Is Nigeria heading for disaster?

The Nigerian election has been postponed, raising fears of renewed civil conflict. That leaves Africa’s most populous state on the brink of a crisis, says Simon Wilson.

What’s going on in Nigeria?

Posters bearing President Goodluck Jonathan’s election slogan of “continuity” can be seen plastered across Nigeria. But to many voters, the idea of their leader proposing more of the same kind is little short of bizarre.

After all, campaigning for the election – which was originally scheduled for early February but will now take place on 28 March – is taking place against a backdrop of the deadly Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast.

Several thousand people have been murdered there since the start of the year by the Islamist militants. The collapse in the oil price is causing financial turmoil in a country that depends on oil taxes for 75% of the state’s income. The currency is plunging and there are growing fears of a constitutional crisis and election-related violence.

Is violence likely?

Past elections in Nigeria, an ethnically and religiously diverse country that is split between a mostly Muslim north and a mostly Christian and animist south, have often sparked deadly violence. And the current election features two strongly contrasting candidates who are running neck and neck in the polls.

Jonathan is a southern Christian and former zoology lecturer from the restive Niger delta. Muhammadu Buhari is a Muslim from the north – an austere former military ruler seen as someone who could stand up to Boko Haram.

Buhari is still hated by some in the south for the human rights abuses committed under his regime in the 1980s. Despite this, Buhari has been gathering large crowds to his rallies, even in the south.

Who’s the favourite?

Buhari had strong momentum when the election was suddenly postponed in early February due to security concerns. “If you wanted to create a perfect storm in Nigeria, this is how you would set it up,” a senior government official, speaking anonymously, told the FT. “We are facing an existential national crisis and yet we are not able to mobilise and come together.”

At stake is not just Nigeria’s future, but also that of other African economies. “So much of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative is tied up in the idea that better governance allowed for improved economic outcomes,” Razia Khan, chief economist for Africa at Standard Chartered, told the FT.

That has been most evident in Nigeria’s emergence from its military past. A major democratic reversal or civil conflict in Nigeria “would shake the foundations on which the belief that Africa will continue to pull ahead rests”.

What has gone wrong?

Nigeria has “basically squandered away its oil bonanza of the past decade”, said BCA Research last month. “It has failed to channel its oil windfall into infrastructure and productive capacities. As a result, the economy remains extremely dependent on swings in global oil markets.”

Notionally, Nigeria’s oil sector has dropped to just 13% of GDP, while the services sector now accounts for 40%. But in reality, oil revenues have been key to supporting growth and maintaining social order, says BCA Research. “Without oil, both would fall apart; government spending would be much smaller, interest rates much higher, and the currency’s valuation much lower.”

Will the election make any difference?

That depends on whether the victor is serious about tackling issues such as poor infrastructure (see below) – and about taking on the endemic corruption that cripples the country. The widely respected former central-bank governor, Lamido Sanussi, was sacked last year after exposing a multi-billion-dollar subsidy racket involving the state oil company.

His dismissal sent a clear message that Jonathan’s government was not genuinely committed to a new era of transparency. Hence the surge of support for Buhari, whose supporters see him as the anti-corruption “change” candidate.

What happens now?

The president insists he will step down if beaten fairly. If so, it would be the country’s first such constitutional transfer of power, and give a welcome boost to democracy in the region. But many analysts fear that elements within the ruling People’s Democratic Party will do everything they can to stop Buhari gaining power.

Moreover, in the event of ethnic or religious violence, the army – potentially with divided loyalties and already pinned down by Boko Haram – might have difficulty containing conflict between the two factions that would take place across many fronts. All of this means that the future of Nigeria itself is at stake in the coming weeks – with enormous implications for the region’s stability and economy.

A limping economy

Despite being Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria suffers from a poor rail and road network and it is shockingly deficient in electricity production. Electricity consumption per head of population is around 149 kwh (by comparison, Mexico consumes over 2,000 kwh). The need to use diesel generators for electricity drives up the cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, the failure to tame chronically high inflation has damaged competitiveness. Health and education are poor by the standards of fast-growing developing economies, and there’s a shortage of qualified engineers and technicians. All this “totally undermines the popular notion that Nigeria’s burgeoning middle class will be able to turn the country into a consumer powerhouse”, concludes BCA Research.

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