Nigerians can be very touchy when it comes to the performance of their economy. In its effort to project an image of Nigeria as the leading heavyweight on the continent, despite its huge and seemingly growing insecurity problems, the Nigerian government is not taking any negative statements about its economic growth lying down.
Earlier this month it decided to take on the African Development Bank (AfDB) because of its assessment of Nigeria in the bank’s 2013 African Economic Outlook report. In a statement on 12 August, the Nigerian government said the report contained ‘bogus claims’ and ‘dangerous innuendos’ – this despite the fact that Nigeria is one of the bank’s biggest shareholders.
The main gripe of the government is about the AfDB’s assessment of poverty in Nigeria. The report states that ‘the proportion of people (Nigerians) living below the national poverty line has worsened from 65.5 per cent in 1996 to 69.0 per cent in 2010’. Nigerian newspapers latched on to this phrase with headlines such as ‘AfDB writes off Nigeria’s economy’.
Yet, is this not a misinterpretation of the AfDB report? One may also ask what lurks behind this surge of patriotism around the economy, which is clearly not disconnected from the current anxiety about groups such as Boko Haram causing terror in the country.
The African Economic Outlook and other assessments of Nigeria’s economy are nuanced about the strides made by the government of President Goodluck Jonathan in reducing poverty in Africa’s most populated country. For example, the report states: ‘The outlook for growth remains positive. Short- and mid-term downside risks include security challenges arising from religious conflict in some states, costs associated with flooding, slower global economic growth (particularly in the United States and China) and the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area.’ The last two factors hampering growth is equally true for almost all other countries in Africa.
Is the Nigerian government’s real aim not to show the world that it is leading the continent despite current challenges? In its statement it says, for example, that its economy is growing faster than any other on the continent and that it ‘remains the highest destination for Foreign Direct Investment inflows into Africa over and above South Africa and Egypt’.
This may or may not be true. According to the AfDB, growth rates are higher in places like Libya (11,6%), Sierra Leone (9,6%), Chad (9,5%), Côte d’Ivoire (9,3%), the Democratic Republic of Congo (8,8%) and Ghana (8,4%). Nigeria’s growth rate for 2012 is expected to be 6,9%, which is not bad at all. However, it is evident that with the exception perhaps of Ghana, these growth rates often come from a very low base and do not necessarily translate into meaningful trickle-down to improve people’s lives. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth as the only measure of prosperity is increasingly disputed. As has been said before, in the debate over who should lead the continent in forums like BRICS or get a possible permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, soft power is what counts – not growth rates.
Images like those of the latest killings in Borno state last week, where 35 people were killed, are sent into the world on a regular basis, with very little mitigation by the government propagandists. Over 2 000 people are said to have died at the hands of Boko Haram in the past four years.
Speaking at the ‘Institute for Security Studies’ 4th international conference: National and international perspectives on crime reduction and criminal justice’ in Johannesburg last week, Dr Samuel Obadiah, of the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos, said there was still a lack of political will on the part of the Nigerian government to tackle the issue of Boko Haram head-on. ‘So many states of emergencies and the problem persists,’ he said. The religious divide in the country makes this a very complex issue for any president, especially one who hails from the south of the country.
Obadiah said the actions of the security forces, persistent corruption and ‘the alleged complicity of highly placed individuals’ hampered the fight against Boko Haram. While Boko Haram militants have refused Jonathan’s offer of amnesty, the strategy of involving locals in intelligence gathering in the north is paying off, as they have intimate knowledge of the sect’s whereabouts. Increasingly, local vigilante groups are also taking the law into their own hands in the fight against Boko Haram.
The Nigerian government has also finally consented to a more open cooperation with its neighbours Cameroon, Niger and Chad in dealing with the sect. In the past four years, since the creation of Boko Haram in 2009, the impression had been that it was a ‘hands-off’ issue that Nigeria was bent on tackling alone. The war in Mali and the increasing internationalisation of radical Islamist groups like Boko Haram have certainly contributed to this cross-border approach. However, although experts say secret services from various countries like Israel and the US are helping Nigeria on the ground, at this stage it seems unthinkable that Nigeria would ask for foreign intervention against a terror threat, as the government of Mali did last year. This would go against everything one knows of Nigeria.
Is Jonathan fighting an uphill battle to improve the country’s image internationally? Having been overlooked by US President Barack Obama on his three-country visit to Africa in June, Jonathan reacted speedily with a lucrative visit to China, cashing in on the huge potential of Chinese investment. China reportedly granted Nigeria a $1 billion loan for infrastructure development.
The semblance of calm in the Niger Delta, largely thanks to the amnesty granted to militants there during the presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua, also seems reassuring to international observers. But ultimately the current terror threat in the north remains Jonathan’s biggest challenge.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant