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Presentation by

Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General


First Year Anniversary Lecture
Mustapha Akanbi Foundation

Sheraton Hotel Abuja, Nigeria
7 February 2008

I.          Introduction:

It gives me great pleasure to have this opportunity to address this distinguished audience and I thank Justice Akanbi and the Mustapha Akanbi Foundation for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with you on this important topic1.  When I was approached to deliver this talk, I readily agreed for three important reasons.  Firstly, to honour Honourable Justice Mustapha Akanbi, a distinguished jurist, and an outstanding public servant who has served this country well as a classroom teacher, judge and the Chair of ICPC.  As I intend to argue in my presentation, nations are built by exemplary men and women and sustained by institutions that promote good governance and thus socio-economic development.  Justice Akanbi is a shining example of one such a person and he was a pioneer head of a sensitive public institution.  Secondly, I accepted the invitation so as to identify myself with the noble objectives of the Mustapha Akanbi Foundation which seeks to render ‘significant services to the people in the area of education, health, anti-corruption crusade, ethics, judicial responsibility, rule of law, democracy and good governance.’  It is particularly gratifying to note that the Foundation has been giving refresher training to teachers who mould the minds and intellect of our future generations. 

My most important reason, however, for accepting this invitation has to do with the subject matter for discussion.  In my letter of invitation, I was asked ‘to examine our past critically, [and] find out why after close to five decades of attaining independence, Nigeria is still not out of the woods.’  As we move into the 21st Century, in this age of globalization, this should be a matter of concern to all of us.  We need to reflect on our journey so far, so we can do better in the future and leave a better legacy for posterity

II.        Building a Nation:

Nations are an important part of modern society.  If we go back into history, we see that the world used to be divided into empires and kingdoms.  In the modern period, however, nations or nation states have replaced empires as the basic unit of human political organization. 
I myself have had the privilege of close association with the United Nations, an organization set up to ensure the peaceful coexistence and the social economic development of the worlds numerous nations.  As an integral part of the modern world, therefore, Nigerians are rightly concerned about nation-building. 

However, I would like to emphasise the fact that nations just don’t happen by historical accident; rather they are built by men and women with vision and resolve. Nation-building is therefore the product of conscious statecraft, not happenstance.  Nation-building is always a work-in-progress; a dynamic process in constant need of nurturing and re-invention.  Nation-building never stops and true nation-builder never rest because all nations are constantly facing up to new challenges.

Nation-building has many important aspects.  Firstly, it is about building a political entity which corresponds to a given territory, based on some generally accepted rules, norms, and principles, and a common citizenship.  Secondly, it is also about building institutions which symbolize the political entity – institutions such as a bureaucracy, an economy, the judiciary, universities, a civil service, and civil society organizations.  Above all else, however, nation-building is about building a common sense of purpose, a sense of shared destiny, a collective imagination of belonging.  Nation-building is therefore about building the tangible and intangible threads that hold a political entity together and gives it a sense of purpose.  Even in these days of globalization and rapid international flows of people and ideas, having a viable nation remains synonymous with achieving modernity.  It is about building the institutions and values which sustain the collective community in these modern times.  I shall return to the imperatives of institution-building later in this presentation.

In Nigeria, however, there are some people who represent our national importance by calling us the ‘Giant of Africa’.  This is an ascriptive perspective.  We are seen as giants not necessarily because of the quality of our national institutions and values, but simply by virtue of our large population and oil wealth.  But in reality, the greatness of a nation has to be earned and is not determined just by the size of its population or the abundance of its natural resources.  China and India have the largest populations in the world, but they are only now rising as important global players.  On the other hand, Japan has few natural resources, but has long managed to turn itself into a global economic powerhouse. 

In today's world, skills, industriousness, productivity, and competitiveness are the determinant factors of national greatness.  Not even the possession of the nuclear bomb is enough to make a nation great without reference to the industriousness and creativity of its citizens.  Since the time of Adam Smith, every serious nationalist and politician has come to know that the wealth of a nation is not based on the wealth and opulence of its rulers, but on the productivity and industriousness of its citizenry. 

