September 16, 2010 | World Defense Review

Nigeria at the Crossroads, Again

Focused on the final stretch of the midterm elections at home, policymakers and pundits in the United States have hardly evinced any interest in concerning themselves with electoral politics abroad, much less something as apparently far removed from the immediate preoccupation of many incumbents for their own survival as the campaign season about to commence in Nigeria. Unfortunately, this shortsighted, parochial attitude on the part of the vast majority of the inside-the-Beltway crowd may come back to bite the United States as one of America's most important foreign partners stands at a critical crossroad.

Since not much attention has been focused on the West African country since American television news coverage shifted away from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born “underwear bomber” who tried blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit Northwest Airlines Flight 253 last Christmas, it might be useful to recall why Nigeria is so important, both in its own right and for U.S. strategic interests. With proven petroleum reserves conservatively estimated to amount to some 36 billion barrels—the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa and the tenth-largest in the world—Nigeria is America's fourth-largest supplier of oil imports. Last year, the United States imported an average of 809,000 barrels of oil per day from the West African country, according to the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (by comparison, Canada, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, sold us an average of 2,749,000, 1,063,000, and 1,004,000 barrels per day, respectively). Nigerian output and, consequently, exports to the United States, would have been considerably greater if insurgents and criminal gangs in the oil-rich Niger Delta did not routinely disrupt operations and cause oil companies to declare force majeure and suspend production as Royal Dutch Shell, the country's largest petroleum and natural gas firm, did last month after its Otumara-Escravos flow station was occupied. Moreover, Nigeria's export blends tend to be the light or “sweet” crudes preferred by U.S. refiners as a gasoline feedstock because they are largely free of sulfur, unlike the heavy, high-sulfur oils hailing from Caribbean or Persian Gulf sources.

Nigeria's significance to American interests goes beyond its acknowledged importance as an energy supplier. Nigeria's population of just shy of 150 million people makes it the eighth most populous country in the world and by far the most populous in Africa. Historically, the country has played a major role in resolving the conflicts besetting the continent. Until the recent surge by Uganda to reinforce the embattled African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) contingent in Mogadishu, Nigeria was the largest African contributor to peacekeeping operations on the continent. Currently, 5,616 Nigerian military and police personnel are deployed in seven United Nations operations in Africa—the UN Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT), the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the African Union/UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), and the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI)—in addition to those working with blue-helmeted forces in places as far away as Haiti and Nepal. Given that America's willingness to undertake such assignments is nonexistent, even if U.S. forces were not stretched to the limits, the value of such a reliable regional partner should not be underestimated. As President Barack Obama himself emphasized in his meeting earlier this year with Nigeria's then-Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, “a strong, democratic, prosperous Nigeria is in the U.S. national interest.”

Thus there should be considerable concern that a country of such geopolitical importance should now be standing at a major crossroad, all the more so when it does so against a singularly inauspicious backdrop. Nigeria's last elections, in April 2007, were marred by massive violence, fraud, and other irregularities (see my report at the time, which includes photographs of some of the abuses I personally witnessed). To make matters worse, the head of state who was installed on the basis of that flawed poll, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, turned out to be quite sickly, disappearing from public view for weeks at a time until, last November, he was rushed to the intensive care unit of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, without having made any provision to hand over authority to his vice president. Three months into this crisis, in February 2010, under intense public pressure, including no fewer than three law suits by respected nongovernmental organizations like the Nigerian Bar Association, the National Assembly appointed Jonathan as “acting president,” even though there is no constitutional provision for such a move. In response, the entourage surrounding President Yar'Adua returned him to the country without any advance notice to the acting president, potentially setting up a political crisis if the poor man's condition had not worsened and he died in May, putting at least one farce to an end. However, as I noted at the beginning of this year:

    The problem is that replacing the moribund Yar'Adua with his vice president may be a bit like going from the frying pan into the fire. First, Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Patience are tainted by persistent allegations of massive corruption which, in the latter's case, includes a criminal indictment by anti-corruption Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for money laundering. Second, even if the Jonathans did not have such an unsavory reputation, the fact that they are southerners runs afoul of Nigeria's informal system of alternating power between the country's regions. Northern Muslims and southern Christians are supposed to rotate in and out of positions. Since Yar'Adua, a northern Muslim, just took over in 2007 after eight years in office by a southern Christian, Olusegun Obasanjo, should Jonathan take over, the northern Muslims will get less than their “turn” at controlling the approximately $100 billion in annual oil and gas revenue that comes under the chief executive.

