Africa’s Giant Is Stumbling
As presidential election looms, Nigeria mishandles crises
Nigeria is Africa’s giant. Africa’s biggest oil exporter, it also has the continent’s largest population—a staggering 150 million people. After an upcoming reevaluation of its GDP, Nigeria is expected to exceed South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy.
The Nigerian army is one of the continent’s most powerful fighting forces and, in the past, Nigeria has played an important role in financing and staffing peacekeeping missions. The West African country wants to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
But the giant is stumbling. Rampant insecurity is fueled by conflicts over land, religion, economic marginalization and political power. The oil economy has wrecked the Niger Delta’s ecosystem and corruption and mismanagement drain the government’s finances.
In February 2015, Nigeria will elect a new president to replace Goodluck Jonathan—and already the election is shaping up to be the most divisive political event of the last decade. With so much riding on the vote’s outcome, Nigeria could enter a period of intensive internal conflict … with far-ranging consequences for regional security.
Politics wrapped in religion
Nigeria’s north is overwhelmingly Muslim. Christians dominate in the south. This divide shapes Nigerian politics. After the end of the military dictatorship in 1999, competing political blocks agreed that the presidency would alternate between candidates from the north and the south, with the other region having the right to the vice presidency.
This power-sharing deal was always unstable and relied on the dominant People’s Democratic Party staying in power. And the situation got worse when president Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, died in office on May 5, 2010 and his southern deputy Goodluck Jonathan assumed not only the presidency, but also insisted on running for reelection.
Northern political elites were already dismayed that their turn in power had been cut short. The conflict escalated when Jonathan declared his intention to seek a second full term in 2015.
Increasing tensions in the political sphere led to inter-religious conflict on the ground. Nigeria’s middle belt, where Christian and Muslim populations mix the most, was hardest hit. Violence marred the presidential election in 2011 and since then more than 3,000 people have died in inter-communal disputes, according to Human Rights Watch.
The latest incident occurred in mid-March, when suspected Fulani herdsmen attacked three villages in Kaduna state and killed more than 100 people.
Disputes over land rights and religious narratives drive these killings on the local level, but many analysts believe the national political stand-off has led certain politicians to condone violence as a means of building up political pressure.
Boko Haram and the dangerous delta
We can level similar allegations against northern politicians when it comes to the Boko Haram insurgency. Centered in the country’s northeast around the city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram is an Islamist armed group that fights for the implementation of sharia law.
This alone doesn’t suffice to explain the long-running rebellion, during which violence and governmental reprisal have resulted in at least 4,000 deaths. That’s because the sharia is already officially practiced in northern states.
Economic marginalization is probably the main reason for fighters continuing to join Boko Haram, but it’s equally likely that the group enjoys connections to the national political elite. An insurgency can be a useful political tool in a country as divided as Nigeria.
The third hot spot of insecurity in Nigeria is the delta region, which produces most of the country’s oil. The region experienced open warfare during the rebellion of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which took up arms to fight against economic marginalization of the delta inhabitants and environmental destruction resulting from frequent and catastrophic oil spills.
MEND officially laid down its arms after the government offered amnesty in 2009, but a lack of real political progress has prompted members of the group to threaten a return to violence.
The delta is a hotbed for abductions. Criminals routinely hold hostage members of the Nigerian middle class and expat oil workers. Other illegal practices—such as piracy, the tapping of oil pipelines and black-market refineries—are costing the government, companies and the public billions of dollars every year.
With the upcoming presidential election as a catalyst, all of these security crises will likely intensify. Criminals and armed groups will try to use the increased political stakes to reap greater profit and make their grievances heard, while politicians might make use of the violent dynamics to stake their claim to power. It’s a vicious cycle that could put Nigeria and its people through Hell.
But the current developments have regional implications, as well. Nigeria is focusing more and more on its internal affairs and giving up its role as regional power. This is especially true when it comes to Nigeria’s commitment to peacekeeping. With one full-scale civil war on its own territory, it becomes harder and harder for the government to justify deploying troops outside of Nigeria’s borders.
Nigeria did contribute soldiers to the international effort to oust Islamist rebels from northern Mali, but these troops arrived so ill-equipped that they couldn’t deploy to the front lines—and they had to beg food from the local population. Nigeria left the fighting to the French and Chadian contingents and withdrew its forces as soon as politically possible.
The closer the election draws, the more the political battle in Nigeria will heat up and the security situation will likely deteriorate. This is bad news for western and central Africa. The giant on whose shoulders the region once stood is starting to stumble.