The Big Question: Can Nigeria Be Saved?

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This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve today’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been condensed and edited.

James Gibney: About two weeks ago, more than 300 schoolboys were freed after being abducted from a boarding school by gunmen in northwest Nigeria, an incident that drew widespread media attention. What does this episode and its murky resolution tell us about Nigeria and its future trajectory?

John Campbell,  Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations: Well, in addition to the 300 that you’re referring to, there was also the thwarting of a second kidnapping attempt involving an additional 80 boys. The security services appear to have responded quickly, but in both cases the role of informal, locally-organized militias is unclear. So when you say that the circumstances are murky, that is exactly right. In the case of the 300, it’s credible, even likely, that the state government paid ransom to the bandits who actually carried out the kidnapping. Abubakar Shekau, the head of one faction of Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group operating in northern Nigeria, has claimed that the kidnapping was done at his behest. It’s not clear whether that’s true, nor whether the bandits who did the kidnapping essentially put the victims up for auction and the state government outbid Boko Haram. It is clear, however, that this is yet another sign of the breakdown of security in northern Nigeria and the impotence of the federal government in responding to security threats.

JG: The Financial Times recently published an editorial saying that Nigeria, projected to have the world’s third biggest population by 2050, risks becoming a failed state. You were the political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Nigeria during the late 1980s, and then the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. You’ve written several books on Nigeria since then, including the just-published “Nigeria and the Nation-State.” What do you consider to be the greatest threat to Nigeria’s future stability?

JC: It partly depends on how you define Nigeria. A relatively large area on the map colored red will remain. The national capital in Abuja will remain. There will continue to be a diplomatic service. The country will continue to be active in international organizations. But the power of the federal government seems to be declining rapidly, and political power is increasingly being exercised by sub-national entities, in some cases individual Nigerian states, in other cases jihadi groups, bandits or traditional rulers. If you’re going to call Nigeria a failing state or a state that risks failure — and many, many Nigerians believe that — you’re implying that Nigeria is a nation-state as the world traditionally defines it.

JG: Right.

JC: By that criteria, Nigeria is failing. But if you look at Nigeria as some other type of entity, then it seems to me, while it may well be increasingly dysfunctional, you can’t say that it’s failing. In fact, for the top 1-2% of the Nigerian population that has grown wealthy from oil revenue, the current situation is relatively satisfactory. They send their children abroad for education, not to boarding schools in Nigeria where they’re subject to kidnapping. They go to London or Johannesburg for medical attention, not to the public hospitals, which are failing. The current political arrangements provide a venue for sharing out political offices and oil revenue. So I think we have to be careful about using terms like failed state.

The Big Question: Can Nigeria Be Saved?

JG: In your most recent book, you talk about Nigerians’ weak sense of national identity, and the obstacle this poses to getting people to pull together and the state to function. What accounts for this? Why are Nigerians likely to express their sense of identity more in tribal or regional than in national terms?

JC: We have to go back to history, which has not been kind to Nigeria. As an entity on the map, it was created by the British for bureaucratic convenience. They lumped together more than 350 different ethnic groups which had never had anything in common before. And they did this fairly recently. The British established a colony in Lagos only in 1860, unified the country only in 1914 and then left in 1960. Furthermore, there was no independence movement that transcended ethnic and religious divisions in the country and that could provide an impetus toward national unity as it did in Kenya, or as it did in Algeria. There was opposition to British rule, but it was based ethnically rather than nationwide. It was against colonialism and racism rather than for Nigeria.

JG: Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer. But in one of your book’s many eye-popping statistics, you note that an estimated 80 percent of the oil revenue probably ends up in the hands of 1% of the population. What accounts for such corruption and inequality? How did this capturing of state resources by elites — which your book describes as “prebendalism”— evolve?

JC: A couple of factors came together at the same time. From the very beginning, reflecting what I understand to be British legal practice, the oil in the ground belonged to the state, so you start with that. Then you add to that the Biafra War, a major civil war that left up to two million people dead, and that resulted in a generation of military rule just as oil came on stream in enormous quantities. In other words, an almost unimaginable flow of wealth into an entity which had very, very weak institutions and in which those who exercised power were military officers.

On top of that, Nigerian society is organized into patronage-clientage networks, which go from the top of the social pyramid to the bottom. George Packer did a fascinating article in the New Yorker some years ago about patronage-clientage networks in the Lagos garbage dump and how garbage pickers organized themselves.

So you put those three things together, you end up with prebendalism — the elite sense that they were entitled to state wealth. Keep in mind that government authority has only rarely been nationwide. Mostly, it’s islands of central authority in a sea of spaces that are governed by sub-national or non-governmental groups.

JG: As you point out in your book, Nigeria was once the breadbasket of West Africa, and now it’s a net importer of food. What explains the decline of agriculture, which was presumably an economic and societal mainstay, a key part of the fabric of life?

JC: The oil curse is the short answer. When oil came on board, the way you got rich was essentially by capturing the state, capturing oil revenue. You didn’t get rich through investment in agriculture. An additional dimension is that the population of Nigeria has exploded. Even long after independence, the population was around 60 million or so. Now, one estimate is that it’s around 205 million. There are many, many more mouths to feed. If the country were to continue to be food self-sufficient, it would have required massive investment in agriculture. And that simply didn’t happen.

