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How to Think About Nigeria: Recommendations for the Biden Administration

Nigeria is the single most important strategic partner for the United States in sub-Saharan Africa.” This quote from the US State Department’s 2018 Integrated Country Strategy (ICS) sums up quite well how Washington officially views Abuja. But sometimes “official policy” can differ quite substantially from what ends up being executed on the ground. With President Biden’s administration looking to take a fresh look at Africa writ large, it is worth reexamining US-Nigerian relations and offering suggestions to President Biden’s administration to shape a constructive long-term relationship with an important partner.

A Challenging Security Environment

Although Nigeria is not yet a global power, it has the characteristics of a regional one. Demographics are projected to make Nigeria, already the most populous country in Africa, the third most populous country in the world, behind China and India. A new consumer class will be born (literally) and is expected to dramatically increase domestic consumption and fuel growth. This is most welcome for Nigeria’s long term outlook, because Nigeria’s current status as a petro-state makes it very reliant on oil exports to fund growth and government spending. Because of this, COVID’s public health and economic impacts hit Nigeria particularly hard in 2020 as demand for oil dipped. Early in the pandemic, the IMF approved a whopping $3.4B in emergency funding for Nigeria to combat the impacts of the virus. In January 2021, the IMF completed its Article IV consultation and the prognosis remained bleak. Real GDP shrank by 3.2% in 2020 while headline inflation rose to 14.9% because of supply shortages (vice softer demand in many developed countries that caused many to fear deflation). Unemployment was at 27% in the spring of 2020, while youth unemployment hit an incredible 41%. While Nigeria has responded to COVID with economic stimulus and cash transfers, the extremely negative impact to the Nigerian low and middle class is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

This economic uncertainty will in turn shape and taint the Nigerian political landscape, which itself is at a critical juncture. President Muhammadu Buhari was elected in 2015 in the first democratic transfer of power on a platform of combating corruption and solving the country’s security challenges. His reelection in 2019 was achieved amid skepticism regarding the process and a view that Nigeria was backtracking from historical progress made four years earlier. While legacies of British colonialism, the historic north-south political divide, and past ethnoreligious tensions have all seeded today’s political problems, the economic stress brought about by COVID will add further political volatility. The #EndSARS movement against police brutality is a prime example, and one that will likely become more emboldened as the impacts of lockdowns and unemployment take their toll.

But Nigeria’s security situation, rather than economic or political issues, is the topic that shapes US engagement the most. Nigeria is plagued with three persistent security challenges that will outlast any impacts of COVID. First, a long-standing land-use conflict between herders and farmers in Nigeria’s “middle belt” has led to 300,000 displaced persons and numerous incidents of violence. Economic fairness is the proximate cause of the violence.

The second major security challenge involves illegal activity and environmental problems in the Niger River Delta. Decades of pollution, sabotage, and illegal refining have created an environmental disaster that has choked economic opportunity and fostered criminal activity. Resentment and disagreement regarding the distribution of oil revenues has driven much of the violence.

However, of all the security issues present in Nigeria today, the US is most concerned about the rise of regional Islamist groups that may one day directly threaten the US. Boko Haram, one of the largest Islamic militant groups in west Africa, plagues northeastern Nigeria. They have conducted kidnappings and terrorist attacks on seemingly random military and civilian targets, causing significant casualties and a regional refugee problem. The consensus is that Boko Haram feeds on a sense of victimhood and government oppression among locals, who turn to the group in hopes of solving their socio-economic problems.

The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (IS-WA) is the other major Islamist movement in the region. Once a part of Boko Haram but now a separate group following a leadership split, IS-WA has focused its attacks primarily on military and government targets and seems more willing to provide basic services to areas it controls. IS-WA, also operating in the Lake Chad region of northeast Nigeria, positions itself as an alternative to the Nigerian government for those disenfranchised by it.

Structural Problems Limit Nigerian Responses

President Buhari outlines and acknowledges his country’s many challenges in his National Security Strategy (NSS). Published in late 2019, the current NSS replaces the first one ever published in 2014. In the NSS’s forward, President Buhari outlines three key focus areas – security, the economy, and corruption – and then outlines four national objectives: protect Nigerian people and territory, promote Nigerian prosperity and sustainable development, promote national unity and peaceful co-existence, and promote regional and international interests.

