UPDATE: On Feb. 8, the Nigerian government announced that it was postponing the Feb. 14 elections to March 28 to give security forces more time to fight Boko Haram. This story has been updated to reflect those changes.
Tumbling oil prices. Bloodthirsty terrorists on the loose. Rising tensions between Christians and Muslims. Allegations of human rights abuses by soldiers — and of callous indifference by government officials. The potential for post-election violence.
Just one of these scenarios would scare any multiethnic, peace-loving, petroleum-exporting nation. But Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy, faces all of them — and with national elections beginning just two weeks from now, its future as a stable democracy is no longer a given.
Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States, insists the balloting will take place in an atmosphere of calm.
“Our defense forces are doing everything in their power to make sure the elections are conducted in a free, fair and credible manner,” Adefuye told us in a recent interview at his Washington office. “They’re dealing very well with the insurgency. We’re up to the task.”
Yet the task is enormous — and it’s not exactly going well so far. The elections have been rescheduled from Feb. 14 to March 28 to give the military six more weeks to take on an Islamist insurgency driven by the terrorist group Boko Haram, which has ravaged the northeastern portion of the country. The fighting has revealed the government’s weaknesses and exacerbated tensions between the mostly Muslim north and the wealthier, Christian-dominated south. Those tensions could still boil over when Nigerians head to the polls at the end of March, especially if Boko Haram steps up its attacks and, as some experts fear, prevents sections of the north from voting (already those who have been internally displaced cannot cast a ballot outside their jurisdictions).
If that happens and the north’s Muslim candidate loses, chaos could erupt, ressurecting memories of the country’s last elections. Three days of communal rioting following the April 2011 presidential vote left more than 800 people dead, after Muslim supporters of the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, protested the re-election of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south.
Four years later, the same rivals are facing off again: President Jonathan, who heads the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Buhari, a former military man representing the All Progressives Congress (APC), a coalition of several ethnically and regionally based smaller parties. This time, however, the potential for violence may be worse — a prospect Boko Haram is no doubt relishing.
Already, the government has admitted it could not guarantee voters’ safety, saying it needed more time to launch a major offensive against Boko Haram before balloting could begin. Security has been a major theme in the campaign, with Buhari capitalizing on the frustration many Nigerians feel toward Jonathan’s lackluster response to Boko Haram. The United States and others have criticized Jonathan for postponing the elections, and experts speculate the delay may be a bid to help Jonathan shore up voter support. It could backfire: Over the last five years, the military has failed to destroy Boko Haram; what it can do in six weeks is neglible. The group may also use the added time to launch more spectacular attacks against a nervous nation. But the ambassador, speaking to us before the elections were postponed, said Nigerians understand what’s at stake
“Nigerians know that political integrity is very important. We cannot compromise,” the ambassador said. “Everybody knows we have to stick together, and live together as one country. Second, Nigerians are very aware that the only way to progress is to govern democratically. Third, we have a very efficient electoral commission established by Goodluck Jonathan when he took over in 2010.”
Even so, two Washington-based nonprofits — the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) — are each sending 18-member observer missions to Nigeria.
“Certainly for Nigeria at this particularly important moment in history, it’s very important to have an international observer mission here,” said Gretchen Birkle, chief of IRI’s Africa division.
Birkle, speaking to us from Abuja, the capital, said “it’s premature to start judging the level of violence” that might occur. But she said she was encouraged by a Jan. 14 meeting in Abuja hosted by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and attended by Jonathan and Buhari.
“They came together quite symbolically to talk about the need for peaceful, nonviolent elections,” she said. “This sent a very important message, because violence and insecurity are very important concerns, though it’s hard to say what it’s going to be like on Election Day.”
Working in Jonathan’s favor is a relatively strong economy, now ranked the largest in Africa. Last year, Nigeria’s GDP grew to $521 billion, surpassing that of South Africa’s, according to the World Bank. But its annual per-capita income is still only $3,000 and life expectancy hovers in the low 50s. Moreover, Nigeria’s unemployment rate has doubled from 12 percent in 2006 to around 25 percent today, and general insecurity has grown dramatically in the wake of increasingly bloody attacks by Boko Haram terrorists.
