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Nigeria: democratic and economic progress among growing challenges

Written by Ionel Zamfir,

Nigeria: democratic and economic progress among growing challenges

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Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, its largest economy and a major regional actor, is continuing its democratic progress started in 1999. But numerous security threats and social problems, combined with an unfavourable economic context, are putting this young, dynamic and highly diverse nation under increasing pressure. The Spring 2015 elections followed by a peaceful hand-over of power strengthened Nigeria’s democratic credentials significantly. The country, which is a federal presidential republic, composed of 36 states plus the federal capital territory, is characterised by a great ethnic diversity; religious affiliation is divided almost equally among Christian, living mainly in the south, and Muslims, living predominantly in the north. This diversity usually has a significant impact on the political choices of the Nigerian electorate, whose preferences are largely shaped by regional, ethnical and religious affinities. But the pattern does not always hold true. In fact, the victory of the northern candidaWte Buhari in the 2015 presidential elections was made possible by the overwhelming support he obtained not only in the Muslim north, but also in the predominantly Christian south-west region. The 2015 elections represented a break with the past in other respects as well: while the other elections since the restoration of democracy in 1999 had been marred by vote rigging suspicions or violence, or both, this time elections were considered fair despite numerous organisational and technical shortcomings. Even if it was not completely absent, electoral violence was not widespread as it often was the case the past. The elections led to a hand-over of power not only at presidential level, but also in the federal parliament, where the PDP (People’s Democratic Party), previously holding the absolute majority since 1999, lost to an alliance of parties, APC (All Progressives Congress), which promised to crack down on corruption and bring change to the country.

The biggest challenges faced by the new leadership include a fragile security situation and an economic slow-down caused by the drop in oil prices. Even if externally it has been a security provider in many conflicts in Africa over the years, Nigeria is not able to come to term with its own internal insecurity problems. In the north-east region, the Boko Haram insurgency has profoundly disrupted life, especially in the rural areas, forcing many people to flee. Although pushed underground by the offensive of the Nigerian military acting in cooperation with the armies of the neighbouring countries since the beginning of 2015, the Islamist radical group has upheld its capacity to harm civilians, continuing its murderous attacks on villages and sustaining a campaign of suicide bombings targeting busy places in cities. But Nigeria’s security problems are not limited to Boko Haram. In its central regions, conflicts among pastoralists and agriculturalists have continued for many years, causing horrendous atrocities and thousands of victims. They are driven by a mixture of motives including religious, economic and political factors. The incapacity of the authorities to prevent such conflicts and to hold those who commit crimes accountable has fuelled the spiral of violence. The south of the country has its own strands of conflict. A recently revived Biafran separatism led to deadly clashes in December 2015 (Biafra was a secessionist republic in the 1960s, supressed by Nigeria’s federal forces). In the oil rich Niger Delta, economic criminal activity around oil extraction is often intermingled with political militancy pressing for a greater share of oil revenues to the region. On the sea bordering Nigeria, piracy poses addition risks, especially to oil extraction and transportation.

Despite this difficult security situation, Nigeria has a dynamic economy, which has been growing quickly since 2000. Richly endowed with natural resources, it is Africa’s biggest oil producer. But in the current international context, depressed oil prices are taking their toll on the economy, growth is faltering and the country comes under increased fiscal strain. After the return of democracy in 1999, Nigeria took important steps to overcome the resource curse which hindered its economic development since independence, but it did not manage to sufficiently exploit its economic potential. Oil wealth has hindered economic diversification and the growth of a large industrial base. The agricultural and manufacturing sectors have stagnated over the years, and some branches of the latter have shrunk, becoming symptomatic of a paradoxical trend of deindustrialisation in a yet not industrialised country. It was other economic sectors, especially services, which proved more dynamic and pushed up growth over the past years. The current government led by President Buhari has taken decisive steps to fight off economic slowdown, including an expansionary budget focused on investment especially in infrastructure, and a crack-down on endemic corruption. The monetary policy promoted by Nigeria’s Central Bank and supported by Buhari focuses on pegging the Naira against the dollar, but it risks depleting the country’s foreign currency reserves. To prop the Naira against devaluation, imports of certain products and foreign currency purchases have recently been limited.

The economic difficulties risk aggravating the plethora of existing social problems. Despite oil wealth, social progress has not caught up and Nigeria ranks below Sub-Saharan African average on several social indicators. One example is the human development index, in which, despite some progress, Nigeria still lingers under Sub-Saharan Africa’s average even if it has a significantly higher GDP per capita than the region. Life expectancy at 52 is also under SSA average, and the number of children out of school in Nigeria is worldwide the biggest. This problem affects especially the north of the country, being one of the factors contributing to the rise of Boko Haram. Nigeria has a very young population and it is expected to continue its fast demographic growth for decades to come. If current forecasts prove correct, the country should become the third largest nation in the world by 2050. This fast population growth already poses major challenges, as living conditions in big cities, where many people live in slums, are inadequate. Only slightly more than half of the population has access to electricity and around two thirds to clean water, while less than one third has access to sanitation, a number that has actually decreased since 1990. Poverty is widespread and affects between one third and half of the population. Data about it are disputed, as statistics are often unreliable, and it is difficult to conclusively infer that poverty is decreasing, although it likely is. Regional inequalities are significant and the north is more affected by poverty than the oil rich and economically more dynamic south. Unemployment and underemployment especially among the young is high and even those who work have most often informal jobs. Under population and climatic pressures, the environment is quickly degrading, deforestation has reached record rates and the desert is advancing in the north. In the Niger Delta, oil pollution has been a recurrent problem, endangering the livelihood of local populations.

 

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