Insurrection, secessionism and banditry threaten Nigeria

October 23, 2021

L.ITTLE More than six decades ago, when Nigeria was on the verge of independence, even those who would soon rule Africa’s largest country doubted whether it would stick together. British colonists had drawn a border around a country that was home to more than 250 ethnic groups. Obafemi Awolowo, a politician of the time, remembered Metternich and was annoyed that “Nigeria is not a nation. It’s just a geographical expression. “

The early years of independence seemed to prove him right. Coup followed coup. Ethnic pogroms helped spark a civil war that cost a million lives as the southeastern region called Biafra tried to break away and was ruthlessly crushed. Until 1999, military rule was the norm. Despite this bad start, Nigeria is a powerhouse today. It is home to one in six Sub-Saharan Africans and the most exuberant democracy on the continent. Its economy, the largest, generates a quarter of Africa’s GDP. Nollywood makes more titles than the film industry in any country other than Bollywood. Three of the four fintech “unicorns” in Sub-Saharan Africa (start-ups valued at more than 1 billion US dollars) are Nigerians.

Then why do most young Nigerians want to emigrate? One reason is that they are scared. Jihadists are building a caliphate in the northeast; Kidnap gangs terrorize the Northwest; the Biafran secessionist fire has rekindled in the oil-rich southeast. The violence not only threatens the 200 million inhabitants of Nigeria, but also the stability of the entire region around them.

Readers who aren’t closely following Nigeria may be wondering: what’s new? Nigeria has been corrupt and turbulent for decades. What has changed recently, however, is that jihadism, organized crime, and political violence are so intense and widespread that most of the country is sliding towards ungovernability. In the first nine months of 2021, nearly 8,000 people were directly killed in various conflicts. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation and disease caused by fighting. More than 2 million have fled their homes.

The jihadist threat to the northeast has metastasized. A few years ago, an area the size of Belgium was controlled by Boko Haram, a group of zealots notorious for enslaving young girls. Now Boko Haram is being replaced by an equally brutal but more competent Islamic State party that poses a greater threat to Nigeria. In the southeast, demagogues are fueling ethnic unrest and fueling the delusion that one group, the Igbos, could run away with all of the country’s oil, which provides about half of the state’s revenue. President Muhammadu Buhari has indicated that Biafran separatism is being treated as ruthlessly today as it was half a century ago.

Meanwhile, a collapse in security and state authority in large parts of Nigeria has allowed criminal gangs to run wild. Around 2,200 people were kidnapped to extort ransom in the first nine months of this year, more than double the 1,000 or so in 2020. Perhaps a million children are missing school for fear of being snatched away from them.

Two factors help explain Nigeria’s growing instability: a sick economy and a faltering government. Slow growth and two recessions have made Nigerians poorer on average every year since the oil price decline in 2015. Before Covid-19, 40% of them were below Nigeria’s ultra-low poverty line of around $ 1 a day. If the 36 states of Nigeria were independent countries, more than a third would be classified as “low income” (less than US $ 1,045 per capita) by the World Bank. Poverty combined with stagnation tends to increase the risk of civil conflict.

Economic problems are made worse by a government that is incompetent and clumsy. Mr Buhari, who was elected in 2015, turned an oil shock into a recession by propping up the naira and freezing many imports in the hopes that this would boost domestic production. Instead, it sent annual food inflation above 20%. He has failed to contain the corruption that creates resentment. Many Nigerians are angry that they see so little benefit from the country’s billions of petrodollars, much of which their rulers have wasted or stolen. Many politicians blame rival ethnic or religious groups, claiming they have done more than their fair share. That wins votes, but makes Nigeria a tinderbox.

When violence breaks out, the government does nothing or beat heads almost indiscriminately. Nigeria’s army is powerful on paper. But many of his soldiers are “ghosts” that only exist on the payroll, and much of his equipment is stolen and sold to insurgents. The army is also few and far between as it is stationed in every state in Nigeria. The police are understaffed, demoralized and poorly trained. Many supplement their low wages by robbing the public they have vowed to protect.

To stop the slide into lawlessness, Nigeria’s government should use its own resources to obey the law. Soldiers and police officers who kill or torture should be prosecuted. It is a scandal that no one was held responsible for the slaughter of perhaps 15 peaceful protesters against police violence in Lagos last year. The secret police should stop ignoring court orders to release people who are illegally held. That would not only be morally correct, but also practical: Young men who see or experience state brutality are more likely to join extremist groups.

Things don’t have to fall apart

Second, Nigeria needs to strengthen its police force. For example, in the state of Niger there are only 4,000 officers to protect 24 million people. Local police officers would be better at stopping kidnappings and solving crimes than the current federal forces, who are often sent from one hot spot to another. Money could come from cutting wasteful spending by the armed forces on jet fighters, which are of little use in guarding schools. Britain and America training Nigeria’s army could also train detectives. Better policing could allow the army to withdraw from areas where they are pouring fuel for secessionary fires.

The biggest obstacle to restoring security is neither a lack of ideas nor a lack of resources. It is the complacency of Nigeria’s spoiled political elite – safe in their guarded grounds and the well-defended capital. Without urgent action, Nigeria could enter a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to get out.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the heading “The crime scene in the heart of Africa”

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