The ‘Lion of Africa’ with Cat Claws Nigeria’s Image Problem

After 60 years of independence, Nigeria has failed to establish significant political leverage on the global scene and is not the African superpower many tout it to be.

Nigeria is the most populous black nation in the world, with a population of close to 200 million people. With a GDP of $376 billion, it is also the largest economy in Africa. Yet Nigeria ranks joint 89th in the passport power rankings behind countries such as Liberia and Benin Republic. Nigerians have been executed in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia because the government was unable to secure leniency. In January 2020, the United States of America announced the imposition of restrictions on certain visa categories for citizens from certain countries, including Nigeria, despite Nigeria having one of the most educated and successful migrant communities in the US. These developments point to a stark reality: after 60 years of independence, Nigeria has failed to establish significant political leverage on the global scene and is not the African superpower many tout it to be.

The next question is: why has Nigeria failed to establish significant political leverage? To answer this question, it is important to provide a bit of context. Countries develop political leverage and improve their political standing through two major methods: political alliances with powerful nations and economic advancement. The former is mostly developed through an appealing socio-political image, particularly on the international stage. Contemporary political theory suggests that this image is linked with the following: respect for the rule of law, human rights protection and gender empowerment and equality.

Nigeria’s Image Problem

Following independence, Nigeria’s image has transitioned from a war-torn zone in the late 60s to a country with military dictatorships that were characterized by constitutional suspensions and extra-judicial killings. While the return to democracy in 1999 bucked this trend, it heralded a transition into an image of a corrupt nation that is riddled with ethnic and religious conflict. The emergence of Boko Haram in the early 2010s added a dimension of regional instability which has since spread to surrounding nations. In 2018, Nigeria became the poverty capital of the world, with the highest percentage of its population living in extreme poverty. Nigeria also has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world. As far as political standing and international relations is concerned, all of the above leads to one conclusion: Nigeria is a struggling country lacking key elements of global political and socio-economic power.

Nigeria to the World: A Tale of Wasted Opportunities

Many opportunities to create a positive image as the world’s gateway to Africa and vice-versa through culture, tourism and sports have been generally wasted or underutilized in Nigeria. For instance, in 1977, Nigeria hosted the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac ‘77). The festival involved more than 50 countries from different parts of the world but never capitalized on this event to establish itself as an epicentre of Afrocentrism. According to culture reporter, Motolani Alake, the only legacy created by the event was a sense of entitlement to national wealth, which has festered into incurable corruption. In 2002, the Miss World beauty pageant, which was scheduled to be held in Nigeria, was moved to the United Kingdom following riots in Kaduna state over a controversial article suggesting that Prophet Muhammed could have chosen a wife from one of the pageant contestants. The riots led to the deaths of 100 people.

Nigeria’s economic policies since independence have also failed to enhance the form of growth that establishes proper political power. While its counterparts, such as the UAE, were capitalizing on the oil boom of the 70s to improve infrastructure and enhance alternative economic sources, according to IMF tax specialist, Thomas Baussgard, public spending in Nigeria despite several oil windfalls has neither facilitated the development and diversification of the non-oil sector nor reduced poverty in Nigeria. Thus, oil exploration in Nigeria has led to significant environmental damage caused by oil spillage, an impoverished Niger-Delta population and significant income inequality aided by fraudulent misappropriation of oil revenue by both public officials and private actors.

Regarding foreign policy, Nigeria has failed to evolve beyond the decolonization and anti-apartheid agenda of the 70s and 80s and its peace-keeping agenda of the early 90s. Nigeria’s 1999 constitution is largely a relic of its first major democratic advent in 1979 and has not adapted to contemporary global socio-economic trends, particularly in the area of socio-economic rights protection and gender equality. For instance, socio-economic rights (such as the right to education and the right to healthcare) are not listed as human rights that can be judicially enforced under the constitution, despite Nigeria being a party to the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Furthermore, Nigeria’s protectionist economic policies, typified by complicated regulatory requirements, has also served as a deterrent to foreign investment. Nigeria’s entrenched land registration system has negatively impacted acquisition and security of property.

As a result of its image problem and economic policies, and despite its immense human, mineral and natural potential, Nigeria has never quite developed into the global economic hub its economic prosperity during the ‘oil boom’ of the 70s suggested it would become. Thus, countries like South Africa and Rwanda have assumed the role of Africa’s leading voices and even in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana has been described as the top candidate for an economic leap ahead of Nigeria.