The real question is why has the task of nation-building been so difficult in Nigeria, and the fruits so patchy, despite our enormous human and natural resources?  I suggest that we should look for the answer in three critical areas: (1) threats and challenges posed by the environment for nation-building; (2) the quality of leadership that has confronted these challenges; and (3) the fragility of political and development institutions.  We need to understand the environment for nation-building in Nigeria, so we can clearly identify our strengths, weaknesses, and core challenges.  We also need to evolve a system of leadership selection and accountability which produces the sort of leaders that will confront the challenges of the environment in a way that is beneficial for nation-building.  As I have argued at the beginning, nations are a product of the human will and imagination and the institutions that sustain their collective efforts.  Therefore, we must find these resources in ourselves if we are to succeed in building our nation; otherwise, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “default would be not in our styles but in ourselves”.

III.       Challenges before Nigerian Nation-building:

Nigeria faces five main nation-building challenges: 
(1) the challenge from our history; (2) the challenge of socio-economic inequalities; (3) the challenges of an appropriate constitutional settlement; (4) the challenges of building institutions for democracy and development; and (5) the challenge of leadership.  In our quest for nation-building, we have recorded some successes, such as keeping the country together in the face of many challenges.  But these challenges continue to keep us from achieving our full potential. It is to these challenges that I devote the rest of my presentation.

1.         The Challenge of History

The historical legacies of colonial rule create some challenges for nation-building in Nigeria.  Colonial rule divided Nigeria into North and South with different land tenure systems, local government administration, educational systems, and judicial systems.  While large British colonies like India and the Sudan had a single administrative system, Nigeria had two, one for the North and one for the South.  It was almost as if these were two separate countries, held together only by a shared currency and transportation system.  Many members of the Nigerian elite class in the 1950s and 1960s had their education and world outlook moulded by the regional institutions.  Some had little or no understanding of their neighbouring regions.  Under these conditions, it was easy for prejudice and fear to thrive.  During the period of the decolonization struggle, Nigerian nationalists from different regions fought each other as much as they fought the British colonialists.  Nigeria never had a central rallying figure like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana or Nelson Mandela in South Africa.  Instead, each region threw up its own champions.

From this historical legacy, therefore, regionalism has been a major challenge to nation-building in Nigeria.  To their credit, however, the founding fathers of our nation tried to deal with this challenge by adopting federalism and advocating a policy of unity-in-diversity.  Unfortunately, the lack of consolidation of Nigerian federalism around commonly shared values and positions means that this challenge of divisive historical legacy continues to undermine our efforts at nation-building.  One current manifestation of this historical legacy is the division between ‘indigenes’ and ‘settlers’.  This division has been a source of domestic tension and undermined our efforts at creating a common nationhood.  While we should learn from history so as not to repeat its mistakes, we must never see ourselves simmply as victims of our history; it is our responsibility to overcome the challenges posed by our history.

2.         The Challenge of Socio-Economic Inequalities

An important aspect of nation-building is the building of a common citizenship.  But how can we have a common citizenship when the person in Ilorin has a radically different quality of life from the person in Yenagoa?  Or when the woman in Gusau is more likely to die in childbirth than the woman in Ibadan?  Through the development of the economy and equal opportunities for all, or through the development of social welfare safety nets, mature nations try to establish a base-line of social and economic rights which all members of the national community must enjoy.  Not to enjoy these socio-economic rights means that the people involved are marginalized from national life.  That is why in many Western European countries, contemporary nation-building in about preventing ‘social exclusion’ or the exclusion of significant segments of the population from enjoying basic social and economic rights.

In Nigeria, however, not only are many of our citizens denied basic rights such as the right to education and health, there is also serious variation in the enjoyment of these rights across the country.  As a consequence, the citizen is not motivated to support the state and society, because he or she does not feel that the society is adequately concerned about their welfare.  Secondly socio-economic inequalities across the country fuels fears and suspicious which keep our people divided.

