The debt we owe Nigeria

30Dec 2019
The Guardian
The debt we owe Nigeria

That so many of our professionals are leaving Nigeria for societies where things work and where they believe their families can be assured of a secure means of livelihood is a normal human aspiration.

By Olusegun Adeniyi

I understand the frustrations arising from government failings and dwindling opportunities pushing this drift, especially for our young men and women. But I fail to understand why members of my generation and those before us would join the chorus that we owe Nigeria nothing. That is not true.

It is important we deal with this transferred aggression against a country that has been serially raped and disdained by those to whom it provided a ladder of opportunity. Even our young people, especially those born with privileges and second passports, are perhaps where they are today because of what Nigeria gave their parents. My appreciation of this fact was fired by a tweet last week from an American, Lacy M. Johnson, professor and founder @FloodMuseum who wrote: "When I left grad school in 2008, I owed $70k in federal student loans. (A poor choice I wouldn't make again). For the past 11 years, I've been making payments (except for a period of under employment), totaling about $60,000 in payments. Guess how much I still owe: $70,000."

That opened a floodgate of revelations by other Americans. The first respondent commented: "I graduated from law school in 1978 at the age of 27. I don't remember the sum total of the loans (7 years' worth) but I remember making my last payment at age 39, some 12 years later. I cannot imagine doing it in today's world. This has to change." Next came Liv Covfefe who tweeted from @liddlemocovfefe handle: "Have two bachelors and a law degree. Actual tuition was in the neighbourhood of $100K for all three. I owe close to $200k now. It'll never be paid off unless I win a lottery." And then @saturnineba: "Started out owing $120k. 7 years, never missed a payment, got it all the way down to $137k!"

Until perhaps two decades ago when we began establishing private universities, all universities in Nigeria were publicly-owned and tuition-free. Many of today's big men and women were products of these universities. In fact, those who graduated before my generation were even fed free of charge! So, since independence, Nigeria has produced university graduates who paid nothing for their education, yet feel no sense of obligation to the public purse from which it was funded. If we did, Nigeria would not be what it is today. Sadly, the more some politicians savage Nigeria--even if they contributed to the rot--the more popular their opinion, because of the erroneous assumption that whichever government happens to be in power at a particular time is to blame.

Meanwhile, the implication of the thread on student loans in the United States is that were we to be born in those countries we all admire so much, our opportunities might have been limited by the prevailing circumstance concerning the funding of university education there. According to a report, "more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which has become one of the biggest consumer debt categories" while all student debt in the United States "now totals more than $1.5 trillion." In the United Kingdom where more than £16 billion is loaned to students each year, outstanding loans at the end of March 2019 reached £121 billion while the government forecasts the value to be around £450 billion by the middle of this century. The question to ask is, if our society is not working, should we blame it on 'Nigeria' that at least gave its leadership elite free university education? How have we repaid the country for its largesse?

In a nation where public officials excel only at lamentations, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, said on Tuesday that no fewer than 100 million Nigerians are without decent jobs. "Nigeria is over 200 million and about 60 percent are youths who need employment. Unfortunately, only 10 percent have decent jobs." Despite this pathetic picture, our public officials continue their binge spending. With the approval of his $29.96 billion loan request, President Muhammadu Buhari has in return approved a whopping sum of N37 billion (more than $100 million) for the renovation of the National Assembly. That is about 4% of the debt being procured, just to renovate one government edifice! And with money involved, whether they are APC or PDP, our lawmakers in Abuja speak the same language and worship the same god; they are altogether now, moving to the 'Next Level'!

Yet these examples do not even compare to the waste of subsidy payments that continue to gulp trillions of Naira every year or the madness that goes in the name of governance in many of the states. With almost a million children out of school, Jigawa government yesterday prioritised the construction of 95 mosques across the state above everything else. All these are choices made by human beings for which we blame 'Nigeria'. That is because of a shallow understanding of nation building. It is the people that build a country but in our case, we expect Nigeria to build the people. It doesn't work that way.

