Nigerians are usually proud of their country, always ready to sing the praises of their culture and style. Unfortunately, very few foreigners share the view. The latter point out the many idiosyncrasies they see: people who are always too loud, a penchant for cheating (those who never received a Nigerian hoax email proposing a share in a great estate raise their hands!), chaotic traffic and unpredictable explosions of violence. While Nigerians might not agree with this vision, there is much truth in it. In reality, Nigeria is a country of great paradoxes, diverse to the point of contradicting itself. In the past year, it has also made the headlines for the continue violence. Nothing new under the sun (see other articles in this dossier), yet it is a situation that could get out of hand.
Particularly vicious is the new terrorist threat from Boko Haram, which bombed the United Nations building in Abuja in August and then proceeded in scattered assault against security personnel, bombing churches, leaving a trail of blood throughout the north-east. Maiduguri, the city where Boko Haram started, witnesses daily shootings and assassinations.
The violence is blamed on religious tensions. Those who know Nigeria are aware that religion is a factor, but not the decisive one. The north is the poorer region of the federation. People have a strong feeling of being left-out. They do want the central government to show the willingness of take care of their needs. At the same time, the local political elite display a declining competence in governance and are fighting for survival. It is a fact that, in the past, when more attention was given to the just requests of northerners, violence subsided.
A golden opportunity to face the issue at the core of the problem, and the opportunity to counter the Boko Haram issue, was missed in 2009 when its leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured and killed. If the federal government had seized the moment, a dialogue could have ensued and perhaps we would now be looking at a different scenario. But Yusuf was killed, adding wood to the fire of rebellion.
At the moment, it seems that President Goodluck Jonathan’s only chance of winning against the prevailing violence engulfing much of the north, rely on three main reforms. The first area of concern is a swift change in the economy. Nigeria has focused on oil production for too long. Most other sectors have been left to personal initiative. Business is booming, but agriculture is lagging behind. At independence, the country fed itself from its own production. In 2010 Nigeria spent one billion dollars just to import rice. Preparing and implementing a development plan could mean providing employment for two thirds of the rural population, improve infrastructures and dramatically change the lives of rural Nigerians for the better. At the same time, the balance of the economy would shift away from dependency on oil.
The second issue is in regards to power production and the energy sector in general. Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer. Yet, Nigeria imports 85% of the refined petroleum products it consumes. To keep fuel cheap at the point of sale to the ordinary consumer, petroleum derivates are heavily subsidized. Subsides run in excess of seven billion dollars, more than the country spends on health and education combined. At the same time, electrical energy production and distribution is decreasing. Less than 40% of the population has access to the national greed, and only 30% of the demand is met. Families and businesses are forced to rely on privately produced power. This means a growing demand of petrol, paraffin and diesel just to light Nigerian houses and to run minimal equipment in shops and factories. In turns, this is reflected in the higher cost of manufactured goods.
Subsidies are a big business, and do not really benefit ordinary citizens. Former President Yar’Adua was candid about the long-term impacts of the subsidy: “There is a very strong cartel in this country that is benefitting from the issue of subsidies and it has introduced colossal corruption within the system”. People do not like government’s plans to remove subsidies before the end of the year. They do not trust Jonathan’s promise to deregulate the downstream sector and reinvest money saved in infrastructure development. They believe they will simply pay more for their fuel, and see no benefit for it. It is a like a dog chasing its own tail. Unless someone stops it, the game will continue until the coffers will be empty and the nation depleted of vital resources.
The third issue at stake is delinking the violence in the north from religious and ethnic connotations. Here the government will have to eat humble pie, recognize the mistake of the past, and ask Christian and Muslim leaders to lead the way. There remain the duty to tackle social differences that pit northerners against southerners. People in the north are tired to hear promises; they want to see an improvement in their living conditions. Supporting the agricultural sector and affording cheaper access to power will help, but it will not be enough. The federal government will have to draw a realistic development plan that will take in consideration the right expectations of all the peoples who form Nigeria. With more than 400 ethnic groups, it is a mammoth task, but one that must be address to transform Nigeria into the real largest democracy in Africa.