Nigeria: Character builds a nation, dignity transforms it

Cross section of guests

By Adebayo O. Olukoshi,

IN recent years, debates have resurfaced in the academy and among public intellectuals about the making and unmaking of nations. At the heart of the debates is the question of the basic factors that account for why some nations achieve and/or sustain greatness and others either fail to do so, sink into a state of stagnation, or even slide into outright collapse and disintegration. A broad review of the literature captures the central importance which has been attached to this question of late. Titles such as Mancur Olsen’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, How Innovative Transformation Shaped the Rise of Nations by Gerald Tellis and Stav Rosenzweig, Ray Dallio’s The Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail, and Manjari Chatterjee Miller’s Why Nations Rise: Narratives and the Path to  Great Power, have captured the imagination, shifted the intellectual boundaries, and made the best sellers list. 

To be sure, interest in what makes for success and failure in the long and continuing history of nation and state-building is not exactly a new concern or preoccupation. Indeed, arguably, far back into the ancient times, successive generations of philosophers, political economists, geographers, demographers, and educationists have grappled with the question, generating a succession of interpretative and prospective insights about what constitutes the “good” society, what makes for progress and success in statecraft, why do reversals and decline occur at different stages of the human journey of civilisation, and why do some nations grow powerful and prosper while others suffer stagnation, decline, and fragmentation. 

Although, on account of various asymmetries of power, the bulk of the commonly referenced works on the history and dynamics of transformation are decisively Eurocentric, equally important literature documenting experiences in other parts of the world exists and is no less significant. In this regard, the point must be made that the dynamic of the rise, expansion, consolidation, decomposition, decline, and reconstitution of states is part and parcel of the experiences of peoples all over the world, as amply documented by historians and archaeologists. The import of this is simple: Greatness is open to all peoples and nations, and is not a special attribute of any one region or exclusive preserve of any one people. With the right mix of actors, factors, and foresight, any nation can achieve, sustain, and reproduce all the elements required for transformation and greatness. 

The literature about what makes for the rise, fall, success, and failure of nations and states my be rich and broad but it is hardly unanimous about what really matters in the march of countries to greatness and their quest to sustain that greatness over a long duree. However, extrapolating from recent and ongoing discussions about the contemporary African struggle with overcoming prolonged underdevelopment, a stylised classification of the competing perspectives that have emerged and gained in influence will suggest four dominant factors that have been given weight. Each of these factors, interestingly, derives mainly from a particular interpretation of the Western experience in terms of what may have happened or been put in place to produce the transformation that took place. 

The first of these factors, an old one that has been rehashed and repackaged over the ages, partly drawing from Max Webber, places a preponderance of weight on the role and place of culture and religion in the making of greatness. According to this view, based on their culture and religion, some people are more disposed to build and sustain a transformative work ethic than others. For Protestants, for example, work is allegedly considered a religious duty which must be embraced based on the idea that earthly success is a part of the trajectory to the heavenly perfection that is anticipated. Most of the developed countries of today passed through the Protestant Reformation that set them on the path of transformation.

The Protestant heritage is contrasted with other cultures and religions which place a greater premium on things like humanity and loyalty than work and success. Asian Confucianism and what Goran Hayden described as Africa’s political economy of affection were thought, according to this view, to be hindrances to transformation. Ironically, as Asia began to re-emerge, the argument was updated by the likes of Pierre Landel-Mills to embrace a Confucian ethic that is equivalent in import as the fabled Protestant ethic and the alleged role it played in the emergence of the East Asian miracle. Yet, a generation or two earlier, those same East Asian countries were considered as places that had little or no prospect. If anything, given the crushing poverty they exhibited at the time amidst high population growth rates, a state of things which Gunnar Myrdal captured as the “Asian Drama”, the racially-charged and xenophobic notion of the “yellow peril” was freely deployed to describe them as to suggest that they had no real prospect ahead of them. 

From being dismissed as hopeless basket cases to becoming thriving centres of rapid socio-economic transformation, narratives about factors of religion and culture that allegedly held back Asian countries were redeployed into arguments explaining, for example, the work ethic and saving habits of the Asian. This opportunistic deployment of the idea of the Protestant ethic has been further challenged on several other grounds, including the strident socio-historical arguments which Ibrahim Tahir marshaled to demonstrate that the same very attributes captured under the banner of that ethic are to be found in variants of Islam. In his Scholars, Sufis, Saints, and Capitalists, Tahir noted that a devotion to honest labour and a rigorous work ethic combined with an abnegation that privileged savings and investments over conspicuous consumption and waste to explain how old Kano became a thriving commercial centre. It was a way of saying that the ethic that produced transformation in Europe was neither a European monopoly nor an exclusively Protestant attribute. 

