Troubled waters: What Nigeria can do to improve security, the economy, and human welfare

Nigeria is facing a confluence of troubles: dramatically reduced oil prices have pummeled a country that depends on oil exports for two-thirds of its national revenues; the Boko Haram insurgency continues to wreak havoc particularly in the north of the country, where suicide bombings (many of which are now carried out by kidnapped girls) have killed hundreds; and corruption remains a drain on the country, which ranked 136th out of 168 countries on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruptions Perceptions Index.

But amidst this, Nigeria completed its first peaceful transition of power nine months ago—to Muhammadu Buhari, who has since made some progress in reforming the military, sacking corrupt leaders, and injecting energy into the counter-Boko Haram campaign. 

On February 29, the Africa Security Initiative at Brookings hosted a discussion on the current state of Nigeria, featuring EJ Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group, Madeline Rose of Mercy Corps, Mausi Segun of Human Rights Watch, and Amadou Sy from Brookings. Brookings’s Mike O’Hanlon moderated the conversation.

As O’Hanlon argued at the start, Nigeria is one of the most important countries in the world, but appears little in policy debates. Nigeria is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economy, and security risks emanating in the country can have spillover effects. All of the participants stressed that Nigeria should factor more centrally in conversations about international security, economic development, and humanitarian issues.

Nigeria’s ups and downs

O’Hanlon started by framing three overlapping challenges in Nigeria:

  • The struggle against Boko Haram, which is more complicated than a pure terror group, but has also pledged loyalty to ISIS.
  • The question of reform, to include the army, the police, and the entire government.
  • The state of the economy, since Nigerian livelihoods need to be improved if there is any hope to handle the first two situations. 

Hogendoorn praised the peaceful transition of power to President Buhari, calling it a “stunning achievement” for the country and those who helped from the outside. However, the problems facing Nigeria—namely the insurgency in the Niger Delta, declining oil prices, and corruption and government mismanagement (at state and federal levels)—are large, he said. He argued that declining oil prices and income are impacting the government’s ability to fulfill promises, and that state governments are powerful and difficult to reform. He praised some anti-corruption institutions in Nigeria, as well as a number of effective governors who have changed corruption situation dramatically over a short period of time. But in the end, he said, it comes down to good leadership. The Nigerian people must demand accountability. 

Rose detailed how things have changed in Nigeria since Mercy Corps became heavily involved in the area in 2012. Mercy Corps’ main missions there include violence reduction, education, and creating opportunity for young girls, as well as humanitarian response. While there has been progress on chronic violence in Nigeria, particularly in the northeast of the country, Rose stressed that there is much to be done. She concluded that there is not enough attention to the human element of the crisis. For example, Rose noted that displacement is common across the Northeast. The displaced are mainly women and children. In the displaced groups, the eldest becomes de facto head of household—sometimes forcing leading adolescent girls to turn to selling sex for food or money for food. Rose called on the government to address this. 

Segun agreed that the focus needs to change regarding crisis response in Nigeria. In the past, the focus has been almost entirely on a military response. This has not been a workable plan, she said, partly because the “military operates above the law.” The reforms in Nigeria must have a social component, Segun argued. Lack of access to opportunity, economic problems, and desertification of major water bodies have all combined to drive farmers and fisherman from the Northeast and into the heart of the conflict. 

Sy returned to the importance of economic interests in resolving the crises in Nigeria. He reminded the audience that the country is the largest economy of sub-Saharan Africa, and that is important for the entire continent. Since two-thirds of the government revenue comes from oil, the oil shock has dealt a huge blow. But there is hope for Nigeria, Sy noted. One reason is stimulus via investment outside the oil sector. There has been an increase in infrastructure spending, as well as on human development (namely in education and health). In both cases, he said the biggest issue will be implementation. Sy gave four recommendations to the Nigerian government: 1) increase infrastructure expenditure, 2) make government more lean and cost-effective, 3) increase taxation in non-oil revenue items, and 4) reduce corruption. 

Overall, the participants expressed cautious hope for Nigeria despite the problems it faces. The government there still has a long list of to-do’s, but there is reason to believe that it is on the right general track.