It has become a badge of some reference to be invited from Nigeria to utilize the Chatham House platform in London. Most politicians and intellectuals of statecraft who manage to get invited do everything to make a show of it. There would have been nothing wrong about that but only if Chatham House counterpart in Nigeria were fine and well, functioning and bringing in leading British and Western voices so as to capture that reflexivity in unpacking Nigeria’s problems. That was how the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, (NIIA), was working in the 1980s. The lecture by John Tusa, a former Managing Director of the BBC at the NIIA in 1992, (not sure of this date immediately) remains memorable because of some of his bold standpoint rather in the category of what Derek Gregory would today call ‘the colonial present’. But that was/is fine. You cannot invite someone with a mind of his or her own and insist on what s/he says.
Unfortunately, that is not so as the NIIA is all but dead. Not only is it all but dead, nobody even appears to know it has slipped off. Yet, it was and is supposed to provide the intellectual firepower for Nigerian foreign policy.
Today, it is so impoverished it cannot even publish the Newsletter, one of its more mundane outreach in the days when the NIIA was shinning. If it is so Kobo-less it cannot publish a Newsletter, then there is no point asking if it is publishing any other things.
To make matters worse, the befitting edifice it managed to put up in Abuja which might have compensated for its lack of active institutional agency was snatched from it by one typically powerful Nigerian and given to another government agency which probably established its ranking order in the value system by the quantum of contracts there are to be awarded. There is no evidence to that effect but that might have been the terminal ailment that sent the NIIA to obscurity.
When we leave the NIIA and camp at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, (NIPSS) in Jos, the story does not appear to be much different. In fact, someone high up in the Nigerian establishment complained almost openly not long ago that quality is under stress there because, according to him, there are more fact-hugging stuff than any ‘grand narrative’ coming out of the place. The only difference between NIPSS and the NIIA is that NIPSS is a huge site for circulation of a layer of the power elite, military and non-military. It is dangerous to do any critical assessment of what members of that layer are producing, many of them individual and collective success stories already. As powerful as the above critic of NIPSS, not even him would be willing to do so openly. But that does not annul the NIPSS as reproducing the peculiar paradox about Nigeria: very brilliant and successful individuals in a poor, not very successful country.
NIPSS was more than well planned. One of its DG, the late Joe Garba remains highly regarded for brilliance and administrative acumen. If they have come to terms with fact-hugging theses from their students, it must be taken as part of Nigeria’s slow motion to insignificance.
State run think tanks where agenda setting research and ideas should be coming from are all over the place but they all appear to share the same ailment, including the Abuja based Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, (IPCR) or the Nigeria Institute for Social and Economic Research, (NISER) and all the others. The IPCR is such an interesting case, being the one that came in the post Cold War and, as they say, had its task cut for it. But it should certainly be difficult to find anyone saying it is an engine room for critical conflict analysis in Nigeria today.
Like all the others, its operatives would argue that they are doing well quietly. But, as the key articulatory infrastructure of the Nigerian State, they have no business doing well quietly. They do not have anything to do with quiet success because quiet is the negation of their essence. The success or otherwise of a state run think tank is not measured in roads constructed or such mundane things but in shouting plenty and by doing so, sustain its decibel in the global discursive space towards the possibility of its own ideas becoming the consensus.
That is how a number of ideas and practices today bear Nigeria’s articulatory mark, starting with the role of the old Faculty of Arts and Social Science, (FASS) at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in the coming to be of the Economic Community of the West African States, (ECOWAS) or the Concert of Medium Powers, whatever the merits or demerits of that practice, just to cite the two. FASS is not a conventional think tank but a university faculty when Nigeria and that particular university were thriving.
So, what could be happening that Nigeria’s state owned think tanks are just barely existing in a world in which think tanks are the centres of power? Why is the South African Journal of International Affairs, the flagship publication of the South African Institute of International Affairs, (SAJIA) thriving in the world of journals at a time the NIIA cannot even publish a computer simulated version of its Newsletter? Or has NIIA re-started that?
Some people would say it is simply because the Nigerian State is itself so casually constituted that it finds it difficult to know what is primary and what is not. For instance, the issue of where the NIIA should be domiciled is still a problem for Nigeria. The diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not appear to have much use for it. The Presidency does not also appear to. So, they found a resting place for it in the Office of the Vice-President. But a Vice-President does not run a different foreign policy from that of a sitting president or party in power. So, there is a message in where NIIA is located.
Others are saying it is the agency question. In other words, if you put square pegs in round holes, you cannot complain. There is no way of knowing how far this can go. Some of the chief executives of some of these think tanks are absolutely well heeled in academic training and experience. So, the agency analysis might also be problematic except in the clear case of missing his way into the wrong place in the case of one of the DG of one of the think tanks. He did so much damage but nobody even noticed until he exhausted his tenure limit.
Could it be the crisis of resources? Certainly, lack of resources can be paralysing. It is absolutely impossible to maintain a dignified presence when poverty takes over. However, is it possible for any think thank today to be so poor? The IPCR, for instance, was never rich because the Nigerian Government was funding it. It was ‘rich’ because its initial funders saw a brilliant DG at work. When the pioneer DG by name Prof. Sunday Ochoche left and with him the institutional clarity, some of them started withdrawing funding and sponsorship
All these suggest that the think tanks are dead because of leadership. National leadership whose articulation of the Nigerian project leaves no one else in doubt as to what he or she should do and leadership at specific spaces of articulation of the Nigerian State, of which the think tanks constitute a striking layer of the first 11, (eleven) for national defense. This can only be the reason why the Centre for Democracy and Development, (CDD) might be thriving while the state owned think tanks are all withering away without anybody even noticing.
It must be part of the Nigerian tragedy that the first generation of Nigerian leaders established and got NIIA, for instance, to be known globally but only for the current generation to not even know why a NIIA was considered a crucial component of independence and nation building!. A big example of the zigzag ways of history eh! But, one day, someone would come and put these institutions back to work!