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The prospects for Nigeria

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2009/09)

1-3 October 2009


The first home conference of the new Ditchley season took on the next in our series of single-country issues, Nigeria.  This also brought us back to Africa, a constant Ditchley theme, with participants expressing the firm view that Nigeria had to make progress if Africa was to make progress.  We were fortunate in having deep and varied expertise at the table, amongst both our Nigerian and our external contributors.  The debate was engaged and vigorous, reflecting the feeling that this was a rare chance to examine Nigeria comprehensively and frankly.  The absence of a Nigerian government representative was noticed, but perhaps that made it possible to go deeper into some sensitive issues.

We were conscious that the image of Nigeria in the outside world was a poor one.  Its size – one fifth of the population of sub-Saharan Africa – undoubtedly gave it weight and prominence, but its status also as a potentially rich country with a high proportion of very poor people tended to drag it down.  As this record will show, participants swung between pessimism and optimism about the future.  Nigeria’s deficiencies were on plain view:  a weak central government, a single party in intimidating but ineffective control, a barely functioning democratic system, an oil production region in trouble and widespread social, economic and infrastructural problems.  On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit and vibrancy of Nigerians was evident, the cellphone revolution was enlivening the business sector, the macro-economic situation was reasonable, some states, under the better governors, were beginning to make progress, civil society was active and reform was in the air.  Which of these two widely different perspectives was going to form the real trend?

The conference focussed in detail on the internal situation.  Many people saw a chasm between the political elites and the public.  The political class had captured the instruments of power and there was little that anyone could do about it (it was interesting that no-one seemed to think that the military might return to a political role in the short term).  The opposition was weak and divided.  Public opinion, nevertheless, was showing increasing dissatisfaction with the situation, amounting to outright rejection in certain areas.  As one participant put it, Nigerians were beating a mental retreat from the concept of one Nigeria, because they did not see their interests being served by the way things were going at present.  The polls indicated a collapse of confidence in the national institutions, even though a solid majority supported democracy as the foundation of proper rights and liberties.  An increasing number wanted accountable leaders. 

This made it all the more important, in everyone’s view, that democracy should be seen to work better.  The 2011 elections were going to be crucial in this respect, not least because the 2007 elections had been so shamelessly manipulated.  Participants were clear that the Electoral Commission (INEC) needed an authoritative and independent new head, capable of standing up to narrow political interests.  To remove this source of crisis and shame from Nigerian life would be a real advance.  Doubts were expressed, however, as to whether this would happen in practice.  The PDP’s power was entrenched and too many vested interests at the top were involved.  President Yar’Adua, whose health was poor, had not yet shown his hand on political and electoral reform and no-one predicted that he would.  His seven-point government agenda was not regarded as offering a clear vision. 

The issue of corruption added to this ominous picture.  It was beginning to be more openly discussed, and more laws were being introduced, but the rules were not being applied.  Participants were clear that the office of the Auditor-General had to be strengthened;  that more needed to be done to shame people into acting;  that bigger fish should be pursued;  and that the National Assembly had to do better in monitoring the legislation.  Fiscal transparency and accountability, particularly on procurement, was essential and the higher levels of the judiciary had to show greater firmness.  Outsiders might be able to help with training:  the US government, for its part, intended to make corruption an item in their bilateral commission with Nigeria.  With corrupt practices so ingrained in the system, however, no-one believed there would be dramatic progress.

We also looked closely at the situation in the Niger Delta, with many participants regarding it as a symptom of a deepening frustration across Nigeria about the flow of funding to the localities.  Endless committee studies had been done, but their recommendations were never implemented.  Now the security situation seemed to be deteriorating so badly that a graduated approach was becoming irrelevant.  The present amnesty was not a solution in itself.  What had begun as sheer criminality was now accumulating into a sub-national issue.  The federal government, while largely incoherent on the problem, was sensitive about any external help with it, but most participants believed that this was going to be necessary.  A military solution was most unlikely to be available.  This issue was now really urgent:  people had to be got round a table somehow.  At the same time, much more could be done to strengthen maritime control in the Gulf of Guinea, where smuggling was becoming too easy.  Since the Nigerian navy lacked boats, outside assistance, including from the oil companies, was even more relevant.

