Nigeria: hurrying to an uncertain destiny

Antony Goldman

Beset by security problems and governance issues, Nigeria continues to confound its critics, with an economy that posts handsome growth – and a football team that can deliver satisfying results.

When a constitutional furore threatened to rip Nigeria apart in 1964, the country’s leading newspaper observed that, just four years after independence from Britain, “we have perfected the art of staring into the abyss without toppling in”. This talent for escapology has been sharpened through 50 years of emergency and crisis management, marked by a civil war, several coups and today a pattern of violence that begs questions as old as Nigeria itself: who is the country for – and what will it take for it to remain as one?

The challenges Nigeria faces today are more severe than at any time since its disparate regions in the old Islamic empires of the North, the oil-rich swamps of the Niger Delta, Yoruba kingdoms in the west and feisty republicans in the east were fenced together for colonial convenience by the British in 1914. The population is now estimated at 160 million, infrastructure is at breaking point or beyond in at least a dozen teeming cities and the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed continue to swell.

Tensions have been greatest in the most marginalised regions. In the Niger Delta, which produces for export more than 2 million barrels a day and generates more than 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings, violence remains ever present, despite the adoption of amnesty in 2009 by many militia groups fighting for a greater share of the region’s oil wealth. International oil companies estimate that up to 20 percent of Nigeria’s production from fields on shore, or in shallow water, is regularly stolen by organised criminal networks, often with the complicity of officials in those same oil companies and partners in the military and government. It is a trade worth billions of dollars, supplemented by sidelines in piracy from Cameroon to Ivory Coast – and the abduction of expatriates or prominent locals, including in 2012 the octogenarian mother of the finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The Ministry of Petroleum Resources notes that Nigerian output has climbed significantly since the 2009 amnesty and is presently at record levels. But delays over the adoption of reforms first presented to parliament nearly four years ago have put a brake on new investment in oil exploration, while technological advances in the exploitation of shale gas mean that interest in Nigeria’s prodigious reserves of natural gas has dwindled. While thousands of former militants have undergone training in a diverse range of skills, signs of opportunity and jobs generated by a confident and expanding private sector are few and far between.

In the North, the situation is potentially more explosive still: an Islamist insurgency threatens to place Nigeria on a new frontline in a War on Terror that the USA and its allies in Europe had hoped was fizzling out. Boko Haram (Western education is a sin) began life as a fringe religious cult in Borno State in the early 2000s. The administration of Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007) stood by as it morphed into a more militant force with links to the political establishment – and a military strike ordered in 2009 by his successor Umaru Yar’Adua provided only a brief respite as Boko Haram went underground and forged links with jihadist groups in other parts of Africa.

Boko Haram has engaged in assassinations and suicide bomb attacks against a range of targets including police headquarters in Abuja, army barracks, police stations, banks and churches. But in 2012 a separate faction, known as Ansaru, emerged with closer links to Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb (AQIM). It attacked a maximum security police station in Abuja in November, kidnapped a French national in Katsina in December and ambushed an army convoy in January. Pledging retaliation against international interests, in protest at the French-led military coalition deployed against Islamists in Mali, it kidnapped and killed foreigners in Bauchi State and in neighbouring Cameroon during February, transforming the security environment in northern Nigeria into an international issue.

Security sources inside Nigeria say there has been a huge improvement in the capacity to combat terror, but that it is a regional rather than a national issue. While efforts to defeat Islamists in Mali are critical for the long term security in the region, in the short-term the fall-out from the intervention in Mali could further destabilise Nigeria itself. They also claim that while Ansaru has no real constituency in Nigeria, Boko Haram has been able to tap into a sense of alienation from the secular state in one of Nigeria’s impoverished regions – and that a sustainable peace will come not simply from a military victory over extremists but needs substantial investment to create jobs and new initiatives to rebuild the battered legitimacy of government.

Opponents of President Goodluck Jonathan maintain that security issues are symptoms of a deeper malaise, and that his administration has shown little will or capacity to deal with longstanding governance and infrastructure issues. Opposition parties in February pledged to work together to overcome personal rivalries between their leaders to create a political merger that could challenge the hegemony of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has lasted since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999.

Within the PDP, powerful forces are lobbying quietly to ditch Jonathan in favour of a northern candidate who might prove more electable in 2015. Jonathan’s supporters maintain he is in a stronger position now than when he defeated a northern rival for the PDP nomination before the last elections, and are confident that the opposition will again splinter over personal ambition.

The government is proud of the record of strong economic growth, averaging more than six percent a year since Jonathan came to office in 2010, and there is new interest by international funds in Nigeria. A tangible increase in services such as power supply would be a further boost but, with pre 2015 campaigning already gathering pace, the window for effecting change is beginning to narrow.

It was for this reason that Jonathan so warmly embraced Nigeria’s victory in the African Cup of Nations football tournament in February, a triumph for one of the country’s few truly national institutions that was celebrated in all parts of the country. “Our enemies blame us even for natural disasters like floods,” one close adviser to the President said, “so the least we can do is take the credit when something goes right.”

About the author:

Antony Goldman, a regular commentator on Nigerian affairs for international media outlets, is director of Promedia Consulting, which specialises in business risk analysis and due diligence in Africa


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