The Problems and Promise of Nigeria

Boko Haram has overshadowed Nigeria's growing economy. But to fully leverage that success, it will need to overcome security and corruption issues.
By: /
May 13, 2014

Nigeria has overtaken South Africa as the largest economy in Africa. This announcement came on Sunday April 6, 2014 when previously unaccounted industries such as telecoms, music, airlines, and film production were added to the Nigeria’s GDP—which is now estimated at $509.9 billion. Nigeria’s predecessor as the largest economy on the continent, South Africa, had a GDP of $370.3 billion at the end of 2013. While a positive development, the stark reality remains that Nigeria’s economic superiority is not reflected in the wellbeing of its people as measured in terms of living standards and human security.

The ongoing security challenges in the country—especially the rise of the Boko Haram terrorist group who have committed heinous crimes including the recent abduction of about 230 schoolgirls and the bombings in Abuja—have overshadowed this important milestone that Nigeria has achieved as well as it’s hosting of the World Economic Forum that began on May 7, 2014. Indeed, terrorism is a recent development amid the variety of security challenges that Nigeria faces. Nigeria has long had perennial insurgency problem in its oil-rich Niger Delta that has recently degenerated into acts of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Meanwhile, the legacy of years of military dictatorship until the late 1990s and endemic public corruption continues to undermine Nigeria’s democratic development, human rights, rule of law, and economic wellbeing of its citizens. Nevertheless, keen analysts agree that Nigeria’s insecurity—especially the rise of terrorism on the one hand and its recent economic achievement as the biggest economy in Africa on the other hand—provides a prime opportunity for the international community to step up their cooperation with Nigeria to ensure that democracy, rule of law, human rights, economic development, and security are firmly established in this strategic state in Africa. It behooves on the international community to court Nigeria’s economic leadership in the region in view of the potential economic and security benefits it could generate both in West Africa and beyond.  

Nigeria’s new-found status as the economic leader in Africa has been met with skepticism—not least by its own citizens. As the BBC reports, a Nigerian financial analyst, Bismarck Rewane has called the rebasing of the Nigeria’s economy as “vanity”. According to Rewane, “the Nigerian population is not better off tomorrow because of that announcement. It doesn't put money in the bank, more food in their stomach. It changes nothing.” To be sure, this argument carries a lot of weight given the fact that Nigeria’s per capita income is three times lower than that of South Africa. Nigeria’s population of 170 million is also three times larger than South Africa’s. These statistics shed more light on the inadequacy of GDP as a measurement of the true level of economic development and security in a country. Indeed, one of the central questions that is often raised is who actually owns or benefits from Nigeria's GPD? And to what extent has the ownership and benefits from the GDP contributed to the rise of terrorism in the northeast and the protracted insecurity in the Niger Delta? It is not farfetched to suggest that public corruption pilfers a sizable chunk of Nigeria’s wealth; thereby denying the citizens of essential services that would improve living conditions. Moreover, public corruption weakens the capacity of state institutions such and the police and the military that should provide essential security goods to the public. Institutional weaknesses in the police and military are also partly blamed for the abduction of the 230 schoolgirls, and the alleged torture and killings of Boko Haram detainees and civilians by the Nigeria military as reported by Amnesty International and the BBC on March 31, 2014. Transparency International ranks Nigeria as the 144th most corrupt country in the world out of the 177 countries studied in 2013. Moreover, Nigeria ranks 153rd on the UNDP's 2013 human development index—significantly lower than South Africa that ranked 121st. What is even more surprising is that smaller countries such as Gabon and Ghana also ranked higher than Nigeria at 106th and 135th, respectively. These results indicate that Nigeria has a long way to go to translate its GDP into the quality of life of its citizens.

Nigeria’s role and influence, however, could be substantially different at the global level. According to DefenceWeb, Africa’s defence and security news portal, Nigeria’s defence expenditure—which stood at $2.1 billion in 2012—is expected to grow by 22 percent yearly and reach $4.76 billion by 2016. This would bring Nigeria’s military spending on par with South Africa’s, which, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, spent an estimated $4.5 billion on its military in 2010. Current data, however, indicates that Nigeria is ahead of South Africa in terms of troop contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. With 4,719 personnel, Nigeria is the 6th largest contributor to UN Peacekeeping forces and the second largest African contributor behind Ethiopia. South Africa ranks 8th in Africa and 13th globally with its contribution of 2,188 troops to UN peacekeeping. With far less military spending, Nigeria contributes substantially more to international security as far as UN peacekeeping is concerned than South Africa—as well as many “western” states. It is important to add that while the UN Security Council has a reputation for dragging its feet, and although it encountered challenges and criticisms, Nigeria has an enviable record as a state that was willing to put its military in harm’s way to promote both state and regional security as the leading country in the first ever peacekeeping operation by a sub-regional group when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened in the Liberia conflict in 1990 as well as the subsequent conflict in Sierra Leone. Perhaps this underscores why Nigeria has earned the confidence of West African states as these states have consistently nominated Nigeria as their "permanent” representative to the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. This history, among other developments, puts Nigeria in a better position to make a much stronger case for its inclusion as a permanent member of the UN Security Council—should the UN organ be reformed in the future.

