My summary of The Economist’s survey of the political status of Africa’s largest economy: Nigeria.
Quick Facts about Nigeria in General
Firstly, quick context: Nigeria has the largest population of any country in Africa and generates a quarter of Africa’s GDP. Its film industry, Nollywood put out more movies than any other country except India’s Bollywood. Nigeria is home to three of sub-Saharan Africa’s four fintech unicorns (startups valued at more than $1bn).
However, there is tremendous poverty, especially as of late:
Slow growth and two recessions have made Nigerians poorer, on average, each year since oil prices fell in 2015. Before covid-19, fully 40% of them were below Nigeria’s extremely low poverty line of about $1 a day. If Nigeria’s 36 states were stand-alone countries, more than one-third would be categorised by the World Bank as “low-income” (less than $1,045 a head).
However, Nigeria is an arbitrary border created by British colonialists around land that is home to more than 250 ethnic groups. Obafemi Awolowo, a politician of the independence era said “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression.”
As a result, vast swathes of Nigeria are overrun by various armed groups with the central government having little ability to control lawlessness. The situation has resulted in 8,000 people being killed in various regional conflicts in the first nine months of 2021, with hundreds of thousands more perishing due to the resulting hunger and disease. Further, more than 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes.
Specifically, the north-east of the country has, for the last several years, been under the control of various militant Islamist groups (first Boko Haram and more recently an affiliate of Islamic State) that have been brutal in their efforts to maintain control of the region.
In the southeast of the country, there are tremendous oil resources that finance approximately half of the governments revenues and operations. However, the political situation in this region is just as dangerous because there is tremendous ethnic antagonism. Firstly, the politically powerful ethnic groups in the Biafran region (the Southeast, which was the heart of a colonialist proxy war in the Nigerian civil war in the early 1960s) have been advocating more openly for secession, arguing that other ethnic groups are stealing the oil revenues from their region. The central government based in Lagos has indicated that they will deal with Biafran separatists as ruthlessly as this region and its population were treated in the Nigerian civil war (hint including war crimes if necessary).
In the northwest of the country, gangs of kidnappers have been able to run wild and have kidnapped around 2,200 people for ransom in the first nine months of this year (more than double the number of abductions in 2020). Countrywide, up to a million children have been held out of school for fear that they will be kidnapped.
Lack of Security Forces
Dependence on oil revenues have hit the country hard as oil prices have been falling precipitously since 2015. Government operations and spending have decreased in line with the fall in oil revenues leaving Nigerians poorer with less infrastructure, services, and stability. Importantly this drop in government revenues has exacerbated the lack of police and military forces available to manage the various crises around the country.
As reported by The Economist:
Nigeria’s army is mighty on paper. But many of its soldiers are “ghosts” who exist only on the payroll, and much of its equipment is stolen and sold to insurgents. The army is also stretched thin, having been deployed to all of Nigeria’s states. The police are understaffed, demoralised and poorly trained. Many supplement their low pay by robbing the public they have sworn to protect.
The central government led by Muhammadu Buhari, when confronted with the plunging oil exports and the resulting devaluation of the naira, further artificially restricted naira exchange and imposed import tariffs thus accelerating inflation. This move sent annual food inflation soaring above 20%.
The Economists recommends less military and more local law enforcement. This would increase basic safety while reducing political violence which tends to radicalize young, poor men.
Nigeria needs to beef up its police. Niger state, for instance, has just 4,000 officers to protect 24m people. Local cops would be better at stopping kidnappings and solving crimes than the current federal force, which is often sent charging from one trouble spot to another. Money could come from cutting wasteful spending by the armed forces on jet fighters, which are not much use for guarding schools. Britain and America, which help train Nigeria’s army, could also train detectives. Better policing could let the army withdraw from areas where it is pouring fuel on secessionist fires.
The biggest barrier to restoring security is not a lack of ideas, nor of resources. It is the complacency of Nigeria’s cosseted political elite—safe in their guarded compounds and the well-defended capital. Without urgent action, Nigeria may slip into a downward spiral from which it will struggle to emerge.