Failed states and failing states

A term that is gaining currency of late when describing Nigeria, particularly at fora outside the country is “a failed state”. Invariably, a debate then ensues, whether or not Nigeria is a failed state.The Fund for Peace, a US-funded think tank, gives a set of parameters which help define a failed state. These are:

  • loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein,
  • erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions,
  • an inability to provide reasonable public services, and
  • an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

The Crisis Research Centre, a UK-funded research body, defines a failed state in similar terms, i.e. one that can no longer perform its basic security and development functions and that has no effective control over its territory and borders.

Common characteristics of a failing state include a central government so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory; non-provision of public services; widespread corruption and criminality; refugees and involuntary movement of populations; and sharp economic decline.
(Failed States FAQ 6: )

Over the course of this essay, I would try to evaluate the key components of these definitions and why I regard Nigeria as a failed state.

Loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein

Over the past 12 months (I am restricting myself to this for ease), there have been attacks on major oil exploration, production and distribution facilities around the country. The reasons for these attack fall outside the purview of this write-up, however the fact these attacks took place, and continue to take place are indicative of a severely limited ability of the Nigerian government to maintain physical control of its territory. This limited ability is further accentuated by the negotiated blanket amnesty granted to “militants” in the Niger Delta with the reported associated payouts to the militants.

This “cash and pardon for guns” is a clear evidence of an inability to effectively control the geo-political entity called Nigeria. What, for instance do I need to prove that I am an ex-militant to participate in this cash windfall? Could any robber just turn up at the “amnesty centre” with an AK-47 and declare himself to be a penitent militant and immediately qualify for the cash gift and “amnesty”? Why would the government resort to this ill-advised gesture, if it could effectively control the use of force within its territory?

It is important that I issue a caveat here; I do not condone the use of extra-judicial means and the murder of citizens as a method of territorial control. Part of the key terms in this particular criterion for identifying a failed state is “the legitimate use of force”; murdering innocent citizens does not in any manner constitute legitimate use of force.

A list of armed disturbances that the country has witnessed in the past 12 months would include the following amongst others:

  • Election-associated violence in Ekiti state during the re-run of the gubernitorial elections
  • The destruction of Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos State
  • The destruction of many oil exploration and production platforms too numerous to mention
  • The recent religious violence in 4 states in the northern part of the country
  • The endless spate of kidnapping

In each of these instances, there has been a glaring loss of monopoly of the use of force in, and control over the territory called Nigeria. As a direct consequence of the attacks on the petroleum production facilities, the oil production capacity of the nation has plummeted from about 2.5 million barrels/day to a reported 1.65 million. This, coupled with the decline in crude oil prices has seen the country’s revenues take a significant hit, with the foreign reserves being affected adversely as well.

Erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions

That the recent elections which have taken place in the country were fraught with irregularities would be an understatement of monumental proportions. In the aftermath of elections that were declared free and fair by the “Independent” National Electoral Commission (INEC), the governorship elections were either overturned or partly annulled in Edo State, Cross River State, Adamawa State, Rivers State and Ekiti states amongst others. I do not wish to make a definite pronouncement on the presidential elections, which have been ruled on by the Supreme Court of Justice in Nigeria. However, I can make inferences and ask that if the elections in these states, which were supposedly “won” by the ruling farrago of PDP, what assurance can one place on the presidential elections results declared in those states?

There is the case of a ruling governor, who did not campaign because he was in prison custody during the election. He “won” the election from prison and was “bailed” from prison on the penultimate day of the erstwhile administration and immediately sworn in as governor to enable him obtain the immunity from prosecution as enshrined under the country’s constitution.

The country’s constitution, as it stands, in itself constitutes the greatest obstacle to legitimacy of the current set of rulers. The constitution states within itself that it is the supreme law governing the administation of the country, and after the table of contents states “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria…”. This is utterly laughable, given that this constitution was foisted on the people by a military government that was in a hurry to exit the stage after years of misrule. I do not know of any representative body of “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria” that was constituted formally or informally to draft this constitution.

The clamour for a constitutional referendum continues to be ignored, whilst all forms of acts are perpetrated under the current constitution agreed to by “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. For those interested, the constitution can be found here:

This principal factor, the flaws in the country’s electoral and governance system, in the has led, in my opinion to the, erosion of moral (if not legitimate) “authority to make collective decisions” for the country. The subsequent neglect of the expectations of the electorate can be expected where the mandate to rule in the first instance was questionably obtained.

Inability to provide reasonable public services

Perhaps the least controvertible aspect of the standards used in defining failed states is the near-total absence of reasonable public service. Since the phase of infrastructural development embarked by the then military government of General Yakubu Gowon (rtd), there has been a marked absence of the implementation of infrastructure development at the national level. The notable exception to this would be the Federal Capital Territory in Abuja, an artificial creation whose development was further hastened by General Ibrahim Babangida’s phobia in the aftermath of the Gideon Orka-led attempted coup in 1990.

Endless tomes have been written about the absence of a road network that is capable of meeting the economic needs of the country. The major roads linking the south-west and south-eastern parts of the country have virtually collapsed. Benin-Shagamu is no road for the faint-hearted. Fishermen looking for mud-skippers would find the Port Harcourt-Bomadi-Patani road an excellent fishing spot in the rainy season. Given the economic significance of the Niger delta to the financial well-being of the nation, one is continually astounded by the abject lack of infrastructure in the region. It is hardly surprising that the place has become a breeding ground for restless militants.

