Can Nigeria Fail?

Nigeria is Africa’s largest democracy and second largest economy. The country contributes the most troops for peacekeeping missions in Africa and has become a key broker for peace agreements in West Africa. As a major producer of crude oil and the most populous African country, it has often been ‘elected’ to represent Africa at major international discussions. Yet, as the current leadership crisis in Nigeria continues, the stability of the country’s fragile democracy is all too uncertain. Can democracy in Nigeria fail?

Even before the leadership crisis, Nigeria’s rank on the Failed State Index began deteriorating from 19 in 2008 to 15 in 2009 (Foreign Policy and the Fund of Peace). With the on-going leadership uncertainties and rising sectarian violence, Nigeria is likely to move even closer to the top of the index in 2010. While democracy and economic growth in Nigeria have been viewed as a positive development for West Africa, Nigeria unfortunately faces a myriad of other problems that could compromise democratic and civilian rule. The most pressing of these include a paralyzed federal government, the resumption of hostilities in the Niger Delta region, failure to quell ethno-religious conflict in the ‘middle-belt’ of the country, and the threat of military intervention.

If the government continues to be paralyzed and unable to address these problems then the answer is that Nigeria could indeed fail. A collapse of civilian rule in Nigeria is not only bad news for Nigerians but also for the rest of Africa.

Politics of Succession

On November 23, 2009, President Umaru Yar'Adua abruptly left Nigeria to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia without handing over power to his vice president. After 78 days without a president, the Nigerian Senate finally installed Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as acting president.

Yar’Adua’s illness has challenged the unofficial agreement in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that leadership is supposed to rotate between the largely Muslim north and largely Christian south every two terms. Northerners were concerned that Yar’Adua’s illness would rob them of a chance to complete ‘their term’, which is why they were slow to acknowledge the severity of Yar’Adua’s illness and name an acting president.

Taking 78 days to install an acting president points to serious institutional weaknesses in Nigeria. This has been attributed to a constitutional gap as all three branches of government failed to act swiftly to bring an end to the leadership crisis. The president failed to transfer power to the vice president before leaving the country and the judiciary ruled that the vice president could continue to act on behalf of the president without formal appointment. Furthermore, bickering among power brokers in the PDP prevented the legislature from transferring power to the vice president for more than two and a half months.

Acting President Goodluck Jonathan has taken major steps in recent weeks to consolidate his power by dissolving the cabinet. This action was necessary for him to govern more effectively and address Nigeria’s growing economic, security and diplomatic problems. Some argue that Acting President Jonathan overstepped his constitutional powers in doing so. It is obvious however, that it would have been very difficult for him to govern with Yar’Adua loyalists undermining him at every turn. Some western governments and the investment community have voiced concerns about the situation, but no real effort has been made to bring an end to Nigeria’s current leadership crisis.

As Mr. Jonathan moves to consolidate his power, many pertinent questions remain: what happens to the acting president if the president returns to office? If Yar’Adua does not return (the most probable scenario), will the north be given an extension in the next presidential term? Should Jonathan have Yar’Adua declared medically unfit for service and have him formally removed from office? Would this provoke a confrontation with the north? How appropriate are informal agreements for appointing presidents alongside an agreed written constitution?

Oil and Stability in the Niger Delta Region

Prior to his illness, President Yar’Adua had made significant progress toward achieving peace and stability in the Niger Delta region. Last June, he issued an unconditional pardon for rebels in the region and an oil revenue sharing agreement that the main rebel group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), deemed fair. MEND announced a ceasefire in October 2009 and thousands of rebels were reported to have laid down their arms while the terms and condition of the agreement were being ironed out.

Unfortunately, after the first real sign of progress, Mr. Yar’Adua was whisked out of the country in November. MEND announced that the subsequent delays were unacceptable and splinter groups launched attacks on Shell and Agip in early March of this year. With the March 15 car bomb explosions in Warri, MEND is signaling that the window of opportunity for a peace agreement is now closing.

There is a significant opportunity for Acting President Jonathan, who is from the Niger Delta region, to help bring an end to the conflict. However, he will only be effective in his capacity as a negotiator with Niger Delta groups if he has the power to honor the terms that he negotiates. Many rebels are concerned that those in Yar’Adua’s camp may undermine Jonathan’s authority in which case negotiating with him would be a waste of time. To be sure, Jonathan will need to be seen as a full fledged president and not just a caretaker president in order to negotiate effective peace in the region.

Ethno-Religious Tension

There are over 250 distinct ethnic groups in Nigeria and two dominant monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity. Northern Nigeria is dominated by Muslims and southern Nigeria is dominated by Christians. It is the mixed Muslim/Christian middle belt of the country that has been a hotbed for ethno-religious conflict. Clashes over Sharia, tribal differences and land disputes continue to threaten the fragile state. A functional strong and protective state is critical for maintaining peace and stability in Nigeria’s middle belt.

