Nigeria at a crossroads

Africa’s giant is a world leader in corruption. Can the new president change this?
June 22, 2011
President Goodluck Jonathan: so far, his performance has lived up to his name

Across the world, Nigeria’s reputation is bad. It’s even worse in Nigeria itself. The nation’s popular press blazon its bad news with shocking directness. Nigerians love to tell you stories about how terrible things are. Most stories end in laughter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t wish things were better.

After the inauguration of President Goodluck Jonathan in May, there was hope that Nigeria might just be starting to turn itself around. But then came ominous news. The oil minister, Diezani Allison-Madueke, who also happens to be one of the president’s closest friends, had quietly given away large oil concessions to a company less than a year old, which has never been in the oil business.

Nigeria is the big one. Apart from oil, it has every mineral imaginable, unused fertile land, plenty of water, and over 150m energetic and creative people. But it doesn’t work. Over the past 55 years, oil wealth has ruined the country, economically, morally, politically. While its parliamentarians earn $1m a year in salaries and as much again in expenses, 70 per cent of its people live on less than $1 a day. The national power company provides about 3,500 megawatts per day for all Nigerians. That’s less than what Ireland uses for its 4.5m people. Nigeria is one of the top producers of crude oil in the world, but imports almost all of its refined oil. Why? Because the elites who import generators and diesel are more powerful than those who want Nigeria to refine its own oil and use it to generate electricity. This is the way Nigeria has been for decades. Any development happens in spite of the rulers, not because of them.

So far, President Goodluck’s performance has lived up to his name. The former environmental protection officer with a zoology degree was remarkable for his insignificance when he was chosen as vice president by the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who ruled from 1999 to 2007. Jonathan comes from the oil-rich Niger Delta in the Christian south and Obasanjo saw him as a safe pair of hands, hoping he could represent—and possibly quieten—the rebellion in the Niger Delta and keep the petrodollars flowing.

When Obasanjo’s successor, a quiet northern Muslim aristocrat and academic, Umaru Yar’Adua, died in office in 2010, no one expected Vice President Jonathan to last long. But he did not put a foot wrong when he stepped up to complete Yar Adua’s term, ducking and weaving around the northern lords who control the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). When Yar’Adua died, the northern Muslims in the PDP felt that another one of their own was entitled to the top job. Yet Jonathan sat tight and saw off two other heavyweight northern challengers to lead the party into the April election. The north claimed that he was breaking a fundamental PDP agreement that the presidency should rotate between north and south.

After the April election, violence broke out in northern cities. Northerners’ fear of losing power and influence is real. Having ruled Nigeria for most of its first 40 years, they will not have another sniff of the presidency until 2015. The southeast has the oil, some 40bn barrels still in the ground. The southwest has Lagos, one of the fastest expanding cities on the planet. Unlike the rest of Nigeria it does not depend on oil money, finances itself and is increasingly well-run. If it were an independent country—and it periodically threatens secession—it would be the fourth largest economy in Africa. The north, however, is mostly dry savannah with little more than agriculture: cattle country. Sokoto, one of the north’s most important cities, has only one factory. Levels of poverty are high, standards of education and health provision appallingly low. That’s why northerners have clung on to political power: it brings access to oil money. If the southwest and the southeast seceded, the rest of Nigeria would be impoverished.

Where does the president go from here? His much-delayed cabinet announcement will indicate just how much political debt he accumulated in winning the presidency. If he plays by Nigerian rules, repayment will also be in the form of lucrative positions in government for his supporters.

Many of his most powerful ministers and advisers appointed so far have been from his region: people he knows and trusts like Allison-Madueke, the mighty oil minister who had the power to decide who gets to suck at the wells. The secretary of the federal government is Anyim Pius Anyim. Like Jonathan he is from the southeast, as is General Owoye Andrew Azazi, the national security adviser. This tribalism is to be expected in a country as divided as Nigeria, but if the president delivers a better life for all Nigerians he will get away with it.

That seems to be Jonathan’s strategy: populist, reaching out over the heads of the elites to the people. In his inauguration speech on 29th May he said: “I will continue to fight for your future because I am one of you.” He promised improved medical care, access to education, jobs and an efficient, affordable transport system. And electricity for all. If he only delivers on the last of these, he may still go down as Nigeria’s best president so far. But he will not be able to do it unless his government fights corruption, instead of spreading it. The secret sale of the oil concessions is not a good start.