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Nigeria: Keystone Of Africa – OpEd

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By Will Sapp

“For the first time since the 1967-70 civil war, Nigerians in all parts of the country—not only in the north—are questioning whether their country can hold together.” – Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan

Perhaps we can then draw some positives from last Monday’s World Bank election. Africa’s “Iron Lady”, Nigeria’s esteemed Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, lost her bid to become the first non-American President of the World Bank. That might be a good outcome after-all because Nigeria needs to keep strong leaders like Okonjo-Iweala—badly.

It is symbolic though that Okonjo-Iweala was the first non-American ever to be nominated for the position (alongside Colombian Finance Minister and economist Jose Antonio Ocampo who removed himself as a candidate to prevent a vote-split). Perhaps that was enough – the World Bank, notorious for its US-centric policies seems to be finally branching out, giving a voice to those nations it is supposed to aid. That is indeed a positive development.

Political diplomacy aside, economic development and prosperity in Africa require security – curbing the violent conflict that has plagued the continent. And, according to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria currently faces its worst security crisis since the Biafran War (1967-70).

While many of the world’s leaders directed their attention to the unprecedented election at the World Bank, African Heads of State, academics, and notable dignitaries, turned their attention to the more pressing security matters at the inaugural Tana High-Level Forum on Security in Africa (HLF), held in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia on April 14-15. That conference’s platform—“Aimed at promoting dialogue as a fundamental, peaceful and durable means to resolving conflict, and to demonstrate that diversity is a strength, and not a source of conflict”—mirrors Africa’s seemingly endless territorial disputes.

Conferences like the HLF are critical at this juncture in African history. Cross-border attacks have escalated between Sudan and South Sudan prompting analysts and politicians alike to suggest that the region is once again on the brink of widespread conflict. However, there are equally concerning latent security risks on the Western side of the continent—and in Nigeria particularly.

As Africa’s most populous country and second largest economic power – expected to exceed South Africa by 2025 — Nigeria’s security is paramount to African stability.

Analysts have reached a general consensus that the catalyst for recent instability in West Africa – particularly in Mali – should be viewed as fallout from the US-NATO led war in Libya in March 2011.

The problems in Mali are well documented. Following the Libyan War, arms caches formerly kept secure by the Libyan Jamahirya under Muammar Gaddafi, were raided by various militant rebels in the Sahel. The result has been a virtual wild-west scenario in an area the size of France, with the Tuareg, MNLA (Mouvement national pour la libération de l’Azawad) – who declared on 6 April, 2012 the independent state of Azawad with Tumbuktu as the virtual capital – and other violent sectarian groups like AQIM (Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb), squaring off for control in the barren yet vital region.

So where does Nigeria fit into this picture? The current crisis is a “perfect storm” of ethnic, religious and historical conflict. To understand the scale of the problems facing Nigeria is to understand the troubled history of the African nation-state.

African nation-states were/are “unnatural” political systems drawn without regard to the pre-existing social structures that were organized around tribal and linguistic ties. Colonialists invented the nation-states to create manageable political entities for governance – that required the least economic investment – and, to instill among the various indigenous populations a semblance of perceived Western social organization. As a result of these imposed systems, false notions of social uniformity were created—in effect, colonialists splintered tribal ‘micro-states’ across new artificial nations.

The apex of African political colonialism can be traced to the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and the Berlin Conference of 1884-5. At the end of this scramble (circa 1895), ninety percent of the African continent was controlled by the European powers. Political borders were arbitrarily drawn to partition the continent into manageable Western-style entities.

There were three primary motivations behind the European partitioning of Africa. Understanding them is fundamental to understanding present situation: 1) acquiring territory as a symbol of power within Europe, 2) securing trade routes from South and East Asia and, 3) rationalizing the social theories underlying European political systems at the time.

African colonization was unique. Unlike the British occupation of South Asia, where Europeans interpreted a civilization as having ‘lost its way’, it was commonly argued that Africa did not possess a civilization to begin with. Instead, Africa was seen as a barbaric and tribal continent that reflected humans in their earliest pre-civilization, and thus most savage stage of development. Because this system of belief was commonly held, there was very little political and economic motivation by the colonialists to build modern infrastructure and install liberal democratic systems of government within the newly colonized African states.

This critical difference between African colonialism and other forms of colonialism around the world had drastic consequences when many African nations gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s.

The reasons for decolonization were multi-faceted. Decolonization resulted both from Europe’s economic instability following the Second World War and the emergence of previously latent indigenous nationalist movements. Out of economic necessity, many European nations literally abandoned their colonies overnight. Concurrently, many African nationalist movements that began in the 1930s came to a head in the 1950s and 1960s creating the conditions for what was often an abrupt, bloody, and politically tumultuous decolonization process.