While the Jonathans have admittedly been on their best behavior since moving into Aso Rock, the presidential villa located on the monolithic outcrop on the outskirts of the capital of Abuja, the new president's announcement last week to state governors from the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP)—confirmed this week by a posting on his Facebook page—that he intends to compete in the presidential election, set last week for January 22, 2011, is a repudiation of the consensus about power-sharing that has hitherto helped keep the fragile peace among the country's elites and prevented presidential elections from exacerbating the already nasty divisions between regions and religions. A former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, warned last week that there is a very real possibility that “the end of the power-sharing arrangement between the Muslim North and the Christian South, as now seems likely, could lead to postelection sectarian violence, paralysis of the executive branch, and even a coup.”

While Goodluck Jonathan will enter the race with the advantages of incumbency when he officially announces his candidacy later this month, he will enjoy the additional advantage of divisions among northern Muslims over who should be their standard bearer. So far at least two former military rulers, Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, and a former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, have put themselves forward. In such a race, religious, ethnic, and regional identities risk being exploited to an extent that they have not been in the past (ethnically, the country's population, split roughly evenly between the north and the south, is subdivided into at least 250 ethnic groups, with the largest being the Hausa and Fulani in the north with 29 percent, the Yoruba in the southwest with 21 percent, and the Igbo and the Ijaw in the southeast with, respectively, 18 and 10 percent; religiously, the country is divided, roughly, between a predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south; economically, the south's hydrocarbon sector accounts for 95 percent of the Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings and 80 percent of the total budgetary revenues).

And there is plenty of tension to exploit. In addition to the well-known insurrection in the Niger Delta and tensions over the imposition of shari'a in a dozen northern states, there are the additional dangers posed by the continuous religious violence in Nigeria's “Middle Belt” and the threat of rather idiosyncratic indigenous Muslim extremists groups in the north. Jos, the capital of the Middle Belt's Plateau State, for example, has been the scene of repeated clashes between Christians and Muslims that have left thousands dead since violence broke out there in 2001. Plateau State's neighbor to the north, Bauchi State, was the scene last year of deadly conflict in July 2009 between security forces and militants belonging to a militant Islamist group called Boko Haram (in Hausa, literally “[Western] book-learning is forbidden”). By the time things settled down, at least 700 people were dead across several northern states. Last week, on the very day Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) released the timetable for the upcoming polls, Boko Haram reemerged to break into a prison in Bauchi to free more than one hundred of its members who had been detained since last year's uprising. In the process of the assault, involving bombs and automatic weapons, the militants also freed more than 750 other prisoners and scattered leaflets warning of further violence.

On the morrow of the Bauchi jailbreak—although the appointments were most probably in the works—President Jonathan announced a shake-up of Nigeria's military and security chiefs, replacing incumbents appointed by his predecessor with his own nominees for chief of the defense staff, army, navy, and air force chiefs of staff, inspector-general of the Nigerian Police Force, and director-general of the State Security Services, the main intelligence agency. While the appointments were certainly the prerogative of the head of state and, in the view of not a few observers, perhaps overdue given the lackluster progress by those dismissed against the various security challenges faced by the nation, advancing new appointments which require parliamentary confirmation as the country gears up for a political campaign also risks politicizing them and adding yet another layer of upheaval to the already delicate situation.