The second factor, most recently represented and popularised by Acemoglu and Robinson, places emphasis on the quality of institutions and the decisions that emanate from them. Rich countries are founded around inclusive and uncorrupted institutions while poor countries are saddled with extractive institutions that hold them back and keep them down. It is not the ignorance of leaders that make institutions not to work but rather the domination of those institutions by strong leaders exercising discretionary personal rule that enriches them individually while impoverishing their nations. The more inclusive the institutions of a nation, the richer and greater it will be. 

The Acemoglu-Robinson thesis built on and reinforced the work which the Nobel Economist Douglas North had done on institutions. Across various disciplines of the social sciences, a massive revisionism was unleashed to accommodate the main analytical assumptions and orientations of the new emphasis on institutions. Politically, the institutional approach was given a major fillip by Barack Obama when, on his maiden visit to Africa as President,  he delivered a message to the leaders and peoples of the continent proclaiming that what the region needed was strong institutions, not strong leaders. The challenge though is that institutions are not monolithic or unidirectional. They are subject to hijack and capture, and sometimes degenerate into self-serving leviathans. At their best, institutions require strong but visionary leaders, and that renders the binary opposition between institutions and leaders both unhelpful and baseless. 

History teaches us – and examples abound – that there critical moments in the history of nations when great personalities matter. And the story of institutions cannot be said to be complete without the coalition of leaders and people who come together to create, enable, and empower them. Even at that, institutions have been known to be corruptible as much as strong personalities have been known to degenerate and derail. Far from existing in opposition to each other, institutions and personalities enjoy a complementarity which rules out the either/or terms that have shaped recent discourses. Moreover, the important role of context and history in shaping and conditioning institutions underscores the necessity to avoid one-size-fits-all approaches to designing them. 

The third factor, championed by management gurus and business schools argues the case for the centrality of the leadership factor in making a difference among nations. Building on organisational theory, the exponents of this position place emphasis on the emergence of coherent and visionary leadership that is technically skilled and politically adept in making and sustaining transformation. The approach gained in intellectual currency beyond the walls of MBA schools in the United States and Europe in the context of the “pacted transitions” of the 1990s in Latin America and the role played by Ivy-League educated technopols in pushing agendas of structural transformation based on the market-liberalising precepts of the Washington Consensus. Described by Guillermo O’Donnell as “the technopols”, people who combined high technical abilities and competence with political commitments and projects of societal transformation, they became in certain quarters the elite crust that were expected to drive and sustain reforms. 

While there is no doubt that leadership ability, commitment, and savvy are an important factor in the governance of public affairs and for successful statecraft, it is equally important to understand that it does not function in isolation. For all the fetish that was created around the Ivy League and super cable technopols of Latin America in the 1990s, their governance record was as dismal as the result of experimentations that saw the seconding of senior officials of African descent to serve as prime ministers, finance ministers, and central bank governors of their countries. Leadership is, organically, a terrain of the political and to seek to reduce it simply to a province of the technical is to empty it of its essence. 

The fourth factor speaks to the place of geographical environment and climate as playing a game-changing role. Jared Diamond, a leading exponent of this position, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel argues that nations that formed countries in geographical locations with pleasant temperate climates turn out to be far more successful than those that are located in inclement tropical zones where disease is rife and average productivity is impossibly low to drive and sustain transformation. A variant of this argument was propounded by Jeffrey Sachs in his assessment of what he considered to be the impossible circumstances of landlocked countries that call for special dispensations to salvage them, including investments in infrastructure, social policy, and human resources. 

The basic challenge with the argument on the role of geography in the transformation of nations is that, empirically, it is wrong. Historically and in contemporary times, the fact of being landlocked has hit in and of itself doomed nations to a permanent state of underdevelopment. Nor has inclement weather, however defined, been an automatic obstacle to growth and development. The divide between the temperate and tropical geographical zones of the world that undergirds the current international system is the product of well-known historical processes, including the slave trade and colonialism. There are countries in the world that have multiple climatic zones but which are not caught up in the North-South asymmetries of the contemporary world. Thus, while geography – and climatic conditions – may make the work of development easier or harder, they are not fatalistic or immutable conditions that condemn a people to a permanent state of underdevelopment. 