JG: Right, and nor does there seem to have been much needed investment in other areas. As your book notes, the Scottish city of Edinburgh, with a population of less than a half-million, produces more electricity than Nigeria’s entire national grid.

JC: That’s right. Another statistic that concentrates the mind is that Nigeria, with 205 million people, has a GDP that’s less than that of the state of Maryland, with 6 million.

JG: As a Marylander, I guess I should be proud. The World Bank says that the pandemic could set back levels of personal income in Nigeria by four decades. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have called for Nigeria to enact reforms to energize the economy. President Muhammadu Buhari’s government made some moves this year on fuel subsidies. Do you think it’s likely to make any progress in doing things like unifying the exchange rate and allowing the currency to float?

JC: It’s fair to say that President Buhari is not overly impressed with economists in general and sees his role as president as, among other things, chief protector of the poor. He believes that if you devalue the currency in a country in which, as he puts it, everything including toothpicks is imported, then you are shifting the burden to the poor, and he resists that. Yes, there have been some — let’s put it in quotation marks — “reforms” that his government has implemented. But this again takes us back to what we mean by reforms in a post-colonial entity rather than in a traditional nation-state.

JG: In fact, you pointedly say that one of the main reasons you wrote your most recent book is that you worry the United States could end up making the same mistakes in its policies toward Nigeria as it has in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s your greatest fear about U.S. policy toward Nigeria?

JC: My greatest fear is that because of a general lack of granular knowledge, we fail to understand what Nigeria really is. Let’s say that the military relationship develops between Nigeria and the U.S., with significant numbers of U.S. defense personnel on the ground. Then something bad happens, that presence escalates, and it becomes increasingly hard for the U.S. to extract itself. I’m thinking of something like the tragic killing in October 2017 of the four U.S. soldiers in neighboring Niger. It’s dangerous to get involved in a security relationship with an entity that you don’t understand very well, and which in turn can be driven by a lack of understanding of various jihadi groups that are clearly hostile to the U.S., and of the relationship between those groups and the people who live in the area.

JG: Could you take this point about granular knowledge back to your experience as ambassador, and what you wished you had known at the beginning of your tour that you knew at the end?

JC: I think that when I was ambassador, I was much too concerned with, and paid much too much attention to, the executive, the president, the foreign ministry. I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to soft diplomacy, to building ties with religious leaders, governors, academics and the business community. We knew there was something funny going on in Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was established in 2002, but we had no understanding or knowledge of its context, of what it was to become. To understand that required a knowledge of northern Nigeria that we didn’t have until recently. And this is the real problem — we didn’t set out promptly enough to develop this knowledge.

JG: So how do you encourage that more granular approach?

JC: By decentralizing our diplomatic presence. When I was ambassador, we had a big embassy in Abuja and a big consulate in Lagos. That was it. What is needed is an American presence in a variety of different places around the country. It’s existed in the past, but it doesn’t exist now. The response to this suggestion is often, “Well, how do you go about protecting American diplomats in these places?” My response: It’s perfectly possible to do it, and it’s going to cost you some money — but far less money than the kinds of mistakes we made in Afghanistan and Iraq.

JG: Toward the end of your book you sketch out scenarios that could unfold in Nigeria. The one you seem to think most likely is not collapse, but that Nigeria is just going to continue to make do as a prebendal archipelago, with pockets of government authority and elites continuing to monopolize state resources. So what, if anything, can the U.S. and other nations or entities do to help Nigeria to develop and to build a government more responsive to the majority of its citizens?

JC: A variety of things that mostly fall under the rubric of soft diplomacy. Working to strengthen civil society, mostly through increased exchanges. Working for the independence of the judiciary and supporting the court system. Courts in Nigeria operate almost entirely by pen and paper, not by computer. It’s one reason among many why the wheels of justice in Nigeria turn so slowly. We also need to greatly strengthen our ties with those who really shape where Nigeria is going — particularly religious leaders, governors, some traditional rulers and some businessmen. But the thing is, Nigeria is a huge and complicated place. You can’t identify those people from Abuja or Lagos. You actually have to be on the ground. I should also mention the Nigerian media, which is vibrant and in some cases quite courageous — it could benefit from what public diplomacy can provide in terms of training journalists and so forth.

JG: A lot of media reportage is about the bad things happening in Nigeria, but it’s also clear that this is a country with enormous potential, with a lot of influence and heft across Africa in terms of peacekeeping, in terms of promoting democracy, economic ingenuity and innovation. In the U.S., for instance, Nigerians are a very successful diaspora group.

JC: Oh, yes. One of the really interesting things about the Nigerian diaspora is how it flourishes when it gets out from under the Nigerian system. Which is why if, if the Nigerian system were to change significantly for the better, the potential for Nigeria, and for Africa, would be huge.

JG: So what’s your bottom line in terms of the U.S. approach to Nigeria? What are you looking for the U.S. to do?

JC: First, to recognize Nigeria for what it is, not a state in the classic Westphalian mode but a post-colonial entity. Then, to move slowly, carefully, and above all, do no harm.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Gibney is an editor for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.

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