Nigeria's Challenge


Nigeria's pervasive poverty and underdevelopment are nation-wide, but much worse in the northern half of the country, contributing to the increasing isolation of the predominately Muslim states found there. This sense of isolation was exacerbated by the April 2011 elections. It also contributes to the growing space in parts of the northern society available for radical Islamic groups such as Boko Haram to take hold. Often shaped by their religious teachers in a period of Islamic religious revival, the crowds of unemployed and impoverished children, youths, and university graduates are increasingly ripe for recruitment by the likes of Boko Haram. In Nigeria, one often hears it said that it costs only1,000 naira per person (about six U.S. dollars) to put together a mob to burn down a church.

While Jonathan's electoral victory was internationally accepted as legitimate and has enhanced the country's status abroad (as demonstrated by his recent warm reception at the White House) the new Nigerian president faces enormous challenges. Presidential opponent Buhari is calling for a forensic investigation of the presidential elections that would examine allegations of vote buying, underage voting, intimidation, ballot box stuffing, and manipulation of polling numbers at collation centers. Buhari's party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), has gone to court to challenge the poll results in 24 states and the Federal Capital Territory. Jonathan, for his part, has established a commission -- chaired by Ahmed Lemu, a distinguished retired grand cadi -- to investigate the violence in the North. But, otherwise, his outreach to the North has so far been disappointing. His closest advisors are fellow Ijaws, the country's fourth largest ethnic group mostly concentrated in the Niger Delta, and he has yet to include any influential figures from the North in his inner circle.

It will take great political skill for Jonathan to address the alienation in his country's North and in its Delta. Boko Haram has already rejected outright attempts to negotiate by the Borno state government. The recent suicide attack in the capital demonstrates a reach and tactic that Nigeria has not seen before. Suicide attacks may be a sign of new linkages to transnational terrorist groups that did not previously exist, though the character of Boko Haram remains indigenously Nigerian.

Jonathan has also expressed a desire to tackle underinvestment in the non-oil economy. One of his stated goals is to restore and expand the power industry. Another is to reorganize the petroleum industry so that it provides greater benefits to Nigerians.

Taken altogether, Jonathan's initiatives would address some of the fundamental issues that have divided and alienated Nigerians. But real reform on the scale the country requires would amount to a peaceful revolution, directly confronting the entrenched interests that benefit from the status quo. Jonathan has yet to demonstrate that he has the stomach -- or the sufficient support from the elite, of which he is a member -- to fundamentally rebuild Nigeria. If successful, such initiatives might begin to address the country's endemic poverty and could even dent the pervasive culture of corruption. It would be a start.

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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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