To be clear, the competing perspectives that have recently gained in popularity in seeking to explain what makes for the greatness of failure of nations have their place with regard to the thoughts they provoke in us about aspects of the performance of nations in realising their potential and marching forward to greatness. But on their own, even setting aside their weaknesses, including the fact that they too Eurocentric, ahistorical, unidirectional, and unidimensional, they do not individually tell a full story or adequately capture the historical context of the making of national greatness. In fact, they mostly read as ex-post facto explanatory variables that aim to understand the drivers of success by using highly stylised case examples or experiences that are then generalised into prescriptions for global application. The result is a massive industry in mimicry and copycat policies that have been the bane of international development cooperation. 

Furthermore, as formulated, the competing explanations that have been offered for the greatness – or lack of it – of nations beg many follow-up questions that remain unanswered. It is one thing to argue the case for inclusive institutions in the process of transformation and to capture the detrimental impact of extractive institutions for game-changing development, but why, for example, are some countries unable to grow or sustain inclusive institutions in the first instance, and are the root causes exogenous or exogenous or a combination of both? To really get to grips with understanding the making of the greatness of nations, we must dig deeper into a comparative historical study of their trajectories with a view to finding that one thing that served as the trigger factor which enabled them to make the resolve, and never to look back, to overcome geographical constraints and leadership weakness, and proceed to build the institutions and the policies required for the work of transformation that they carried out. 

I want to suggest today to this august assembly of leaders and citizens that across history, especially in reference to our contemporary world, the moment of transformation arrived when as a people, based on a critical stock-taking and self-introspection, the winning and defence of national dignity and honour became the fundamental order of the day, providing the directive principle by which leaders and citizens functioned, policies formulated, and politics played. Historically, the immediate trigger for that moment of national reset has either come from below in the form of revolution or from above by way of an elite awakening borne out of enlightened self-interest. The period of determined national reset is also the season for the forging and popularisation of the values that serve as the bedrock for renewing citizenship and foregrounding character in the forward march of national progress. 

On the basis of the foregoing, cutting through much of the ex-post facto mystification that were developed and which continue to be propounded as explanatory narratives for the success of some nations in achieving greatness, I want to propose to us that while character is important for building a nation, dignity transforms it. No nation has achieved greatness which has not discovered the public purpose around which politics and policy can be organised. The commitment to and diligent pursuit of the public purpose as the overarching framework for the national interest requires that citizens, whether as governors or the governed, are imbued with the sense of character on the basis of which a system of reciprocal accountability can be established. Beyond this, to take the nation on to the path of greatness, character must produce a thirst for collective dignity. Let us take a few examples to illustrate this point. 

The first case of national  transformation in recent history which I would like to cite is the example of England when it was under an absolute monarch like much of Europe. The feudal monarchy thrived on levying of taxes, the control of land, trade, and territory, and the waging wars through which booties were accumulated. To make the leap into the industrial capitalist era, major reforms of the monarchical system were called for. The organising principle for the reforms were captured under the slogan: No taxation without representation. It was a campaign driven from above but which had a broad-based popular appeal for rights of citizenship. It was also a call for accountability. It was a demand for participation. Out of the campaign, the present system of a constitutional monarchy was established and core political powers of legislation and decision-making transferee to the House of Commons. 

The path to the greatness of contemporary France began with a popular claim for dignity that played out on the streets of the country in a revolutionary fervour that saw the transformation of the plea of the masses for bread into a generalised political claim for liberty, equality, and fraternity. The slogan of the revolution spoke directly to the demands that had built up from below for a life of dignity that encompassed the right to bread but was not limited just to the politics of the below. The right to life was expanded by the revolutionaries to encompass individual liberty and collective dignity in an environment of equality, justice, and solidarity. It marked the turning point in the making of modern France and its transformation into one of the great actors in the international system. 

The making of the United States of America cannot be understood outside of the a strong desire by a swathe of the population in Europe to escape monarchical tyranny and the grinding poverty that underpinned the feudal-aristocratic order in order to envision a new world of equal opportunities bereft of privilege by birth and based on merit and work. It is little wonder that the framers of the constitution, determined to avoid reproducing the monarchical excesses that characterised absolutist Europe, ensured that a system of separation of powers was erected, placed considerable power and authority in Congress, and affirmed the self-evident truth that all are born equal. The quest for collective dignity in the history of the United States after the American Revolution became the trigger for one of the most interesting experiments in modern constitutional engineering. It was a quest for which it was deemed worthwhile to fight a civil war. That war itself became an important turning point in the capitalist transformation of the country. 

