money — remain essentially a struggle between elites over resources and patronage.
“There is commitment on the part of Mr President to fight corruption,” says Pauline Tallen, minister of women’s affairs, referring to Muhammadu Buhari, the 77-year-old former general who has maintained an iron-cast reputation for probity. “Corruption is killing this country and he has made it top of his agenda.”
Yet the oil curse has been hard to shake and some worry that whatever progress has been made under Mr Buhari will not outlast his presidency.
“Oil has been a nightmare for us. We should not have had oil,” says Dimieari Von Kemedi, an environmental activist, former presidential adviser and agricultural entrepreneur.
Many Asian economies with comparable prospects to Nigeria in 1960, such as South Korea and Taiwan, had few resources, forcing them to build export industries. Nigeria, by contrast, has seen other industries killed off by an uncompetitive exchange rate that still makes it cheaper to import textiles — and even basic commodities such as rice — than to produce them at home.
Structurally, the lure of oil wealth has transformed much of Nigeria’s entrepreneurial class into crony capitalists who find it easier to make money through connections and arbitrage than through productive activity and technological innovation. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister who is now a leading contender to head the World Trade Organization, says Nigeria’s biggest failure has been to squander billions of dollars of oil revenue that started flowing in the 1970s.
Successive Nigerian governments have neglected public health and education even more than they have roads and ports, abandoning millions of people while the elite seeks refuge in private schools and hospitals at home and abroad.
“We could have managed our finances more prudently and invested more in infrastructure,” says Ms Okonjo-Iweala, with some understatement. “We would be in a better place now. We would have the basis to really push forward.”
Nigeria matters. Its sheer size means that what happens there affects the continent as a whole. Africa’s most populous country is also its biggest economy, one that could be an engine for regional growth, investment and innovation, especially with the advent of the African Continental Free Trade Area of which Nigeria ought to be a major beneficiary.
It has military and diplomatic clout. Its soldiers helped restore peace in Sierra Leone and its brightest pack the upper echelons of international institutions. And it wields US-style soft power. From musicians such as Fela Kuti and Burna Boy, to writers Chinua Achebe and Chigozie Obioma, and from Nollywood to fashion designers, its artists have attracted international attention.
“Nigeria is a huge cultural export power,” says Feyi Fawehinmi, a Nigerian author and historian. “We may not have manufacturing but in terms of arts, writers, filmmakers, music-makers, Nigeria generates this easily and in abundance.”
A young population is good, it’s great, but it’s only great when you find jobs for those young people
Lola Shoneyin, who runs Nigeria’s successful Aké Arts and Book Festival, says the problem is a state that has allowed institutions, such as once top-class universities, to crumble. “For somebody who has lived in Nigeria a lot of my adult life it is sad for me that it’s possible to look back at a time when things were better.”
Ms Okonjo-Iweala prefers to look forward. “Our young people are innovative and optimistic and doing so many incredible things,” she says. “This thrills me and inspires me.”
Not only is such creativity evident in the arts, she says, but in innovative tech companies such as Andela, a software developer, Kobo360, an online logistics company, and Paga, a payments platform.
Nigeria’s median age is 18. More than half its people have known nothing but democracy. But if they are the future, says Aliko Dangote, the continent’s richest businessman, they are also a source of unease. “A young population is good, it’s great, but it’s only great when you find jobs for those young people,” he says. “Our major challenge now going forward is, how do we find jobs for this restless youth?”
More stories from the Nigeria at 60 report
Nigeria at 60: a country’s greatest achievements and biggest failures
Afrobeats: Nigerian music is hugely popular but can it make money?
What makes Nigerians in diaspora so successful
Why Nigeria struggles to win its security battle
Has Nigeria missed the manufacturing bandwagon?
Nigeria’s future is in the hands of its young protesters
Read the rest of the report at ft.com/nigeria-60
Mr Dangote argues that the answer lies in more business-friendly policies that encourage domestic investment. “You can continue calling foreign investors till kingdom comes but they won’t invest if they don’t see locals investing first,” he says.
“The biggest challenge with Nigeria is there’s always been a lack of visionary leadership,” Mr Dangote adds. “I am a great believer in Nigeria because the opportunities here are enormous. What we need is a consistency in government policies.”
Nigerians are fully aware of their potential, says Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another acclaimed author. “We in Nigeria have an unearned and funny-in-many-ways sense of superiority. Nigerians are the Americans of Africa.”
Even Mr Kemedi, who sees so much wrong, shares this brash sense of pride. “It’s a big powerful country in spite of all its challenges,” he says. “At the end of the day, we can look at Nigeria and say we are all part of it.”
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This article is part of, an FT special report published in the Financial Times on Thursday 29 October and online at.
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