Let me draw your attention to some of these socio-economic inequalities.  If we take the level of immunization of children against dangerous childhood diseases, we note that while the South-East has 44.6% immunization coverage, the North-West has 3.7% and North-East 3.6%.  If you take the education of the girl-child as indicator, you see a similar pattern of inequality with the South-East having an enrolment rate of 85%, South-West 89%, South-South 75%, North-East 20%, and North-West 25%.2  Only 25% of pregnant women in the North-West use maternity clinics, while 85% of the women in the South-East do.3  It is not surprising that 939% more women die in child-birth in the North-East, compared to the South-West.4  Education and poverty levels are also important dimensions of inequalities across Nigeria.  If we take admissions into Nigerian universities in the academic year 2000/1, we see that the North-West had only 5% of the admissions, while the South-East had 39%.5  As for poverty, the Governor of the Central Bank, Charles Soludo, recently pointed out that while 95% of the population of Jigawa State is classified as poor, only 20% of Bayelsa State is so classified.  While 85% of Kwara State is classified as poor, only 32% of Osun is in the same boat.6

These inequalities pose two related challenges to nation-building.  Firstly, high levels of socio-economic inequalities mean that different Nigerians live different lives in different parts of the country.  Your chances of surviving child-birth, of surviving childhood, of receiving education and skills, all vary across the country.  If different parts of Nigeria were separate countries, some parts will be middle income countries, while others will be poorer than the poorest countries in the world!  A common nationhood cannot be achieved while citizens are living such parallel lives.  Inequalities are a threat to a common citizenship.  Secondly, even in those parts of the country that are relatively better off, the level of social provision and protection is still low by world standards.  The 20% that are poor and unemployed in Bayelsa State are still excluded from common citizenship benefits.  We therefore need a Social Contract between the people on the one hand, and the state and nation on the other.  The state and nation must put meeting the needs of the disadvantaged as a key objective of public policy.  Such an approach can make possible a common experience of life by Nigerians living in different parts of the country and elicit their commitment to the nation.  Instead of resorting to the divisive politics of indigene against settler as a means of accessing resources, a generalized commitment to social citizenship will create a civic structure of rights that will unite people around shared rights and goals.

Poverty and nation-building are strange bedfellows, whether the poor are 20% or 85% of the population.  A largely marginalized citizenry, increasingly crippled by poverty and the lack of basic needs, can hardly be expected to play its proper role in the development of the nation.  Nations are built by healthy and skilled citizens.  On grounds of both equity and efficiency, we need to promote the access of the bulk of the Nigerian population to basic education, health, and housing.  Nigeria needs a social contract with its citizens as a basis for demanding their loyalty and support.

3.         The Constitutional Challenge

Since its independence, the country has been facing the challenge of crafting a constitutional arrangement that has the backing of an overwhelming majority of Nigerians.  In the 1940s and 1950s, our founding fathers battled with this problem.  In the end, they arrived at the principle of federalism as a foundation for our nation.  But federalism has faced stiff challenges over the years from those wanting a unitary form of government on the one hand, and from those wanting a confederal arrangement, on the other.  To my mind, the worst enemies of Nigerian federalism are those who speak of federalism, but act in a unitary fashion by brushing aside all the divisions of powers between different levels of our federation.  Related to the problem of federalism is the question of fiscal federalism.  What is the appropriate and just basis for sharing revenue?  Should the federal government have the right to deduct monies due to states without their permission?  Should state governments continue to control local government allocations?  These are all fundamental principles on which we have no clear consensus.  While we all agree that Nigeria must be a federation, we have no clear consensus on the nature of that federation, on whether we should have territorially defined states or ethnically defined states as some are demanding.  We also do not have a consensus on the number of states or federating units we should have.  While some are satisfied with the current 36 states, others are calling for more states for their own groups.  On the other hand, yet others are arguing that the number of states should be reduced to 6.  Here again, there is little by way of consensus. 

Another constitutional challenge relates to the nature of our democracy.  While most Nigerians support the principles of democracy such as the forming of government based on the will of the majority, respect for the rule of law, and respect for basic freedoms of citizens, the fact remains that in practice, we have tended to have either military rule or defective civilian governments.  Either in terms of accountability, or respect for the rule of law, or the holding of elections, our conduct in the recent past has been far from democratic.  Therefore, while most of us now agree that we do not want military rule, our visions and practice of democracy are not uniform, showing a fundamental lack of consensus on this important question as well.  Moreover, our political parties should need to become little more than vehicles to deliver power to the highest bidders at local, state and federal levels.

