Newly elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari faces many challenges. He has the Herculean task of reversing fifty years of decay that exists at the heart of Nigeria’s current development and security architecture. Tackling Boko Haram, which is his most urgent task, is only the latest manifestation of growing ethnic and religious extremism that has seen successive waves of violence and even efforts of state dismemberment.
Writing for the Small Wars Journal, Matthew Blood recently wrote: ‘In the long term, reforming Nigeria and its institutions will require rooting out corruption, transforming the country’s mafia-like political culture, building government capacity, undertaking comprehensive security sector reform, institutionalizing the rule of law and respect for human rights, developing the non-oil economy, reducing poverty, and increasing educational enrolment.’ Democratic entitlement compounds the challenge in a country known for its robust and divisive politics, and grand theft from state coffers.
This is a long list of priorities, stretching far beyond the new government’s term. However, with strong leadership and vision the Buhari administration has the potential to set Nigeria on a different trajectory – one where the defeat of Boko Haram is only a first step.
The government’s recapture of Gwoza in Borno state is important, given that Boko Haram has now lost most of its controlled territory. But this success was significantly aided by foreign advice and support, as well as an international coalition that included soldiers from neighbouring states. Large numbers of militants were killed in the early stages of the campaign, and Boko Haram subsequently chose to retreat and disappear into the Sambisa Forest along the border with Cameroon, as well as the hundreds of islets separated by channels and hidden by tall grass in the Lake Chad region. For now, it is cowed but not eradicated.
Stunting Boko Haram means breaking its self-sustaining cycle – including its ability to financially exploit Nigeria and its access to foreign support. In the absence of government security, violence has been privatised in large parts of the country. The insurgency sustains itself by exploiting cash-based commodities and devouring the carcass of the state, assisted (to a limited extent) by developments and movements in Libya, the Middle East and elsewhere. Recently the group even grandiosely renamed themselves the Islam State in West Africa in an effort to benefit from a purported association with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Rather than a single structure, Boko Haram is an amorphous complex of factions, cells and groups that owe limited allegiance to Abubakar Shekau and his core group of followers. Some factions, such as those of Mamman Nur and Khalid al-Barnawi, have ties with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and al-Shabaab, but for most, Boko Haram has its roots deep in the marginalisation and neglect of the northeast. In fact, a recent report in Bloomberg Business placed things in stark perspective, noting that the lack of running water killed more people in Nigeria in 2014 than Boko Haram.
Defeating Boko Haram, as apposed to stunting it, will require a comprehensive, people-centred counter-insurgency campaign. Local security, amnesty, effective governance and development must be its core; not the heavy-handed (and ultimately self-defeating) strategy of militarised counter-terrorism that has become a hallmark of the United States.
Nigeria needs to lead this effort, as this is largely a fight among Nigerians about their own future. Although there is much that neighbours can do, by denying the option of cross-border sanctuary or providing intelligence, the stabilisation of the northeast will likely take decades and requires a generational effort. This involves tens of thousands of Nigerian soldiers, police and local government officials to re-establish control and governance. It will not succeed without a change of heart and practice among the elite, who are sometimes implicated in fomenting the associated violence. It also will not succeed without a regional and globally coordinated effort to end the associated war economy that feeds Nigeria’s instability.
Yet, without a clear-eyed view of his country’s growth prospects, President Buhari is in a bind. Every statistic that reflects on the relative size of the 36 federal states has political implications, while the burden of excessive federalism squeezes out productive investment in favour of maintaining the huge bureaucracy.
A recent study by the Institute for Security Studies, which compares Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa, found that, ‘if Nigeria were able to take the necessary steps that would see far-reaching changes to the governance issues and social challenges that currently beset the country, it could become Africa’s lone superpower.’ That forecast includes an important caveat: that the current estimates of a 2015 population of around 182 million (and future population growth forecasts) are roughly correct.
This is far from assured. Given that revenue allocation from the central government (and voting power) in Abuja depends on population estimates, each of the 36 states sharing sovereignty with the federal government has a strong incentive to bump up its population estimates. From various recent studies, they appear to have done so. The results are estimates that appear to indicate fertility rate declines in Nigeria have stopped decreasing – which is out of step with data from around the world, including from countries at a similar level of development.
Recent data quoted in the Economist magazine in July indicates that fertility rates continue to decline rapidly, particularly in the north. Nigeria may, actually, have around 20 million people less, closer to 160 million – with population numbers for many northern states having been inflated the most, while urban totals in Lagos, Abuja and Kanu may generally be lower than previously thought.
If correct, this has considerable implications. While incorrect population estimates would not impact the size of the Nigerian economy, formally recognised in 2014 as the largest in Africa, it would indicate that future growth is most certainly overestimated. Though Nigeria could benefit from the productivity improvements accompanying lower than previously estimated levels of urbanisation.
This is because urbanisation in economies with large rural populations is accompanied by large productivity improvements – a development that could still occur in much of Nigeria. Average income levels would also have to be revised upwards, since fewer Nigerians would share total income, and poverty levels may have been underestimated – since there must be a great number of poor Nigerians.
Generally, the estimates of Nigeria’s power potential and leadership ambitions may have to be revised downward – although it stays the country with most power and economic potential in Africa.
Africa is rising, and Nigeria’s long-term average annual growth rates should come in at around 8% over the next 20 years. While lower than forecast for Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Angola and Rwanda, Nigeria is set to be among the fastest growing countries in Africa, and among the top ten globally. Its economy is more diversified than previously thought, and it has huge agricultural and other potential.
It all depends on the delivery of structural governance reform in Abuja and ending conflict in the northeast. With rising production costs in Asia, manufacturers are looking to countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and inevitably Nigeria, given its huge potential middle class. Nigeria clearly must invest in a skilled labour force, infrastructure, and agriculture, to grow its manufacturing base and continue improving its investment climate. These are all long-term, generational challenges.
Defeating Boko Haram and creating a sustainable development trajectory are eventually two sides of the same coin. What Nigeria needs is a social compact – an inclusive agreement among its disparate elites and agreement across sectors and society, including the millions of poor and destitute, about how to develop their country.
Nigeria Vision 2020 that was developed by the administration of former president Olusegun Obasanjo was one such effort, but amid many other challenges, it has fallen by the wayside. Its vision, that Nigeria becomes one of the twenty largest economies in the world by 2020, is uninspiring. As this goal is likely to be achieved with little additional effort.
In fact, the forecasts from the African Futures Project at the ISS/Pardee Center is that Nigeria will have an economy of around US$810 billion by 2020 (in 2014 prices), slightly larger than that of Switzerland at that time, making it the twentieth largest economy globally. Yet, even then Nigeria will only constitute around 0.8% of the world economy, despite having around 2.4% of the global population.
Size is not the issue, although rapid growth is a prerequisite for sustainable development. The challenge is how to improve governance, reduce inequality, grow inclusively and alleviate deep-seated poverty among the 60 – 77 million Nigerians who, by 2020, will still be living in extreme poverty. At that point, anything between 32 – 42% of Nigeria’s total population will be living on less than $1.75 per day (using an updated measure of $1.75 in 2011 prices as a new poverty line).
The achievement of a social compact in support of a development vision for the country, including the defeat of Boko Haram in the northeast, is, inevitably, the key challenge that should focus the mind of president Buhari and his cabinet in the months ahead.
This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies