Africa: Tangible Tensions
Elizabeth Donnelly, November 2011
The World Today, Volume 67, Number 11
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Nigeria is a country so unwieldy in its size, and so complex in its politics
and structures, that it necessitates a certain level of assumption, together
with an understanding of the detail of its interlinking internal dynamics.
Its diversity and influence demand a nuanced engagement; its scale
necessitates a broad-brush and bold approach.
In recent months Nigeria has been making international headlines because of
its security challenges, in particular its new terrorist threat from Boko
Haram, which bombed the United Nations building in Abuja in August. For
those focusing on security in Nigeria, the outlook is bleak. But speak to
someone from the Lagos business community and they, though cognisant of the
challenges, brim with optimism about the future. However gloomy on paper,
Nigeria is a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting challenges and opportunities and
defies characterisations of a lost cause.
Maiduguri, the city upon which Boko Haram-related terrorism is concentrated,
sees almost daily shootings and assassinations. Unfortunately for President
Goodluck Jonathan, an opportunity to counter and reduce the Boko Haram issue
was missed in 2009 when its leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured, but then
killed in custody. Since then, Boko Haram appears to have transitioned from
a geographically-unified group based in Maiduguri to one that is more
diffuse and amorphous in structure, making it much harder to understand and
Also unfortunately for President Jonathan, security and especially how he
deals with the problem of terrorism are being seen as a key test of his
credibility as leader of Africa's biggest democracy. However, the resolution
to Nigeria's seemingly growing security threats and outbreaks of localised
violence does not lie in tackling these problems with force or increasing
the number of soldiers on the streets. The threat Boko Haram presents, like
the ugly fighting that has recurred in Jos, capital of Nigeria's scenic
"Home of Peace and Tourism" Plateau State, is symptomatic of decades of
declining governance and increasingly tangible tensions articulated in
religious and ethnic difference.
Nigeria is a crowded country; no one really knows how big it is, but the
population probably stands at around 155 million. It is expected to grow to
around 220 million long before 2020. Competition for resources is thus
fierce, and the majority lead a precarious existence. Defining a nation
comprised of great diversity has always been a priority and a challenge for
Nigeria's leaders. The president and the country's state governors need
urgently to quell the rhetoric and tensions that threaten the fabric of
Nigerian society and further and even uglier violence.
The president has opportunities to do this and at the same time tackle the
problems of corruption and criminality. Given Nigeria's political complexity
and the fierce competition for resources, federal and state governments are
limited in the number of battles they can fight - and win - at any one time.
But for the current administration there are three battles that if fought
and won for the benefit of the nation could be transformative for Nigeria.
And it is these opportunities that the international community can get
behind and support.
The first of these opportunities is improving and expanding Nigeria's
agricultural sector - just after independence the country fed itself from
its own production. According to Nigeria's Central Bank Governor, in 2010
Nigeria spent one billion dollars on importing rice. Providing employment to
about sixty to seventy percent of the population, better access to finance,
storage for produce and vastly improved rural infrastructure could
dramatically improve the lives of rural Nigerians and shift the balance of
the country's economy - damagingly reliant on revenue from crude oil.
Nigeria has in recent years seen some improvements in agriculture and the
current Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development will need backing to
see his plans through.
The second battle worth expending political capital on is the removal of
Nigeria's costly and corrupting fuel subsidies, but this is one of the most
contentious and delicate issues the government confronts. Despite being
sub-Saharan Africa's biggest oil producer, Nigeria imports most of the
refined petroleum products it consumes - around 85 percent. The country's
four refineries do not function at capacity and could not meet demand if
The idea behind the subsidy - to keep fuel cheap at the point of sale to the
ordinary consumer, regardless of location in the country - makes sense:
without an adequately functioning power sector, people rely on generators
and access to fuel. But more government money is spent on subsidising fuel
importation and distribution than is spent on health and education. Over
seven billion dollars will reportedly be spent on importing fuel in 2011.
Unfortunately, much of this money does not benefit ordinary Nigerians, and
is instead funnelled off during the lengthy import process. Former President
Yar'Adua was candid about the long-term impacts of the subsidy: "There is a
very strong cartel in this country that is benefitting from the issue of
subsidies and it has introduced colossal corruption within the system."
However, news in Nigeria that the government plans to remove the subsidy in
2012 has caused great consternation. It may be a decision that will
ultimately benefit the country as a whole - but for now people are concerned
about near term increases in the cost of their fuel and small businesses
fear being crippled by price hikes. People do not trust government promises
to fully and successfully deregulate the downstream sector and reinvest
money saved in infrastructure development. The government may face major
protests across the country if people do not feel any sense of participation
in this process and see a damaging increase in the cost of their diesel.
Added to current security concerns, widespread violent protest could
overstretch Nigeria's security services. President Jonathan needs to employ
all of the resources at his disposal - the media, state and local
authorities and especially traditional and religious leaders - if he is to
communicate his intentions adequately and convince Nigerians that this will
benefit them in the end.
The third transformative step that needs to be completed - and for which, if
successful, Goodluck Jonathan and his team will long be remembered in a
positive light - is the reform of the power sector. Roughly 45 percent of
Nigeria's population has access to power, and according to African
Development Bank figures, of that percentage, only thirty percent of demand
is being met. While power sector reform is not as thorny an issue as the
removal of the fuel subsidy, it is also not straightforward as it involves
the unbundling and privatisation of the component companies of the Power
Holding Company of Nigeria, the labour force of which is concerned about job
security, pay and conditions. Successful reform of the sector - requiring as
much emphasis on transmission as on generation and distribution - would be
tantamount to an economic revolution in the country and would go some way to
reducing the seemingly expanding disparities in wealth and opportunity
across the country. It could therefore ultimately serve to undermine the
divisive rhetoric that negatively exploits the nation's diversity.
While crucial, successful delivery on the issues mentioned above is far from
guaranteed. There are powerful parties with vested interests for whom such
extreme changes are unwelcome. The president will need to protect key
members of his team, such as the Central Bank Governor and Ministers of
Power, Finance and Agriculture - and he will need to smooth things over and
help manage relationships with those whose toes are being heavily trod on.
He will need the support of the 36 state governors, who together make up an
influential bloc on national matters. And he will need to convince Nigerians
that coming changes are intended to benefit the nation and are not just the
result of politicians "playing games in Abuja".
So policymakers and observers in and outside Nigeria should be concerned and
interested: localised violence and the new terrorist threat should be taken
very seriously and are deeply damaging to people's lives in the places they
are focused. But these problems are not rooted in single or simple causes,
and the solutions will not come solely with security responses. Nigeria's
federal and state governments have three years to secure a few far-reaching
reforms. Nigerians could see gradual positive change in their lives, if the
right steps are taken in Abuja and their state capitals. The alternative is
the attrition of those elements of state and society that have held Nigeria
together for more than fifty years - something neither Nigerians nor the
international community can afford.
Elizabeth Donnelly is the Programme Manager with the Africa Programme at
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Received on Wed Nov 16 2011 - 16:43:25 EST