Lest it be assumed that the decisive role of dignity in the transformation of nations is a Euro-American story, it will be useful to also examine the cases of some of the successful countries of Asia. To begin with Japan, its success in decisively turning the corner occurred within the framework of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which dissolved the feudal system embodied by the Tokugawa Shogunate that had started in 1603 and unleashed the reforms that brought about the country’s transformation. It was a movement that was underpinned with a national agenda that had been underwritten by members of the Samurai class determined to unite the country under a central government and transform it based on a home-made and home-led strategy that would preserve its national independence- and pride – in the face of increasing imperialist forays from Europe. Japan never looked back since then. Japan’s emergence as an international power cannot be understood without a close study of the Meiji Restoration.

As with Japan’s determined effort to avoid a wholesale foreign domination and takeover, the underlying narrative of the China’s re-emergence to become the second biggest economy in the world that is poised to supplant the U.S. as the first global economic power cannot be understood without a full grasping of the impact which the Opium Wars of 1839 and 1856 had on the Chinese. Bullied, invaded, dominated, and forced to cede territory mainly by the British – and, to a lesser extent, the French – on account of a refusal to allow the continued importation of opium into the country because of the toll in addiction, loss of productivity, and death which it causing, the Chinese determined that never again will they be humiliated by any external power. 

The indignities that the Chinese felt emerging out of the Opium Wars, including the loss of Hong Kong, fueled rebellions against the ruling Qinq dynasty. Further down the line, it fed into the mobilisation of the Revolution of 1949 led by the Communist Party of Mao Zedong. The error is often made to assume that the 1949 was solely about ideology but the Chinese communists were first nationalists and only secondly Marxist. They adopted Marxism as an ideology but also insisted that it was done with Chinese characteristics. The restoration of the honour and dignity of China after 100 years of Shame, was the fire they needed to propel themselves forward. The determination that China will never again be humiliated by any foreign power remains a prime motivation for domestic and foreign policy. The story of the 100 years of shame is one that is embedded in the educational curriculum from primary school level. 

Similar commitments to build and defend dignity played out in different forms and against differing backgrounds in all of the recent examples of transformation, including the much-celebrated cases of the East Asian Tigers. From South Korea through to Malaysia and Singapore, self-respect, honour, and dignity powered a domestic determination make turn the corner and never to look back again. For the Koreans, memory of the indignities and humiliation visited on the nation by the forces of Imperial Japan remain a live and sore point in the national psyche and strategic policy and political positioning. For the story of Singapore, a careful reading of the autobiography of its founding President, Lee Kwan Yew, will reveal how a small, backwater state that didn’t have any of the conventional induces of potential power and wealth going for it, became a major global economic player, doing so with a collective determination to discover and defend the national dignity. 

Without any doubt, we in Africa generally have had our share of travails as a people for more 500 years now. From the European slave trade which lies at the origins of our contemporary underdevelopment to the so-called legitimate trade period with its traces of unwholesome imperial policies and strategies that were present during the Opium Wars imposed on China, the European partition of the continent preparatory to the formal colonial imposition, and the various neo-colonial machinations we have contended with, there is no shortage of adverse experiences that could compel a collective pause and rethink in order to enable our continental rebirth to begin in earnest. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that successive generations of African thought leaders, including the pioneers of the pan-African movement, have been acutely aware of the imperative of having a collective reckoning with the consequences of the cumulative and serial injustices visited on us. 

The tragedy of our situation might, based on most conventional analysis, appear to be complex. In fact, it is fairly straight forward: An inability among the leadership cadres to build a consensus anchored on a collective determination that says unambiguously that enough is enough and never again shall we as a people be diminished, abused, humiliated, and remain perpetually consigned to playing second fiddle to any and all external powers. And the bad news is this: No external force can help us to build that collective determination, no matter how altruistic it may sound; in truth, regardless of the level of high-mindedness and professed solidarity that any external power May profess or display, nobody in the world can do in our place, what we must do for ourselves. The onus rests with us to bell the cat, recognising that self-respect is not sold on the open market and cannot be donated. It is borne out of experience and the lessons of history. Out of self-respect emerges that determination to forge the consensus that has eluded us. It is self-respect as a character trait and a shared value that begets the collective dignity which transforms nations. 

