A former American ambassador subtitled the book he wrote about his experiences in Nigeria Dancing on the Brink. “The federal government has failed to provide basic security for its citizens,” he wrote, “and has lost its monopoly on violence, two basic attributes of a sovereign state.”
John Campbell ended his study of a country he both admired and deplored with some hopeful words about the future. But five years after those words were written, Nigeria, facing a northern insurgency which has grown in size and viciousness, and coming up to elections which could go chaotically wrong, still teeters on that dangerous edge. The threat from Boko Haram is only the most dramatic aspect of a situation in which almost every line on the chart of national stability is heading in the wrong direction. Falling oil prices are eroding government revenue, leading to raids on the sovereign wealth fund and pointing to a not too distant moment when the federal authorities may be unable to pay those who work for them or even to maintain essential services. And this is in an energy-rich country where most regions are, for example, already without reliable electricity supplies, something disastrous for both industry and modern agriculture.
Corruption may be getting worse as resources shrink, leaving even less available for legitimate purposes: critics have already noted that, in spite of significant increases in defence spending, federal troops in the north are still without adequate equipment and, in some cases, even proper uniforms and regular supplies of food and ammunition, leading to the usual queries about where the money has gone.
The overarching problem is political. The encouraging news is that Nigeria’s presidential, parlimentary and state elections next month will be contested by two major parties for the first time since the return to civilian rule in 1999, a change bringing with it the theoretical possibility of healthy alternation in a basically two-party democracy. The two main party leaders, however, are both flawed. President Goodluck Jonathan stands acccused of inertness and procrastination in dealing with Boko Haram, and of ineffective performance in office generally. General Muhammadu Buhari, his rival, has a reputation as one of the more honest and well-intentioned of the country’s military rulers, but not as one of the most astute. The division between the two parties they lead largely follows religious and ethnic fault lines in Nigerian society – north and south, Christian and Muslim, to mention only the most obvious – which have been deepening rather than easing in recent years. The partisan use of state resources, by the incumbent federal government in particular, is already an issue. Finally, the ready recourse in Nigerian politics to enforcers and thugs of various kinds has already marred the campaigning and may well get worse. Jonathan, Buhari and presidential candidates from the smaller parties this week signed, in front of eminent witnesses, including Kofi Annan, a pledge to refrain from actions or language that could lead to violence. How honoured it will be in practice remains to be seen.
Many party supporters on both sides are, observers fear, already locked into attitudes subversive of democracy, notably the conviction that their side must and will win, and that, if it does not, it will only be because rigging, violence, or other chicanery have deprived them of the victory an honest vote would have brought. Defective electoral preparations, particularly concerning registration, play to this kind of perception.
Nigeria’s path in the coming year is seeded with landmines. The first is the possibility that elections will descend into serious violence, perhaps intensified by Boko Haram outrages. The second is that, even if the country gets through the elections without the worst happening, a new government will find its right to rule contested by opponents charging it with fraud. The third is that this government will fail to act quickly to defuse the looming fiscal crisis. Such a weakened government would find it even harder to fashion an adequate military response to the northern insurgency, or adequate social policies to address its underlying causes. Nigeria has proved the doomsayers wrong before, but the odds are worsening.
-The Guardian (UK)