TSG IntelBrief: Nigeria's Future Stymied by Terrorism, Faith, Culture, and Crime
As of mid-July 2012, Nigeria remains a leading power on the African continent. This geopolitical reality is fundamentally due to its sheer size and resource base, and continues despite the fact that President Goodluck Jonathan is less active on the international scene than are some of his peers, a scenario owing in large measure to the momentous domestic challenges that he faces. Of substantial importance, the country is a key supplier of oil to the United States, and the U.S. administration is therefore keen to improve relations in the face of growing Russian and Asian interest. That effort, however, must take place while the Nigerian government struggles to manage three primary threats to political and economic stability in the country: the terrorist threat from Boko Haram, intercommunal violence, and theft of the nation’s key resources by indigenous criminal enterprises.
Arguably the greatest of these threats is posed by Boko Haram, the Islamist fundamentalist group that operates mainly in the north of the country. And it is a threat that appears to be expanding given the increasingly daring and widespread violent attacks the group has waged against the authorities in recent months. Ostensibly seeking to overthrow of the state and impose Islamic rule on Nigeria, Boko Haram has become a more complicated entity with which to negotiate as a result of the group’s evolution in recent years from a band of zealous, anti-establishment Islamists into a more sophisticated and loosely formed movement containing different elements, including jihadis, political activists and criminals.
Nigeria’s Vast, Interconnected Problem Set
Not surprising given Nigeria’s complex political context, it appears that Boko Haram may well have sympathizers within the northern caucus of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who view the Islamist militants as a means of weakening Mr Jonathan, a southern Christian, and increasing the chances of one of their own ascending to the presidency. Further complicating security efforts is the very real possibility that some of the attacks that have been blamed by the authorities and the media on Boko Haram may have actually been carried out by individuals and groups with little or no direct connection with the sect, an outcome that would support the view that the violence in the north reflects a more general malaise in the region. As a result, the government struggles to find a lasting solution.
The sect’s amorphous nature makes a military solution impossible, while talks to establish some a basis for a negotiated peace are also exceedingly difficult given the numerous grievances involved. Solving the array of problems in Nigeria’s northern region requires tackling the underlying systemic problems of high unemployment, poverty and underdevelopment — challenges that will take decades to solve at the current rate of progress, especially as the violence is restricting economic development in the region.
Other regions harboring threats to political stability include Plateau State — part of Nigeria’s middle belt, at the meeting point of Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian south. On July 7th, around 60 people were killed in Plateau State by well-organized gunmen who were widely reported to have been from the majority Muslim Fulani ethnic group. On the following day gunmen struck again at a funeral for these victims. Among those killed at the funeral were a senator, Gyang Dantong, and a local government member, Gyang Fulani.
This disturbing violence revolves around several hard-to-resolve underlying factors, including resentment between so-called indigenous people, who are mostly Christians, and migrants and settlers from the Muslim north who vie for political power and control of scarce resources, especially fertile farmland. Intercommunal conflicts over land rights and ownership are not uncommon in Nigeria, where private property rights are often not well established. Indeed, Fulani herdsmen in this region have long fought for grazing rights.
Last of the main stumbling blocks to the country’s long-term stability is to be found in the oil-producing Niger Delta region. Nigeria, the continent’s second-largest economy, depends on oil for over 75 percent of hard currency earnings and typically over 90 percent of state revenues. The theft of oil — known in Nigeria as “bunkering” — began over thirty years ago, but expanded rapidly when local gangs in the Niger delta took up arms in the late 1990s in a campaign to force the federal government to provide a greater share of the revenues earned from oil to the region where it is produced, as well as for local control of mineral resources.
The main reason for the sabotage of pipelines is the theft of petroleum by criminals who often use hacksaws or explosives to gain access to the pipelines, siphon off the commodity, then sell it on the black market. Shell, the biggest single producer in Nigeria, estimates that 150,000 barrels of crude is stolen in the country each day. Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has put the loss even higher; in June she estimated that Nigeria lost US $1 billion or more a month to oil theft.
Oil theft has increased since 2009, when the government agreed to an amnesty with the militants. The amnesty succeeded in reducing politically motivated attacks against oil facilities, but had little positive effect on the activities of profit-driven criminals, some of whom had previously masqueraded as militants. The government faces a difficult task in curbing oil theft in the Delta’s vast and difficult-to-police terrain of creeks and waterways. Perhaps a bigger impediment is that some of the criminal networks involved in the illicit oil trade are believed to be connected to corrupt security officials and politicians.
All three issues — terrorism, intercommunal violence, and resource theft — along with a variety of other local concerns and tensions, have a common underlying factor: the prevalence of unemployment, poverty, and underdevelopment that fosters a sense of alienation, particularly among young people, and political interference for selfish ends. Successive governments have failed to come to grips with this, and the prospects are limited for the current administration to fare much better. Complicating the matter is the fact that these three “hotspots” are also interconnected. For example, Boko Haram has sought to exacerbate tensions in the central belt to further its own attempt to unsettle the government.
The next national and state-level elections are due in 2015. The issue likely to dominate those elections is whether Mr Jonathan seeks another term in office. This would be deeply unpalatable to many in the north, but if his current term in office proceeds well and he is able to build some momentum behind the reform process, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he would attempt to win another term. It is too early to say how such a decision would be received in the north, but it is likely that political tensions would once again surge. Were Mr Jonathan to stand down, the race to succeed him within the PDP would be exceptionally fierce.
Meanwhile, the opposition will attempt to build on the gains made at the 2011 elections, painting the PDP as underachieving and corrupt. Although strong powers of incumbency mean that the PDP and its presidential candidate will be the favorites at the 2015 elections, the party’s domination of Nigerian politics is expected to be eroded again as the opposition capitalizes on growing popular disillusion with the rate of Nigeria’s development under the PDP.
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