Excerpt: Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know

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Nigeria has by far the largest population of all African countries, with an estimated one out of every five sub-Saharan Africans being a Nigerian. It is now one of the largest democracies in the world. Nigerians claim that its economy alternates with South Africa’s as the continent’s largest, depending on world commodity prices. Nigeria has traditionally played the most active diplomatic role on the world stage of any African country. Its cultural achievements also translate into “soft” influence on other African countries and elsewhere in the world.

In 1999 Nigeria returned to civilian governance after sixteen years of military rule. Since then its trajectory toward democracy has been broadly positive in a region often characterized by civil war and arbitrary rule. Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency (1999–2007) ostensibly was civilian, though he had been a military chief of state and his style was that of a military ruler. However, his ambition to serve an unconstitutional third term was thwarted in the National Assembly, reflecting a developing elite consensus against presidents for life. Although the elections of 2007 were characterized by blatant rigging in favor of Obasanjo’s hand-picked choice, Umaru Yar’Adua, the latter’s presidency (2007– 2010) was genuinely civilian in style and outlook. In a positive development for the rule of law, Yar’Adua, as a matter of principle, enforced judicial decisions that his administration did not like, unlike Obasanjo, who had ignored inconvenient court rulings. When Yar’Adua died in office, his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, became president without military intervention and according to the rule of law.

If elections are taken as milestones toward democracy, as they are by most friends of Nigeria, those of 2003, 2007, and 2011 were problematic. Muhammadu Buhari—the presidential candidate who probably won the most votes in each of the three elections—was defeated by his opponent’s rigging efforts. Buhari contested the outcome in the courts, which in every case unconvincingly found for the incumbent, or in the case of Yar’Adua, for Obasanjo’s candidate. Nevertheless, Buhari and most of his supporters did not take to the streets, though his opponents claim his actions contributed to a deadly outbreak of post-election violence in 2011.

The 2015 election was technically better, but by no means flawless. This time Buhari’s victory was beyond dispute, with the result reflecting growing concerns about the general breakdown in security associated with the jihadist terrorist movement Boko Haram and popular disgust at the rampant corruption of the Jonathan administration. Moreover, in yet another sign of a maturing democratic culture, Jonathan publicly conceded rather than contest the results. For the first time in the country’s history, the civilian opposition came to power through the ballot box, arguably advancing Nigerian democracy.

However, if Nigeria is a democracy, it is also a kleptocracy, a nation characterized by a type of corruption in which government or public officials seek personal gain at the expense of those being governed. Throughout the post-independence period, wholesale looting of the state by members of the political class has accelerated. On a smaller scale, corruption has become deeply embedded in virtually all aspects of national life. Chiefs of state regularly denounce this malfeasance, and President Buhari has taken concrete steps against it, but with little effect. Kleptocracy and government dishonesty have corrosive effects on popular confidence in governance. Official and unofficial corruption undermines the democratic trajectory and risks overwhelming it. It is among the most important hindrances to the country’s economic and social development.

With respect to its international role, Nigeria’s trajectory is at present ambiguous. At the time of independence in 1960, Nigerian leaders shared the vision of a huge, democratic, diverse nation that could give Africa and Africans a place at the international high table. Indeed, for most of the country’s post-independence history, Nigeria has been Africa’s diplomatic leader. It has consistently participated in United Nations (UN) and other peacekeeping missions, starting with the Congo in 1960 and continuing through the current peacekeeping operation in Sudan’s Darfur (which began in 2007), where it supplies the largest number of troops. It was a founder of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and later of the African Union (AU). Nigeria was an African leader in the struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime. It played an influential role in international organizations, especially the UN. In addition, individual Nigerians have provided leadership in significant multilateral settings. For example, the current secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a Nigerian, which has frequently been the case.

In the past decade, however, there has been a Nigerian withdrawal from continental leadership, mostly the result of its internal insurgencies, including Boko Haram in the northeast and militant groups in the oil-producing Niger Delta, as well as ethnic and religious conflict in the middle of the country. The logistical and other shortcomings of Nigerian participation in the international effort against a jihadist insurgency in northern Mali in 2012 perhaps marked the nadir of Abuja’s regional influence. However, the Buhari government’s leadership of a 2016 African multilateral effort to ease out The Gambia’s authoritarian ruler, who sought to block the results of credible elections, perhaps signals the re-emergence of a Nigerian leadership role.

The post-independence economic story is even more mixed. At the time of independence in 1960, Nigeria was a major food exporter and had a flourishing manufacturing sector. The country’s level of development was commonly said to be similar to that of Taiwan, Thailand, or Malaysia. As of 2017, Nigeria imports food, the manufacturing sector is largely moribund, and the transportation infrastructure is deteriorating, though efforts are underway to restore the railway network. Agricultural investment has been neglected. Despite ubiquitous cell phone use and other signs of modernity, the country is one of the poorest in the world. By indices ranging from levels of female literacy to average life span, Nigeria scores among the lowest in the world. The country’s population has grown explosively without the economic and infrastructure development necessary to support it.

The negative trajectory of the post-independence economy owes much to distortions caused by sudden oil wealth without the institutions to channel it productively. Laggard institutional development reflected the militarization of governance following the 1966–1970 civil war and a series of military coups. During the long period of military rule (1966–1999, with a short interregnum), civilian institutions from the civil service to the educational system declined. Corrupt elites, with a large military component, were notably rapacious.

Nigeria’s cultural achievements during the same period, however, have been outstanding. It dominates African literature, music, cinema, and drama. Nollywood, the domestic film industry, serves a continent-wide audience. So, too, does Nigerian music. Plays by Nigerian playwrights are regularly performed on Broadway in New York and in the West End in London. Nigerians now live all over the world, where they are prominent in the arts and sciences of the countries in which they have settled. Virtually every major university in the English-speaking world is host to Nigerian academics. Nigerian medical personnel are to be found in hospitals all over the United States and elsewhere, and Nigeria exports Christian clergy to the United Kingdom and the United States. Nigerians living outside of Nigeria have been notably successful in business and finance, and they are known for their entrepreneurial spirit.

Though it possesses extraordinary potential, Nigeria is truly the troubled giant of Africa.

Excerpted from NIGERIA: What Everyone Needs to Know. Copyright 2018 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.