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.

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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