Nigeria's Challenge

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President Goodluck Jonathan is confronting an armed insurrection, a widening Christian-Muslim divide, corruption, poverty, accusations of fraud -- and that's just his first month in office

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Jonathan watches a military parade during his inauguration ceremony in Abuja / Reuters


On May 29, 2011, as newly elected Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan took the oath of office, Boko Haram, a shadowy Islamic terrorist group opposed to Nigeria's secular government, detonated three bombs at an army barracks in Bauchi state, killing at least 14 people. Two weeks later, the first suicide bombing in Nigeria's history killed five people just outside the Nigeria Police Headquarters in the national capital, Abuja.

These attacks highlight the challenges that Jonathan's government faces if it is to improve governance, reduce conflict, and promote economic development, all despite Nigeria's extreme inequality, a youth bulge, crumbling infrastructure, and high unemployment. His biggest hurdle will not be the Boko Haram, who in many ways are symptoms of Nigeria's problems, but the entrenched interests that have run Nigeria since the end of the civil war in 1970.

Though Nigeria's elections were largely orderly and peaceful, the violence that came after has left the country polarized between its predominately Christian South, most of which voted for Jonathan, and the 12 mostly Muslim northern states that supported the losing candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, also a Muslim from the North. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 800 people were killed and 65,000 displaced during the days of violence following the elections.

When the presidential results first started to leak, pro-Buhari protestors in most northern cities attacked supporters and officials of Jonathan's ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). Some protesters even targeted the traditional Muslim leadership -- the Sultan of Sokoto, the Emir of Kano and the Emir of Zaria -- who were widely perceived as being on the PDP payroll.

The security services responded violently against the protestors; some reports say they may have been responsible for many of the first deaths. However, the violence soon acquired a religious and ethnic dimension, with churches and mosques set ablaze, prompting Muslims to attack Christians and vice versa in a downward cycle of revenge killings. A heavy military presence has since brought an icy calm to the North.

Nigeria's problems go beyond divisive post-electoral politics. There is ethnic and religious conflict, deeply rooted poverty, and corruption. And they're all interconnected. Boko Haram, once an obscure, radical Islamic cult in the North, is evolving into an insurrection with support among the impoverished and alienated Northern population. In the Niger Delta, which produces most of Nigeria's two million barrel-per-day oil output, militant leaders are signaling that they will attack oil production facilities if Jonathan's government does not address their long-standing grievances, especially the oil industry's destruction of the environment and the pervasive sentiment that the region has not benefitted from the wealth it produces. And in Plateau state in the Middle Belt, ethnic cleansing and religious violence continue, fueled by quarrels over land and water, with little international attention.

Despite the country's political turmoil, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many private consultants say that Nigeria's economy is booming. The World Bank projects the country's average GDP annual growth at 7.4 percent for 2009 to 2013; the IMF at 6.9 percent for 2011. In a May 30, 2011, New York Times column, distinguished economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote that Nigeria could plausibly aspire to join the BRICS (an informal block of large developing economies, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) by the end of the decade.

But these statistics and the optimism they generate among economists do not reflect reality for most Nigerians. Income distribution in Nigeria is among the worst in the world, with most of the wealth going to a select few. Little of the oil money trickles down or is invested in the infrastructure and job-creation necessary to accommodate the youth bulge and to stabilize the country. Nigerians routinely say that their day-to-day existence has deteriorated, that civilian government is not the same thing as democracy, and that the country is not becoming more prosperous. What there was of a middle class in the 1960's and the 1970's -- seen at the time as an engine for sustainable development -- has largely disappeared.

Because Abuja owns the oil and gas (extraction is done through joint arrangements between private oil companies and the government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation), the easy way to wealth is through state capture at the various levels of government. The money is then dispersed through pervasive patronage networks, with little going into entrepreneurship or economic development. As a result, oil (now joined by natural gas) has sucked the energy out of other parts of the economy while creating few jobs

In the countryside, agriculture and fishing employ a majority of Nigerians, but attract scant investment. Particularly in the North, families increasingly send their children to the cities because agriculture cannot support the expanding rural population. Ostensibly, these children go to study the Koran under a malam, a Koranic teacher, but many end up begging to keep themselves alive. Often, they join the rapidly growing urban masses without permanent employment.

This rapid urbanization is continuing without the necessary investment in infrastructure. Already, about half of the population lives in cities, and a report by the U.S. Institute of Peace estimates that Lagos, Nigeria's commercial center, is likely to become the third largest city in the world by 2015, behind Tokyo and Mumbai. But the cities are not generating jobs. Manufacturing is declining; the result of a collapsed power sector, over-valued currency, and the cheap imports, especially textiles, that flood the domestic market, sometimes with the connivance of corrupt customs officers.

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Presented by

John Campbell and Asch Harwood

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, is senior fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he also blogs. Asch Harwood is an Africa analyst.

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