Policy Briefs

Policy Brief 83-21| Whither Nigeria’s Manifest Destiny to Lead Africa? 

Ejeviome Eloho Otobo & Oseloka H. Obaze


There was a time when Nigeria’s leadership role in African affairs was taken for granted. Nigeria was deemed Africa’s bellwether, a notion that gave credence to her “manifest destiny” – an inherent right to speak for and be listened to on African issues. Hence, a generation of Nigerian leaders and diplomats exuded extraordinary confidence in leading regional and international efforts to rid the continent of the vestiges of colonial rule and white minority regimes. Nigeria’s exertion of influence, well accepted by her cohorts, fostered seminal recent regional initiatives as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, African Peer Review Mechanism, and the African Peace and Security Architecture.  

There is, however, a growing sense that Nigeria’s voice has become muted and her influence on the wane. Since our 10 July, 2019 Op-Ed titled, “Is Nigeria Still a Regional Hegemon?” wherein we pondered the incipient decline in Nigeria’s regional and global role; the country’s national context has further deteriorated. We introduce the concept of deficit of moral purpose to explain that decline. As a theoretical and practical construct, moral purpose belongs to the soft power category rather than hard power attributes of a country. As coined and defined by Joseph Nye, soft power is the ability “to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than using carrots and sticks of payment or coercion.” This implies leading by example and attracting others to follow. Nigeria’s moral purpose is codified in Section 14 (1) 2b of the 1999 Amended Constitution, which affirms that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.” The deficit in moral purpose is reflected in the chasm between this constitutional provision and actual practice, resulting from leadership hubris.

Starting with the security context, kidnapping is rampant. Between January and July 2021, over 1,000 students in eight secondary schools were abducted. A Daily Trust analysis on 31 July, 2021, revealed that from 2018 to July 2021, ransom estimated at N13billion had been demanded by kidnappers, with a fraction paid. In the second quarter of 2021 alone, 3,133 civilians and 296 security personnel were killed in Nigeria, according to SB Morgen, a Lagos-based research and risk consultancy. Majority of the civilian deaths were attributed to the atrocities of Boko Haram, herdsmen and bandits. Nigeria’s sustained high ranking, as the third worst terrorist impacted country (after Afghanistan and Iraq) in the Global Terrorism Index, is attributable to killings by herdsmen and Boko Haram. Internally displaced persons are about 2.5 million. As the security situation has deteriorated, the military has launched six military operations covering 35 of the 36 states. These militarized policing operations are reflective of exacerbating insecurity.

The welfare aspect of the constitutional provision is reflected in how the management of the economy redounds to the benefit of citizens. Nigeria’s economic performance which has been mediocre, missing all economic growth targets outlined in various plans over the years, has suffered further as a result of COVID-19, experiencing a contraction of about 2 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of persons living in poverty in Nigeria which overtook India, as the poverty capital of the world in 2018, reaching an estimated 99 million persons living below the acute poverty line of $1.90 per day, is likely to have increased, as African Development Bank has estimated that the pandemic will push 43 million Africans into poverty.

Nigeria’s overall unemployment stands at 32.5 percent, with the youth component at 54 percent. The Global Hunger Index ranks Nigeria at 96 out 107 countries and The Hunger Hotspots, a joint report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Food Programme for 2021, lists Nigeria among the top three countries where hunger and food insecurity will worsen in a few months. The deterioration of food security situation closely tracks the pervasive insecurity around the country, which has made farming very difficult. In March, 2021 Nigeria’s debt stood at US$87.23billion, with an external debt component of $32.85billion, and debt service gulping 72 percent of government revenue.

The influence and strength of nation is not assessed only by its economic, military and technological prowess. The degree to which a nation promotes national and social cohesion is also pertinent. Contextually, no recent public policy action illustrates the contempt that Nigeria’s political elite have for a sense of fairness and equity, than the newly passed petroleum industry bill (PIB). Initiated in 2007 in an effort to shift the existing terms of transactions in favour of the country, the final version further exacerbated the social inequity linked to oil exploration.

Nigeria’s policy makers are fully aware of the scale and scope of environmental degradation wrought by oil exploration in the Niger Delta. The 2011 UNEP Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland provided estimates of the magnitude of financial resources needed to clean that area, which is a microcosm of Niger Delta. A prudential approach to the PIB would have consisted of using increased oil revenue to mitigate the environmental impact of oil exploration, allocating more resources to the host communities, and ensuring a significant outlay for diversification of the economy. Instead, the bill passed by the national assembly has sown more discord than apply a balm over the wounds created by oil exploration.

Foreign policy begins at home, is a time-honoured diplomatic aphorism. As Nigeria’s economic, political, social and security challenges mount, she risks losing her residual appeal as a well-run nation. Nigeria’s decline is not inevitable. Neither is her claim to regional leadership pre-ordained. Nigeria, especially her ruling elite, has a choice: it can make the country a land of hope, opportunity, inclusion, fairness and justice or elect to glide down the path of perpetual internal tensions—not exactly a good prescription for regional leadership.


* Otobo is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels, Belgium.

* Obaze is Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Selonnes Consult in Awka.


Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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