In early January, the Islamist extremist group went on a rampage, massacring an unknown number of villagers in the northeastern state of Borno. Reported death tolls vary from 150 people (according to Nigeria’s director of defense information) to as many as 2,000. Satellite imagery released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch seems to confirm widespread damage in the towns of Baga and Doro Gowon; Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack “a crime against humanity.”
It’s probably not the only one. The Islamist group, whose name translates to “Western education is forbidden,” sparked international outrage last year with the kidnapping of over 270 schoolgirls — some of whom may have been married off or even forced to blow themselves up in suicide attacks. A few dozen escaped but not one of them has been rescued.
The kidnapping in Chibok became a cause célèbrearound the world, inspiring the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign, but it’s far from the only atrocity the group has commited (it also regularly slaughters schoolboys). The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that Boko Haram killed over 10,000 people last year alone. It now controls vast stretches of the northeast (roughly the size of Belgium), has threatened to destabilize neighbors such as Cameroon and has instilled fear among thousands, if not millions, that the military is no match for the group’s brutal tactics.
But Adefuye tried to minimize both the geographic extent of the Islamist group and the uproar over the failure to find the kidnapped girls.
“When we first heard the reports that the girls were abducted, the international community protested. The government is doing whatever it can to bring back the girls, since the very first day. The problem is that to bring back those girls you have to use covert means. You cannot tell the world, ‘We’ve captured them.’ You only say that after you’re successful.”
He added: “To say we have not made any efforts to recover the girls is not true. We know where the girls are, but we want them alive.”
But Jonathan’s lackluster efforts in prioritizing — or even commenting on — the Boko Haram crisis has drawn widespread condemnation, particularly after he waited three weeks to speak about the Chibok kidnappings.
Adefuye, long a critic of U.S. media, pins the blame squarely on journalists for distorting the picture. He accused the New York Times of “reporting whatever the insurgents feed them” and said that “nobody knows anything” about the many terrorist attacks planned by Boko Haram fanatics that were foiled by Nigeria’s defense forces.
“Boko Haram is present in only three out of Nigeria’s 36 states” — Borno, Yobe and Adamawa — and in those states, he claims “the government still controls the place” except for districts that border Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
“If there’s a problem in Arizona, that doesn’t mean you can’t do business in New York,” he quipped. “Since Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the schoolgirls, there has been increased investment by Americans. It has not abated despite all these negative impressions.”
Adefuye acknowledged that despite Jonathan’s popularity among Christians, “some people don’t like him for ethnic reasons,” he said. “But the ethnic and religious factor is a recent phenomenon. Nigeria is equally divided between Muslims and Christians. My father was a priest, and I have cousins who are Muslims.”
Nigeria, about twice the size of California, suffers from deep ethnic divisions; as a result, its parties abide by power-rotation arrangements so that neither the more prosperous Christian south nor the poorer, largely Muslim north feels powerless or neglected.
But Jonathan’s critics accuse him of reneging on this unspoken gentleman’s agreement by running again for re-election. Jideofor Adibe, a senior lecturer at Nigeria’s Nasarawa State University, noted in a recent paper for the Brookings Institution that under the PDP’s arrangements, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba from the south, served for two terms of four years each before power was “returned” to the north. The north’s “turn,” however, was interrupted after Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim, died in office in 2010 and was succeeded by then Vice President Jonathan.
“This result shortened the north’s turn in power and extended the south’s — frustrating many northerners,” Adibe wrote. “In 2011, influential people in the north argued that Jonathan should serve out only Yaradua’s remaining first term in office and not contest those presidential elections.”
But Jonathan did run and won, triggering the post-election violence that ensued.
“Jonathan’s supporters have a contrary argument,” Adibe said. “For them, in the 39 years between the time the country gained independence in 1960 and the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999, the north ruled the country for about 35 of them and should therefore be patient for that ‘historical injustice’ to be redressed first.”
At any rate, this election marks the first time since the switch to civilian rule in 1999 that the opposition has a realistic chance of wresting power from Jonathan’s PDP. That’s because in the past, opposition parties were mostly fragmented along regional and ethnic lines, making it impossible for them to mount a credible challenge to the ruling party.