During decolonization another scramble took place. Many tribal micro-states sought to secure power within the newly formed independent states by militarily seizing political control. To do so, these micro-states had to control the natural resources of the nation-state. Furthermore, international powers still wielded influence in the region. Countries such as Britain, Russia and the United States often offered military support to African leaders who they believed would look favorably upon them during peacetime.

Behind a veil of altruism that claimed to support democratic social values was an underlying interest on the part of European powers to form special trade relations with the newly formed African nation-states.

In short, there were two struggles for the control of natural resources: 1) the internal African political struggle between tribal micro-states and, 2) the struggles among various international powers and corporations to place a complementary ideological figure-head in power for the benefit of future trade.

This model was particularly evident in Nigeria where large British companies such as BP (then British Petroleum), played on ethnic/tribal differences to create political instability in order to facilitate unabated extraction of the large oil deposits along the Niger Delta.

Nigeria’s independence in 1960 was in name only. The end of official British rule was quickly followed by a spate of clashes between the three major ethnic groups in the region – Hausa in the north, Igbo in the east and Yoruba in the west. Unsurprisingly, each group formed its own political parties along tribal and religious lines. With tensions running high, political corruption rife, and a series of failed coup attempts following the election in 1965, war erupted when the mid-Western and Eastern regions of Nigeria attempted to secede.

Okonjo-Iweala, born in 1954, experienced the Biafran War (1967-70) first-hand. With her father fighting on the front-line as a brigadier in the Biafran Army, her family was forced to move from place to place, often surviving on less than a meal a day. For three devastating years, Nigerians faced the horror of civil war daily. Approximately one million people lost their lives during this period, many due to starvation.

Many of the problems facing Nigeria today are a legacy of colonial rule. In fact, in 1963 the African Union (then the Organization of African Unity) adopted the former colonial stance, refusing to recognize breakaway states thus reinforcing the colonial borders as sacrosanct entities. The same policy applies today.

After nearly three decades of authoritarian military governance, Nigeria became a democratic state in 1999. To appease the Imams and Emirs in the north, the government divided the country into 36 states, allowing 12 of the northern Islamic states to govern themselves under Sharia Law.

The government also set an unwritten “zoning formula” which, in theory, was intended to be a power sharing agreement between the nation’s political elite – essentially to ensure that the Muslims in the north and Christians/animists in the south rotate leadership every eight-year term. When President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died on the 5 May, 2010, he was replaced by Jonathan (who was subsequently elected in a national election in April 2011). Jonathan’s election as leader of the dominant Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) virtually swept aside the zoning arrangement.

Sectarian clashes have since escalated. Boko Haram – the decentralized Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group—has increased the scale and frequency of its attacks in recent months adding another layer of ice to what is already a frosty situation. The longer the Islamic north’s economic and political struggles continue, the easier it will be for fundamentalist groups searching for young, impressionable recruits. The menace of Boko Haram is only exacerbated by the influx of arms spilling into Nigeria from the meniscus of the Sahel.

Furthermore, in recent weeks, the militant group MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) has made serious threats to key oil fields while staging an attack on Eni’s (the Italian oil giant) facilities on the 13th of April.

Economists have generally overlooked the underlying lattice of conflict, corruption and poverty in Nigeria. They tend to be wowed by the rate of GDP growth – with Africa laying claim to six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world — without taking into consideration the fact that over 50% of Nigerians live off of less than $2 (USD) a day.

In 2005, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management Jim O’Neill—who coined the acronyms BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China in 2001) and MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey in 2011) — grouped Nigeria among the “Next Eleven”, placing it alongside nations like Vietnam and Turkey. Based on its proclivity for internal conflict, Nigeria seems as far away from Turkey as Myanmar (Burma) is from China.

Okonjo-Iweala’s most significant reform since taking office was the controversial cancellation of fuel subsidies on January 3, 2012. Despite widespread protests, this reform was certainly a step in the right direction. Prior to the cuts, fuel subsidies (8 billion USD) represented ¼ of all oil revenue. Okonjo-Iweala plans to spend half of those funds in road and rail infrastructure projects. The other half will be used to raise youth employment levels and to improve medical facilities across the country.

Nigeria’s prosperity is the keystone to overall prosperity and stability in Western Africa. Partition of the state is unthinkable and will not be tolerated by the international community. Governments, corporations, and international organizations such as the World Bank, might well be advised to direct their attention to the struggles in northern Nigeria and work with Nigeria’s leaders to help develop infrastructure, education, health initiatives, and supply security support in the region. Without that much-needed political, economic and security support, Nigeria could easily slip back into civil war—which individuals such as Okonjo-Iweala have fought so hard to prevent.

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