The conference asked itself the question about the impact of religion on politics.  There was a general feeling that it was growing, especially in the north, but the increase in Christian fundamentalism in the middle belt was not to be ignored either.  Religious symbols were becoming much more visible than tribal ones and the more radical groups were emerging from the grass roots.  The discussion pointed to the need to address youth unemployment or the trends would intensify.  Education and health deficiencies also had to be confronted.  In fact we felt that poor governance and poor development generally, if they continued, would allow scope for greater recourse to religion.  There was nevertheless some positive work being done on reconciliation and senior religious figures, both Muslim and Christian, were getting involved.  Ways needed to be found to connect these initiatives with the grass roots. 

While our discussion revealed a hope that Nigeria would be able to muddle through, the more prevalent feeling was that trends were moving away from a sense of Nigerian unity.  There was no identifiable national culture.  Expectations of central government were low and the unequal distribution of revenues was leading to an increasingly deep anger.  If these trends were not addressed, there could be real trouble.

When we looked at the economic scene, there appeared to be a number of positive factors.  If attention could be paid to these, perhaps the political atmosphere would improve as a result.  Many Nigerian businessmen were entrepreneurial in spirit and the private sector could develop with remarkable speed if only the politicians would let business take off.  A virtuous circle could be created if foreign investment was then attracted in larger volumes.  With such an enormous, and growing, population even marginal improvements in economic activity could have a significant overall effect.  Each business sector ought to have its own targeted strategy, possibly attracting overseas investors from different continents and risk cultures (South Africa, China, the West).  Participants were disappointed to have to note that the federal government was failing to take a systematic approach when this could be an easy win. 

We were in no doubt that energy was the most important sector.  Government revenues and foreign exchange controls were almost totally dependent on oil and gas.  Yet the potential was not being properly exploited.  The situation in the Delta was a primary reason for this, with nearly $50 billion lost over the past four years from diminished production.  Spills from sabotage or theft of oil had doubled every year for the past five years.  Failure to confront the problem was therefore undermining the whole economy.  China’s offer of fresh investment looked interesting, though by no means straightforward.  Yet even they would have to confront the fundamental problems.

The non-oil economy also needed attention.  Even if oil sector governance did improve, higher revenue would not help unless it was well used for diversification.  The profitability of existing businesses, the return of the Nigerian diaspora and the attraction of new foreign investment would all deliver higher rates of growth and were all a practical possibility.  But government strategy and leadership were failing to address this area.  The power sector was regarded by participants as an illustration of this.  Billions of dollars had been spent to little effect, because of poor planning and controls.  Privatisation had been mooted but not followed up;  and the credibility and consistency of the fiscal regime for power were questionable.  Nothing held business back more than intermittent power supply.  Yet this was little more than a matter of decent management.

Our discussion in this area pointed to two essential areas for diversification away from oil and gas.  Agriculture constituted the largest share of Nigeria’s GDP and dominated employment.  A more effective Ministry of Agriculture, of which there were hopeful signs, could make an impact.  International involvement could also help to improve farmer capacity and therefore agricultural production.  Second, the growth of small and medium-size enterprises could translate entrepreneurship into tangible economic gains.  The experience of India might be a model here.  Yet this discussion also pointed to a fundamental weakness in the whole Nigerian economy, which was a lack of basic education and vocational training in the population.  Companies were struggling to find effective recruits;  and Nigerian educational qualifications lacked credibility.  We recognised that this was a longer-term problem, but were clear that a focus on education, perhaps again with external help, was absolutely essential for Nigeria’s progress.