As Africans, we have yet to come fully to terms with the fact that we live in a tough world which, stripped of all diplomatese and ideological packaging, does not actually owe us a living. We conduct our affairs not only as though we are the owners of time but as people who can depend on others for bread or, at least for the butter to spread on our loaf. That is why, time and again, we run on an instinct that assumes that the foreign is better than the local. We seek easy external aid and technical assistance and ignore domestic revenue streams and local talent. Indeed, whilst exporting capital to the world, including through tens of billions siphoned off annually in illicit financial flows, we allow a narrative to continue to prevail that it is our “friends” in different regions of the world that are our invaluable donors who must never be alienated. We have been hoodwinked to believe that the universal is by definition Western when the Western was itself partly forged out of old African civilisations. We also forget that whatever is proclaimed as universal actually began as primarily local and contingent. 

In the name of development, we have expended endless energy mimicking and copying. Thus it is that we find ourselves consuming what we do not produce and producing what we do not consume, failing to add local value to our natural resources, thereby missing out of the opportunity to industrialise our economies, create employment on a massive scale, and advance citizen welfare in order to assure a decent life for the African. Caught up in the flattery of international summitry, we have lately allowed ourselves to be summoned by any country that considers itself as a player to an assortment of “high level” which we dutifully attend without have any collective strategic objective in mind. From the Europe-Africa, US-Africa, Russia- Africa, and India-Africa summits to the Japan-Africa TICAD, the Singapore-Africa, and Brazil-Africa summits, we are treated to spectacles of African leaders submitting themselves to crude and subtle lecturing and hectoring by countries most of which still owe the continent historic apologies and reparations for past injustices. It is worthy of note that at some of the summits, more African leaders are present than are to be seen at an average session of the African Union. 

Turning to our specific situation in Nigeria, we are a people endowed with all of the indices and potentialities of power and greatness: Population, resources, land mass, an innovative spirit, etc. And without a doubt, over the more than sux decades of our independence, we have had glimpses of what greatness can and should like for us. Towering individual figures have traversed our land at various points in time in every sphere of human endeavour. Not a few of these personalities qualify for a place of honour in our national pantheon. We have also witnessed big moments of immense national pride in politics, the arts, in science, in foreign policy, and among our teeming Diaspora.  We have passed through moments, short-lived as they were, that have shown us what visionary leadership   can do to energise a people, bring out the best in the citizen, and help us along on a journey of self-discovery and actualisation. 

And yet, without a doubt, for the hints we have seen at different times of what is possible, we all know that the equation that can produce and sustain the greatness for which we yearn is yet to add up. In this recognition, and amidst the morass of repeated underperformance and recurrent regression in which we wallow, there is a awareness that we deserve much more in our journey of nationhood and statehood. The bad news is that the longer this journey takes, and the more we tarry in turning the corner, the greater the danger that the contradictions of prolonged delay, serial underperformance and repeated failure will make the work of nation-building harder, with various forces of division and fragmentation provided the openings to more boldly stake narrow and parochial claims. 

What will it take for us to turn the corner, and turn the table of underdevelopment, rising to take our destiny as the leader of the African world and a leader in the comity of nations? In yesteryears, previous governments attempted to advance initiatives for a national rebirth that in each and every case failed to outlive them. From the Jaji Declaration of 1978, the Ethical Revolution of the Second Republic, and the War Against Indiscipline of the Buhari-Idiagbon military years to the MAMSER campaigns of the Babangida years and the SERVICOM launched during the Fourth Republic, the tragedy of these initiatives was in their being top down elite admonitions addressed to a citizenry that was increasingly skeptical of  a leadership that did not show sustained evidence of a readiness to propel a revolution in national ethics, attitude, and circumstances. 

It seems to me that beyond the glimpses we have seen in our 62 years of history, the challenge of discovering and asserting our collective dignity remains as an unfinished business. The time is long overdue for to proclaim to ourselves and to the world that “enough is enough” and “never again”, doing so in the settled knowledge that such a proclamation was key to propelling people and leaders in other climes successfully to change the course of their history. Dignity has come to nations either through revolution or enlightened leadership consensus to self-reform and to reform their countries. The choice before us as a nation is no different.

***Text of a convocation lecture delivered at Ahmadu Bello University on Tuesday, January 24, 2023.