“Given the centrality of political power in Nigeria, the election — just like almost all elections in Nigeria — will be highly contentious and the losing side is likely to blame its fate on rigging,” Adibe wrote. “Post-election violence is therefore likely in the north if the APC loses, while renewed militancy in the restive Niger Delta is likely if Jonathan does.”
The ambassador insists that it’s in the best interests of Nigerian voters to keep their president in power at least until 2019.
“What Nigeria needs for the next couple of years is continuity of the transformational agenda, which Goodluck Jonathan started since he got into power in 2010,” Adefuye told us. “We’ve become Africa’s largest economy, and all aspects of our infrastructure are being improved. Development is a process and you don’t want to interrupt it.
“Our president set up the task of rebuilding Nigeria, but restructuring the whole economy is something that can’t be done in four years. These weaknesses are deep-seated. He needs more time,” the ambassador insisted.
On March 29, Adefuye will mark his fifth anniversary as Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States. The 64-year-old veteran diplomat was educated in both Nigeria and England. In fact, his thesis was on British rule in northern Uganda, and he taught at the University of Lagos for 14 years; his business card still carries the title of professor.
As a Fulbright scholar, he also did stints at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and the University of Florida in Gainesville, as well as at New York’s Columbia University. In 1987, Adefuye was appointed Nigeria’s high commissioner to Jamaica — with concurrent accreditation to Haiti and Belize — then moved to London as deputy high commissioner for Nigeria. Following a 13-year assignment with the Commonwealth, he moved back to Nigeria and became an adviser to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), headquartered in Lagos.
“It’s a challenging time to be a Nigerian diplomat,” he conceded, adding, however, that his country’s successful eradication of Ebola, for now, “shows the resilient nature of Nigerian society. We are 170 million people, or one out of every five Africans. Lagos state is bigger than many African countries; it’s a whole country in itself.”
Noting that U.S.-Nigeria trade now exceeds $40 billion, Adefuye says bilateral ties are excellent, despite an earlier brush-up between the two nations’ militaries that he claims was blown way out of proportion by the Western media.
A Dec. 2 Foreign Policy article, for instance, titled “Nigeria to Washington: Take Your Military and Shove It,” said the ambassador “blasted the U.S. military for not offering enough assistance to weaken Boko Haram.”
Adefuye did, in fact, sharply criticize the “scope, nature and content” of American military support in the fight against Boko Haram. Lecturing at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last November, he accused the Pentagon of not providing his country the weapons it needs to crush the insurgents and said “there is no use giving us the type of support that enables us to deliver light jabs to the terrorists when what we need to give them is the killer punch.”
Nigeriann soldiers are notoriously underequipped, but they are equally notorious for corruption and human rights abuses that range from extrajudicial killings to torture. The Associated Press reported that the military could be responsible for the deaths of thousands of detainees as part of its heavyhanded response to Boko Haram, a crackdown that has fueled the very resentment on which the group thrives.
The human rights abuses prevent Washington from legally supplying arms to Nigeria’s military. Seemingly in retaliation, Nigeria cancelled the last stage of an effort by the U.S. Africa Command to train a newly established Nigerian Army battalion. Johnnie Carson, the State Department’s former top diplomat for Africa, told the New York Times that “tensions in the U.S.-Nigeria relationship are probably at their highest level in the past decade.”
Since last year’s spat, however, Adefuye insists everything has been resolved.
“Some misunderstandings arose in the implementation between our military and the U.S. military. I’m not going to give you details,” he said when asked how the two sides kissed and made up. “All these measures have been dealt with at the highest level. It was only in the details of implementation that we had a disagreement. Now relations are at an all-time high.”
That’s a stretch, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“I am not so sure I would go so far as to say that the relationship is ‘back to normal’ after recent contretemps, but getting it to that state ought to be a priority both for whatever Nigerian government emerges from the upcoming elections and for the United States,” he told The Diplomat. “There are too many shared interests, especially on the security and stability issues, for it to be otherwise.”
