Confronting the Greater Nigerian Challenge

Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph Professor Emeritus - Northwestern University, Former Brookings Expert

January 7, 2010

A few weeks ago, while chatting with my neighbor, I told him I had been doing some work in Nigeria.

“What are you doing”, he asked, “teaching them ethics?” He, of course, was referring to the scam letters that he and millions worldwide receive. He went on to say “Well, too bad Shell is thinking of pulling out of the country.”

That brief exchange encapsulated so much about Nigeria: fraud, oil, dismay. As a result of a failed terrorism attempt on Christmas Day, the main topic in the media has been Al Qaeda, Yemen, airport security, and one Nigerian terrorist recruit. When this issue simmers down, will the wider travails and prospects of Nigeria be confronted?

On November 19, a wealthy and influential Nigerian, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, went to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja to share concerns about the radicalizing of his son, Umar. In the same city, an equally significant act took place four days later involving another prominent northern Nigerian, Umaru Yar’Adua, the nation’s President. He boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia to get medical treatment for a heart ailment. Yar’Adua has suffered from a kidney disorder for several years. Almost nothing has been said since his departure on November 23 about his medical status, leaving Nigeria leaderless, rudderless, and in a constitutional quagmire.

Spare a moment of compassion for Nigerians. They are bewildered over how their nation suddenly found itself with an absent head of state and disparaged globally as a wellspring of jihadist terrorism. Urgent efforts are being made to close the loopholes in airport security systems revealed by the near calamity on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Jihadist networks in Yemen will experience the full force of counter-terrorist action by U.S. and Yemeni authorities.

But what about Nigeria itself? What do these tragic events imply for the most populous African country? How should the U.S. and other countries respond beyond subjecting Nigerian travelers to intensive screening?

In 2005, the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicted the “outright collapse of Nigeria as a nation-state within the next 15 years.” Five years later, Nigerians themselves often refer to their country as a “failed state”. What most characterizes life for its citizens is insecurity. Armed robbery has recently become more terrifying with kidnapping conducted to extract ransoms. On the eve of Nigeria’s 50th anniversary in October 2010, basic needs in electricity, water, and public health are unmet. Even fuel for cars is often scarce in this major petroleum exporter.

Nigeria is today a bruised and disoriented nation. When, in July 2009, President Barack Obama skipped a visit there in favor of nearby Ghana, it was perceived as a snub (although applauded by the government’s many critics). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton devoted two days of her Africa tour in August to Nigeria, but her frank criticisms of corruption and misrule, and the poverty they engender, stung. The motivation is high among Nigerians to restore the tarnished reputation of their nation and to strengthen the performance of government institutions at federal, state, and local levels. It is in the interest of the United States and the global community to assist this effort in vigorous, comprehensive and astute ways.

Nigeria supplies about one-fifth of U.S. oil imports, possesses vast but under-exploited gas reserves, and has great potential in agriculture, manufacturing, and other economic areas. In her human rights speech at Georgetown University in December, Hillary Clinton paired Nigeria with Cuba as having governments that are “able but unwilling to make the changes their citizens deserve”. Having lost out to South Africa in world councils, it is humbling for Nigeria to be now classed with a geriatric communist regime. But, Nigeria is not an authoritarian state. It is a flawed pluralist democracy that must be helped to emerge from the labyrinth of corruption, fraudulent elections, sclerotic public services, and pervasive poverty.

The overwhelming majority of Nigerians, at home and abroad, are honest and upstanding individuals. They deplore the great damage done to their reputation by drug traffickers, money launderers, and other criminals.

Thus, they should respond to the precipitous decline of their country’s prestige by advancing Nigeria’s long-deferred renewal. The first step must be the creation of a cohesive federal administration in Abuja, in accordance with the constitution, led by a president physically capable of governing a complex nation. Second is the establishment of a truly independent electoral commission able to conduct honest elections. And third is the launching of domestic and international consultations on credible policies to address the country’s deficient infrastructure and institutions.

The rebirth in 2010 of a politically stable, economically dynamic, and socially peaceful Nigeria is a daunting project. To launch it, a bold commitment should be made across political, ethnic, and religious lines to move the nation off the rutted tracks of fraud and deception. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab took one of those tracks and it led him into the arms of U.S. federal marshals and years of probable incarceration. Awaiting liberation, however, are 140 million non-jihadist Nigerians denied democratic and developmental governance for a half-century. Will the country’s power-brokers now listen, and act?