A third and final area of constitutional challenge which I want to share with you is about the principles for sharing power at the different levels of government.  As studies by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) based in Geneva show, some sections of the country dominate the bureaucracy, while others dominate the cabinet.7  This pattern of uneven distribution of power goes right down to even local governments.  For example, through the work of the Federal Character Commission, we know that a local government in Warri once had staff from only one ethnic group, even though three ethnic groups lived in the local government area.  Unless we have inclusive systems of government, we cannot have a stable political system as an anchor for nation-building.  Through the Federal Character Commission and through informal arrangements like zoning, we have made some progress, but a lot more work has to be done before we fully address the problem of monopoly, marginalization, and exclusion in bureaucratic and political positions.  Moreover, the pursuit of the principle of the federal character should not be at the expense of merit or a substitute of equal opportunity for all citizens.

I would argue, therefore, that the key values of federalism, democracy, and inclusive government have not been sufficiently consolidated as core values for our nation.  Some important questions regarding each of these three key values remain unanswered. And in many instances, there is a discrepancy between what is written on paper and what people do in practice.  Building consensus around these three key values remains a constitutional challenge for nation-building.  Nigeria needs a constitutional settlement that commands the acceptance, if not the respect, of a majority of its 140 million citizens.  The 1999 constitution bequeathed by the military is defective in many important respects.  Attempts to correct these defects through the National Political Reform Conference (NPRC) of 2005 and the Constitutional Reform Bill of 2006 which was debated and rejected by the National Assembly, have so far failed.

4.         The Challenge of Building Institutions for Democracy and Development

One of the greatest challenges of nation building is the challenge of institution building.  Whether nations are able to manage their political and social disputes peacefully, without lapsing into conflict, or sustain economic growth without creating huge inequalities, critically depend on the quality of the relevant national institutions.

There are three important components to institution building:  setting the rules; hiring persons with the technical expertise and moral competence to interpret the rules or implement the goals of the organisations; and ensuring that the institutions inspire public confidence by being transparent, fair and consistent.  These are also the standards by which the performance of any organisation, in particular, public sector organisations should be measured.  This shows that the act of creating the organisation itself is not as important as its proper functioning and overall effectiveness. In this regard, Nigeria needs to create or strengthen institutions that would help achieve the national goals of democratic governance and sustainable development.  These include:
(a)        Institutions for fostering public integrity    

When we refer to the courts or the ICPC or Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) as institutions that fight corruption; we imply that these organisations not operate and apply enforce a set of rules but also aim to create a system of values that rejects the abusive of public position for private gain.

Today, there are three institutions that are dedicated to fostering integrity in the public sector:  the Code of Conduct Bureau [CCB], the ICPC and EFCC.  Together the ICPC’s mandate include reviewing public sector systems and procedures with a view to eliminating pitfalls for corruption, public enlightenment and mobilization against corruption and enforcing the law in these areas.  By contrast, EFCC has mandate to combat 419 crimes, money laundering, and terrorist financing and fraud in the financial sector.       

Yet, there is also growing sense among the public that there is an overlap in functions between the ICPC and EFCC.  However, those knowledgeable with the statues creating the ICPC and EFCC argue that the main area of overlap is in the definition of economic crime as including corruption.  The anti-corruption bodies have met the criteria of inspiring public confidence in their work.  That public confidence will be raised much higher if the functions are delineated in a way that are can easily be grasped by the public.

(b)       Institutions for public service delivery

The civil service is the main instrument and institution of public service delivery.  Traditionally, the civil service performs three functions: supporting the policy making function of government at the federal, state and local government; facilitating or regulating the private sector; and providing managerial leadership for operating pubic sector enterprises.  The capacity of the Nigerian civil service to perform its statutory functions is critically dependent on its ability to attract and retain competent and highly skilled persons in the professional category; the willing to offer attractive pay and benefits package; and the modernisation of the office infrastructure. 

The reforms of the federal civil service has rightly focused on improving the pay package, increasing the number of  staff in the professional category and  improving service to the public through the Service Compact with Nigerians (Servcom).

Nonetheless, much remains to be done both in improving the office infrastructure in the civil service and in bringing public servants attitude to the standards of many emerging economies.  Moreover, it is doubtful whether the new pay scale has done much to improve overall conditions of the civil servants.  While high pay may not offer a guarantee against fraud and corruption, it is a major incentive to work harder and show commitment to public service.   