While these are the right objectives for the country’s current economic, political, and security challenges, progress toward tackling these challenges is lagging.

Government programs aimed at diversifying the economy and promoting growth have been unimpressive. For example, government market interventions like gas subsidies, which have reportedly ceased only because of the impacts of COVID, historically prevented the domestic production of gasoline. Government mandated foreign exchange controls, with multiple exchange rates, have caused market confusion and deterred investment. And the government has trouble convincing people to pay their taxes, let alone the capabilities and resolve to collect them. All of these result in a continued reliance on oil and exposure to the volatility of global energy markets.

Government efforts toward a more equitable distribution of political power have also largely fallen flat amid jockeying from the various ethnic and religious constituencies. For example, the “federal character” principle meant to promote political unity among government civil servants has arguably resulted in less effective management, oversight, and stewardship of state resources. The organization that is supposed to oversee its implementation is hamstrung by red tape, inadequate funding, and unclear responsibilities. Government agencies continue to restrict the operations of local and international press and use excessive force with members of the populace, leading most to conclude that the government is not serious about political reform insomuch as it upsets the status quo.

The plight of corruption provides an example of why achieving political and economic progress is so difficult. Perceived or otherwise, corruption remains a central part of everyday Nigerian life, impacting several sectors via bribery, extortion, contract fraud, and “security votes”, among others. President Buhari has attempted to counter corruption with treasury single accounts, biometric verification numbers, and whistle-blowing, but time will tell as to the effectiveness of these initiatives. Regardless, for many Nigerians, rampant corruption can lead to feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment, ultimately leading to violence against the state.

Nigeria’s military, in particular, is considered one of the most corrupt in Africa, which makes solving the pervasive security issues almost impossible. Nigeria has an army, navy, and air force, but, for the scale of its security problems, military spending as a percentage of GDP is only around 0.5%, not counting the impacts of corruption, which puts Nigeria 154th in the world for spending. Graft has gutted military readiness, equipment, and morale, making an effective response to the country’s security situation very difficult. Even worse, Nigeria’s endstrength of about 135,000 is primarily used internally because Nigeria’s police units are themselves ineffective because of corruption. The only significant deployment outside of Nigeria is the Multinational Joint Task Force with Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger to combat Boko Haram. Until the culture of corruption is overcome, the Nigerian government will have extreme difficulty responding effectively to the security threats.

Assessing US Policy Toward Nigeria

Given the complexity of Nigeria’s current problems, there are four overarching principles that the Biden administration should focus on as it recasts its relationship with Nigeria.

First, the administration should continue the simple practice of aligning its strategic goals with Nigeria’s own goals. Thankfully, the three strategic goals outlined in the State Department’s 2018 ICS are well suited for the core issues plaguing Nigeria: first, the US wants to promote strengthened governance, more capable and accountable institutions, and respect for human rights; second, the US wants to focus on Nigerian economic growth, including bilateral trade growth and a longer-term human capital development strategy; and third, the US wants to help reduce violence in Nigeria and counter regional violent extremism.

Alignment of goals may not sound like a high hurdle, but the shared recognition of the core sources of instability, including economic disenfranchisement, lack of social inclusion, and rampant corruption, ensures unity of effort and alignment on desired outcomes. While there can be significant daylight between what is written on paper and what is practiced, an agreement on basic principles is the basis of any viable strategic partnership.

Second, the administration should deepen its focus on economic access and opportunity. The governance and economic goals outlined in the ICS are primarily the responsibility of USAID, and are outlined in its Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2020-2025 (CDCS). The nested goals outlined in the CDCS of broad and inclusive economic growth, a healthier and better educated population, an accountable, inclusive and responsive government, and greater stability in specific Nigerian states are the right goals for the issues facing Nigeria.

