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Elders call for reform, warning 'things are falling apart' as bandits and insurgents step up attacks

Parallel stories of economic and security breakdown are playing out without reference to each other

Some of Nigeria's most eminent cultural, diplomatic, business and religious figures warned on 6 March that the latest wave of criminality and violence was threatening the stability and unity of the country. 'The current state of affairs is not sustainable if the country is to avoid becoming a failed and broken state,' said former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Emeka Anyaoku.

Meeting via video-link for this year's Obafemi Awolowo lecture, leaders from across the country – Anyaoku, Sultan of Sokoto Sa'ad Abubakar, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of the central bank – spelt out the growing risks faced in the country and need for hard-headed political reforms.

Calling for a restructuring of the federal system, Anyaoku referred to former leaders of the country who have spoken of an 'inevitable calamity' if the current challenges are not effectively tackled.

Despite a growing distrust and divisiveness among religious and ethnic groups, argued Anyaoku, every section of the society had an interest in being part of the wider country. Yet federalism in the country was in urgent need of evidence of 'equity, justice and fairness for all ethnic groups' and guarantees for the economic freedom of all citizens.

Sultan Sa'ad Abubakar, who served in peacekeeping forces in Liberia and Afghanistan, said that no group had a monopoly of violence and that the 'inaction of government had allowed many avoidable losses of lives to happen'. As the foremost Islamic leader in the country, the Sultan's influence is particularly strong in the north-west of the country that has seen the worst uptick in violence over the past year.

Sanusi, who was deposed a year ago as Emir of Kano by the state governor Abdullahi Ganduje, said the 'extraordinarily expensive system of governance' was an over-arching problem, the 'bloated structure of elective offices' was a recipe for irresponsibility. Reforms should focus on having fewer elected officials working harder and more accountably, he added.

The toughest prescriptions came from Odia Ofeimun, saying that the social contract between citizens and government had failed and that the country must implement a radical decentralisation of power, with much stronger protection for minorities and the launch of a mass education programme across the country.

Soyinka added his voice to the devolution cause, accusing some state governors of shackling themselves in a 'centralist mindset', acting as accomplices to a federal government that was 'subverting the rights of states and subnational governance structures'.

This month, the country has been hit by a series of deadly attacks: jihadist insurgents took over a UN facility in Didka, north-east Nigeria; kidnappers abducted 300 schoolgirls in Zamfara state; herder-farmer clashes continued in the south-west; a new militia in the Niger Delta threatened direct action against Abuja and Lagos; and a secessionist militia in the south-east is stepping up its campaign against the government.

Against that backdrop, officials in Abuja are trying to develop a policy response to the country's economic travails, which are worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the waves of violence.

Economists advising the government's National Council on Poverty Reduction, which aims to lift at least 100 million Nigerians out of poverty by 2030, set out their strategy at a cabinet meeting in Abuja on 3 March.

Heavily dependent on boosting farm productivity, fast-track industrialisation, diversifying the economy away from financial reliance on oil exports, the anti-poverty plan will be uphill work. According to the World Bank, another 20 million Nigerians could fall into extreme poverty over the next two years due to the coronavirus-induced recession.

Alongside this plan, the government has launched a US$37 billion Infrastructure Corporation to build the roads, railways and power stations needed for its development plan. The government is to provide 1 trillion naira ($26bn) as seed capital for the fund, backed by central bank governor Godwin Emefiele. Already, PricewaterhouseCoopers, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group are jockeying for advisory contracts for the fund.



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