from Africa in Transition

Nigeria: War, Denial, and Corruption

February 24, 2014

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Terrorism and Counterterrorism


Wars and Conflict

This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Civil war is raging in Nigeria’s northeast. Abuja says it is winning, but when Boko Haram attacks a military base, kills numerous soldiers and their dependents, then burns barracks to the ground, such claims strain credulity. The Army, long able to discourage direct confrontation, and since independence the country’s most durable national institution may be starting to unravel. In contrast, Boko Haram, firmly ensconced in the grassroots, remains robust. Moreover, they appear to have one-upped because they may be keeping their weapons inventory on mobile platforms, rather than in fixed caches. Moving "warehouses" are hard to destroy.

In Abuja, the country’s center, it is clear that when reform begins to threaten vested interests, Nigeria’s thin veneer of democracy wears off and progress toward "transparency” and "good governance”—passwords required for successful login to the comity of nations—is revealed as illusory. In light of these fundamental insecurities, Mr. Sanusi’s recent “suspension” from his position as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria has proved shocking.

None of this, however, will come as any surprise to Wang Xiaofang, author of The Civil Servant’s Notebook, a novel about politics and corruption in China. “Under the present system,” one of his characters opines, “the outcome of the law was in the hands of individual people, not in the hands of institutions, and the law often gave way to favors, connections, and even public opinion. The “iron fist of the law” only frightened the small fry, not the big fish.” Institutions, one of which Mr. Sanusi headed, prevented neither the disappearance of billions in oil revenue, nor Mr. Sanusi’s own removal. A single individual, the president, proved more powerful.

American muckraker Lincoln Steffens would probably nod knowingly, too. Political corruption, he believed, was not a temporary evil that could be corrected by reforms, but rather a policy by which democracy was made over into a plutocracy. Bosses and crooks could stop corruption, he thought, but not reformers. They lacked the knowledge and tools, and were not up to a hard fight.

In the Niger Delta, some amnestied militants are returning to oil theft, i.e., war against the state by other means, according to “Oil Thieves of the Niger Delta,” by Alexis Okeowo, Bloomberg Businessweek. “It’s not OK for us to be doing this, we know,” one said, “but the government is not looking after us at all... There were no jobs here, so what do we do? This was the only solution. We don’t have any other way to fight.”