Following the killings of 39 persons by bandits in Tabanni, Allikiru, Gaidan Kare, Kursa, Dankilawa, Ruwan Tsamiya and Gidan Barebari villages in Rabah Local Government of Sokoto in July last year, I visited the state. In my trip to the affected area, I was accompanied by Mallam Abubakar Shekara, the Director-General, Media and Public Affairs to Governor Aminu Tambuwal. As I marveled at how kind nature has been to us as a country and agonised over mismanaged opportunities, Shekara shared with me a story that is worth recalling. After God had created the world, according to Shekara, "He sent an angel to carry resources to different parts. In America, God told the angel to drop a lot of resources because people from different parts of the world would congregate there. In Asia, God also directed the angel to drop a lot of resources because the inhabitants would be very industrious. The same pattern continued until the angel got to Africa and he had not even expended half the resources he carried. But upon entering the continent, the angel stumbled and spilled all the resources. As he tried to pack them God told him: 'Don't bother, just watch. The people will not use them'."

You can interchange Africa with Nigeria. But since no one accepts responsibility for anything, almost everyone points fingers, oblivious to the fact that Nigeria did not degenerate to this abysmal level in one day. Therefore, cursing Nigeria, speaking ill of her and throwing tantrums, especially on social media, may appeal to the mob but that is not the way other societies were built. Nigeria is what it is today because of the poor choices that were made over the past six decades by generations of leaders at practically all levels; and in all sectors, public and private. Changing the narrative of our country requires more than moaning about our challenges or putting the blame only on those we do not like.

As I once wrote on this page, nothing perhaps best illustrates our situation than the embedded message in "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" which is regarded as one of the best works of literature regarding ethics and society. Published in 1974 by Ursula K. Le Guin as a short story in her collection, "The Wind's Twelve Quarters", it is about a beautifully constructed utopian society called Omelas where the prosperity of the people came at the expense of one deprived child locked in a dingy small room. At the coming of age, every citizen of Omelas is confronted with the condition of the child and no matter how well the matter was explained to them, "these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations... Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives... ."

A major theme in this story, popular in leadership courses, is morality and how different people within a given society react to situations around them. While the citizens of Omelas were quite aware of the child's deplorable condition, they did nothing. Apparently because their happiness was dependent on his deprivation. Omelas is a good metaphor for our country today: To every dysfunction, there are beneficiaries. The challenge of course is that the option taken by the residents of Omelas offers no solution to the what ails us as a country. We must confront our own demons.

There are two critical issues in the foregoing. The first is our collective sense of entitlement to free university education which we must, at some point, interrogate in light of our current reality. Since we have a way of subverting everything, Nigeria is the only country I know where university education is far cheaper than primary or secondary education and we can see the result in the standards. The second is our culture of unpatriotic self-flagellation. While each valid issue can stand on its own burning urgency, the tragedy is that Nigerians have perfected the art of detaching themselves from the nation as a shared patrimony. The standard refrain: "Nigeria is a useless country". It is understandable. When we exploit our delicate (ethnic and sectarian) fault-lines in a divisive political environment, it is difficult to hold anyone to account either for the past or the future; or for that matter, engage one another in any meaningful conversation on the way forward.

Even though Nigeria retains all the apparatus of a functioning state, it is obvious that the system has been rigged against the majority of the people. For us to develop as a society, we need to come to that special place where both the government and the people meet in an honest admission of shared responsibility for lost opportunities and also the challenge of national retrieval. This convergence between government and the people requires leadership and political will. Unfortunately, that is the tragic gap that has bedevilled our nation repeatedly over almost six decades.

In this season of goodwill to all men, we should spare a thought for our country by stopping to blame 'Nigeria' for our self-inflicted woes. I wish all my readers merry Christmas.