(c)        The Judicial Institutions

The Judiciary is an important institution is any democracy but they are essential to the functioning of a market economy.  The judiciary not only arbitrates disputes between the various levels of government, between government and citizens, and among citizens but also among private sector agents.  Given its pivotal role in national stability and economic prosperity, some of the major features of good institutions noted earlier are particular relevant.  These are that institutions should have persons with the technical expertise and moral competence to interpret the rules or implement the goals of the organisations; and ensure that the institutions inspire public confidence.

In recent times, the Supreme Court, the apex court in the country, has inspired much public confidence and respect because of the quality of its judgment, especially in some politically sensitive cases.  In some ways, the gradual maturity of the democratic process in Nigeria, where politicians now prefer legal recourse rather to local rampage with their supporters and loyalists, is directly linked to the growing public confidence in the courts.  Election related disputes should be addressed in the courts –be they electoral courts or ultimately in judicial courts –and not through violence.

There are multiplying instances of election-related violence tearing apart the social fabric in several African countries.  Nigerians have also needlessly shared much blood in the past.  If Nigerians are beginning to realise the futility of shedding blood in elections disputes, this owes much to our judiciary, which has provided reasoned judgment on several cases.  Nonetheless, the responsibility for conducting free and fair elections and accepting results should not be left to the judiciary alone. Democracy cannot be built solely on court orders or judgment of electoral tribunals.

(d)       Institutions for Economic Governance

The functioning and effectiveness of a market-based economy such as Nigeria relies on several institutions.  It requires an institution to regulate the supply and flow of money and the financial system (Central Bank); to allocate capital to firms and individuals (Banks and Stock Exchange); to insure against commercial risks (insurance firms); to insure individual bank depositors against loss of up to certain amount (deposit insurance); to enforce contractual obligations (courts); and to collect revenue for the government (fiscal authorities).

The performance of our national institutions of economic governance is a mixed one.  However, the reform of the financial sector has strengthened public confidence in the banks especially and opened opportunities for our banks to extend their reach to other parts of the region. 

How to spread the benefits of growth and development to all – in other words to achieve equitable growth is a major public policy challenge.  In Nigeria, little effort has been made in that direction.  The key instruments for sharing include unemployment insurance, access to affordable housing, and access to health.

5.         The Leadership Challenge

According to my distinguished compatriot, Chinua Achebe, the trouble with Nigeria is the failure of leadership.  Leadership is a critical factor in nation-building and it should be understood in two important but related ways.  Firstly, there are the personal qualities of integrity, honesty, commitment, and competence of individual leaders at the top.  Secondly, there are the collective qualities of common vision, focus, and desire for development of the elites as a whole.

The standards for recruitment and the performance of our individual leaders over the years have left much to be desired.  We do not need leaders who see themselves as champions of only some sections of our population.  We do not need leaders who do not understand the economic and political problems of the country, not to talk of finding durable solutions for them.  We do not need leaders who are more interested in silencing their opponents, than in pursuing justice.  We do not need leaders, who preach one thing, and do the exact opposite.  We do not need leaders who place themselves above the constitution and the laws of the country, but leaders who lead by upholding and respecting the law.  We do not need leaders who have no sense of tomorrow, other than that of their private bank accounts. 

If we are to succeed in nation-building, we must have a leadership that is committed to the rule of law and has a demonstrable sense of fairplay and democratic tolerance; a leadership with ability and integrity; above all else, we must have a leadership that can see beyond the ostentatious pomp of office.  We must have leaders who have a vision for a Nigeria better than the one they inherited; leaders who will lead by deeds and not by words; achievers, not deceivers.  We need a leadership that will not only leave its foot-prints on the sands of time, but one, which by dint of hard-work, fairplay, dedication and commitment, will live forever in the hearts of Nigerians.

Leadership is not everything, but it is an extremely important factor. Unless we have leaders with ability, integrity, commitment, and vision, we cannot succeed at nation-building.  It is gratifying to note that within the judiciary, the National Assembly, and within the Executive, the issue of the quality of leadership is currently receiving attention.  We must not relent in this struggle for quality leadership as it is the key to building our nation.