In early March, a Christian-Muslim conflict on the outskirts of Jos left hundreds dead, with most of the victims being women and children. This tragic incident mirrors Christian-Muslim tensions in the rest of the country. The situation is so precarious that some have called for a two-state solution. Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi angered many Nigerians by calling for the country to be split in two along religious lines. Nigerians still remember the brutal Biafra war of the late 1960s and are not willing to entertain a two-state option. The government has dismissed Gaddafi’s words as both irresponsible and dangerous, and this view is shared by many West Africans.

Military Chain of Command

Last year, the government had to deploy the military to quell religious conflicts around the country. There is growing anxiety that if the civilian government is unable to maintain law and order, the military might step in and attempt to do the job for them. If that were to happen, it is not clear how far the military would go.

Indeed, there is considerable uncertainty about how the Nigerian military views the current situation and how it is likely to respond in the near future. It is also unclear who authorized the deployment of troops to meet President Yar’Adua at the Abuja airport when he returned from Saudi Arabia in February. Acting President Jonathan, who is commander-in-chief while Mr. Yar’Adua is ill, was reportedly unaware of the deployment. Given Nigeria’s history of military intervention, it is important that the civilian government have a clear commander-in-chief of the military. However, the leadership vacuum caused by Yar’Adua’s illness could be interpreted by some in the military as justification for intervention.

The Economy

In January, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) assured investors that Yar’Adua’s absence has not impacted the economy. This is largely true. Nigeria’s financial markets appear to be operating soundly despite the political uncertainty and the Naira remains stable against all major currencies. One might reasonably argue that the CBN has performed reasonably well despite the political uncertainty. This might be attributed to the fact of its relative independence. It has kept credit flowing and inflation at bay despite significant fluctuations in oil prices.

However, if the current state of uncertainty in Nigeria continues, the country risks losing foreign direct investment (FDI) and see more capital leave the country than during the global financial crisis.

In addition, Nigeria stands to lose billions should conflict resume in the Niger Delta region. In recent years, conflict in the region has reduced oil output by as much as 25%, costing the country about $1 billion every month. While the current leadership crisis has not yet had a significant negative impact on the Nigerian economy, a resumption of conflict could cost the Nigerian economy significantly.

Already the leadership crisis has led to delays in key banking sector reforms. In the wake of the global financial crisis, additional banking sector reform has become essential to strengthening the financial system in the country.

If it persists, the leadership crisis in Nigeria is likely to cost the country significantly in lost oil revenue, decreasing FDI, capital flight, and a banking sector that lacks the necessary reforms to meet future demands.

Regional Economic Integration and Security

There is no question that Nigeria has played a very active role in resolving conflicts in West Africa. It helped resolve conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast and the largest contributor to peacekeeping missions in Africa. So having such a key regional player silent for several months on regional issues, including the leadership of the AU, does not bode well for West Africa. A weak Nigeria is in no one’s interest.

Half of the 15 countries that make up ECOWAS, including Nigeria, are currently experiencing political/leadership crises. As the largest member of the organization, Nigeria’s leadership is essential. ECOWAS postponed the head of state meeting twice to accommodate Yar’Adua’s illness. As chairman, his illness significantly hampered the organization’s ability to respond to important regional matters. The organization had an opportunity to be heard at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, but it remained mostly silent at the conference due to its absent chairman.

Finally, a weakened Nigeria hurts the process of economic integration in West Africa. While Nigeria has still not effectively used its leading economic position to galvanize its neighbors into collective action and enhance regional trade, a weakened Nigeria makes such integration even more difficult.

Nigeria Should Not be Allowed to Fail

Nigeria is in a state of crisis. The peace agreement in the Niger Delta is falling apart, religious violence threatens the middle of the country, it is losing its regional/international voice, and political theatrics in the ruling party have muted the government’s ability to respond to these problems. Africa and the rest of the world cannot afford to let Nigeria fail.

Nigeria must strengthen its constitution to reflect generally acceptable and legitimate formal power sharing agreements. Predictable procedures for transferring power when the president is incapacitated are imperative, and there are examples from many parts of the world to guide this.

It is certainly a good thing that the Senate has appointed Mr. Goodluck Jonathan as acting president. What remains is for him to win the support and confidence of Nigerians in performing his duties. When this confidence is in place, President Jonathan will be in a more credible position to negotiate a peace agreement with rebels in the Niger Delta region that builds on the same terms and conditions that Yar’Adua negotiated. It will also build greater confidence in other countries as they negotiate foreign and international issues with Nigeria.

Finally, it is important to weaken the patronage system associated with the presidency in Nigeria. Individuals linked to the president traditionally gain significant patronage from that association, and this practice lies at the bottom of Nigeria’s dilemma today. Nigerians owe it to themselves to guard against this in the future