THELITTLE MORE that six decades ago, as Nigeria neared independence, even those soon to rule Africa’s largest country had doubts about its ability to hold out. British settlers had drawn a border around land that was home to more than 250 ethnic groups. Obafemi Awolowo, a politician at the time, spoke of Metternich, worrying that âNigeria is not a nation. It is a simple geographic expression.
The first years of independence seemed to prove him right. Blow after blow. Ethnic pogroms helped spark a civil war that claimed the lives of 1 million people, as the south-eastern region of Biafra tried to separate and was ruthlessly crushed. Military rule was the norm until 1999. Despite this bleak start, Nigeria is now a power. Home to one in six Sub-Saharan Africans, it is the loudest democracy on the continent. Its largest economy generates a quarter of the GDP. Nollywood produces more titles than any other country in the film industry, namely Bollywood. Three of the four fintech âunicornsâ of sub-Saharan Africa (startups valued at over $ 1 billion) are Nigerians.
Why, then, do most young Nigerians want to emigrate? One of the reasons is that they are afraid. The jihadists carve out a caliphate for themselves in the northeast; gangs of kidnappers terrorize the northwest; the fire of Biafra secessionism has been rekindled in the oil-rich southeast. The violence threatens not only Nigeria’s 200 million people, but also the stability of the entire region around them.
Readers who don’t follow Nigeria closely may ask: what’s up? Nigeria has been corrupt and turbulent for decades. What has changed in recent times, however, is that jihadism, organized crime and political violence have become so intense and widespread that most of the country is sliding into ungovernability. In the first nine months of 2021, nearly 8,000 people were directly killed in various conflicts. Hundreds of thousands more have died from hunger and disease caused by the fighting. More than 2 million people have fled their homes.
The jihadist threat in the northeast has metastasized. A few years ago, an area the size of Belgium was controlled by Boko Haram, a group of fanatics known to enslave young girls. Today, Boko Haram is supplanted by an equally brutal but more competent Islamic State affiliate, and thus a greater danger for Nigeria. In the south-east, demagogues are fueling ethnic claims and fueling the illusion that a group, the Igbos, can walk away with all the country’s oil, which is the source of around half of government revenue. President Muhammadu Buhari has hinted that separatism in Biafra will be treated as ruthlessly today as it was half a century ago.
Meanwhile, in large areas of Nigeria, a breakdown in state security and authority has allowed criminal gangs to unleash themselves. In the first nine months of this year, some 2,200 people were kidnapped for ransom, more than double the nearly 1,000 kidnapped in 2020. Perhaps a million children miss school for fear of fear. be ripped off.
Two factors explain Nigeria’s growing instability: a sick economy and a clumsy government. Slow growth and two recessions have impoverished Nigerians, on average, every year since the fall in oil prices in 2015. Before covid-19, 40% of them were below Nigeria’s extremely low poverty line of about $ 1 per day. If Nigeria’s 36 states were self-governing countries, more than a third would be classified by the World Bank as âlow incomeâ (less than $ 1,045 per person). Poverty combined with stagnation tends to increase the risk of civil conflict.
Economic turmoil is compounded by an inept and authoritarian government. Mr Buhari, elected in 2015, turned an oil shock into a recession by supporting the naira and banning many imports in the hope that it would boost domestic production. Instead, he pushed annual food inflation above 20%. It has failed to curb the corruption, which breeds resentment. Many Nigerians are furious at seeing so little profit from the country’s billions of petrodollars, much of which their leaders have wasted or stolen. Many politicians blame rival ethnic or religious groups, saying they have taken more than their fair share. This wins votes, but makes Nigeria a powder keg.
When violence breaks out, the government either does nothing or cracks heads almost indiscriminately. The Nigerian military is powerful on paper. But many of its soldiers are “ghosts” that only exist on the payroll, and much of its equipment is stolen and sold to insurgents. The army is also stretched, having been deployed to all states in Nigeria. The police are understaffed, demoralized and poorly trained. Many supplement their low wages by robbing the public they have sworn to protect.
To stop the slide into lawlessness, the Nigerian government would have to force its own forces to obey the law. Soldiers and police who murder or torture must be prosecuted. That no one was held responsible for the slaughter of perhaps 15 peaceful protesters against police abuses in Lagos last year is an outrage. The secret police should stop ignoring court orders to release those illegally detained. This would not only be morally fair, 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. Niger State, for example, has only 4,000 agents to protect 24 million people. Local cops would be better able to stop kidnappings and solve crimes than the current federal force, which is often dispatched to charge from one hot spot to another. The money could come from cutting unnecessary spending by the armed forces on jet fighters, which are not very useful in keeping schools. Britain and America, which are helping train the Nigerian military, could also train detectives. Better police could allow the military to withdraw from areas where it fuels secessionist fires.
The biggest obstacle to restoring security is not a lack of ideas, nor of resources. It is the complacency of Nigeria’s pampered political elite – safe in their guarded compounds and the well-defended capital. Without urgent action, Nigeria risks falling into a downward spiral from which it will have difficulty emerging. â
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The Crime Scene in the Heart of Africa”