Beyond the qualities of individual leaders, however, there is the equally important question of the quality of the collective leadership offered by the Nigerian elite class as a whole.  After all, a tree cannot make a forest, and an individual leader cannot do everything alone.  When I talk about collective elite leadership, I am drawing attention to the collective vision, focus, and discipline of the elites as a whole.  Do we have an elite that is collectively committed to nation-building?

In answering this question, please permit me to digress a bit by telling you about two very similar African countries in which leadership has made the critical difference.  My colleagues in field of comparative politics have pointed out that Botswana and Somalia are quite similar when you look at their fundamental characteristics.  Both have: (1) one large dominant group ethnic group divided into clans; (2) both are sparsely populated in semi-arid conditions; (3) at independence, both depended on livestock for the livelihood of a majority of the population.  While the Botswana leadership was collectively focused and had a vision of what it wanted to do with the country, the leadership in Somalia was divided against itself.  As a result, Botswana learnt to harness its limited resources for generally agreed objectives.  It learned to survive under the shadow of apartheid South Africa.  And it learned to manage its diamond resources well when those resources started flowing in. Somalia, on the other hand had a divided leadership, some of whom wanted to build Greater Somalia by military means, while others simply wanted to get on with running the country they inherited from colonialism.  As a result, the Somali leadership lacked focus and vision, and often fought itself through conspiracies and military coups.  Somalia also went to war with its neighbours.  For anybody looking at these two countries today, the difference is clear.

The comparative histories of Botswana and Somalia suggest that we should be concerned not just with the quality of leadership of our Presidents, Governors, Senators and Judges; we should also be concerned by the quality of leadership which we all bring to our professional and personal responsibilities.  Nation-building is a collective responsibility and I would like again to salute Justice Akanbi for standing up to be counted in this important respect.

When a Nigerian leader, by words and deeds, is able to convince a large enough section of the Nigerian elites and the wider public about a vision for a greater tomorrow, then Nigeria will truly be on the way to national greatness.  While our experiences in the past have been disappointing, we have every reason to believe that the future is likely to be better.

IV.       Conclusion

I cannot conclude this speech without touching on my personal area of immediate professional expertise, the field of international relations.  No nation can exist in isolation and nation-building must take account of the international context of the country in question.  The external dimensions of our nation-building agenda, in the framework of concentric circles of interest and influence, must necessarily take account of our responsibilities and obligations in the West African sub-region, within Africa, and in the world as a whole since the challenges facing the international system defy purely national solutions.  Nigeria has played an important role in the international relations of West Africa, Africa and the Black race.  We must continue to do so, but at the same time, resist the temptation of seeing ourselves as the new ‘policeman’ of West Africa; a replacement for the increasingly reluctant French gendarme.  The promotion of regional security and peace through ECOMOG must be complemented by strategies emphasising the creation of common regional economic infrastructure, the expansion of economic opportunities, and the promotion of democratic institutions and values.  Functioning regional economic community (RECs) are the most reliable pillars on which to build Pan-Africanism in its economic and political dimensions.  The promotion of democratization and sustainable development both in our region and in Africa as a whole is central to Nigeria’s national interest.

I would like to end my presentation by reiterating that nations are built by men and women who have the will and vision to accomplish greatness, not for themselves, their immediate families and friends, but for their country.  I believe that if we can find the will to offer such a leadership, and support it by strong and dependable political and economic institutions, we will find a way to our national greatness.

 I thank you for your attention.

*** **** ***

  1. I am grateful to my friends and colleagues, Dr. Raufu Mustapha of Oxford University and Mr. Eloho Otobo (United Nations) for their help in the preparation of this presentation.
  2. www.thisdayonline, 09.08.2005.
  3. Federal Office of Statistics, General Household Survey 1995/6: National Report, 1995/6.
  4. See figures in Hadiza Galadanchi, ‘Overview of Maternal Mortality in Northern Nigeria’, dRPC, Kano, 2007.
  5. Adapted from
  6. Charles Soludo, ‘Preserving Stability and Accelerating Growth’, Central Bank of Nigeria, January 2007.
  7. From Ethiopian Ogaden, Afar, Issa, Kenyan Somaliland, and Somalia itself.

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