Unrest in Nigeria Lifts Lid on Deep-Rooted Social Discontent

Three weeks of protests in Nigeria that provoked a violent response from the military have been followed by a looting spree, highlighting the divide between the nation’s rulers and its poverty-stricken citizens.

The fault lines were evident before the discord surfaced on Oct. 5. About half of Nigeria’s 200 million people live on less than $2 a day despite the nation being Africa’s largest oil producer, and 55% are either jobless or under-employed. Rampant poverty has been exacerbated by the coronavirus and restrictions imposed to curb its spread.

Unrest in Nigeria Lifts Lid on Deep-Rooted Social Discontent

A small political and business elite meanwhile live in opulent mansions, are ferried around in fleets of luxury vehicles and educate their children at top schools and universities abroad. Some federal lawmakers earn more than $1 million a year in salary and allowances. Watchdog Transparency International ranked the nation 146th out of 180 countries on its 2019 corruption-perceptions index.

The risk for investors and political leaders is that long-simmering discontent could escalate into ongoing public rage over an explosive mix of grievances in Africa’s most-populous nation.

“The widespread civil unrest will raise Nigeria’s security-risk profile for investors because it highlights that insecurity can quickly escalate and law enforcement will struggle to contain any widespread breakdown in law and order,” said Bukola Bolarinwa, Nigeria analyst at Control Risks in London. “Rising levels of poverty in particular will sustain popular discontent with the government, businesses and wealthy individuals in the short term.”

The protests were triggered by the circulation of a video on social media purportedly showing the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, killing a civilian. Thousands of people took to the streets to express their outrage over police brutality before the authorities cracked down.

The government says 69 people have died in protest-related violence, including 18 security force members. Twelve people died after troops fired on crowds that gathered in Lagos on Oct. 20 in defiance of a state curfew, according to human-rights group Amnesty International.

As the protests abated, shopping malls, warehouses and politicians’ homes in more than a third of the 36 states were ransacked.

Saidu Hamza saw good reason to join both the protests and looting in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city.

“I was angry with the police who harass us every day and protect the bad people in government,” the 23-year-old, who makes a pittance shining shoes, said as he cradled a wooden box containing his polish, brushes and cloths under his arm. “I also needed food, things were so tough.”

Warehouses Stripped

Grocery outlets owned by Spar International and South Africa’s Shoprite Holdings Ltd. were among those targeted, along with warehouses used by the government to store aid earmarked for people who’d been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Hundreds of people were arrested countrywide.

Prosper Okoro witnessed a mob plunder noodles, rice, pasta and other items from a warehouse near his home in Gwagwalada, about 60 kilometers (38 miles) west of Abuja, the capital, despite the presence of soldiers.

“All over the country, youths are taking power into their hands,” he said. “The angry youths are saying they are no longer going to wait for the government because they are going hungry.”

While President Muhammadu Buhari concedes the complaints about police brutality have merit and has pledged to address them, he’s warned the government “will not fold its arms when an otherwise legitimate and peaceful protest is turning into free-for-all vandalism and looting.”

‘Potential Rewards’

Bolarinwa, the Control Risks analyst, expects the unrest to ease in coming weeks and that it won’t have a lasting deterrent effect on investment.

“The potential reward for investing in Nigeria still remains sizable,” she said. “The large, growing and upwardly mobile population will still remain attractive to investors with a greater risk appetite.”

Idayat Hassan, head of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, said the protests, rather than the looting, have rattled the political establishment and are likely to have a more enduring impact.

“It caught the political class unawares,” she said. “The way they banded together, the way they organized and were able to talk about their issues -- any political class would become very afraid.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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