Our third area of focus was Nigeria’s impact on African affairs and more generally on the international scene.  While we could not doubt the importance of Nigeria’s leading place in Africa and its weight as the world’s eighth most populous nation, there was some concern that the country’s internal weaknesses diluted its real effectiveness outside its own borders.  Nigeria’s self-image was one of a global player: participants found that natural and even desirable if Nigeria could find the right kind of role to play.  But self-image was not enough if not backed up by effective policy-making and a strategic vision.  We noted the sensitivity of a large nation which was not getting the respect it thought it deserved from the international community.  There was no clear sign of Nigerian objectives in foreign policy, for instance as to whether it wanted to play an African leadership role for political or developmental reasons.  Its sheer size could be an isolating factor in itself, in that Nigeria could, if its perspective was not shared by others, ignore what went on internationally.  Was Nigeria just a voice in international affairs, without much material effect?  Was its impact dependent on its leadership?  The profile of President Obasanjo certainly presented a different picture from that of President Yar’Adua.  We also wondered whether the growing intensity of the Niger Delta problem was constraining Nigeria’s capacity to lead elsewhere, whatever its desire to do.

There was nevertheless no doubt in most people’s minds that Nigeria was a significant force in its own region, and particularly through ECOWAS as an institution.  Nothing could happen collectively in West Africa without Nigeria being there.  The same was probably true as regards the African Union, although it was a pity that the Nigerian-South African tandem, so visible when Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki were in power, seemed less powerful under their successors.  Objectively, it was hard to deny the impression of a lessening of Nigeria’s impact in the last two or three years, if Africa’s approach to difficult issues such as Darfur, Somalia and the Great Lakes was the criterion.  We were concerned that the whole of Africa would suffer if Nigeria and South Africa together were less capable of playing a pan-African role. 

Concern was also expressed that, if Nigerian credibility on the continent and internationally was weakening, this might create a reaction within Nigeria itself.  Would it decide to become more active again, or would it retreat into bitterness?  All the non-Nigerians present were clear that it would be better if Nigeria did play an active role;  and perhaps Nigeria’s friends abroad could gently help with that.  The American approach was, in many participants’ view, particularly important, not only because of US weight generally but also because President Obama was a focus of particular Nigerian interest (as someone said, perhaps the most popular politician in Nigeria).  It would be a challenge for Americans to develop positive ways of helping the country without inspiring resentment.  Britain and, to a lesser extent, France could also assist.  But it was the Nigerians themselves who would have to decide what kind of external effort they wanted to make and how to organise and resource it.  At the moment it was fair to note that, in spite of Nigeria’s role and voice at the UN and on developing world issues more widely, it had not yet earned an unarguable place in the G20 and was not leveraging its diplomatic weight as adeptly as countries like India, Brazil and South Africa.

When we thought about what we could take away from this wide-ranging and in many ways constructive conversation, we were increasingly drawn to the importance of developments over the next eighteen months.  While the conference acknowledged that Nigeria needed time to develop its full potential, that expectations of it had perhaps been too high and that political chaos was a sign of energy as well as of disorganisation, there was a sense that the country had to take some urgent, hard decisions or things would deteriorate.  Participants were particularly interested in the possibility of like-minded politicians and business leaders in Nigeria creating coalitions for more effective action.  The most pressing issues seemed to be the following:

-  The 2011 elections must be a marked improvement on 2007.  A strong leader was needed for INEC and electoral reform should be worked on now.  The President needed to give this immediate attention.  A repeat of 2007, all too possible if it was political business as usual, might be catastrophic in terms of popular loss of confidence in the democratic system.

-  The Niger Delta had to be addressed with greater energy, as it was starting to infect everything which Nigeria did.  The signals coming from Abuja that external help was not wanted, and that a military response might follow the end of the amnesty, were regarded as ominous.  There needed to be a fresh approach to a negotiated outcome and a more effective response to the problems in the Gulf of Guinea.  If this opportunity was missed, what was still a sub-regional problem could become more widespread.  In practice, the international community could do little to help with the politics, but there might be something to offer by way of developmental support. 

-  Meanwhile there was no need to wait for a better organised approach to the economic possibilities.  If the Nigerian bureaucracy was not capable of constructing good policies, then the private sector should be given more freedom to get on with it.  The new Governor of the Central Bank and the Head of the Civil Service, both promising personalities, raised hopes that a constructive approach could be generated.  If the private sector developed, then this could have a constructive impact on politics.

