Nigerian leaders, insanity, and the art of nation building, By Tunji Ariyomo

Tunji Ariyomo
Tunji Ariyomo

The United Kingdom’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Nigeria in its September 2012 report stated that many of the deep systemic challenges that have prevented transformation in Nigeria which it earlier observed in its 2008 assessment remain unchanged: a lack of political accountability; zero, slow or poor delivery of basic services; corruption and mismanagement. The report concluded that “Nigeria’s failure to invest in its people is the main reason Nigeria has a turbulent history and stagnancy in its economy”.

Earlier in 2010, the United States’ Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton in a rare departure from diplomatic courtesy directly criticized the Nigerian government’s failure to address the legitimate needs of its people. Hillary’s very words were that “The failure of the Nigerian leadership over many years to respond to the legitimate needs of their own young people, to have a government that promoted a meritocracy, that really understood that democracy can’t just be given lip service, it has to be delivering services to the people, has meant there is a lot of alienation in that country and others”.

Two independent assessments, one single verdict – Nigeria’s leadership has failed abysmally to address the most fundamental needs of the Nigerian people.

The Yoruba like other tribal groups in Nigeria is famous for preserving wisdom in words. One such famous combination says ‘ojo ti weere eniyan ba ti mo wipe olokunrun l’oun ni’toju de’. When translated loosely, this means that ‘the mentally deranged is cured of his insanity on the day he becomes conscious of his unusual faculty. Psychiatrists have corroborated this by admitting that patients suffering from psychotic delusions and hallucinations may often ‘honestly’ believe that their delusional state is the normal state while the rest of the sane world appears to them as weird and abnormal. Thus why the Nigerian people, respectable foreign institutions and eminent persons are in agreement that Nigeria has so far failed its people, the views of those in charge of the Nigerian governments (local, state and federal) are different. So, it is painfully difficult not to conclude that the elusive development and economic growth would only materialise when its leadership  becomes self aware – particularly of those items on development menu that constitute the most pressing legitimate needs of the people.

It is good to first enumerate what constitutes the most pressing legitimate needs of the Nigerian people. The most famous contribution to knowledge by Abraham Harold Maslow (April 1, 1908 – June 8, 1970) an American psychologist was his famous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He identified food, water and shelter as some of the most pressing physiological needs for human survival. “If these requirements are not met, the human body simply cannot continue to function”. Next he identified security of employment, resources, health, family and property as part of safety requirement that are of fundamental importance to humans. An important feature of Maslow’s theory though is the acknowledgement of the complex parallel processes driving different motivations from different levels and the conclusion that individual’s physical and safety needs take precedence – in that order.

In development parlance, these critical needs can be broadly classified as follows: Food and water, Physical infrastructure, Social infrastructure and Job security.

Do the layers of governments in Nigeria know this? Even if they do, their actions suggest otherwise – or at the minimum – that they do not know the efficient way to allocate available resources and mobilise the public towards accomplishing national growth. Nigeria being a chiefly natural resource based economy (which is by choice) needs to use its wealth while it last (crude oil is a finite resource) to develop what would guarantee an enduring platform for its people to – in the short term, meet their most pressing and legitimate needs such as food, water, shelter (housing) and job availability – and in the long run, equip them to embrace a knowledge driven economy that can make growth and development sustainable. Age-long aimless pretend development and endless policy perambulations have only yielded a notorious record-setting graft induced underdevelopment, pervasive wretchedness and abject poverty with a tiny class of system-made super rich.

The continuous refusal to target resources at mass housing scheme, good roads, excellent rail or mass transit schemes, investment in agriculture, reliable healthcare institutions and public schools etc have often been attributed to dearth of fund and quest for private sector participation.  This writer is a major believer in private sector driven economic growth but sensible enough to know that reliable private sector players would not take control until a nation has kick-started the processes of development that would make that country an appealing and competitive investment destination. Examples of this include the investment of the government of the UAE in agriculture and massive infrastructure development of all its emirates (including its prime Dubai emirate and Dubai city) as a deliberate strategy to lure international investors. Today, that country has emerged as a global business hub. Yes the economy was originally built on the oil industry but with an effective development model, the emirate’s main revenues are now from financial services, real estate and tourism just like any typical successful western country. Also the role of Mahathir bin Mohamad in committing massive state fund to develop Malaysian agriculture and infrastructure as a deliberate ploy to make that country internationally attractive and competitive to investors are fresh development role models to learn from. Today, international investors (it has been alleged that these include many Nigerian leaders) now chase after these two models as their choice destinations for investment.

