2015 Tutu Fellow, Dr Uzo Iweala, has written a piece for Foreign Affairs magazine titled Nigeria's Second Independence - Why the Giant of Africa Needs to Start Over. The piece is published in the July/August 2022 edition. Uzo is the Chief Executive Officer of The Africa Center, a non-profit based in New York.
In the piece, Uzo begins by saying that from the moment of it's independence in 1960, observers have questioned the country's viability as a multiethnic, multireligious state. When the devastating Nigerian civil war broke out in 1967, that skepticism appeared warranted. Since then, he says, the country's leadership has sought to preserve the unified state - even by force. But what the country needs more than ever, is to reimagine its structures of power and governance.
The 2015 elections, Uzo says, were both peaceful and also, ironically, a response to concern over sectarian and religious violence. But Buhari has disappointed. In February 2023, Nigeria is set to have its next elections. A question the electorate must answer will be not just whether Buhari’s government delivered on its ambitious agenda but also whether his eight years in power fostered or destroyed a sense of greater national unity. The issue, he says, isn't voting - but the system on which the country is built, which dates back to its colonial roots. As many Nigerian historians and journalists have noted, Uzo says, in the 1950s, while Nigerian elites were negotiating independence from the United Kingdom, their counterparts elsewhere were taking up arms against their colonial oppressors. In practice, this route to independence meant that discussions about a postcolonial Nigeria focused more on balancing power than the structure and purpose of the state apparatus. Even the new constitution in 1963 did not take into account the deep differences that underpinned each region's political practices. The political history of the country, since then, has made Nigerians sceptical of politics and it is reflected in turnout. In 2019, presidential elections dropped to a record low of 35%.
What Nigeria needs, he say, is not just a change in leadership, but a refounding.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and with 215 million people, its most populous. A thriving Nigeria could transform all of Africa for the better, serving as an economic engine for the continent, and could influence global affairs as the world’s most powerful Black nation. But if Nigeria limps along or disintegrates, the accompanying violence and economic chaos could doom the country and the region for generations to come.
To obtain a thriving Nigeria, the prescription by academics is 'good leadership and good governance'. Uzo says this view of Nigeria requires the country to find a unicorn: a democratic disciplinarian who will bring order and prosperity to the system. Instead, he says, the country needs more than an individual to fix the country's problems. It needs much bigger reforms that begin by reconceptualising the country's political structure. At the core of Nigerian politics is an understanding among elites that the government and the resources it controls are not for the benefit of Nigeria’s people. The British extractive administrative state has come full circle.
Uzo argues - if Nigeria is not a democracy, then the solution to its problems can hardly be found by simply going through the motions of another election. A cure for what ails the country requires something else: a complete rethinking of the purpose of government. Rather than the chaotic and unstructured manner in which the young population is conducting this conversation, while feeling left behind, a national conference is needed with representatives from all parts of the country in which a new constitution can be created. 50% of the delegates should be women and a significant share should be young. Pointing to Afe Babalola, Uzo says all of Nigeria's ethnicities should be represented and current officeholders should not be allowed to participate as they are the beneficiaries of the destructive system still reigning.
Nigeria has had these national dialogues in the past, but it is now at a point where it desperately needs unfettered dialogue. They must answer the question - do they want to remain Nigeria - an arbitrary product of colonial boundaries - or is peaceful decoupling of Nigeria's regions from the federal government a better path? Hard questions. Uzo says dissolution should not be taken lightly, but as is true of many a broken marriage, reconciliation can only begin after serious contemplation of divorce.
To make Nigeria more governable and equitable, Uzo argues for a number of changes. The country's experiment with a powerful centralized executive must come to an end - the country's history have demonstrated it does not work, and use instead Switzerland's model of a rotating presidency made up of a council of regional leaders and decisions made locally. Rather than an all-powerful centralized executive, he says, the president of the Swiss Confederation is the first among equals in a group of federal councillors. A new system of government should grant different regions of the country the ability to decide on their own methods of governance.
And, he says, it should also consider new rules on who can vote and hold office. In a country where half the population is under 18, it would be reasonable to lower the voting age to 16 and require retirement from all political and government offices by 60. Nigeria has made little progress under geriatric rule and electoral rules should require all areas of government must have at least 50% participation by women.
Finally, Uzo says Nigeria needs to shift from the Western paradigm in which people are elected to pass laws, to a new system in which voters directly participate in the creation of laws that elected officials will implement. Technology makes direct democracy easier and improve participation. There are other reforms Nigerians can consider, but they should not limit their thinking to outdated European and US models.
Whether Nigeria will act on a vision of improved democracy will have implications not just for the country, but the region. Without effective government, it will not be able to deal with impacts of climate change, switching from fossil fuels, and destabilization. The solutions will come, he says, as long as the country allows itself to dream.
Read the entire article at Foreign Affairs.