Still on the Road Sweeper

Following a short piece in my column of 10th October titled, 'Death of the Road Sweeper', a reader has offered the sum of N100,000 to the family of Mrs Folasade Ogunniyi who was knocked into the lagoon by a hit-and-run driver while performing her duty on the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. That the family of the deceased was only entitled to a sum of N45,000 from her employer, Highway Manager, was what touched the reader. If there is anybody who knows how I can contact her husband or other members of the family, the person should please get in touch with me.

The Federal Republic of Nigeria, commonly referred to as Nigeria is a federal republic in West Africa, bordering Niger in the north, Chad in the northeast, Cameroon in the southeast, and Benin in the west. Its coast in the south is located on the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. The federation comprises 36 states and 1 Federal Capital Territory, where the capital, Abuja is located. Nigeria is officially a democratic secular country.

Nigeria has been home to a number of ancient and indigenous kingdoms and states over the millennia. The modern state originated from British colonial rule beginning in the 19th century, and took its present territorial shape with the merging of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and Northern Nigeria Protectorate in 1914. The British set up administrative and legal structures while practising indirect rule through traditional chiefdoms. Nigeria became a formally independent federation in 1960. It experienced a civil war from 1967 to 1970. It thereafter alternated between democratically elected civilian governments and military dictatorships until it achieved a stable democracy in 1999, with the 2011 presidential election considered the first to be reasonably free and fair.

Nigeria is often referred to as the "Giant of Africa", owing to its large population and economy. With 186 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous country in the world. Nigeria has the third-largest youth population in the world, after India and China, with more than 90 million of its population under age 18. The country is viewed as a multinational state as it is inhabited by 250 ethnic groups, of which the three largest are the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba; these ethnic groups speak over 250 different languages and are identified with a wide variety of cultures. The official language is English. Nigeria is divided roughly in half between Christians, who live mostly in the southern part of the country, and Muslims, who live mostly in the north. A minority of the population practice religions indigenous to Nigeria, such as those native to the Igbo and Yoruba ethnicities.

As of 2015, Nigeria is the world's 20th largest economy, worth more than $500 billion and $1 trillion in terms of nominal GDP and purchasing power parity respectively. It overtook South Africa to become Africa's largest economy in 2014. The 2013 debt-to-GDP ratio was 11 percent. Nigeria is considered to be an emerging market by the World Bank; it has been identified as a regional power on the African continent, a middle power in international affairs, and has also been identified as an emerging global power. However, it currently has a "low" Human Development Index, ranking 152nd in the world. Nigeria is a member of the MINT group of countries, which are widely seen as the globe's next "BRIC-like" economies. It is also listed among the "Next Eleven" economies set to become among the biggest in the world. Nigeria is a founding member of the African Union and a member of many other international organizations, including the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations and OPEC.


The name Nigeria was taken from the Niger River running through the country. This name was coined in the late 19th century by British journalist Flora Shaw, who later married Lord Lugard, a British colonial administrator. The origin of the name Niger, which originally applied only to the middle reaches of the Niger River, is uncertain. The word is likely an alteration of the Tuareg name egerew n-igerewen used by inhabitants along the middle reaches of the river around Timbuktu prior to 19th-century European colonialism.


The Nok civilisation of Northern Nigeria flourished between 500 BC and AD 200, producing life-sized terracotta figures that are some of the earliest known sculptures in Sub-Saharan Africa. Further north, the cities Kano and Katsina have a recorded history dating to around 999 AD. Hausa kingdoms and the Kanem–Bornu Empire prospered as trade posts between North and West Africa.

The Kingdom of Nri of the Igbo people consolidated in the 10th century and continued until it lost its sovereignty to the British in 1911. Nri was ruled by the Eze Nri, and the city of Nri is considered to be the foundation of Igbo culture. Nri and Aguleri, where the Igbo creation myth originates, are in the territory of the Umeuri clan. Members of the clan trace their lineages back to the patriarchal king-figure Eri. In West Africa, the oldest bronzes made using the lost-wax process were from Igbo-Ukwu, a city under Nri influence.


