Nigeria remains a country in crisis and in need of healing, says veteran journalist, author and Coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL). Sharing his thoughts on Nigeria under President Ahmed Bola Tinubu, Chido Onumah says there has been no concrete change or marked departure from the previous administration.
“Beyond the constitutional requirement that gives every part of country a presence in the cabinet, there hasn’t been a conscious effort to open up the government. It is still as clannish as previous governments,” says Chido Onumah. According to Onumah, there is a tendency to feel that President Tinubu seems to be carrying on as one who is afraid of the consequences of doing the right thing.
“Nigeria is a country of great potentials, but it stops at that. The country faces an existential crisis. The fundamental challenge of Nigeria is that of nationhood and not many people understand this and among those who understand it, even fewer are interested in interrogating it. Perhaps, it is not convenient, perhaps it is not politically correct. Whatever the reason, we need to theorize the problems of Nigeria. I don’t think we have imagined enough what Nigeria should be,” says Onumah in the interview which also takes a look at the political future of major Tinubu challengers like Atiku Abubarkar and Peter Obi.
How has Nigeria fared since President Tinubu took over power?
Chido Onumah: I think the country is in its death throes, literarily. Things haven’t been the same in Nigeria since the current government came to power. The first sign of how bad the situation will be emerged on May 29, 2023, when President Tinubu in his inaugural address announced the removal of so-called subsidy on fuel, thereby raising the cost of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) or petrol as it is called in Nigeria, and associated products.
Petrol is perhaps the most essential commodity in Nigeria. It powers vehicles, in a country that has no functional alternative means of mass transportation other than personal vehicles; a country that has one of the worst power-generating, transmitting, and distributing capacities in the world. It means citizens, offices and businesses have to rely on generators. Cost of transportation and staple food items have tripled. Cost of local production has gone up. The cost of services has skyrocketed. Nigeria is an oil producing country with four non-functional refineries which are a drain on public fund. There are no signs that these refineries will be fixed any time soon. It means the country will continue to import refined petroleum products.
Insecurity is rife. Over the Christmas holidays, according to reports, more than 150 people were killed in series of attacks on 17 villages in central Nigeria. I don’t need to remind us that the country is not at war. It may well be. Banditry, kidnapping for ransom, cult violence, insurgency and terrorism continue unabated. Even those who supported President Tinubu are groaning. Nigeria is a bad place. It would require more than the current order to fix the country or even restore hope.
His election was hotly contested by candidates of the PDP and the Labour party, did the decision of the Supreme Court strengthen or hurt democracy in Nigeria?
Chido Onumah: It did, and I am not sure how soon the country will recover from what some people have described as an electoral heist with the imprimatur of the country’s judiciary. Truth is that electoral democracy in Nigeria, right from independence, has been a sham and the judiciary has always come to the rescue of the “winning” team. People are disillusioned. It is unfortunate that the judiciary in Nigeria both at the national and sub-national levels, is seen as a tool for the truncation of the tenets of democracy. It was no surprise that at a symposium organized to mark the 61st birthday of the president of the senate, a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) described the current supreme court as the worst in his 45 years of practice.
May we know what measures or actions President Tinubu has taken to heal the nation from the fractures of the 2023 elections?
Chido Onumah: I don’t think the government has done anything concrete. For someone who prides himself on being one of the frontline foot soldiers in the anti-military struggle that brought about the return to civilian rule in 1999, there is a lot he can do. Perhaps, he is thinking of it. Maybe, he needs time to “settle” his political associates, but I won’t say I imagined that President Tinubu would prove to be a marked departure from his predecessor considering the forces and manner he came to power. But once you are in power there are certain things you can do to remedy the situation even if you didn’t create the crisis.
We are a country in crisis, and I am not talking about the economy, poverty, unemployment, deplorable infrastructure or insecurity. The country needs to heal. I am not sure President Tinubu has the ability or even awareness to tackle this challenge. Beyond the constitutional requirement that gives every part of country a presence in the cabinet, there hasn’t been a conscious effort to open up the government. It is still as clannish as previous governments. He has been accused, and rightly so, of toeing the same line as former President Muhammadu Buhari on the issue of national integration. There is a tendency to feel that he seems to be carrying on as one who is afraid of the consequences of doing the right thing.
Considering the coup prone history of Nigeria and the recent resurgence of coups in West Africa, does President Tinubu have additional pressure to deliver economically and sustain democracy?
Chido Onumah: Of course, he does, fear of a coup or not. He should be worried more about citizens. Nigerians are not smiling, to paraphrase a popular expression here. The economy is in tatters, especially with the removal of petrol subsidy and the devaluation of the naira. I am more concerned about a people’s revolt. During the Christmas holidays when President Tinubu drove through the streets of Lagos, instead of cheers from the people he was greeted with intermittent chants of We are hungry, we are hungry…
What is happening across West Africa in terms of coups can certainly have an influence here even though I am not sure Nigerians are disposed to a military intervention particularly when you realize that there isn’t much difference between Nigeria’s political and military class. Both are united in their predatory disposition to governance.
What is your take on how Nigeria under Tinubu and ECOWAS handled the coup in Niger?
Chido Onumah: I think there was unnecessary hastiness in the way the issue was handled. You are talking about sovereignty of a people. There should have been room for proper dialogue and negotiation. Except in the size of its population, Nigeria has not shown that it is the “Giant of West Africa,” much less Africa. Our foreign policy is as fuzzy as they come. For a country that has very little respect within the continent and sub-region, partly because it has failed to live up to expectations, it was going to be difficult for President Tinubu and ECOWAS to determine the shape and form the resolution of the Niger crisis was going to take.