With Nigeria on the cusp in this way, the conference asked whether the outside world could do more to help.  While Secretary Clinton’s recent visit, with its firm message, had provoked resentment in certain quarters, there were also Nigerians who wanted outsiders to be harder on their country and help to raise standards.  We were in no doubt, however, that the incentives had to come from within the country.  That was how the emerging Asian economies had turned their situations round.  If outsiders could find a way of encouraging the individual Nigerians who wanted reform, that would be beneficial.  But in the end there was no substitute for good leadership and vigorous internal action.  We were optimistic enough not to discount the possibility of this.  As with many other African countries, in a continent still regarded as missing out on globalisation, the comparison with ten or twenty years ago left a clear impression that progress was slowly being made.  Perhaps there was just enough going for Nigeria for the good to outweigh the bad over the next few years.  But no-one could be sure of it.

The spirit  of this debate was enhanced by the fact that we all wanted Nigeria to succeed.  Ditchley is grateful to all participants not just for sharing their experience and expertise, but for their commitment to the cause under discussion.  We were particularly lucky to have a Chairman who shared these characteristics and who guided us through some sensitive territory with wisdom and firmness.  Many participants wanted to meet again in two years time or so to share impressions of the outcome.  It will be an interesting ride.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

 

PARTICIPANTS

Chairman  :  The Rt Hon Baroness Amos
British High Commissioner designate to Australia (2009-);  Life Peer, Labour (1997-).  Formerly:  Chair, Royal African Society (2007-09);  Leader of the House of Lords (2003-07);  Secretary of State for International Development (2003);  Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (201-03);  Government Whip, House of Lords (1998-2001);  Director, Amos Freaser Bernard (1995-98);  Chief Executive, Equal Opportunities Commission (1989-94).

CANADA
Mr Robert Blackburn

Senior Vice President (Government, IFIs, Sub-Saharan Africa), SNC-Lavalin Inc (1997-).  Formerly:  Canadian Foreign Service (1966-81).
Mr Peter Kieran
Chief Executive Officer and Founder, CPCS Transcom (1996-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Canada Council on Africa (2005-08).

FRANCE
Ms Chloé Davezac

Desk Officer, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Gulf of Guinea, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

FRANCE/CAMEROON
Ms Marie-Roger Biloa

Publisher, Chair and CEO, Africa International Media Group, Paris;  Founder and Chair, Club Millennium (a think tank on Africa), Paris.

NETHERLANDS
Ms Saskia de Lang

Special Envoy on Energy and Energy Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands;  Restructuring Manager, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands.

NIGERIA
Mr Uche Igwe

Civil Society Liaison Officer, Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, The Presidency, Abuja.  Formerly:  Chevening Fellowship (Government Relations with NGOs and Civil Society), University of Glasgow.
Dr Jerome Okolo
Executive Vice Chairman, GeoQinetiq Ltd, Abuja;  General Secretary, National Think Tank for Nigeria;  Chairman, Advanced Building Technologies Limited.
Senator Udoma Udo Udoma
Founding Partner (1983), Udo Udoma and Belo-Osagie (Legal Practitioners);  Part-Time Chairman, Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission.  Formerly:  Member (1999-2007) and Chief Whip (2004-07), Nigerian Senate.

NIGERIA/UNITED KINGDOM
Ms Ayoola Obe

Legal Practitioner, Lagos;  Chair, Board of Trustees, Gorée Institute (Senegal);  Columnist, Next Newspapers.

NIGERIA/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Mr Christopher Knight

CEO and Managing Director, Standard Chartered Bank, Nigeria.

SENEGAL
Mr Mamadou Biteye

Regional Director for West Africa, Oxfam UK.

SOUTH AFRICA
Dr Matloleng Matlou

CEO, Africa Institute of South Africa.  Formerly:  Deputy Director General for Tourism, Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism;  Chief Director (Migration), Department of Home Affairs.

SOUTH AFRICA/NIGERIA
Dr Adekeye Adebajo

Executive Director, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa (2003-).  Formerly:  Director, Africa Programme, International Peace Academy, New York (1999-03).  Author.

SOUTH AFRICA/UNITED KINGDOM
Mr Tim Hughes

Programme Head, Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme, South African Institute of International Affairs.

