To the average Nigerian, Nigeria has not fundamentally changed. The economy has doubled in size, and mobile phones are common, yet Nigeria remains poor, poorly governed, and underdeveloped. And as far as many Nigerians are concerned, this state of affairs has been the same for a long time; all the economic, political, and social problems that plagued the country at its creation remain unresolved.
Nigeria has many problems, but only a few fundamental ones: a dysfunctional socio-political structure, profoundly entrenched corruption, and an unproductive economy.
A stroll through recent decades would reveal that none of these problems is new. Widespread poverty, weak institutions, endemic corruption, political instability, and social conflict—these phrases could characterise Nigeria at any point within the last fifty years.
Perhaps no one knew how to capture the Nigerian experience as well as the late Fela Kuti, and his evocative words in “Shuffering and Shmiling”—“Every day my people dey inside bus, forty-nine sitting, ninety-nine standing. Them go pack themselves in like sardine”—perfectly articulate this.
Indeed, it is an indictment on Nigeria that many of Fela’s laments still ring true today. In Nigeria, problems are not solved; instead, they persist or evolve and manifest in other guises. For instance, fuel subsidies were introduced as a stop-gap measure to cushion rising international oil prices in 1977. Since then, fuel subsidies have been the source of multiple corruption scandals, and from consuming over ₦700 billion in 2018, it has ballooned to over ₦4 trillion as of 2022.
So is Nigeria an underdeveloped country?
Yes, Nigeria is stuck in perpetual underdevelopment.
The more things change, the more they remain the same
The persistence of Nigeria’s problems is not due to a shortage of awareness, campaign promises, or resources.
For example, many Nigerian leaders have publicly resolved to diversify the economy away from its reliance on oil. As far back as 1986, General Ibrahim Babaginda declared his intent to diversify the economy. In fact, one of the core objectives of the derided Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) was to “restructure and diversify the productive base of the economy,” to reduce dependence on the oil sector and imports.
Thirty-six years later, that refrain is repeated—the government is trying to diversify the economy. Another constant promise of every administration has been eliminating electricity blackouts in the nation, yet Nigeria remains one of the worst-performing countries with regard to electricity supply. Other economic problems are just as old: double-digit inflation, unsustainable public debt, etc.
Nigeria’s stasis is best seen in comparison with its pre-independence contemporaries. In 1960, GDP in Nigeria and South Korea was $4.1 billion and $3.9 billion, respectively. South Korea’s GDP of $1.5 trillion is over four times that of Nigeria.
The same stagnation can be observed in education. In the early 1960s, Singapore had educational statistics similar to that of many African countries, including Nigeria. Today, the nation’s literacy rate stands at 97%. On the other hand, Nigeria has only improved its literacy rate to 60%.
Throughout Nigeria’s history, the nation has been running on a hamster wheel of underdevelopment. Why is that the case?
Never a country
An argument could be made that Nigeria’s perpetual dysfunction stems from its fundamental structure. Nigeria was never designed to function as a nation but as a business enterprise which metamorphosed into a rentier agglomeration of extractive institutions posing as a nation.
Thus, many of the problems Nigeria faces today, particularly those in the political and social sphere, stem from the absence of a cohesive national structure and proper institutions with the capacity for nation-building.
Besides, there is no social accord establishing consensus on the Nigerian national identity and the meaning of Nigerian citizenship. It could be argued that the nation’s seemingly fundamental problems are fuelled by the absence of a common heritage, which would otherwise aid consensus building and proper national identity. Both are necessary for the solutions required to solve Nigeria’s deep-rooted structural problems.
However, Nigeria is neither the only nation with an unusual creation nor the only country bequeathed a chequered history. Several nations, including India and Singapore, have overcome similar problems and transitioned into functioning societies.
So, while Nigeria has a fundamental identity problem, this problem has been exacerbated by bad leadership and corruption.
5 reasons why Nigeria is underdeveloped
The easiest lens to view Nigeria’s stagnation is through its leadership.
Over the last six decades, Nigeria has had thirteen Heads of Government and hundreds of State Governors, yet only a few can be considered mildly successful. One constant since Independence Day has been the absence of good leaders.
Rather than chart a path towards national development, pervasive distribution struggles amongst the nation’s elites often result in political instability and the erosion of good governance.
Tied to the above is the problem of corruption. Often cited as the chief culprit of Nigeria’s woes, there is no controversy over its influence on Nigeria’s state of affairs.
As far back as 1947, thirteen years before the nation’s independence, a Colonial Government report identified corruption as a moral failure in Nigerian public service. Nearly twenty years later, corruption, among other factors, provided the pretext for a group of young middle-rank army officers to execute the nation’s first coup d’état.
The military did not fare better with corruption. An estimated $400 billion had been looted from the treasury when Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999. In the twenty years since, corruption has remained the toga Nigeria continues to cling to.
A nuanced perspective would acknowledge that corruption may be as much a symptom as it is a cause of Nigeria’s problems. Regardless, what is clear is that corruption uniquely inhibits our ability to solve these problems.
Nigeria is a diverse nation with over 250 ethnic groups and languages, so there are many points where division may happen. The absence of a common heritage is a structural issue that Nigeria needs to address. One example of tensions exacerbated by language barriers is the Farmer-Herder conflict, where many farmers and herders have lost their lives. Climate change and water scarcity are driving intense land competition among these groups, leading to significant human and economic costs.
About half of most countries' population is female, including Nigeria. Countries that do not take advantage of the productivity of half of their population don’t perform as well as more inclusive countries. According to the IMF, gender equality boosts economic growth and stability. To overcome this gender gap, we would need to fix healthcare, education, and labour and give women a say in politics.
Breaking the wheel
It would be easy to write Nigeria off at this point. But evidence from abroad shows that there should be a way. Most recently, the ascent of the five dominant Southeast Asian nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) holds hope that the future may be salvaged if Nigeria does what is required.
And doing what is required means going to the root of the problems.
For example, we need to address the current ineffective governance structure. A nation organised around the sharing of oil proceeds, with a bloated and inefficient central government, cannot properly serve a population as large and heterogeneous as Nigeria’s.
However, restructuring must go beyond carving out new states (or regions) or creating new revenue-sharing formulas. It would be necessary to redefine the nature of governance in Nigeria and renegotiate the implicit social contract that binds all Nigerians. Only once that is done can we create active institutions that genuinely serve the needs of the people.
Meanwhile, ignorance is the antidote to development. Nigeria cannot change unless it educates its people.
Education and citizen enlightenment have also been proven to be effective tools necessary for the transition of nations from developing to developed. South Korea and Singapore have proven that education is the key to lasting economic growth and development. Nigeria has historically been a nation with educated elites; however, most citizens remain uneducated and poorly educated.
Thus, there is a need to prioritise sustained investment in education. Not only will education enable Nigerian citizens to become more productive and engender economic growth, but it will also increase citizen awareness and precipitate greater demand for good governance.
The elimination of corruption is also paramount. It is estimated that corruption in Nigeria could cost up to 37% of GDP by 2030 if left unchecked.
Unfortunately, if past antecedents are anything to go by, Nigeria is unlikely to make these changes. The status quo will probably remain; after all, it is not by accident that a country remains stuck in a state of underdevelopment.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Nigeria a developing or developed African country?
Nigeria is a developing country categorised as lower middle income by the World Bank.
Why is Nigeria still a developing country 62 years after independence?
One reason why Nigeria has been unable to move from developing to developed is because of a dysfunctional socio-political structure and deep-rooted corruption.