The absence of an electricity generation, transmission and distribution network is all too evident. Many companies are relocating their production facilities to Ghana, whilst maintaining nominal administrative and marketing presence in Nigeria. Next time you buy a tube of Close-up or a pack of Blue Band Margarine, check where it was manufactured. Dunlop shut its tyre production factory last year. Michelin had shut its own earlier. With the exit of these two, any significant tyre production ceased in Nigeria. I do not know if the Odutola Tyre business in Ijebu manufacture tyres or just markets them. Given that there were vast rubber plantations in Sapele and its environs whilst I was growing up, it would ordinarily make some economic sense to have an industry that uses latex syrup established in Nigeria, but the absence of infrastructural support has all but chased them all away.

Public water distribution is something many Nigerians under 25 have never witnessed. Where available, the thought of drinking water directly from the mains would not cross the mind of those fortunate to have such luxury. Boreholes have become standard feature in most houses in the country. Many households have purification methods of different scales and complexity, from the humble water filter to more elaborate purification schemes.That NITEL was a failure is more than obvious and does not merit further waste of space in this essay.

That the nation is saddled with a Federal Civil Service which is worse than a bureaucratic bottleneck in a clogged pipeline may draw the ire of some readers, but I ask you to point out 10 effective policies with national impact that are being implemented by the Federal Civil Service.

By conservative estimates, there are more than 20 million households in Nigeria and many of these are increasingly becoming independent of the government for the provision of basic public services. For the average Nigerian, other than the absence of adequate security and the menace of poorly-trained policemen (who by the way, are said to be your friend), the government may as well not be in existence. Many Nigerians, from Banana Island to Bonny, from Asokoro to Ajegunle, contribute towards fixing roads in their localities. Many …ERAs (dot dot dot Estate Residents Associations) litter the nation, each with its own guidelines on when visitors can drive into the estate, many enforcing all sorts of limitations on the entry of commercial vehicles and almost all having some form of vigilante to enforce security. To these millions, a government may for all intents and purposes, be non-existent.

I know that by now a lot of Governor Fashola’s fans must be bristling because of my argument, so I would point you to the Crisis Research Centre’s view that “even in a failed state, some elements of the state, such as local state organisations, might continue to exist.” In this laudable category, one would find elected officials like Mr. Fashola.

Inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community
Perhaps the best way to assess the effectiveness of our interaction with the international community is to understand the view that other nations have of the country.

I am resident in England, but I have had to travel often to Nigeria over the past 18 months as well as undertake frequent travel to other parts of Europe. It is interesting to note that whilst various exceptions are made for the nationals of many nations regarding movement within the European Union, the Green Passport condemns you to the worst treatment that can legally be meted out to a prospective visitor to those countries. I have often wondered whether there is any interaction between the Nigerian Diplomatic Corps in those countries and their host Foreign Offices.

I have been unfortunate to go to the Nigerian High Commission in London twice and it is an experience I am not in a hurry to repeat. I believe it could be more dignifying if we did not have such a dingy place to call the Nigerian High Commission. The treatment given to visitors and citizen of Nigeria alike is demeaning to put it mildly. If the Nigerian House (as it is called) were not technically Nigerian territory, everyone working in that building would be charged to court for violation of UK Health and Safety Regulations. The website for the High Commission does absolutely nothing to promote the image of the country. It looks like some dodgy scam site, if in doubt, check the link

A Nigerian who also holds a British nationality was recently arrested in the Far East over drug smuggling. The United Kingdom government did all it could to prevent her (convict though she was) from being executed or serving out her jail sentence in the country where she was convicted. The Nigerian government… (fill the blanks). I read in a publication a few days ago about Nigerians executed in Lybia, which the Nigerian government promptly denied. A day later, relatives of those executed confirmed indeed that their relatives had been killed.

How does the country defend its interest and those of its citizens abroad? Does it have a policy? Is the policy implemented? These are questions that beg for answers. Given that the bulk of ambassadorial posts are filled with political jobbers who have absolutely no clue as to the significance of their offices, it is a marvel that the Nigerian passport is still even accepted as legitimate in many countries.


Over the past 3 years, the Foreign Policy Magazine and the Fund for Peace have published an annual Failed States Index, and sorry to bust the bubbles of those who hate Nigeria being criticised, there at Number 15 for 2009 is Nigeria.

We may be hopeful as citizens of Nigeria, but that does not prevent the truth from being told. If Nigeria is not yet a failed state, clearly it is a failing state and the trajectory does not look good.

The parameters for assessing states cover the following

  • Demographic pressures
  • Massive movement of refugees and internally displaced peoples
  • Legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance
  • Chronic and sustained human flight (brain drain)
  • Uneven economic development along group lines
  • Sharp and/or severe economic decline
  • Criminalization and/or delegitimisation of the state
  • Progressive deterioration of public services
  • Widespread violation of human rights
  • Security apparatus as ‘state within a state’
  • Rise of factionalised elites
  • Intervention of other states or external factors

On most of these points, the leadership of the country (past and present) has failed and continues to fail. The impact of sliding down the failed index scale towards the position occupied by countries like Somalia, Afghanistan or Sudan is alarming. The humanitarian crisis that could ensue would make a fire-bearing cyclone (if there is anything like that) look benign in comparison.

It is of utmost importance that the haemorrhage be staunched and necessary actions taken by the ruled and the rulers to avert what could be the greatest state failure in history. With the exception of Pakistan, which is on the failed state index for other reasons, the population of Nigeria exceeds that of the other countries. A failure of that magnitude is better imagined and definitely not experienced.

I pass the mantle to others who can do more than I can write.


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