Pham said that with Boko Haram’s increasingly vicious attacks, “we cannot afford for the Nigerians to fail any more than they can afford to be at odds with us. Cooler heads on both sides ought to recognize this reality.”
Without naming names, the scholar says there’s plenty of blame on both sides for last year’s “spat” — and that it’s ironic that it took a virtual cessation in U.S. purchases of Nigerian petroleum (Nigeria was until recently the fourth-largest source of imported oil) for Washington to realize that the country’s importance goes beyond hydrocarbons.
“Some Nigerian officials do not help their cause by denying the obvious or making statements that defy credibility, as has been the case on a number of occasions in recent months when things weren’t going well,” he said. “On the other hand, some on the U.S. side seem to use corruption or human rights concerns as easy ‘outs’ from having to deal with a situation that calls for more, not less, engagement.”
Corruption is a touchy issue. Last month, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 136th out of 174 countries surveyed in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index. “It’s still bad, but it’s better than last year,” Adefuye said. “I don’t agree with TI’s assessment. Our government has been making efforts to combat corruption. This takes time.”
A more pressing problem for Nigeria is the 60 percent drop in world oil prices since last June. With oil at one point dipping below $46 a barrel and no sign of an immediate recovery, the country has had to revise its budget downward several times. The government is now working on the assumption of $65 per barrel, even though it’s clear prices will stay well below that in 2015.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, acknowledged that her country faces “tough challenges” in a Dec. 19 appearance at the Atlantic Council.
“We will weather the storm,” Okonjo-Iweala assured her audience. “The rebasing of our GDP showed us that the economy is much more diversified than most Nigerians believe. Oil stands at 14 percent of GDP, even though it accounts for 70 percent of our fiscal revenue. A lot of our economy is also informal, but we are looking for ways and means to try to bridge that. So what we’ve decided to do is tap this non-oil diversified economy to raise our revenues. And it’s the non-oil sector that has been pushing the growth of this economy for almost the past decade, growing at 7 to 8 percent.”
The ambassador is also confident that Nigeria can tough it out.
“Because of Nigeria’s size, everything that happens is blown out of proportion. I’m not saying we don’t have problems, but we have a tremendous ability to survive. Measures have been put in place to assure that this doesn’t affect the smooth running of our economy,” Adefuye said. “We are trying to minimize the effect [of dramatically lower oil prices]. It would not be realistic to say it won’t have an impact, but the government is embarking on some austerity measures and honoring our obligations to the people.”
In fact, for the past three years, GDP growth in Nigeria has exceeded 5 percent, notes the Economist in a Jan. 10 article titled “The twilight of the resource curse?”
“You might think its growth is being powered by oil experts. Nigeria has Africa’s second-largest reserves, it is the fifth-largest exporter and, according to the IMF, oil accounts for 95 percent of all exports,” says the magazine. “But in recent years the Nigerian oil industry has stagnated. Growth has instead come from things like mobile phones, construction and banks. Services now represent 60 percent of GDP.”
With that in mind, Adefuye has met with numerous senators, congressmen, think-tank representatives and average people. And he tells everyone that, despite the obstacles, Nigeria is still a great place to invest, especially in telecommunications and the power sector.
“When we privatized the telecom industry, the Americans exaggerated the notion of insecurity in Nigeria, and you guys left the field open for Europeans and South Africans,” he said. “MTA, a South African company, was almost tempted to move its headquarters to Nigeria because they made so much profit there. You only need to go there once and see for yourself that these reports have been grossly exaggerated.”
So, apparently, are suggestions that Nigeria’s very existence as a nation is threatened.
“Despite several more outlandish theories that Nigeria will disintegrate in 2015, chances are that the elections will come and go and the country remain with its political problems largely unresolved,” wrote Adibe in his Brookings paper. “The country is a master at teetering on the precipice: It has survived major crises, including a civil war (1967-70). Hanging on a cliff without falling over may indeed be the country’s comfort zone.”
Adefuye agrees that Nigeria will be fine.
“It’s impossible that Nigeria would splinter. Nigeria will survive as an entity,” the ambassador reassured us. “There have been several times when our stability was threatened, and we insisted on a democratic solution. We’ve gone through this before.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.