We live in a successful failed state


Every morning since the 20th of October 2020, Nigerian millennials have woken up to the reality that we are citizens of a failed state.

Let's make no mistake about it, last week's foray into internet censorship was on-brand with the embarrassing actions taken by the government during the October End SARS protests. 

And contrary to what we realise, this government has not broken Nigeria. It has simply revealed what was already broken. It has simply revealed that the Nigerian state has failed.

Nigeria today is weakened by corruption, criminal mismanagement, electoral violence, apathy, ethnic bigotry, unemployment, even hunger. We are one of the world’s weakest societies. And as I have argued before, we reflect the mirage rather than the reality of democracy.

If at this point, you feel it is too bold an assertion to use the term ‘failed state’, it is my sole intention to convince you otherwise. It is important that I do this because as much as we may wish it away, this phenomenon is only likely to get worse. 

There is no consensus on what constitutes a failed state. Some argue that a state has failed when the central government no longer has the monopoly of violence in the state. Others argue that it is where guerilla and paramilitary groups control sovereign territory beyond the reach of the government. This is the basis on which many states like Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen have failed. 

Now, were we to apply this rubric to Nigeria, we would find that Nigeria does not fare too well; 201 killed and 137 abducted across Nigeria in violent attacks last week. They take our citizens from their schools and they kill them in droves. Sometimes, it is as if the state does not exist.

Other definitions of failed states can often seem extreme, almost barbaric. It has been argued that failed states are often ‘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.

The problem with accepting this definition of Nigeria as a failed state is that if you are reading this article, it might not feel right to say Nigeria has failed. It may sound un-Nigerian. Too extreme.

But, this is where our problems begin; we are a special kind of failed state.

Nigerians face different realities every day, depending on where they live or do business. Our experiences are neither uniform nor transferable. Some Nigerians or I daresay many Nigerians, especially those elites in the suburbs of Lagos and Abuja, do not see, feel or understand this failed state. They do not quite understand this chaos that their fellow citizens under attack by herdsmen in the Middle Belt face. It is because there are two Nigerias.

This Nigerian paradox has a name. Ricardo Soares de Oliveira coined the term ‘successful failed states’ to explain the reality of Sub-Saharan African nations. Successful failed states are countries like ours with strong leaders, powerful business interests and islands of competence, surrounded by unusually impoverished societies and millions of citizens who shoulder the burdens of their states’ failures.

As successful failed states dance on the brink of total collapse, small, isolated pockets of the country continue to soldier on, misleading the general populace. Put another way, one common trait of the ‘successful failed state’ is that for as long as it can, it convinces its inhabitants and onlookers that it is not a failed state. 

The reality is that the contrast between the millions of powerless, invisible Nigerians that ply their trade on the streets of the country, and the capital accumulating, do-or-die rulers and businessmen who govern without democracy, is often ignored because some Nigerians are doing quite well for themselves. It is the classic story of the haves and the have nots. Those with choices and those without. Those who capture the opportunities and those who do not even know opportunities exist. Where you fall determines everything about your experience of what it means to be a Nigerian.

These ‘haves’ are not to be scapegoated or shamed for being on the fortunate side of Nigeria. But, they know not to mistake their Nigeria for Nigeria. Our numerous failures as a country are masked by their more pleasant experiences. Unfortunately, this is a tragedy that should not continue.

This is also not an attempt to undermine Nigeria’s successes. Opportunities abound. But, we must not forget the many millions who might as well fall off the map.

If you think I overemphasise this point, it is simply because I understand that our successful failure, our dancing on the brink, matters deeply for the future of the world.

This is not because of any kind of blind patriotism, but because the cost of resuscitating a fully failed state is so considerable that, where we can prevent it from occurring, we should do so. Should we fail completely, the impact will be felt across the entire continent. 

In 2019, Nigeria's population amounted to over 200 million individuals. Nigeria represents 1 out of 6 Africans. By 2050, our population is expected to double, reaching over 400 million people. In our isolation, we may have forgotten that Nigeria is a pivotal nation that determines the future of the African continent.

The Liberian civil war did not just cost lives and tens of thousands, but hundreds of millions of dollars from across the world to stabilise the region. Liberia’s population is but a fraction of Lagos’. Any displacement of Nigerians across the continent and across the world will disrupt everyone.

The strategic importance of Nigeria, not just to those left behind, but to the rest of the world, makes the clearest case that we must take any chance we get to reverse the trend. We must do everything we can to prevent a successful failed state from becoming a failed state.

So, now that we know that we must act, it is important to understand how we must act.

As millennials and Gen Zs now often remind themselves, these are our best years. Yet, we are spending them waiting on a government that does not even pretend to govern. Our political rulers are far more comfortable pitting us against each other along any lines that they may find—religion, region, tribe or political parties. And at the end of the day, oil insulates them from the pressures of a people-run democracy.

Therefore, we must replace them.

Today, we are faced with a choice that Nigeria’s failure makes inescapably clear. We can remain quiet and in isolation, fearing and hiding from the government, letting our momentum turn to nothing but history. Or, we can collectively change the way we think, talk, and act.

Late last year, we saw indications of a vibrant, new, resolute consciousness in the form of the #EndSars protests. Then, we saw the state’s brutal response. Now many of us, just like the freedoms we fight for, have retreated. Many who participated in the protests were either killed, threatened, attacked or scared into hiding in places they may never return from.

Unfortunately, the new consciousness we started building on social media appears everywhere. Everywhere but the places with the power to do anything. At the same time, we can see that it is their understanding of the power of social media that has forced them to act, to censor, to restrict our freedoms. This is a sign that we must not relent. Not when we finally have momentum.

We know that it is not policies or an understanding of our problems that we lack. What we lack is the freedom, confidence and timing that tells us exactly when to come together and act as free citizens in a Nigerian democracy. 

Gershom Scholem, the Jewish philosopher, calls them 'plastic hours'. Hannah Arendt, the German philosopher, called them ‘revolutionary situations’. George Packer, the US columnist described them as moments when “a social order suddenly turns pliable, prolonged stasis gives way to motion, and people dare to hope. Plastic hours are rare. They require the right alignment of public opinion, political power, and events—usually a crisis. They depend on social mobilisation and leadership. They can come and go unnoticed or wasted. Nothing happens unless you move”

Plastic hours are those “crucial moments when it is possible to act. If you move, then something happens”. These plastic hours, when they appear, are our opportunities to resurrect Nigeria, the failing nation. 

Granted, it will not be easy or straightforward. We will need to act with precision, at the right time, in just the right manner, at the right speed. We will not have a lot of time because these moments will be few and far between. But they will exist in our lifetimes.

They will exist in the form of elections, protests and national conferences. Sometimes they will also appear in the form of charismatic or political leaders. Other times, the bandwagon will be impossible to miss. The important thing is that we are ready. 

I have no doubt; ours must be a revolutionary generation. A revolutionary generation is one that changes things. But, change is difficult. Therefore, as we prepare for the future that lays ahead of us, we must ask ourselves the important question: ‘Are we ready to save a failed state?’

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