The slave trade was engaged in by European state and non-state actors such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal and private companies, as well as various African states and non-state actors. With rising anti-slavery sentiment at home and changing economic realities, Great Britain outlawed the international slave trade in 1807. Following the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain established the West Africa Squadron in an attempt to halt the international traffic in slaves. It stopped ships of other nations that were leaving the African coast with slaves; the seized slaves were taken to Freetown, a colony in West Africa originally established for the resettlement of freed slaves from Britain. Britain intervened in the Lagos Kingship power struggle by bombarding Lagos in 1851, deposing the slave trade friendly Oba Kosoko, helping to install the amenable Oba Akitoye, and signing the Treaty between Great Britain and Lagos on 1 January 1852. Britain annexed Lagos as a Crown Colony in August 1861 with the Lagos Treaty of Cession. British missionaries expanded their operations and travelled further inland. In 1864, Samuel Ajayi Crowther became the first African bishop of the Anglican Church.

In 1885, British claims to a West African sphere of influence received recognition from other European nations at the Berlin Conference. The following year, it chartered the Royal Niger Company under the leadership of Sir George Taubman Goldie. In 1900 the company's territory came under the control of the British government, which moved to consolidate its hold over the area of modern Nigeria. On 1 January 1901, Nigeria became a British protectorate, and part of the British Empire, the foremost world power at the time. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the independent kingdoms of what would become Nigeria fought a number of conflicts against the British Empire's efforts to expand its territory. By war, the British conquered Benin in 1897, and, in the Anglo-Aro War (1901–1902), defeated other opponents. The restraint or conquest of these states opened up the Niger area to British rule.


In 1914, the British formally united the Niger area as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. Administratively, Nigeria remained divided into the Northern and Southern Protectorates and Lagos Colony. Inhabitants of the southern region sustained more interaction, economic and cultural, with the British and other Europeans owing to the coastal economy.

Christian missions established Western educational institutions in the Protectorates. Under Britain's policy of indirect rule and validation of Islamic tradition, the Crown did not encourage the operation of Christian missions in the northern, Islamic part of the country. Some children of the southern elite went to Great Britain to pursue higher education. By independence in 1960, regional differences in modern educational access were marked. The legacy, though less pronounced, continues to the present day. Imbalances between North and South were expressed in Nigeria's political life as well. For instance, northern Nigeria did not outlaw slavery until 1936 whilst in other parts of Nigeria slavery was abolished soon after colonialism.

Following World War II, in response to the growth of Nigerian nationalism and demands for independence, successive constitutions legislated by the British government moved Nigeria toward self-government on a representative and increasingly federal basis. By the middle of the 20th century, a great wave for independence was sweeping across Africa. Nigeria achieved independence in 1960.

Independent Federation and First Republic (1960–1966)

The Federation of Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960, while retaining the British monarch, Elizabeth II, as nominal head of state and Queen of Nigeria. Nigeria's government was a coalition of conservative parties: the Nigerian People's Congress (NPC), a party dominated by Northerners and those of the Islamic faith, and the Igbo and Christian-dominated National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) led by Nnamdi Azikiwe. Azikiwe replaced the colonial governor-general in November 1960. The opposition comprised the comparatively liberal Action Group (AG), which was largely dominated by the Yoruba and led by Obafemi Awolowo. The cultural and political differences between Nigeria's dominant ethnic groups – the Hausa ('Northerners'), Igbo ('Easterners') and Yoruba ('Westerners') – were sharp.

An imbalance was created in the polity by the result of the 1961 plebiscite. Southern Cameroons opted to join the Republic of Cameroon while Northern Cameroons chose to remain in Nigeria. The northern part of the country was now far larger than the southern part. In 1963, the nation established a Federal Republic, with Azikiwe as its first president. When elections were held in 1965, the Nigerian National Democratic Party came to power in Nigeria's Western Region.

