Something had to give: Nigeria’s coming crisis (part one)

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Something Had to GiveFollowing his highly acclaimed analysis into the state of the nation in Nigeria in January, our anonymous Nigerian analyst returns to for a two-part special to dissect the combustible political and economic environment in Nigeria.

Something had to give. On 29th June Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, freshly-landed from Rio, announced the dismissal of National Security Advisor Andrew Owoye Azazi, the public face of so-far ineffective efforts to contain the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency. His replacement is retired Colonel Sambo Dasuki, a scion of one of the Sokoto royal families, and former high-flier in the early-1990s military regime of Ibrahim Babangida. Dasuki, a quiet and well-respected negotiator, has already set out on a temperature-taking tour of the most affected states, apparently in order to research what kind of consensus might be built towards stepping-down the intensity of conflict. The appointment of Dasuki represents a reaching-out to two constituencies not hitherto apparently dear to the administration’s heart; the aristocratic establishment of ‘old’ northern Nigeria, and the legacy of still-influential General Babangida.

The new face therefore does two things; first, to the alienated constituencies in the north, and to Boko Haram itself, it de-ethicises the conflict between the insurgents and the national state – the NSA no longer looks like an agent of a narrow Niger Delta clique commanding the state. Much more importantly, it also signals a long-overdue change from viewing the office of the NSA as a conveniently fungible and non-transparent conduit to loot the state, much as State Governors do the ‘security vote’ in their budget: Azazi, although a career intelligence specialist, was more importantly a trusted Ijaw fellow-traveller from Peretorugbene in the President’s home Bayelsa State. Now government may actually be using the office of National Security Advisor for its stated function – to advise on and coordinate national security. Goodluck, it seems, has finally learned from Obasanjo, who kept that office firmly in the hands of, if not his enemies, then those who knew how to keep an open channel of communication with, and placate, those who could become his enemies.

Yet even if it brings results, this move will struggle to reduce the growing pressure on Jonathan – even the comfortably-insulated political class are beginning to feel the heat generated by public dissatisfaction with the administration on two counts. First is the apparently dangerously out-of-control nature of the Boko Haram threat, and second is the apparently equally out-of-control nature of the eye-wateringly huge corruption scams which are breaking even the sorry records of previous Nigerian administrations.

Much of the most vocal public anger on the Boko Haram issue comes from Christian leaders, nationally, from the south and also within the north, who openly question the ability of a President – whose election many of them supported, partly on identity grounds – to protect them, as horrific attacks on churches weekly point out. Equally, Muslim and secular leaders in the north, who also bear the brunt of attacks taking place in the heart of their communities, increasingly feel abandoned and question whether this administration is a national or simply a sectional government. Moreover, across the country, Nigerians of all social classes, are having their legendary ability to live with hardship tested past its usual breaking point by having to get used to the wholly unheralded phenomenon of running a daily gauntlet of bombs and gun attacks in public places; the extraordinary and unthinkable has now become ordinary, and Nigerians have begun to pessimistically bandy about the word ‘Somalia’.

If Boko Haram is a concern, corruption is a provocation. Put on the public agenda in no uncertain terms by the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ movement in January’s civil strikes against fuel subsidy removal, the issue of high-level graft exploded with the House of Representatives’ shocking disclosures over the scams that had been run under the cover of fuel importation since the tenure of late President Yar’Adua. Just to recap, the amount missing was US$7.6 billion – 25% of Nigeria’s budget – a scam globally dwarfed in recent history only by Iraq’s oil-for-food scandals. The huge pressure from internal constituencies, civil society and external partners pressure to implement the report’s investigative and punitive recommendations, has so far yielded only three outcomes: The first two are minor – sacking of the auditing firms, and change at the top of the notoriously murky state oil company NNPC, in which an insider was replaced with another insider. The third was a conveniently-timed corruption sting in which Farouk Lawan, the firebrand drafter and champion of the report, was bribed to relieve the pressure on two firms owned by Femi Otedola, one of Nigeria’s most state-connected comprador oligarchs, who then, we are supposed to believe, had an attack of patriotic conscience and voluntarily reported the whole thing to the anti-corruption authorities. Lawan has been arrested and suspended; the end result is likely to his removal and thus the kicking of the entire investigative agenda into the long grass of bureaucratic procedure and eventually, history.

This may seem an incredibly cynical and spineless response to a major national crisis, but perhaps Goodluck doesn’t see much of a choice. The fact is that the fuel subsidy scam was intimately connected to the patronage logic of the regime in which he served as Vice-President, and was further and more strongly reconnected by the process of his seeking support to run for election in 2011. Not only did fuel marketers expect to recoup the ‘voluntary’ campaign contributions rumoured to have been levied upon them in return for being allowed to carry on their lucrative business, but it seems that a much wider variety of players were allowed access to the cash pot under the supervision of Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) chair Ahmadu Ali, who had previously served as the chair of the national ruling People’s Democratic Party. It is not news that the PDP is basically itself a scam which now commands the host – the public exchequer – upon which it parasites. But the documented and intimate connections of this scam to the heights of power are as explosive as any Boko Haram bomb. Given that, many of the beneficiaries, if not themselves protected from prosecution, are just waiting for their day in court in order to reveal exactly how and why their own role was authorised. Hard then to see much enthusiasm for prosecution under those conditions.

That much is clear to everyone across the country. But in northern Nigeria, the Jonathan administration faces a particular challenge. The Goodluck administration basically lost the north – in the sense of the limited hold on public sentiment he may have been able to secure there – right at the outset. The numbers which gave his Presidential bid the required minimum 25% of the vote in states in which he lost (most of the north) were some of the most obviously suspect of a poll which, while being much cleaner than 2007’s, was by no means faultless. The region’s youth, who overwhelmingly supported the CPC’s Buhari, running on a probity-first campaign, reacted by burning down homes of the region’s political bosses, and from then on the alienation went from bad to worse.

The Goodluck administration might even possibly have stemmed this downward spiral by retaining the allegiance of the region’s elites through old-fashioned cake-cutting patronage; but the other signature marker of this administration has been the circulation of wealth-accumulation opportunities through a very narrow circle. Talk of a ‘Niger Delta’ clique is too broad – in reality the kingpins are drawn from not much outside of a narrow Ijaw ascendancy, which concentrates and controls power in the Presidency and oil ministry.  Beneficiaries may point to the Harvard, Oxford, and Sandhurst educations of the sons and daughters of previous cliques, and claim with some justification that it is ‘their turn to eat’; and perhaps under previous rulers more money did vanish (as a proportion of available national wealth, if not in absolute cash terms) – but the fragile elite kleptocracy was kept balanced by clever circulation of opportunity between carefully-judged constituencies, which does not seem to be the case with today’s narrow power-base and the many disgruntled interests left outside it.

The major crisis has not happened yet, but it is imminent. By the end of this year, Nigeria’s much-abused public purse will run out of money.  In fact, it has already started.

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