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Protesters demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gather inside the compound of Sri Lanka’s Presidential Palace in Colombo. Photo: AFP
THE election on Wednesday of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President of Sri Lanka offers scant hope of dousing the five-month-old unrest rocking the country or ending the economic crisis that triggered them. Opposed to the veteran political operator and six-time prime minister, the protesters who have already put a prime minister and a president to flight, have vowed to fight on until the entire political class is evicted. ‘People power’ is colliding with formidable state institutions and accompanying instruments of coercion. The unfolding events hold valuable lessons for Nigeria.
Preoccupied with power and their privileges, Nigeria’s politicians should pay attention. When he resigned as president and fled to Singapore, Gotabaya Rajapaksa left behind a country in turmoil, its economy in ruins, a wobbly transition government and an angry population determined to overthrow the oppressive political order that had impoverished them. For Nigerians at the receiving end of the depredations of their politicians and poverty, Sri Lanka demonstrates the option of ‘people power.’ For the ruling class, it signposts the danger of complacency and the fallacy that the people’s seething discontent will forever remain latent.
Pushed to desperation by economic deprivation, a corrupt and incompetent government and with their rights suppressed and unable to freely effect change through the ballot box, Sri Lankans have responded with mass protests since April, overrun public buildings, including the sprawling presidential palace in Colombo, the capital.
They have forced the ouster of the president and prime minister, Gotabaya, his brother and predecessor, Mahinda, and toppled – at least for now – the Rajapaksa political family that has dominated Sri Lanka’s politics and government for decades.

Like all popular revolts, the final outcome is not certain. But the country will not be the same again; politicians there may never again take the people for granted or ride roughshod over their concerns. Nigeria’s corrupt, inept politicians should tremble.
The triggers of the Sri Lankan crisis eerily mirror Nigeria today. Long-running economic adversity plunged to new depths beginning in 2021 and worsened by 2022. Like in Nigeria, where the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and the state governors are running the country aground, the Rajapaksa government that won a popular mandate in 2019 to save a collapsing economy, instead thoroughly mismanaged it. Power cuts, fuel shortages leading to long queues, sometimes for days, shortages of food and medicines and job losses have assailed the country’s 22 million people. Between January and June this year, inflation reached 54.6 per cent, public services collapsed as the government ran out of foreign reserves to pay for essential imports, reported the BBC.
Again, like in Nigeria, the government amassed a mountain of debts; external debts climbed rapidly, reaching $51 billion by early 2022. In May, it defaulted on $7 billion debt repayment, provoking even more hardship. External reserves had sunk to as low as $1.81 billion in April, and its rise to $1.92 billion in May, the first in five months, did not help. The country will need to raise $6 billion in the next six months to contain shortages of fuel, food, medicines, and raw materials said Bloomberg.

There is another dimension to the debt: Sri Lanka walked into a “Chinese debt trap.” Between 2000 and 2020, according to the CNN, it borrowed up to $12 billion from China. The trap has been closing. In 2012, unable to meet repayment obligations, it ceded control of a major port complex to China. Just as the Buhari government does, it borrowed to service debts, pay salaries and for overheads. Foolishly, it took a further $3 billion from the same China in 2020 to repay debts! Though officially, China’s share of its external debts is 10 per cent, the United States Institute of Peace says that counting the debt held by China’s Exim Bank and the China Development Bank, the percentage is closer to 26 per cent. The Buhari regime should take note.

All the ruinous policies that bankrupted Sri Lanka are multiplied in Nigeria: printing money recklessly, borrowing without method, spending less on people, investment, and capital, mismanaging the foreign exchange market, running a rentier system driven by cronyism, sectionalism, and incoherence. Nigeria adds religion to the mix, where sectarian considerations interfere with economic decisions. Corruption thrives.
And like Sri Lanka, where one family (four Rajapaksa brothers held the country’s most important public offices), their cronies and retired and serving military officers engaged in naked nepotism, corruption, and incompetence.
Nigeria’s economy is broken, debt servicing is taking over 90 per cent of revenue, about 95 million people are poor, majority of the youth are jobless, inflation is record high and the naira is crashing against major world currencies. For an import-dependent country that like Sri Lanka failed to diversify its exports away from primary products, this is disastrous. The collapse of the national power grid on Wednesday – the sixth time this year – and the official increase in pump head prices of petrol highlight the energy crisis where prices of diesel, aviation fuel, kerosene and lubricants have devastated businesses.
Add to this insecurity everywhere, the alienation of large sections of the polity and the lack of functional basic services, Nigerians are being driven to the brink. The IMF fears that Nigeria could soon default on debt repayment amid foreign reserves of only $38.48 billion (compared to South Africa’s $60.3 billion), external debt of $41 billion dwindling oil and tax revenues.
Amid all this, the regime and politicians flounder; are uncaring and fixated on the next elections, power, and plunder. The state governors are mostly failures. There should be a drastic change by public officials to avert Sri Lanka-style bankruptcy and unrest.
Nigerians should realise that they have power and owe themselves, and present and future generations the right and duty to demand accountability and good governance. The people’s complacency has emboldened politicians and impoverished the country. Through all lawful means –peaceful protests, petitions, sit-ins, town hall meetings and active civic participation, including voting and mass mobilisation –they should compel attention from the political class.

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For the political class, Sri Lanka is a stark warning. One day, the famed patience of Nigerians may run out.
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