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Monday, 26 August 2013

Nigeria's Overblown Importance

Princeton N. Lyman, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, delivered a very poignant speech on the panel titled "The Nigerian State and U.S. Strategic Interests" at the Achebe Colloquium at Brown University on December 11, 2009. Lyman suggests that rather than continually emphasize Nigeria’s strategic importance, it would behoove us to consider elements that might eventually lead to Nigeria’s irrelevance on the international stage.

Princeton N. Lyman, Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, speaks on the panel "The Nigerian State and U.S. Strategic Interests" at the Achebe Colloquium at Brown University on December 11, 2009, Providence, Rhode Island.  [See Notes 1 & 2]

TRANSCRIPT OF SPEECH (TAKEN DIRECTLY FROM THE VIDEO SPEECH)


Thank you very much Prof. Keller and thanks to the organizers of this conference.   It is such a privilege to be here in a conference in honor of Prof. Achebe, an inspiration and teacher to all of us.

I have a long connection to Nigeria.  Not only was I Ambassador there, I have travelled to and from Nigeria for a number of years and have a deep and abiding vital emotional attachment to the Nigerian people, their magnificence,  their courage, artistic brilliance, their irony, sense of humor in the face of challenges etc.

And I hope that we  keep that in mind when I  say some things that I think are counter to what we normally say about Nigeria. And  I say that with all due respect to Eric [SILLA, SEE NOTE 3] who is doing a magnificent work at State Department and to  our good friend from the legislature, because I have a feeling that we both Nigerians and Americans may be  doing Nigeria and Nigerians  no favor by stressing Nigeria's strategic importance.

I know all the arguments: it is a major oil producer, it is the most populous country in Africa, it has made major contributions to Africa in peacekeeping, and of course negatively if Nigeria were to fall apart the ripple effects  would be tremendous, etc.. But I wonder if all this emphasis on Nigeria's importance creates a tendency of inflate Nigeria's opinion  of its own invulnerability.

Among much of the elite today, I have the feeling that there is a belief that Nigeria is too big to fail,  too important to be ignored, and that Nigerians can go on ignoring some of the most fundamental  challenges they have many of which we have talked about:  disgraceful lack of infrastructure,  the growing problems  of unemployment, the failure to deal with the underlying problems in the Niger-Delta,  the failure to consolidate  democracy and somehow feel will remain important to everybody because of all those reasons that are  strategically important.

And I am not sure that that is helpful.

Let me sort of deconstruct those elements of Nigeria's importance, and ask whether they are as relevant  as they have been.

We often hear that one in five Africans is a Nigerian. What does it mean? Do we ever say one in five Asians  is a Chinese? Chinese power comes not just for the fact that it has a lot of people   but it has harnessed the enterpreneurial talent  and economic capacity   and all the other talents of China to make her  a major economic force and political force.

What does it mean that one in five Africans is Nigeria?  It does not mean anything to a Namibian or a South African.  It is a kind of conceit.   What makes it important is what is happening to the people of Nigerian. Are their talents being tapped?  Are they  becoming an economic force? Is all that potential being used?

And the answer is "Not really."

And oil, yes, Nigeria is a major oil producer,  but Brazil is now launching a 10-year program that is  going to  make  it one of the major oil producers in the world.  And every other country in Africa is now  beginning to produce oil.

And Angola is rivalling Nigeria in oil production, and the United States has just discovered a huge gas  reserve which is going to  replace some of our dependence  on imported energy.

So if you look ahead ten years,  is Nigeria really going to be that relevant as a major oil producer,  or just another of another of  the many oil producers while the world moves on to alternative sources of energy and other sources of supply.

And what about its influence, its contributions to the continent?  As our representative from the parliament talked about,  there is a great history of those contributions. But that is history.

Is Nigeria really playing a major role today in the crisis in Niger on its border, or in Guinea, or in Darfur,  or after many many promises making any contributions to Somalia?

The answer is no, Nigeria is today NOT making a major impact, on its region, or on the African Union or on the  big problems of Africa that it was making before.

What about its economic influence?

Well, as we have talked about earlier, there is a de-industrializatio n going on in Nigeria a lack of  infrastructure, a lack of power means that with imported goods under globalization, Nigerian factories are closing,    more and more people are becoming unemployed. and Nigeria is becoming a kind of society  that imports and  exports and lives off the oil, which does not make  it a significant economic entity.

Now, of course, on the negative side, the collapse of Nigeria would be enormous, but is that a point  to make Nigeria strategically important?

Years ago, I worked for an Assistant Secretary of State who had the longest tenure in that job in the 1980s and I remember in one meeting a minister from a country not very friendly to the United States came in and was berating the Assistant Secretary on all the evils of the United States and all its dire plots and in things in Africa and was going on and on and finally the Assistant Secretary cut him off and said: "You know, the biggest danger for your relationship with the United States is not  our oppostion but that we will find you irrelevant."


The point is that Nigeria can become much less relevant to the United States.  We have already seen evidence  of it. When President Obama went to Ghana and not to Nigeria, he was  sending a message, that  Ghana  symbolized more of the significant trends, issues and importance that one wants to put on Africa  than Nigeria.


And when I was asked by journalists why President Obama did not go to Nigeria, I said "what would he gain from going? Would Nigeria be a good model for democracy, would it be a model for good governance,  would he obtain new commitments on Darfur or Somalia or strengthen the African Union or in Niger or elsewhere?"

No he would not, so he did not go.

And when Secretary Clinton did go, indeed but she also went to Angola and who would have thought years ago that Angola would be the most stable country in the Gulf of Guinea and establish a binational commission in Angola.

So the handwriting may already be on the wall, and that is a sad commentary.

Because what it means is that Nigeria's most important strategic importance in the end could be that it has failed.

And that is a sad sad conclusion.  It does not have to happen, but I think that we ought to stop talking about  what a great  country it is, and how terribly important it is to us and talk about what it would take for Nigeria to be that important and great.

And that takes an enormous amount of commitment.  And you don't need saints, you don't need leaders like  Nelson Mandela in every state, because you are not going to get them.

I served in South Korea in the middle of the 1960s  and it was time when South Korea was poor and  considered hopeless, but it was becoming to turn around,  later to become to every person's amazement then the  eleventh largest economy in the world.   And I remember the economist in my mission saying,  you know it did  not bother him  that the leading elites in the government of South Korea were taking 15 - 20 percent off the  top of every project, as long as every project was a good one, and  that was the difference. The leadership at  the time was determined to solve the fundamental economic issues of  South Korea economy and turn its economy around.

It has not happened in Nigeria today. You don't need saints.  It needs leaders who say "You know we could be becoming irrelevant,  and we got to do something about it."

Thank you.

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