In Nigeria, things fall apart

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at Abuja Airport before flying to London on June 6, 2016.
Abuja Airport, June 6, 2016: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari leaves for a “vacation” to London. His doctor visits there spurred speculation about his health (source: dpa)

Nigeria and its president, Muhammadu Buhari, are having a rough year. Thirteen months after taking office, the 73-year-old former general is struggling to cope with a battered economy, increasingly violent secessionist agitations and mounting frustration with the status quo.

Gross domestic product in Nigeria – Africa’s largest economy – contracted by 0.36 percent in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year. Inflation and unemployment are rising. According to the head of the country’s central bank, Godwin Emefiele, a full-blown recession is now “imminent.”

Meanwhile, militants are wreaking havoc in the southern oil-producing Niger Delta region. A group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) has launched devastating attacks on infrastructure in recent months. Crude oil accounts for roughly three-quarters of Nigerian government revenue. With the sabotage cutting into production, state coffers are feeling the pinch. The government has been forced to call for negotiations – essentially offering to bribe the militants to stop the attacks.

The NDA smells weakness and is playing hardball. Officially, it denies any interest in negotiations and, inspired by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, is now demanding an independence referendum in the Niger Delta. There is no question the region would vote to leave the country, so the Nigerian government could never agree to such a plebiscite. The militants know this, but “independence” is a powerful rallying cry in a region whose oil wealth has brought precious little socioeconomic development and where Mr. Buhari, a northerner, is deeply unpopular and mistrusted.

Breaking up

Militant groups now seem to be springing up daily in the Niger Delta, all demanding increased local control over oil production, if not outright sovereignty. One new group, the Niger Delta Red Squad, claimed responsibility for blowing up two pipelines owned by Shell last week. Attacks on oil industry installations and disruptions in crude supply from Nigeria will likely become more commonplace in the coming months, as militant groups compete to outdo each other and secure their own “negotiations” with the government.

Militant groups now seem to be springing up daily in the Niger Delta, all demanding increased local control

The forces pulling Nigeria apart will gain momentum, especially in the oil-producing southern regions hostile to the Buhari government. Violence and insecurity will rise as the economic downturn hits Nigeria’s poor. Fear of rebelling against the government wanes with each successful challenge to the state.

Dissatisfaction among the elites, who are kept happy with government patronage, will grow as well. As the government’s resources dwindle, frustrated regional leaders and opinion-makers will ratchet up criticism of Mr. Buhari’s policies. Pressure will mount to devolve power from the center, intensifying the tendency for disintegration.

Poor health

In a further blow, President Buhari has reportedly been diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, a condition that causes occasional vertigo and hearing loss. Though he has not officially confirmed this diagnosis, Mr. Buhari has admitted that he has health problems – he visited doctors in London for medical treatment in June. Even if his medical condition is not debilitating, the public’s awareness of it makes it unlikely he will seek a second term in 2019.

This means members of the ruling APC party will soon start jostling to be the party’s next presidential candidate, taking a further toll on political stability. In turn, that will hamper economic growth – more bad news for a continent whose third largest economy, South Africa, is also struggling. Africa’s most populous country desperately needs strong leadership, but President Buhari’s position is weakening by the day.

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