Even if the political climate in Nigeria was not so fraught, the feasibility of the planned electoral exercise itself is cause for concern. INEC announced last week that elections for the bicameral National Assembly would take place on January 15, followed by presidential polls on January 22 and voting for the governors and state legislators of the thirty-six states of the federation on January 29. Even more ambitious is the plan to conduct voter registration during the first fourteen days of November. Since the end of the last period of military rule in 1999, Nigeria has conducted three general elections—1999, 2003, and 2007—without the benefit of a credible voter registry. That a comprehensive registry of an estimated 70 million electors can be created in just two weeks is unrealistic, to put it mildly; when one considers that INEC has not yet even awarded the contract for the 120,000 computers it estimates will be needed to register voters, it is delusional to think that registration can begin in six weeks, much less that the data captured during the registration process could be integrated, registries displayed, eventual disputes resolved, and voter identification cards issued in the two months between the hypothetical conclusion of registration and the opening of the polls. All this virtually guarantees that the losers in the upcoming election will dispute the legitimacy of winners, further weakening the already-shaky structures of the Nigerian state. Ambassador Campbell correctly points out that “this will further drive the country to the brink, especially if winners and losers are defined by their religious and ethnic backgrounds.”

Against this backdrop, the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission convened on Monday for its third full working group meeting, two days of talks focused on the Niger Delta and Nigeria's role in regional security. The West African country's leadership on the latter issue has been missed in recent years as the vacuum at the very top in Abuja precipitated an inward turning that left little scope for diplomatic interventions abroad. The full measure of Nigeria's absence from the subregional stage can be taken by the fact that it has been Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré who has played mediator in the crises in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea—a rather ironic twist given that he came to power in a 1987 coup d'état that included the murder and dismemberment of his predecessor. In any event, while the talks, launched in April by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nigerian Secretary to the Government of the Federation Yayale Ahmed, are important in terms of long-term bilateral engagement, they certainly are not designed to manage an imminent crisis.

Moreover, while it is in the interests of the United States to encourage those organizations and institutions of Nigerian civil society that promote the rule of law and advocate for greater transparency and accountability in government, America's short- and intermediate-term equities—to say nothing of its overall relationship with Nigeria—would stand to suffer if it was perceived that Washington was favoring one candidate or another. In this respect, the presence in the United States this week of a campaign team representing Goodluck Jonathan is problematic. While, within the limits of the respective law codes of the two countries, U.S. citizens of Nigerian descent and other Americans have every right to weigh in on their preferred outcomes for the presidential race in Nigeria, they need to be careful that their efforts not give the impression that the United States itself is intervening for or against particular candidates.

More than three years ago, in the wake of Nigerian elections that were roundly denounced by the European Union, the U.S. State Department, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute, among others, I observed that:

    At some point—whether it is this year, next year, or a decade from now—southern Nigerians of Yoruba, Igbo, and Ijaw extraction will be asking themselves what they gain from being in a united country with their relatively unproductive northern Hausa and Fulani neighbors with whom they share few bonds of kinship, religion, or culture, but whose demographic heft will guarantee them a certain predominance in the country's politics. If anything, given these multiple fault lines, the identity and interests of one Nigerian are more likely to be opposed to those of another Nigerian from a different part of the country as they are to be bound together—hardly an auspicious constellation under which to build a future together.

    Absent the requisite conditions for fostering a deeply-rooted sense of national identity and the consequent legitimization of the political order, it may be just a matter of time before the Nigerian political establishment's legitimacy deficit metastasizes into a mortal challenge to the very existence of that nation-state itself. And that will be one African crisis that America—and the world—will be unable to ignore.

Next month, Nigeria will mark the fiftieth anniversary of its independence. In that half-century it has been at many a fork in the road. Somehow, Nigerians have always managed to move beyond the impasse du jour and continue stumbling along, surprisingly resilient but tragically never achieving the development that the nearly half a trillion dollars that their government has earned in oil revenues since 1970 should have delivered to them several times over. It remains to be seen whether the West African country will be so fortunate this time around, dodging the bullet yet again. However, given the potential consequences for global and regional security, it would behoove the United States and other countries to be prepared in case President Jonathan does not live up to the promise of his given name.

— J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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