To be sure, Nigeria’s security role and geostrategic location is an added advantage to its new status a regional economic player. As the newly-crowned economic powerhouse in Africa, it can be argued that Nigeria has earned ‘the right’ to be a member of the G20 as well the G8's Outreach Group in which major global economic decisions are made. Perhaps, Nigeria could use its role as the host of the World Economic Forum to make an important statement announcing its readiness to join the exclusive club of global economic decision-makers of the G20 and G8 Outreach Group. Keen observers would agree that Nigeria has the potential of becoming the ‘true hub’ of economic activity in Africa. A secure and politically stable Nigeria would have the potential of spurring economic development and security at least within the West Africa sub-region that is noted for being one of the unsecured places in Africa. It is noteworthy that Nigeria’s 170 million people represent more than 60 percent of the population of West Africa. Thus, when courted properly, Nigeria could provide a huge market for trade and investment for African states, industrialized countries, and emerging economies leading to economic prosperity at least within the member states of the ECOWAS. In short, the multiplier effect of Nigeria’s security and economic prosperity is real in terms of the economic and security benefits it could bring to the African continent and beyond.

Nevertheless, if Nigeria wants to be taken seriously as a regional and global player, it has the primary responsibility of translating its new status to addressing the 'three evils' of public corruption, oil-related violence in the Niger Delta including the growing trend of piracy, and the threat that is posed by the Boko Haram terrorist group. As argued earlier, the terrorist bombings in Abuja and the abduction of about 230 schoolgirls by the Boko Haram indicates the weaknesses of the Nigerian domestic security establishment. President Goodluck Jonathan’s reactionary policy to shutdown Abuja to ensure security as Nigeria plays host to the World Economic Forum is a temporary measure that fails to address the root causes of the growing threat of terrorism in the country. It may be argued that President Jonathan’s ad hoc measure in Abuja instead signals to the international community that Nigeria is insecure and that the government lacks the capacity to address the growing challenge of terrorism in the country despite its economic successes.

Yet, as pointed out earlier, the multiplier effect of secure and economically prosperous Nigeria for Africa and beyond cannot be overemphasized. It is in this context that the international community should become more active in assisting Nigeria to root out the ‘three evils’ noted above. It is encouraging to note that the public protests in western capitals on the issue of the abducted school girls by the Boko Haram appear to be yielding some results as the United States, UK, and France have deployed team of experts comprising military, law enforcement, and other agencies to help Nigeria with intelligence and other technical support to locate and rescue the girls. It is noteworthy that the Canadian government made a public announcement early this year through its High Commissioner, Perry Calderwood, to assist Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. As Geoffrey York of the Globe and Mail reports, Nigeria’s Vice-President, Namadi Sambo, has “pleaded for support and assistance from Canada in areas of surveillance equipment and other vital security hardware” but it is not clear whether Canada will answer this request. Indeed although Foreign Minister John Baird has reiterated Canada’s support to Nigeria, it is not clear as to what kind of support Canada can or will provide in the case of the abducted schoolgirls.

The vociferous international response to Boko Haram’s abduction of 230 schoolgirls will, however, hopefully lead to larger and more sustained assistance to combat terrorism in Nigeria. Among other things, Nigeria needs long term and sustained intelligence training and military support while the government makes strenuous efforts to improve the economic condition of its citizens to address the complexities of its domestic security threats that have the potential of spreading to democratically stable countries in West Africa. Generally speaking, it would be inadequate to limit international help to Nigeria from ‘western’ countries as the public protests on the abducted girls in the capitals such as Ottawa and Washington, DC seem to suggest. The case of the abducted schoolgirls and the spread of Boko Haram’s activities to Nigeria’s neighbours such as Niger and Cameroon provide a unique moment for the African Union, ECOWAS, and its member states to show leadership and commitment in assisting Nigeria since they may stand to gain as the primary beneficiaries of an economically stable and secured Nigeria and region. Indeed, the near collapse of Mali when its northern regions was overrun by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb a year ago and the porous nature of the borders of African states should prompt African leaders to act expeditiously on the rise of terrorism in Nigeria. In short, the international community—including African states—should not stand idly by and watch Nigeria slide into a state of anarchy as the complex interrelations within West Africa could rise or fall depending upon what happens in its newly crowned economic success story, Nigeria.