The Nigerian leaders’ excuse of dearth of fund is in fact self-imposed in the face of the reality of the Nigerian government’s gratuitous profligacy. So also is the fallacious argument of crude per capita ratio introduced by some government officials in the wake of the subsidy protest by Nigerians. That argument falls flat when confronted with the reality that the Nigerian government is not responsible for Nigerians’ wellbeing in real terms as the average Nigerian is responsible for everything including his security, power generation, water production etc. Unlike countries such as Libya and other Arab oil producing nations with a history of actually sharing part of oil revenue with individual citizen (this writer is against this practice), the Nigerian government collects oil revenue and that is the end of it. If anyone shares from it, past revelations have revealed those persons to be civil servants, politicians and their businessmen collaborators. Hence, the principal reason for underdevelopment in Nigeria is the way the average government – federal, states and local governments – uses public fund. This is the real barrier to sustainable development and the nation’s capacity to address the most fundamental needs of its people.

The list is endless: The clumsy arithmetic of the 2011 subsidy payment for instance showed that the Federal Government paid N2.19 trillion as fuel subsidy in 2011 as against the initial figure of N1.2 trillion that drew the wrath of the people. Against the background that actual subsidy payment was just about N300billion in the preceding year indicates strongly that officials facilitated the stealing of over N1.8 trillion from the Nigerian people in just one year. Some state governments today award a kilometre of a single carriageway at close to N2billion. This makes road construction in Nigeria one of the most expensive in the developing world despite the fact that labour and materials would be sourced at local rates. There is no gainsaying the fact that such road contracts were only deliberately inflated to serve as a conduit for stealing public fund. Recently it was announced that the Nigerian government would be spending N600 billion on the next national census. The cost of the UK 2011 compulsory census was N127 billion and that was because it hired several thousand ad-hoc workers to help it in language translation and had to pay those workers in British Pound. Nigeria would spend nearly five times even though its ad-hoc workers would be paid in Naira and below par relative to their British counterpart on the same job. Though conceding that Nigeria has a larger population, the massive wage disparity in both countries however makes the planned N600billion excessively overpriced.

So what should Nigeria do? Simple – stop complicating the art of nation building.

  1. Nigeria must end the practice of spending huge Naira on what the nation does not need and divert those funds to urgent massive deliberate infrastructure, agriculture and employment generation programmes across the country. The country’s leaders must have the strength to append a ‘NOT APPROVE’ on various money gulping but ‘of little or no value’ anti-development proposals that have come to define many public officers. A recent example was an approval secured by the CBN to commit N40billion to the minting of a new bill and coining of certain categories of Naira at a time of national economic depression where competing needs with superior claims to priority abound.
  2. The nation must match her earnings with her capacity to address the needs of her citizenry. The awkward scenario where a tiny percentage of Nigerians consume the nation’s finances in the guise of recurrent expenditure (put at nearly 80% in the 2012 budget) while capital projects (merely 18% in 2012) that the recurrent expenditure (RE) is meant to service remain unattended must give way. RE must stop being a euphemism for the ‘money being shared monthly in offices’ (outside legitimate salaries) – usually by the lead civil servants (mostly Directors of Finance and Administrations, Permanent Secretaries and DGs) who also share portions of the money with ministerial, departmental and agency political leadership. This is a common practice at the federal, states and LG levels. Ordinarily, the money ought to be utilised as service and operational funds required to provide ministerial supervisions for the execution of the items listed as capital projects even as the latter is mostly shamelessly packed with items targeted at making leading civil servants and politicians more comfortable – the likes of the unending requirements to build new offices, new accommodations and the procurement of new furniture and fancy official cars – wherein ultimately the actual percentage of capital expenditure that goes into public works is further intolerably reduced.
  3. Leaders must engage the support and services of competent Nigerians with the goal of evolving a development strategy and programmes capable of immediately engaging and empowering a reasonable chunk of the 60 million Nigerian youth population. The YouWin programme of the Federal Government is good and commendable. But as this writer has stated at several fora, it is hugely inadequate as first call in the nation’s quest for ideas that can leapfrog and help close massive employment gap within the shortest time possible. YouWin should however play a supporting role as an initiative targeted at entrepreneurs and anchored by some of the active private sector players in Nigeria.
  4. For certain categories of public works and services, the country should embrace proper market liberalisation that competitively allow global investors to show interest and end the practice of behind-the-scene choreographing of investment decisions while pretending to embrace privatization. Nigeria’s success with her telecom sector liberalization is an appropriate knowledge curve. With a robust legislation that promotes transparency, fairness and equity, the same thing could be done with rail transportation, electricity etc.
  5. Finally, the nation must allow all development programmes including private sector participations to be guided by strict regimes of transparency and merit so as to promote equity, fairness and trust.

Tunji Ariyomo is Policy Chair of the National Development Initiative NDi (a non-partisan independent think-tank). NDi Project can be accessed at

E-mail:; Phone: +447532127503 

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