To achieve these ends, the US supports Nigeria with nearly $800M in aid, the second largest amount in sub-Saharan Africa. The US-Nigeria Binational Commission, established in 2010, serves as a recurring forum for diplomatic exchange and the US-Nigeria Commercial and Investment Dialogue, established later in 2017, focuses on promoting trade and investment between Nigeria and the US.

But, more needs to be done given COVID’s negative economic impacts and the deteriorating security situation. Aid should be increased to target COVID’s impacts to the Nigerian economy and recurring high-level dialogue should be expanded to ensure alignment on emerging short-term strategic priorities. Trade between the US and Nigeria should be properly incentivized in order to help develop key sectors of the Nigerian economy that simultaneously address Nigerian and US strategic objectives, with AGOA being a good start. Attacking root causes of disenfranchisement, high unemployment, and perceptions of state abandonment will then cultivate civil society and improve political discourse. These actions will go a long way to eliminating the appeal of violence as a viable alternative.

Third, the administration should avoid becoming fixated on the security situation as an end unto itself. The administration must remember that Nigeria’s precarious security situation is a symptom of deeper economic and political issues present in the country. Because the military is often the big hammer of US foreign policy globally, sometimes Africa’s problems can all start looking like nails. This approach would be a major mistake for the US.

Alternatively, an approach that puts the military in a supporting role to other agencies and lines of effort does not mean that military engagement should cease. On the contrary, military to military engagement, with a focus on security cooperation, should expand. Of the major military exercises that US Africa Command hosts, Nigeria has participated in Flintlock, an exercise designed to promote interoperability with the G5 Sahel Force in the fight against regional Islamist groups, and Obangame Express, an exercise designed to improve maritime cooperation in the Gulf of Guinea.

But, while these are the exact types of exercises that the Nigerian military should be participating in, some members of Nigeria’s military have been accused of past human rights abuses that have led to the application of the Leahy law to some of Nigeria’s military units. This law bars military members suspected of human rights abuses from participating in US-led training, which effectively puts a ceiling on how much US-Nigerian training can occur. Some human rights abuses related to the fight against Boko Haram caused President Obama to delay arms sales to Nigeria at the end of his presidency. But in 2017, President Trump brushed these concerns aside when he authorized the sale of $600M worth of equipment, including 12 A-29 Super Tucano planes, to help combat Boko Haram and IS-WA.

The sale of the Super Tucanos is a prime example of how short-term security considerations may outweigh fundamental national values, specifically with regards for human rights, and other priorities as the motivation for engagement. This is something the Biden administration must resist.

Fourth, the US must continue viewing Nigeria in particular, and all of Africa in general, as an area where strategic great power competition will take place for the foreseeable future. Chinese Belt and Road activity in Nigeria is persisting amid some roadblocks and US-led counternarratives. Interestingly, attempts to mold local perceptions may nonetheless be working as Beijing has intended, which should concern the US. Likewise, Russia is looking to assist Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram and has mercenaries operating elsewhere in Mozambique and Central African Republic.

The key for the US is to offer a better alternative than what either China and Russia are offering. The BUILD Act and the remaking of the US Development Finance Corporation is a worthy start, but capital must be deployed more quickly to position the US as a preferred development partner, particularly in energy, agriculture, and technology infrastructure. For the US to effectively compete, Wall Street and Main Street must be mobilized and incentivized to view Africa as a key business opportunity rather than simply a place requiring “developmental assistance.”

Importantly, the US must be careful not to view Nigeria as a “prize” but as an essential regional and continental partner capable of creating and controlling its own sphere of influence. As Nigeria continues its upward trajectory, the US must remember that Nigeria will have a choice about what, if any, global power it wants to align with. The US needs to ensure that Nigeria chooses it when the time comes.

A Renewed Partnership

Given the impacts of COVID and the desire for an “African reset,” the Biden administration would be well served by:

  1. Aligning Washington’s goals with those of Abuja;
  2. Deepening its focus on economic growth and opportunity;
  3. Remembering that many security problems are symptoms of deeper economic and political issues; and,
  4. Positioning for strategic great power competition.

Only a balanced policy that focuses on these simple principles will yield the type of results that will bring the two countries closer together and be a cornerstone of the Biden administration’s renewed engagement in Africa.