Is Nigeria Ever A Failed State? By Obadiah Mailafia
Nigeria was recently designated a failed state in a joint article in Foreign Affairs by political scientist Robert Rotberg and former American Ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell. In their article, “The Giant of Africa is Failing”(May 31, 2021), they declare: “If a state’s first obligation to those it governs is to provide for their security and maintain a monopoly on the use of violence, then Nigeria has failed, even if some other aspects of the state still function. Criminals, separatists and Islamist insurgents increasingly threaten the government’s grip on power, as do rampant corruption, economic malaise and rising poverty”.
They go on to warn to warn about the long-term impact on the neighbourhood: elaborate how state failure in Nigeria bodes such ill wind for the sub-region: “It bodes especially ill for the stability and well-being of weak states in Nigeria’s vicinity….Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, and Niger.”
In international development discourses, distinctions are often made between “fragile states”, “crisis states” and “failed states”.
According to the World Bank, fragile states are characterised by weak policies and institutions, “making them vulnerable in their capacity to deliver services to their citizens, to control corruption, or to provide for sufficient voice and accountability. They face risks of conflict and political instability”. The opposite of a fragile state is a stable state, where public institutions are robust enough to withstand times of stress. For more than a decade, Nigeria has been ranked among the Fragile States Index.
A crisis state, on the other hand, is one that is characterised by acute stress, in which institutional arrangements are subject to enduring contestations – where key actors are potentially unable to manage conflict and shocks that are thrown at the system. Crisis situations can be exacerbated by events such as economic recessions and pandemics such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola. The opposite of a crisis state is a “resilient state”, where the institutions are robust enough to endure crisis situations.
A “failed state”, according to Robert Rotberg, is one where public spaces are “tense, deeply conflicted, dangerous, and bitterly contested by warring factions. In most failed states, government troops battle armed revolts led by one or more warring factions”.
Ordinarily, a state is considered effective when it possesses both the ability and willingness to provide the basic political goods such as physical security, legitimate political institutions, basic infrastructures, economic management and collective welfare. A failed state, on the other hand, is typically unable to perform the essential functions of a state as internationally understood – unable to safeguard the lives and properties of its citizens and unable to ensure good governance, control borders and perform basic social and economic development functions.
For William Zartmann, a distinguished scholar whom I met when I was a young graduate student, state failure is a situation where “the basic functions of the state are no longer performed”. It goes well beyond episodes of revolt, coup, or protest; it covers situations in which state structures, authority, law and political order have collapsed and would have to be re-constituted all over again.
The policy think-tank, The Fund for Peace, defines a failed state as one that is characterised by “loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community”. In short, it is a state that is no longer in a position to reproduce the essential conditions for its own existence as a state.
State failure is generally regarded as the final process of a failing or collapsing state. Some states fail comprehensively in all areas, whereas others manage to achieve high performance in economic management while the bulk of its countryside is in the hands of rebels and armed bandits. Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, a political scientist at Oxford University, coined the term “successful failed states” to depict the paradox of failed states that nonetheless feature few, suspended, oases of competence and excellence. He used Angola, a vastly corrupt and ill-governed country and its successful national oil company, Sonangol, as an example of a “successful failed state”. In Nigeria, many of the business elites are doing rather well; surrounded by an ocean of poverty, collapsing institutions and decaying infrastructures
There are no doubt pockets of economic success, but such success is being recorded against a generalised backdrop of worsening insecurity, decaying civil service and collapsing institutions. When states fail, citizens suffer. State collapse opens up opportunities for rival forces to contest for power and dominance, which further destroys stability and political order.
State failure is also akin to a contagious disease. Refugees, terrorist groups, illegal firearms and narcotics tend to overflow into the neighbourhood.In the words of one scholar, they are sinkholes that pose a “systemic risk to the liberal world order, of which the United States is the principal architect and beneficiary”. Failed states, according to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are those that can no longer exercise”responsible sovereignty”; spreading, in the process, “terrorism, weapons proliferation, and other dangers”.
Nigeria today fulfils many of the conditions that we would normally attribute to a failed state. Our government no longer possesses monopoly over the use of violence. Boko Haram, ISWAP and the genocidal Fulani militias not only outnumber the Nigerian military, they are more than a march for them in terms of the quality of their military arsenals. Government cannot fully police our country’s borders, leading to uncontrolled immigration of well-armed terrorist groups. Nigeria is currently the kidnap capital of the world, in addition to possessing the unenviable title of being the world capital of poverty. More than 24 million children are out of school. Some 3.5 million Nigerians are living in makeshift IDP camps. UNICEF recently announced that 345,000 children have died in the North East over the last 12 years. Borno Governor Babagana Zulum recently announced that more than 450,000 of his people have gone “missing”. On a national scale, we are looking at an estimated one million people that have been lost in the unfolding inferno.
Meanwhile, the economy is on a tailspin, with inflation spiralling out of control and the Naira at the verge of collapsing. Unemployment currently hovers above 33%, with youth employing estimated to be above 40 percent. There is also the crisis of climate change, manifested in worsening desertification in the North, shrinkage of Lake Chad in the North East and increasing incidence of flooding in the coastal cities and towns. Hunger and malnutrition have become the lot of millions of our people. The civil service is in decay and the Rule of Law and governance institutions have virtually collapsed. There is grave uncertainty as to the very survival and future of Nigeria as a political community, with various ethnic nationalities demanding self-determination and even outright secession.
State collapse is closely associated with the phenomenon of political decay, defined by the eminent political scientist Samuel Huntington, as a chaotic and disorderly situation where the rate of social modernisation is accelerating ahead of progress in political and institutional development. By modernisation and political development, Huntington is referring to the process of rationalisation of political institutions, movement from particularism to universalism; nationalism and national integration and democratisation. This lacuna, in turn, contributes to the erosion of political legitimacy, where the citizens no longer believe government is worthy of their trust, obedience or loyalty.
Failed states are not the handiwork of wicked or ignorant men. They are the outcome of collective institutional failures that have often followed decade-long path-dependent trajectories. Failed states can bounce back through public reforms that implemented with wisdom, courage and vision. Sadly, many will never recover.
In the words of the 19th century French aristocrat and political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville: “Among the laws that rule human societies, there is one which seems to be more precise and clearer than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”