More than 300 Nigerian schoolboys were reunited with their families last weekend, days after they had been abducted by kidnappers from their dormitory in the country’s north-west. The kidnapping revived memories of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls abducted in Borno state in 2014. Just as then, Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group, claimed responsibility.
The government insists no ransom was paid. Scepticism is warranted. In a country going backwards economically, carjacking, kidnapping and banditry are among Nigeria’s rare growth industries. Just as the boys were going home, Nigerian pirates abducted six Ukrainian sailors off the coast. The definition of a failed state is one where the government is no longer in control. By this yardstick, Africa’s most populous country is teetering on the brink.
President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 pronounced Boko Haram “technically defeated”. That has proved fanciful. Boko Haram has remained an ever-present threat. If the latest kidnapping turns out to be its work, it would mark the spread of the terrorist group from its north-eastern base. Even if the mass abduction was carried out by “ordinary” bandits — as now looks possible — it underlines the fact of chronic criminality and violence. Deadly clashes between herders and settled farmers have spread to most parts of Nigeria. In the oil-rich, but impoverished, Delta region, extortion through the sabotage of pipelines is legendary.
Extortion is a potent symbol for a state whose modus operandi is the extraction of oil revenue from central coffers to pay for a bloated, ruinously inefficient, political elite. Security is not the only area where the state is failing. Nigeria has more poor people, defined as those living on less than $1.90 a day, than any other country, including India. In non-Covid-19 years, one of every five children in the world out of school lives in Nigeria, many of them girls. The population, already above 200m, is growing at a breakneck 3.2 per cent a year.
The economy has stalled since 2015 and real living standards are declining. This year, the economy will shrink 4 per cent after Covid-19 dealt a further blow to oil prices. In any case, as the world turns greener, the elite’s scramble for oil revenue will become a game of diminishing returns. The country desperately needs to put its finances, propped up by foreign borrowing, on a sounder footing. In its three remaining years, the government of Mr Buhari must seek to draw a line in the sand. It must redouble efforts to get a grip on security.
It also needs to restore trust in key institutions, among them the judiciary, the security services and the electoral commission, which will preside over the 2023 elections. More than that, Nigeria needs a generational shift. The broad coalition that found political expression this year in the EndSARS movement against police brutality provides a shard of optimism. At least Nigeria has a relatively stable democracy.
Now Nigeria’s youth — creative, entrepreneurial and less tainted by the politics of extraction — should use that system to reset the country’s narrative. A new, slimmed-down state — ideally one with fewer, bankrupt regional assemblies — must concentrate on the basics: security, health, education, power and roads. With those public goods in place, Nigeria’s young people are more than capable of turning the country round. At the present trajectory, the population will double to 400m by 2050.
If nothing is done, long before then, Nigeria will become a problem far too big for the world to ignore.