UNITED KINGDOM
Mr Malcolm Brinded CBE

Royal Dutch Shell Group (1974-);  Executive Director (Upstream International) (2004-);  Chairman, Shell Foundation;  Trustee, International Business Leaders Forum;  Member, Nigerian President’s Honorary International Investor Council (2004-).
Mr George Busby
HM Diplomatic Service (1987-);  Counsellor, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2004-).
Mr Richard Cockett
The Economist (1999-);  Africa Editor (2005-);  Correspondent for Central America and Caribbean, then Bureau Chief, Mexico City (2002-05).
High Commissioner Bob Dewar CMG
UK High Commissioner to Nigeria.  Formerly:  Permanent Repreentative to the African Union and Ambassador to Ethiopia.
Ms Elizabeth Donnelly
Africa Programme Manager, Chatham House.
Mr Richard Dowden
Director, Royal African Society (2004-).  Formerly:  Africa Editor, The Economist (1995-2004), The Independent (1986-95).  Author.
Ms Catherine Inglehearn
HM Diplomatic Service;  Head of Nigeria and Central Africa Section, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Professor Murray Last
Professor Emeritus, Anthropology Department, University College London.  Formerly:  Professor of History, Bayero University, Kano.
Mr Alex Vines
Director, Regional and Security Studies, Chatham House (2008-);  Head, Africa Programme, Chatham House (2002-);  Senior Researcher, Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch (2002-).
Mr Kaye Whiteman
Writer and Journalist on West African affairs.  Formerly:  Editorial Adviser, Business Day, Lagos (2001-03);  Director of Information, Commonwealth Secretariat (1999-2000).

UNITED KINGDOM/GERMANY
Dr Margrit Insa Nolte

Senior Lecturer in African Studies, Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham (2001-);  Component Coordinator, Religions and Development research programme, Department for International Development (2005-10).

UNITED KINGDOM/NIGERIA
Mr Abdul Raufu Mustapha

University Lecturer in African Politics, Oxford Department of International Development and Kirk-Greene Fellow, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
Mr Dele Ogun
Founder (1997) and Senior Partner, Ogun@Law, London;  Founder and Chairman, Yoruba Foundation;  Founder and Chairman, Genesis Project;  Media Commentator on Nigerian Affairs.  Author.
Dr Charles Ukeje PhD
Reader in International Relations, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (19930).  Formerly:  Lecturer in African Politics and Development, Department of International Development, University of Oxford (2007-08).

UNITED KINGDOM/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Ms Mabel Brodrick-Okereke

Doctoral Candidate, University of Cambridge.
Ms Alexandra Gillies
PhD Candidate (political economy of oil sector reform in Nigeria), University of Cambridge;   Consultant to World Bank, DFID, USAID and Revenue Watch.

UNITED STATES  OF AMERICA
Ambassador John Campbell

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, New York (2009-).  Formerly:  US Ambassador to Nigeria (2004-07);  Political Counsellor, Pretoria/Cape Town (1993-96), Lagos (1988-90).
Professor Richard Joseph
John Evans Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University;  Senior Fellow (non-resident), The Brookings Institution;  Member, Board of Directors, Chicago Council of Global Affairs.
Professor Darren Kew
Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution, University of Massachusetts, Boston.  Author.
Professor Peter Lewis
Associate Professor and Director, African Studies Programme, The Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Washington DC.  Formerly:  Consultant:  USAID, The Carter Center, Ford Foundation, US Department of State, World Bank.
Ambassador Princeton Lyman
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington DC;  Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University;  Visiting Lecturer, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
Professor John Paden
Clarence J Robinson Professor of International Studies and Professor of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University.  Formerly:  Director of African Studies, Northwestern University.
Ambassador Robin Renée Sanders
Ambassador of the USA to Nigeria and US Permanent Representative to the Economic Community of West African States (2007-).

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/UNITED KINGDOM
Mr Alan Detheridge

Senior Associate, The Partnering Initiative, International Business Leaders Forum;  Board Member:  Africare, International Foundation for Education and Self Help, Management Sciences for Health, Synergos Institute;  Advisory Board Member, Revenue Watch Institute.