Research: Commentary

After Jonathan's meeting with Obama

Next, June 16, 2011 | Article

By Paul Lubeck, Michael Watts

For the first time in Nigerian history a southern minority was declared the President, in the April 2011 elections. In winning 25 percent of the votes in 31 of the 36 states in the federation, Goodluck Jonathan easily passed the constitutional requirement for victory in what was uniformly recognised by all reputable monitors as peaceful, credible and orderly elections.

Inevitably there were irregularities. Intra-party elections and primaries were often farcical, marked by breaches of due process and manipulative machine-party politics. The national elections were marred by logistic and procedural problems and, in some, though by no means all states, by some ballot box stuffing, below age voters, intimidation and outright purchase of votes. And yet, when President Jonathan met last week with Barack Obama he could rightly claim that the electoral process has laid the foundation - a foundation requiring further consolidation between now and 2015 - for a new democratic dispensation.

That said, the challenges facing the new administration are truly daunting and failure will be grave. Jonathan has to immediately confront two home-grown insurgencies driven in both cases by a rising and deeply frustrated population of youth grappling with limited job prospects and a profoundly insecure future. In the Muslim north, rising inequality and poor governance has nurtured a popular Islamist insurrectionary movement, labelled Boko Haram (‘Western education is anathema') by its detractors, which by drawing on historical traditions of popular justice has become more brazen, better organised, and more technically proficient in launching assaults against security forces. Boko Haram's carefully executed jail breaks or calls for imposing Shari'a law throughout Nigeria gather most of the media attention, but the movement's greatest power comes from energy generated by the demographic time bomb ticking within the region: a gigantic youth bulge driven by high fertility (7.3 children/woman), a low adult literacy rate (45 percent) and the collapse of textiles, once the region's largest employer of labour.

Impoverished and uneducated, the rural poor are leaving rural homesteads and choking the streets of northern cities, often assuming the guise of Qur'anic students who, for the first time, are sharing common urban religious spaces with unemployed secondary and university graduates. This convergence is important because the school leavers have learned to use the digital tools of Islamist insurrectionary tactics now downloadable from accessible global media sources. Indeed, the fusion of these two groups into the Boko Haram movement on one hand, and the recent electoral results that replicated the marginalisation of the Muslim north for possibly another eight years, constitute a destabilising trend that Jonathan would be wise to engage with as soon as possible.

While millions of peasants, workers and unemployed suffer in the north, life in the oil-producing Niger delta is not much better. The oil fields have been crippled by the gradual emergence of a welter of militant groups operating under the banner of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) to clamour for what they call resource control and local self-determination. The complexity of the insurgency is often underestimated (the dynamics of the Warri axis are quite different from the east) or hugely simplified ("criminals").

MEND after all operates on a much wider field of violence, encompassing chieftaincy disputes, inter-ethnic animosity over territory and oil-bearing property, deep conflicts between communities and the oil companies, violence surrounding the delimitation of electoral wards and the constitution of local government councils, and not least the terror perpetrated by state military forces (e.g. Odi, Odiama).

A counter-insurgency by federal forces in May 2009 led to a negotiated truce and an amnesty taken by 20,192 militants. A poorly organised post-amnesty training and rehabilitation programme has been largely ineffective and has become a new source of frustration for the unemployed youth. The situation remains tense and volatile. In the last few weeks federal military forces have resumed their operations in the creeks of the Niger delta.

Like the north, the central issue remains a movement which combines greed and grievance and a disenfranchised class of uneducated poor and frustrated school and university graduates. But more critically, it is an insurgency shaped by the abiding structural unemployment problem.

Any resolution of the social problems driving these insurgencies can only be resolved if Nigeria drastically restructures economic and social policies. Boosted by oil and gas prices, the economy grows at about 7 percent per annum. But this figure masks deep stagnation within the agricultural, manufacturing and small-scale industrial sectors. Industrial employment alone has shrunk by 90 percent over the last decade. In spite of 50 percent of the population living in rural areas, Nigeria can no longer feed itself. This means at least a billion dollars of rice must be imported annually.

What is needed is an alliance of oil and maize in which each region develops linkage industries from their regionally-based resources. For the oil-and-gas producing regions like the Niger Delta, this means passing and implementing the petroleum reform bill, encouraging private firms to develop downstream industries and rationalising the natural gas collection system to stop the flaring of natural gas associated with petroleum production. Natural gas that is now being flared should be used as a resource for promoting small-scale industries.

For the north, the alliance of oil and maize means encouraging agro-processing industries, supporting agro-industrial linkages between commercial farmers and resource-based urban industries. The northern cities of Kano and Kaduna are capable of reviving their industrial sectors so as to restore hope for their youth. To do so will require the creation of regional industrial authorities working closely with manufacturers to expand manufacturing employment, upgrade skills and foster linkages with small- and medium-scale industries. Substantial capital resources remain uninvested in this region because of the lack of a regional mobilisation for recovery.

The industries of both regions will benefit from a thorough reform of the dispirited public service, as the state must reassert control over its custom area, else industrial recovery will not be possible due to a flood of illegal foreign imports that are off-loaded from neighbouring countries. If an academic and civil society activist like Attahiru Jega can reorganise the national electoral body in six months to manage the best election in Nigerian history, then a new generation of Nigerians can begin the economic reforms that will make the alliance of oil and maize work for the benefit of all Nigerians.

Michel J Watts is director of development studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Paul Lubeck is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a senior fellow of the Center for International Policy.

Copyright, Next, 2011. Original article available here.

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