Opportunity in crisis: The case of Nigeria

Protest in Lagos, Nigeria
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
A man who claimed he was an Uber driver is detained and later released by police officers following a demonstration at Lekki Toll plaza in Lagos Nigeria Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Nigerian police officers fired tear gas at protesters in Lagos, the country’s largest city, as they tried to disperse hundreds of people demonstrating against police brutality. One year before, thousands marched in Nigeria for the #EndSARS movement to protest the activities of the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a unit accused of police brutality.

As goes Nigeria, so goes Africa. That’s not just hyperbole. Nigeria has over 216 million people, meaning one in five Africans is Nigerian — and with population trends indicating that by 2050 every fifth person in the world will be an African, do the math on what that means for Nigeria’s centrality to the future of our planet and to America’s national security interests.   

Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, and its second largest oil and gas producer. Its creative industry, including Nollywood, is rivaled only by Hollywood, its entrepreneurship culture gives the American dream a run for its money, and Nigeria is fast becoming THE destination for Africa’s promising technology startups.

Tragically, despite abundant natural resources and human ingenuity and capital, Nigeria’s per-capita income has flatlined over the past decade — and the country faces an unprecedented level of violence and instability, threatening to make parts of its north ungovernable. In February of this year, the Nigerian House of Representatives implored the federal government to declare a national emergency because of rampant insecurity, kidnappings and killings.  

Hobbling toward its presidential elections in February of 2023, with the standard bearers of the two main political parties now settled upon — Atiku Abubakar, of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Bola Tinubu of the All Progressive Congress (APC) — Nigerians are in a foul mood. And no wonder. The political class has failed to rise to the moment. Again.

Abubakar, a former vice president, and Tinbu, the former governor of Lagos state, are two wealthy septuagenarians who mobilized dynastic, patriarchal political machines built over 30 years, to claim their party’s top spot. Both are dogged by charges of graft and corruption. The sad operating assumption is that the presidential election, like the primary contests, will go to the highest bidder. 

For a struggling country with so much potential — where the median age is 18, and which started the continental rallying cry ‘#NotTooYoungToRun’ — it’s a punch in the collective gut.

Earlier this month, I was fortunate to meet with a group of Nigerians, including civic, religious and diaspora leaders. The delegation was in Washington to draw the Biden administration’s attention to this election. Their point was that Nigeria couldn’t withstand another failed presidency.  Unfortunately — if not predictably — they found little interest.

Since 2015, when retiring President Muhammadu Buhari first took office, the number of Nigerians living in extreme poverty has risen to 88 million, and unemployment has quadrupled to 33 percent. The naira, the country’s currency, has lost more than 40 percent of its value against the dollar, spiking the cost of basic commodities. Roughly 85 million people have no access to electricity from the grid. More than 10 million children are not in school, and a third of Nigerian children under five are stunted or malnourished.

Initially, the Buhari presidency was celebrated by the Obama administration as a triumph of democracy because it was the first time that Nigerian opposition party successfully unseated an incumbent, winning on an anti-corruption platform. Some believe this misplaced early euphoria has kept Washington mute on Buhari’s failures.

But as my Nigerian visitors say, “It’s well beyond Buhari now.” 

The group argued passionately that there is an unprecedented historical opening to field a third force in politics in Nigeria that could break the stranglehold held by the political cartels. They cited three reasons for this narrow window of political opportunity: first, the rising of an activist generation in Nigeria, most notably demonstrated by the #EndSars protests of 2020, leading to a more politically engaged youth; second, the misery index for the Nigerian people and an increasing recognition that its bad governance is to blame; and finally, an electoral process that — while still subject to fraud — is under pressure to conform with international standards, and cannot hide from new technologies.   

Their analysis was not new to me. I had been following the work of former Nigerian Minister, World Bank Vice President, and presidential candidate, Oby Ezekwesili, who in 2020, launched a citizen-led movement #FixPolitics to change politics in Nigeria and Africa writ-large. Oby argues that Nigeria’s ruling elite, personified by Tinubu and Abubakar, has entrenched a corrupted political culture that is unaccountable. She warns that the country must free itself from its endless cycle of arrested development or it will be destroyed.

At her program launch two years, Oby suggested that change in Nigeria could happen incrementally, generationally — it is “a marathon,” she said. But after the primaries, Oby — like my new Nigerian friends — sees it as race against time to save Nigeria.

“What will it take to get the United States to pay attention and to care? What can we do?” they asked me.

I told them that the focus on Nigeria is very limited because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and further, that Washington has never had much of an imagination when it comes to transformative political change in Africa. 

I gave as an example my own experience from 2005, when I was going door-to-door, pleading with the George W. Bush administration to see the possibilities in Liberian presidential candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who — if she won, (which she did) — would make history and emerge as the first woman to lead an Africa nation. I was told with authoritative certainty, “You’re wasting your time.”

I counseled the group of Nigerian visitors: “It’s up to you.”

The road map is there: Today, political “outsiders” in Africa — including women and young people — are far greater in number than those captive to the established parties and voting in the elections. Look at Nigeria’s 2018 election: the turn-out was abysmal — between 30 and 35 percent.

In the end, I suggested to them the proposition was straightforward: Are Nigerian citizens awakened, empowered, mobilized, and tactically prepared to disrupt the political order, or — at a minimum — to shake things up? Are the 65 percent in the majority prepared to unify and field a consensus candidate that represents the aspirations of the people, and not accept a leader whose only claim to office is that ‘It’s my turn’?

I told them: “You will have to carry Washington — Washington won’t carry you.”

“But not to worry,” I teased: “Just like in the case of Liberia in 2005, if you succeed, despite the odds, we (America) will celebrate your success as if it were our own.”

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Africa Corruption Education Inflation Misery Index Muhammadu Buhari Nigeria Nigerian elections Nigerian kidnappings Nigerian people Nigeria–United States relations Poverty

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