Having served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Africa on the US National Intelligence Council, his expert Nigeria analysis has received accolades including the National Intelligence Analysis Award from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, two Superior Honor Awards from the Department of State, and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Civilian Meritorious Service Medal.
Matthew T. Page is a consultant and co-author of Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, speaks to NewsWireNGR’s Ohakpougwu Chinwendu about electoral observations in Nigeria and 2019 elections.
Read experts of the Interview…
- How did you become a top intelligence expert on Nigeria? What was the experience like?
I guess you could say it was fate. After completing my graduate degree, the job market was tight and I struggled to find employment. Eventually, the US Marine Corps hired me as a civilian analyst covering Nigeria and the rest of West Africa, even though I didn’t have any background in the region. Over the next 13 years, I worked as a Nigeria analyst for the Pentagon and then the State Department, briefing and writing short assessments for US policymakers to keep them well-informed about goings-on in Nigeria and why they should matter to them. Despite the conspiracy theories Nigerians have about US intentions toward Nigeria, I observed US officials to be balanced, open-minded, and forthright in their approach to working with a country they perceived to be their most important African partner.
Q. Can you share experiences that were like muddy waters working and observing Nigeria?
Trying to decipher and keep up with all that is going on in Nigeria politically, economically and security-wise is a huge challenge. It is a race in which you never cross the finish line—and in which some days you feel like you are running faster than others. When it comes to Nigeria, ‘expertise’ is a relative term: like any scholar, I am continuously learning new things, deepening my understanding and testing my assumptions. In terms of specific issues, I think keeping up with Nigeria’s shifting networks of political elites is an especially muddying, especially in the run-up to elections. In politics, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, as they say.
Q: Throughout your work and experience, what do you consider is the country’s biggest problem and why?
I would argue that Nigeria’s biggest challenge is corruption—in the widest possible sense of the term. It is the single greatest obstacle preventing Nigeria from achieving its enormous human and economic potential. It drains billions of dollars a year from the country’s economy, constrains development at every level, and weakens the social contract between government and the people. Systemic corruption has stymied efforts to effectively combat Boko Haram or respond to one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises currently playing out in northeastern Nigeria. Until corruption is reined in—not just through arrests and political theatre—but through real, system-wide reforms, Nigeria will struggle to overcome its many other challenges.
Q: Tell us a bit about your book – Nigeria: What Everyone Needs To Know.
Nigeria: What Everyone Needs To Know, published by Oxford University Press, will be available in July. It is essentially a collection of fifty short essays that answer key questions about different aspects of Nigeria (politics, economics, security, religion, among others). It also has a chapter that looks ahead to Nigeria’s future. Although many Nigerians will no doubt enjoy the book, it is written more for an international audience looking to learn more about Africa’s most important country. Once published, we will work to make sure it is available in Nigeria at several bookshops, from Jumia and Konga, and via Kindle. One of my favourite sections in the book one that talks about ‘A Day in the Life of Nigerian Politician’: a no-holds-barred description of life as an ‘Oga at the top’.
Q: When you observe current situations happening in Nigeria, do you see the need to write an updated version of your book?
Although many such books capture a snapshot in time, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs To Know was deliberately written to avoid getting caught up in the here and now. It instead aims to explain ‘how Nigeria works’ (or doesn’t work) in a way that is accessible and easily understood. Nigeria is an incredibly dynamic place—instead of trying to catalog the latest developments, the book helps the reader put new developments into a broader context. That said, I know that other titles in Oxford’s What Everyone Needs to Know series are in their second and third editions, so I will no doubt begin updating and revising the book in a couple years’ time.
Q: Nigeria would elect a new president on Saturday 16th of February 2019. What caliber of person would you rather have emerged as the winner of the election?
Nigerians deserve good political leadership, yet they allow the ‘usual suspects’ to monopolize political power. That said, I am outsider who cannot vote. Nigeria won’t change unless people collect their PVC, turn out to vote, and vote for candidates who are not creatures of the system, but are dynamic, have fresh ideas about how to fix Nigeria and move it forward. In many ways, Nigeria is still waiting for its first ‘great’ president: one who changes the political culture for the better and launches the country along a new trajectory.
Q: Like the pre-PDP, is incumbency the only force keeping the APC together?
Yes, though this is unsurprising given that both parties share so much of the same DNA. Neither party has discernable policy positions nor a particularly good performance record. Their efforts to hold onto, or regain, political power is all about getting the biggest piece of the ’national cake’ when it should be about addressing Nigeria’s massive challenges. The parties squabble—as the recent looters’ list episode shows—when they should be working to regain the people’s trust and serve public instead of private interests. If the only motivating force underpinning party unity is power and money—versus ideas—then it will remain fickle, fluid, and weak.
Q: Ahead of the 2019 elections, are there events or situations which you would want to warn Nigerians to steer clear of?
I would encourage Nigerians stay strong and refuse to accept a dash to attend a political rally or to vote for a particular candidate. Taken individually, perhaps taking such money is harmless. But multiplied by hundreds and thousands of people, it undermines democracy.
Q: What is your analysis of Nigeria’s preparations and prospects for 2019 presidential elections?
As a former election observer and someone who has extensively studied election rigging in Nigeria, I see some red flags. First, I see candidates from both parties stockpiling public funds—money that could be spent on roads, clinics, and soldiers’ pay—to fuel their campaigns. Nigerians need to start asking questions about how politicians finance their campaigns.
Second, I worry about the capacity of INEC post-Jega. I am not confident that INEC will perform as well as it did in 2011 and 2015. Though revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s interference in Nigeria, Kenya, and the United States should worry us all, the much larger threat to Nigerian democracy comes from within. Electoral corruption domestic elements remains a significant problem. Those seeking to rig or otherwise manipulate elections are continuously adapting and expanding the tactics they use—I just hope INEC is taking similar steps to ensure 2019 is as free and fair as possible.