Civil war (1967–1970)

The disequilibrium and perceived corruption of the electoral and political process led, in 1966, to back-to-back military coups. The first coup was in January 1966 and was led mostly by Igbo soldiers under Majors Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. The coup plotters succeeded in assassinating Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Premier Ahmadu Bello of the Northern Region and Premier Ladoke Akintola of the Western Region. But, the coup plotters struggled to form a central government. President Nwafor Orizu handed over government control to the Army, then under the command of another Igbo officer, General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi.

Later, the counter-coup of 1966, supported primarily by Northern military officers, facilitated the rise of Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon to head of state. Tension rose between North and South; Igbos in Northern cities suffered persecution and many fled to the Eastern Region.

In May 1967, the Eastern Region declared independence as a state called the Republic of Biafra, under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Emeka Ojukwu. The Nigerian Civil War began as the official Nigerian government side attacked Biafra on 6 July 1967 at Garkem. The 30-month war, with a long siege of Biafra and its isolation from trade and supplies, ended in January 1970. Estimates of the number of dead in the former Eastern Region are between 1 and 3 million people, from warfare, disease, and starvation, during the 30-month civil war.

France, Egypt, the Soviet Union, Britain, Israel, and others were deeply involved in the civil war behind the scenes. Britain and the Soviet Union were the main military backers of the Nigerian government while France and others aided the Biafrans. Nigeria used Egyptian pilots for their air force.

Military juntas (1970–1999)

During the oil boom of the 1970s, Nigeria joined OPEC and the huge oil revenues it was generating enriched the economy. Despite these revenues, the military government did little to improve the standard of living of the population, help small and medium businesses, or invest in infrastructure. As oil revenues fueled the rise of federal subsidies to states, the federal government became the centre of political struggle and the threshold of power in the country. As oil production and revenue rose, the Nigerian government became increasingly dependent on oil revenues and on international commodity markets for budgetary and economic concerns. It did not develop alternate revenue sources in the economy for economic stability. That spelled doom to federalism in Nigeria.

Beginning in 1979, Nigerians participated in a return to democracy when Olusegun Obasanjo transferred power to the civilian regime of Shehu Shagari. The Shagari government became viewed as corrupt by virtually all sectors of Nigerian society. In 1983 the inspectors of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) began to notice "the slow poisoning of the waters of this country".The military coup of Muhammadu Buhari shortly after the regime's re-election in 1984 was generally viewed as a positive development. Buhari promised major reforms, but his government fared little better than its predecessor. His regime was overthrown by another military coup in 1985.

The new head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, declared himself president and commander in chief of the armed forces and of the ruling Supreme Military Council. He set 1990 as the official deadline for a return to democratic governance. Babangida's tenure was marked by a flurry of political activity: he instituted the International Monetary Fund's Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) to aid in the repayment of the country's crushing international debt. At the time most federal revenue was dedicated to servicing that debt. He enrolled Nigeria in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which aggravated religious tensions in the country.

Babangida survived an abortive coup, then postponed a promised return to democracy to 1992. Free and fair electionswere finally held on 12 June 1993, the first since the military coup of 1983, with a presidential victory for Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola of the Social Democratic Party, who gained some 58 per cent of the votes, defeating Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention. However, Babangida annulled the elections, leading to massive civilian protests that effectively shut down the country for weeks. Babangida finally kept his promise to relinquish office to a civilian government, but not before appointing Ernest Shonekan head of an interim government. Babangida's regime has been considered the most corrupt, and responsible for creating a culture of corruption in Nigeria.

In late 1993 Shonekan's caretaker regime was overwhelmed by the military coup of General Sani Abacha, who used military force on a wide scale to suppress the continuing civilian unrest. He shifted money to offshore accounts in western European banks and defeated coup plots by bribing army generals. In 1995 the government hanged environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa on trumped-up charges in the deaths of four Ogoni elders. Lawsuits under the American Alien Tort Statute against Royal Dutch Shell and Brian Anderson, the head of Shell's Nigerian operation, settled out of court with Shell continuing to deny liability.