What was perhaps missing while deciding what is best for Niger, was the question of the country’s stability, the choice between the stability of Niger and imposing a “democracy” which the people did not accept. This was visible in the number of people who flooded the streets and highways to celebrate the coup.
Ultimately, the intervention of ECOWAS must and should always stem from a place of thorough SWOT or situational analysis of the crisis in each country.
The transformation of Lagos under then Governor Tinubu was billed by his supporters as a template to transform Nigeria, are there any glimpses we have seen so far on this happening?
Chido Onumah: It depends on what you mean by the transformation of Lagos. Maybe in terms of internal revenue generation. But the question will be, where is the money? Lagos remains one of the dirtiest if not the dirtiest city in the world. Basic infrastructure like roads, schools, and hospitals are still not up to continental much less international standards. Lagos is perhaps the only city in the world that has a population of more than 10 million people without an alternative means of mass transportation. There is a new project rail project. How well that will serve the transport needs of Lagosians remains to be seen. Democracy is still in stranglehold. Politics in the state remains essentially patrimonial. Mr. Tinubu, even as President of Nigeria, still controls who gets what and when in Lagos. It’s an obsession that has engaged his time since he left office as governor in 2007. Maybe for the political or business elite and nouveau riche, Lagos, like the rest of the country, offers no hope for inhabitants.
As we enter 2024, what are some of the critical issues that the Tinubu administration will have to grapple with?
Chido Onumah: Insecurity (terrorism, banditry, kidnapping) and the economy are top on the list. I have spoken a bit about the economy and there is a correlation between the two. There are many things fueling insecurity in Nigeria and top on the list is poverty. Next is the over-centralized nature of the country’s security architecture and then the ever-present problem of corruption. The security structure of the country remains mired in corruption so there is really no incentive to end insecurity.
In terms of the economy, not much will happen because we are still an import-dependent economy. There is very little you can point to that is produced in Nigeria. Things as inconsequential as toothpicks are imported. The few foreign companies left in the country are closing shop or relocating while local companies are shutting down and laying off staff because of high production cost due to the cost of petrol and diesel and the continuous depreciation of the Nigerian Naira. The cost of doing business in the country remains prohibitive and the process even more debilitating.
We are an oil producing country, yet we import refined petroleum products. When our leaders are sick, they fly to Germany, France, the UK, Dubai, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., for treatment. Their children school in these places. This puts a lot of pressure on the dollar. There are fears that the country’s currency, the Naira, will go the way of the Zimbabwean dollar up until the redenomination and abandonment of the dollar in 2009.
For Peter Obi and the Labour party, what future do you see for them?
Chido Onumah: I am not sure if Peter Obi and the Labour Party can maintain the momentum. Even if Peter Obi does, there are certain principles that undergird political power in Nigeria which will remain obstacles. Political power is supposed to oscillate between the “North” and “South.” After eight years of a “northern president,” Mr. Tinubu from the “South” took over. He is expected to do two terms, eight years, when power predictably will return to the “North.” This will be the cardinal issue in any attempt to understand the Obi factor. Obi certainly provides hope for a section of Nigerians, particularly young people, who are fed up with the status quo and hope for change. What they don’t understand, however, is that the Nigerian crisis is beyond hope. It will take a huge political upheaval to upend this status quo. I don’t know if we are ready for it.
After losing yet another election, is former Vice President Atiku Abubarkar now history politically speaking?
Chido Onumah: I am not sure how positive one can be of an Atiku presidency for a number of reasons. But this is Nigeria! Will he try to run for president again? Certainly, he could, if his health permits. He has the resources and can still muster some support across the country with these resources. But, again, we go back to the question of power equation in Nigeria. Apart from his age, he will be 81 in 2027 when the next presidential election will take place, and 85 when power is supposed to return to the “North” in 2031 (after eight years in the “South”), there are young Northern politicians who are positioning themselves to run for president after President Tinubu who would be happy to scuttle any plan by Atiku to be president.
A new President, and Chido Onumah like most Nigerians, is still as critical as ever, what is the ideal profile of the President that you think the country needs?
Chido Onumah: It is really not about me. I am an eternal optimist when it comes to Nigeria. All my adult life, I have spent much of my time trying to understand and write about the country. I have travelled, schooled, and lived in different countries around the world, but Nigeria remains home. There are millions of fellow compatriots who love Nigeria, but who are equally disillusioned because Nigeria has disappointed and keeps disappointing us. My friend, New York-based journalist, author, and satirist, Rudolf Okonkwo, put it succinctly when he noted that, “The ideals of Nigeria have not been tried and found wanting; instead, they have been found difficult, and as such, left untried.”
Nigeria is a country of great potentials, but it stops at that. The country faces an existential crisis. The fundamental challenge of Nigeria is that of nationhood and not many people understand this and among those who understand it, even fewer are interested in interrogating it. Perhaps, it is not convenient, perhaps it is not politically correct. Whatever the reason, we need to theorize the problems of Nigeria. I don’t think we have imagined enough what Nigeria should be. This is something academics and public intellectuals should focus on.
The truth is that until we fix this fundamental challenge, we will continue to have problems, no matter who rules the country, Tinubu, Peter Obi or Atiku. This foundational problem has been there and unaddressed since independence. I don’t know what will happen for the needed reset to take place, but clearly, we can’t look up to the current political class, perhaps the most indolent in the world, for salvation.
*Culled from January Issue of PAV Magazine