Can Africa Learn From Nigeria?

John Otim


John Otim, author of Dream Campus, and of The Ups and Downs of an African Campus, Editor of Nile Journal




Nigeria may yet be the one African country other Africans turn to, for answers to the many problems that beset the Continent, and for much more. For sure we remember too well and are repulsed by the violence that followed the last presidential election held in Nigeria in which hundreds lost their lives. We recall the horrible flare of blood letting that took place in the country in December of 2002 as the sparkling new Capital City of Abuja prepared to host the Miss World contest.

The previous year a Nigerian girl of distinct beauty and charms, Agbani Darego, had become the first African Beauty Queen to win the coveted crown. Now the show was coming home to Nigeria to honor her and there were high expectations. In the event guests, officials and contestants fled the city and the country double quick as hundreds of protestors armed with whips, clubs and stones gathered and prepared to storm the venue at the magnificent Hilton Nuga Hotel in central Abuja. Their quarrel, this no be our culture:

We know also about the Islamist group called Boko Haram now wedging a war of terror on the country. Despite all these there may be reasons and good ones too why Africa must come to Nigeria to look for answers. Answer to problems that bedevil the continent and obstruct progress.

Africa is huge and diverse but Africa’s problems have a common cause. It is the curse of history and the curse of being too well endowed. The ongoing re-colonization of the continent by foreign powers and multi nationals, the ethnic barbarism widespread on the continent, the untold corruption present almost everywhere, the dictatorship and the tyranny:  these are symptoms of the core problem that keep the continent from advancing.

Africa must come to Nigeria not because these problems don’t exist in Nigeria or have been solved. To the contrary many of these problems play themselves out in Nigeria in worse ways. Take the case of corruption in which a State Governor sought in broad daylight to flee from justice disguised as a woman after emptying State coffers. But Africa must come to Nigeria to observe how Nigeria tampered by its experience of civil war, has set about tackling some fundamental problems of Africa.

Seven years into independence, civil war broke out in Nigeria and lasted three bloody years that left the country half dead and barely breathing. But the country emerged from its near death seemingly with new energies and with a new slogan. No victor no vanquished. Of course the Federal side had worn the war and Biafra or the Igbo side had lost. But words even words, even if not meant, words once spoken sometimes acquire powers of their own. No victor no vanquished, were the words spoken by the leader of the Federal side, and branded and repeated on radio and television many times in the aftermath of the war. The words acted to prevent and minimize the vilification, the victimization and humiliation of the defeated, that was sure to come.

Nigeria as a country was the better for it. Not only did the other side reciprocate but a certain air of goodwill permeated the nation still reeling from its war savagery. The experience of Uganda following the armed ascendency of President Museveni in 1986 was different. There the government perused a policy of revenge and demonization under the code name of The Three Primitives, hurled as a curse against those perceived as the Opposition with disastrous consequences for Northern Uganda and in the end for the country.

Nigeria is a nation of vibrant and dynamic folks but today the formerly defeated Igbo community is arguably the most dynamic community in the country. Its energies and spirit of enterprise energize and power many sectors of the national economy and social life. To date the community has given Nigeria its proudest, most successful industry, and largest export earner next to oil. The Nigerian movie industry code named Nollyhood. The rest of Africa can learn from Nigeria the spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship that makes this possible.



From the tragedy of its civil war, along its torturous path over two decades of disastrous military rule kept it backward, Nigeria learnt one fundamental truth. Namely that democracy is not a luxury you can postpone while you develop. Forget Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore or Muhammad Mahathir of Malaysia. Nigeria learned that democracy is a tool that you need to sharpen day by day in the struggle for development. For without it development may never come your way.

Nigeria had been a federation even before the war. But from its experience in the civil war Nigeria took up Federalism in a new way. It embraced Federalism as a strategy for building, developing and sustaining democracy, critical especially in their huge and diverse nation. By means of Federalism, power is devolved to the States, to local governments and ultimately to citizens. This is the ideal which seeks to avoid the specter sadly common in Africa of the Strongman seated at the Center abusing and monopolizing power and using resources that belong to all in his own narrow and selfish interests. Remember President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. He is not alone.

Federalism and the state system became in Nigeria the building block for a future democratic Nigeria. That future is yet far from coming this being Nigeria, but today thirty six semi-autonomous states make up the nation. Barring the pervasive presence of corruption state structures and the local government structures under them form the main instruments of democratization and development in Nigeria today.

There will be many problems along the way and in the words of Jimmy Cliff, many rivers to cross. But today in Nigeria the results show in networks of good roads, in the increasing spread of education systems at all levels including universities and colleges.  The competition between the states works on balance to reduce the problem of corruption which is still the Nigerian thing. It also works in favor of the emergence of strong Federal and State Institutions, especially the institutions of the three branches of government, Presidency, Legislature, and the Judiciary.


In the year 2007 when President Olusegun Obasanjo, like so many African Rulers enamored of power, attempted to extend his stay in power beyond the two constitutional terms due him, the Legislative Branch of Government stopped him thus ensuring the integrity and the sanctity of the Nigerian Constitution.

With Boko Haram and other negative forces still on the prowl in the country, the Nigerian experiment remains delicate and may yet collapse. But the fact that it managed so far to pull off two successive transfer of power from one civilian administration to another gives hope that the system may yet endure. It is not from Ghana or Botswana alone but Africa can learn from Nigeria.