Lessons from Other Countries

Those familiar with the concept of international relations understand that securing political power is not fundamentally hinged on a particular system of government. The image portrayed by the government or policies promoted by the government are also relevant. Many of the countries in the Middle East, for instance, do not operate under democratic systems of government, and can arguably be classified as ‘repressive regimes’. However, through liberal trade policies promoting freedom of movement, there has been a boost in acquisition of property and economic growth. Development has skyrocketed, particularly through concerted foreign investment. Effective trade relations between these countries and other Western superpowers have enhanced their political relevance.

Unsurprisingly, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE are among the 20 most powerful countries in the world, despite having human rights records that are at least similar or arguably worse than Nigeria’s. Other Asian countries such as Singapore and China, despite having questionable human rights records themselves, have also adopted the policy model to transform themselves into economic superpowers and compelled Western democracies to consider them as counterparts rather than subordinates. An emerging example of this model in Africa is Rwanda, which is a democracy that operates as an authoritarian regime under President Paul Kagame, but is slowly emerging as a political superpower by reason of its policy-enhanced economic growth and development.

Other countries have adopted the ‘image approach’ to improve their status on the world stage. One such example is Canada. Canada is a country with a complicated political history, which still has the Queen of England as its head of state and was unable to amend its own constitution before 1982. However, through its immigration policy and ‘multi-cultural society‘, it has projected itself as a beacon of progress, inclusivity and common humanity, which resonates perfectly with post-Second World War Western society. This positive image strategy has led to strengthened alliances with more powerful nations and enhanced its domestic manufacturing and services industry through the influx of skilled migrants. This two-fold effect has enhanced its political reputation and is a significant contributor to its status as one of the ten largest economies in the world and the 12th most powerful, with a population of less than 40 million people. It is worth noting that Canada continues to maintain this image notwithstanding the historical exploitative relationship of the government of Canada with its indigenous peoples, a relationship that is still in turmoil today.

The positive image approach also applies to many Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark that have become significantly powerful, despite having populations less than that of Lagos State. A more relevant example is post-apartheid South Africa, boosted by the reconciliatory stance of Nelson Mandela, evolving into the most powerful African nation through a human-rights friendly constitution and an activist judicial system, which continues to mask its economic struggles and significant anti-immigrant sentiments among its population.

Nigeria’s Immense Potential

On the image front, there is very little that can be done about the past. Unfortunately, the near future does not appear so bright either. Nigeria’s government continues to struggle with the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and it is also under intense scrutiny for different human rights violations by security forces and law enforcement agents. Moreover, Nigeria recently ranked 146th of 180 countries on the corruption perception index. Rebranding Nigeria’s image is perhaps more difficult than it would be in other nations as there is not one single image that represents Nigeria, which is both a limitation and an opportunity in itself.

Currently, the most troublesome region remains the North East, generally associated with the high levels of poverty, illiteracy and instability. This is, however, one of Nigeria’s eight geopolitical regions. A significant improvement in economic activity in the other regions could easily make up for failings in the North East. Greater emphasis should be placed on addressing problems relating to Nigeria’s status as a democratic nation. Respect for the rule of law, a free and fair electoral process, increased citizen involvement in the process governance and increased accountability in the use of public funds are vital elements of an improved political image that cannot afford to be neglected.

Any enhancement of Nigeria’s socio-political power is also inextricably linked to Nigeria’s economic growth and prosperity. Notwithstanding its problems as a nation, Nigeria remains a potentially attractive destination for investors in various sectors due to its immense human and natural resource potential. However, Nigeria needs to direct its policies towards ensuring that it is open for business. This implies a shift from the current protectionist trend characterized by border closures and restriction of funding on food imports. Such policies must be balanced with the appropriate regulatory framework to ensure that Nigeria does not simply become a haven of economic dumping (charging a lower price for goods in an importing foreign market than in the exporting domestic market) and resource exploitation.

Instead of closing borders, we should place emphasis on regulating the quality of goods and services entering the country. Instead of making importation more difficult, we should be focused on encouraging foreign investment in local manufacturing through a transparent licensing/permit framework and assisting indigenous investors/entrepreneurs subsidized production costs and ease of access to credit facilities to boost exports. In general, regulatory transparency, accountability and certainty can actually ensure that regulators serve as catalysts of economic growth. Other strategies include the promotion of a private-sector-led growth through strategic infrastructural investments and the enhancement of economic activities in states through efficient allocation of government revenue between the three levels of government.

Notwithstanding the current state of affairs, Nigeria still has strong potential to become the real ‘lion of Africa’. However, the road to realizing that potential is fraught with different complexities, which leads one to rightly question whether such an aim can ever really be achieved

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