A uniquely Nigerian set of Problems
Jared Mathews, who did two tours of duty with the US Army in Afghanistan provides a retrospective and forward-looking narrative on President Buhari and Nigeria.
Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as the newest Nigerian president on May 29 2015, ousting incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan by more than 2.5 million votes. Buhari, a moderate Muslim with a reputation for being a stern disciplinarian, made the eradication of Boko Haram a pillar of his presidential campaign. Now is the time for the president to make due on his campaign promises and work to unify a culturally fractured Nigeria plagued with one of the most violent Islamic groups in not only Africa but the entire world.
Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group once nicknamed the Nigerian Taliban has carved a path of destruction throughout northern Nigeria for the last 6 years attacking government, military and civilian targets indiscriminately.
For Buhari to be successful he will have to remedy two primary domestic issues –education and the chronic poverty in northern Nigeria. With only 20 to 40 percent of secondary school students (ages 13-18) currently literate across northern Nigeria, a substantial and comprehensive education system will have to be established with the support of the local Muslim communities. In addition to a massive education reform, Buhari will have to invest heavily in the infrastructure of the north to initially create jobs and ultimately provide a region crippled with poverty, with some regions (Yobe, Bauchi, Gombe, and Jigawa) reporting more than 80 percent of its population without food, safe drinking water and shelter.
For these two massive undertakings, Buhari will undoubtedly have to first provide both safety and security to the entire region before any of these vast programs can be instituted safely.
However, the world’s 20th largest economy experienced a decline from the steady 7 percent growth they have come to expect over the last four years, while also dealing with stagnating oil prices sitting at roughly $50 dollars a barrel after a steep decline in January, leaving Nigeria in an economically precarious situation. Economic troubles aside, Buhari inherits a nation fractured by at least 16 different ethno-linguistics groups, two major religions with a host of sub sects of each religion, creating even more tension amongst the wildly diverse population.
Buhari’s main efforts are twofold. The first is aimed at rooting out the corruption within the Nigerian government by reducing the size of his administration, and the second is focused on reducing the cost of everyday government operations.
However, many within the Nigerian government are concerned that Buhari’s methodical plans may in fact cause significant delays proving detrimental to the country as a whole as it faces a rapidly declining economy, Boko Haram’s prolonged insurgency, as well as the ever tenuous socially fractured population. Buhari has spent the last six months purging potentially corrupt Nigerian politicians from his administration, and he is said to be working with Chad, Niger, and Cameroon to establish a regionalized united military effort to root out Boko Haram from the four countries’ porous borders.
If Buhari is successful in creating this coalition of West African nations against Boko Haram, this will be a massive step forward for the U.S. and its allies in the War on Terror, ostensibly providing the blueprint for future multi-nation resolutions in which the United States and its allies can provide the military training and support to not only deny, degrade and defeat violent extremist organizations but also provide the training and careful guidance to the Nigerian, Nigerien, Chadian, and Cameroonian militaries which in turn may provide future stability to the region, in turn allowing for more foreign investments throughout the areas.
With Nigeria on the cusp of becoming a member of the G20, a strong leadership performance by Buhari can leave a legacy of a booming Nigerian economy, a safe and secure multiethnic state, with an experienced and capable government, police and military force that will be able project power within its own borders as well as aid its neighbors in the borderless War on Terror.
Furthermore, if Buhari is not able to cobble together a multinational force of African countries to combat Boko Haram, the international community will have to take action on Nigeria’s behalf. In the last six years Boko Haram has gained vast swaths of territory in Northern Nigeria mainly but also made incursions into Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram cannot be left to fester and has shown that it cannot be contained and left to the Nigerians to be dealt with.
However, given the importance that President Obama and his administration have placed on securing the region from Boko Haram and other violent extremist organizations, Boko Haram is absent in Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey’s most recent U.S. military strategy report published in June. The report highlights the necessity and dire importance of denying and degrading the resources, terrain and abilities of violent extremist organizations throughout the Middle East, yet only mentions Africa as a mere afterthought.
Considering just six short months ago, Exercise Flintlock 2015 took place in this year’s host country of Chad, marking the largest joint military exercise in Africa to date with over 20 countries participating in the regional exercise. As per the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, Exercise Flintlock has occurred every year since 2005, headed by the 10th Special Forces Group and Africom the training exercise focuses on developing security capacity, the building of professionalism, and the promotion of multilateral sharing of information amongst the participating countries. Exercise Flintlock is a tangible representation of the importance regionalized military training is for the United States in regards to West Africa and the surrounding region.
The international community has tried several strategies in dealing with extremist organizations such as containment with the help of the African Union around the failed state of Somalia since the early 2005 against the consistent threat of Al Shabaab as well as targeted drone strikes and international task forces against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Ansar Dine and Al Mourabitoun with limited long term successes in both Mali and Algeria. If Buhari is to be successful, he will be one of the first countries to provide an apt and capable ground force to combat extremism in the region with the help of U.S. advisors and highly effective airstrikes.
Nigeria faces a host of problems not just the Clockwork Orange-esque ultra violence of Boko Haram, to include rampant poverty and an endemic education crisis in Nigeria’s northern states. Despite its position as Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria remains at 152 out of 176 countries on the Human Development Index. Despite the substantial influx of foreign investment following the sweeping economic reforms of the 1980’s and beyond, Nigeria’s burgeoning oil industry has grown substantially, however the effects of these investments has yet to trickle down in any way to the people. Conversely poverty has grown each year, now affecting more than 80 percent of the population of the northern states.
Nigeria’s agriculture makes up 40 percent of the country’s GDP, yet the vast majority of farmers operate small plots of land without irrigation practices leaving each year’s harvest completely dependent upon rainfall. Analysts estimate the current amount of land currently being used for farming could be doubled from 35 million hectares to 71 million hectares improving crop yields, and the overall agricultural productivity of the region. However, the stark lack of basic infrastructure in Nigeria’s northern states poses a significant problem for farmers attempting to bring their goods to market leading to crop spoilage and wasted efforts. Without access to new technology and equipment that could drastically improve crop yields, the same practices are being used year in and year out causing irreparable damage to the land itself only furthering the previously mentioned crises. And the exodus of young men from these regions leaving to find employment elsewhere only furthers the dearth of human capital in the region.
In addition to the complicated realities of the Nigeria’s economic/ infrastructure problem, education is a paramount concern to Nigerians as a whole. While a majority of northern states hover between 10 to 20 percent of children enrolled in primary school, southern states sit between 60 to 70 percent demonstrating the vast disparity in infrastructure a surviving remnant from 19th century British colonialism. With 21 percent of men and 38 percent of women with no education whatsoever, targeted reforms to the education institutions of the northern states is absolutely dire, which poses a significant problem for President Buhari who has repeatedly stated he has a “national plan for Nigeria, not a northern plan”. Universal reforms will not right this ship.
Boko Haram is not the entire problem with Nigeria but intersects all three major issues. Due to the frequent and barbaric attacks on schools throughout the northern states, many northerners feel they have no choice but to keep their children at home, sacrificing their education for the illusion of safety. Whether children are kept at home the population still faces the sporadic and brutal assaults at random in which villagers are slaughtered by the dozen. As the populations of these small towns and villages are killed off, land goes untilled, harvests spoil or are never planted and the north’s slip into poverty and malnutrition becomes more pronounced.