Nigeria: Big for Nothing?

Fareed Zakaria makes a compelling argument in America and the Rise of the Rest that we are witnessing a shift into a world of more, prosperous economies with a powerful America at the centre. What's most striking is not the book's central thesis, which, with America's relative decline becomes more obvious by the day -- but what Zakaria has to say about India. His argument that India -- despite its potential as the world's most populous democracy -- will always be constrained by its regional divisions from being a big hitter in the foreign policy game struck me as applying quite sharply to Nigeria as well.

In contrast to India, countries like Brazil and Turkey have begun to throw their considerable regional weight into the international issues of the day; Brazil notably intervening to broker a possible détente between Iran and the West and Turkey doing the same, as well as asserting a more strident line in its relations with Israel and its fellow Muslim nations in the wake of the Arab Spring. Like these nations and similar to India, Nigeria is also a big player in its backyard, and has from its birth been hailed as the Giant of Africa; but it's likely in terms of global power, leadership and foreign policy, this giant will never wake from its slumber. Dominated by three ethno-national groups, yet not truly run by any of them, the very existence of Nigeria continues to be a compromise. The energy (and money) needed to maintain that deal seems to leave little room for a truly robust global role.

The direction the various ethno-national groups wish to take in their development will continue to constrain its global role. Does the north wish to become an Islamic state -- along the lines of Iran? Does the southwest wish to become an example of a west African Sweden or the more likely English liberal and commercial model? Does the South-South wish to become just like America. Dynamic, driven and innovative? Or do the various regions see themselves as Singapore -- industrious, little nations beavering away at success? It's not clear -- at present, Nigeria muddles along. As long as the oil lasts there'll be some cushion of security for its elites. It's size will guarantee it a place at the table, but whether the country will be able to achieve anything better than mediocrity remains to be seen. The energy and exuberance of Nigerians is oft lauded, but just as evident in the country is a great enervation -- as if it just doesn't have a passion for itself.

Nigerians like to think of themselves as the 'USA' of Africa, big, strong, and crucially, listened to -- but what has always been missing is the clear ideological leadership and assertiveness that country has demonstrated, for better or worse, across the globe. Increasingly, the boast of being the 'Giant of Africa' is being eclipsed by the brazen success of South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and a host of other countries on the continent, some punching well above their weight. Still, Nigeria is noted for being Africa's largest market, but if the country's size is the only thing it has going for it, we really should be worried; in the street, it's called being big for nothing. Nigeria, the giant of Africa, needs to grow up a bit.