Nigeria: Moves and Countermoves

Edmund McKiernan

Port Harcourt Refinery in the Niger Delta. Photo Source: David via Flickr Creative Commons.

Port Harcourt Refinery in the Niger Delta. Photo source: David via Flickr Creative Commons.

In early April of this year the Nigerian Federal Government announced that Nigeria’s economy was the largest in Africa. The instantaneousness of the announcement owed to the first rebasing of Nigerian gross domestic product (GDP) since 1990, and revealed that the economy had grown by 89% to a colossal $510 billion. The revelation should not be all that surprising owing to the consistent breakneck growth of Nigeria over the past decade – some 7% per year – attributed to its wealth of resources and manpower. Indeed, the announcement has been a long time coming as exhibited by the rapid development of telecommunication and banking industries; even Nigeria’s film scene dubbed ‘Nollywood’ is the most prolific film industry outside of Mumbai. All things considered, Nigeria has overnight become a giant of the continent, and a beacon of African endeavour. Or has it?

Nigeria is a giant with potentially fatal symptoms; endemic issues of poverty, corruption and violence threaten to hinder and even destroy its tentative peace. From an economic standpoint it’s remarkably high GDP is less impressive when you consider that Nigeria is the most populous of the African nations. Its 170 million strong population dwarfs that of its closest continental contender, South Africa.  Subsequently GDP per head is a mere $2700, in stark contrast to that of South Africa where the average citizen is over twice as wealthy. The UN development index which takes into account life expectancy, gross national income per person and duration of education ranked Nigeria 153rd out of 187 developing nations in 2013. A damning statistic which many observers believe to be fundamental in the timely rebasing of Nigeria’s GDP, a long overdue and unrepresentative statistic all things considered.

This ‘choreographed distraction‘ as it has been dubbed by the All Progressives Council does not do anything to remedy Nigeria’s ailments, the poor do not have any more bread on the table and the plight of the millions of unemployed has not been alleviated either. Poverty alone is a serious issue, but in tandem with the myriad conflicts and clashes between the ethnicities that make up Nigeria it could prove disastrous in the long term.

Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, becoming an amalgam of neighbouring British protectorates. As a result it is an ethnically and religiously diverse nation composed of conflicting faiths and cultures (too numerous to mention). While it is true that ethnic violence has receded since the Biafran Civil War of 1967-70 and ‘democratic’ elections in 1999, Nigeria is still subject to violent clashes between its ethnic populations. In northwest Nigeria, the nomadic Muslim Fulani have been known to raid their more settled neighbours, while clashes between Christians and Muslims in Central Nigeria have killed hundreds. In the latest spate of ethnic violence, again in April this year; 79 people were killed in clashes between Fulani herdsmen and Hausa vigilantes in Northern Zamfara state.

The population density of Nigeria's 36 states. Photo Source: By Marcel Krüger via Wikimedia Commons

The population density of Nigeria’s 36 states. Photo source: Marcel Krüger via Wikimedia Commons.

It is not ethnic violence however that forced the northern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe to declare states of emergency in May 2013, but rather the predations of Boko Haram, arguably Nigeria’s biggest headache since 2009. Boko Haram which literally translates from local Hausa to “western education is forbidden” has pursued a campaign of terror in northern and central Nigeria with the aim of establishing a pure Islamic state that subscribes solely to Sharia law.

A government crackdown in 2009 and the execution of Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf on state television has done little to stem the insurgency, and is now believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and subsequently a threat to US interests.

The ongoing violence has reached as far as Abuja, the capital of Nigeria while attacks in the north of the country have increased exponentially since the declaration of a state of emergency in the region. It is tragic that this year alone Amnesty International has estimated that some 1500 people have been killed in clashes between government forces and Boko Haram. It is not beyond belief, even as this article was being written Boko Haram killed 135 people near the Cameroon border, attacking two villages and a teacher training school. While Abuja was struck by the deadliest act of terror to date, a rush hour bombing at a bus station which claimed 71 lives, also believed to be the handiwork of Boko Haram.

The United Nations hold a memorial for those killed in an attack upon the UN headquarters in Abuja. Photo Source: United Nations Development Programme via Flickr Creative Commons.

The United Nations hold a memorial for those killed in an attack upon the UN headquarters in Abuja. Photo source: United Nations Development Programme via Flickr Creative Commons.

The situation is dire, and the heavy handed nature of government reprisals and a lack of faith in President Goodluck Jonathan further diminishes Nigeria’s ability to cohesively respond. In February the head of Borno state petitioned the Federal Government for aid in its fight against the insurgency, candidly citing the better equipment and motivations of Boko Haram militants. In response the President threatened to withdraw all military aid from Borno.

The political whimsies of the President should not come before the good of the Nigerian people, yet in recent months there have been a number of paradoxes in the policies of the President. The most prominent being his ‘tough’ stance on corruption, a contentious constant in Nigerian politics and its economy.  Yet despite Jonathan’s dedication to combating corruption the Federal Government dismissed Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi for alerting the government to the Nigerian National Petroleum Company’s inability to account for $20 billion in missing oil revenues. The official reason – financial recklessness – has been widely perceived as a move to silence an embarrassment.

In 2011 the former US ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, wrote an article for Foreign Affairs Magazine describing Nigeria as a nation that has long danced on the edge of a cliff, and while it had not yet fallen, the likelihood of a positive outcome was bleak. The article was met with outrage by the Nigerian Foreign Office who lambasted it as irresponsible and pessimistic, but three years later there are still merits to Campbell’s bleak prognosis of Nigeria’s future. Then as now, upcoming elections in February 2015 again pose the risk of an escalation in Boko Haram’s insurgency. Meanwhile ethnic rivalries, poverty and corruption will still provide fuel for the fires of civil unrest. Nigeria may be an African giant, but it is a giant at the mercy of its malnourished organs.

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