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A former American Ambassador to Nigeria and the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks from Washington D.C with Bayo Akinloye on the crisis of confidence President Muhammadu Buhari is grappling with in the face of farmers-herders’ violent conflict, Boko Haram insurrection, deep-rooted corruption in Nigeria and the uneasy calm in the Niger Delta. Excerpts:
You just published a new book, ‘Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know.’ What’s the intention?
The book is intended to answer questions that non-specialists and non-experts in Nigeria have. What Matthew Page and I did is we penned down and we made a list of 72 questions about Nigeria. We developed that list of questions people have asked us and also questions we wished they had asked us. We also thought very hard about what outsiders – people who don’t know Nigeria – what they really needed to know about the country. Not just what is interesting about the country, but what others need to know about Nigeria. So, we came up with a list of about 72 questions and we divided the questions in half – Matthew would answer 36 of them and I’d answer 36 of them. We then swapped our drafts; commented and criticised each other’s drafts. And then, we circulated the drafts amongst various experts in Nigeria and we ended up with a book which we hope will help people who have never had any particular contact with Nigeria. We hope that it will help them understand – what in my view is – Africa’s most important and most fascinating country.
What is the most critical aspect of the book?
Well, for example, some of the questions that we posed and then tried to answer are found under the part, ‘Nigeria and the World’. How does Nigeria view its role in the world and in Africa? What are Nigeria’s relations like with Washington and London? Is China a big player in Nigeria? Does Nigeria have a human rights problem? What is the Nigerian Diaspora and why is it so influential? And how does Nigeria contribute to world culture? So, you see, we have several big topics and under each topic, we break it down into questions. The big topics are: the historical background; the economics of oil; religion, politics, Nigeria’s security challenges; Nigeria and the world; and Nigeria of the future.
It’s curious to note that just about a year to the 2011 presidential election in Nigeria, you published the book, ‘Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink’ – which led to the urban myth that you predicted the disintegration of the country in 2015. Today, about a year to another presidential poll in Nigeria, you’ve authored another book still about the country. Is this deliberate and does it have anything to do with the 2019 poll?
No. It is not. Oxford University Press approached me about doing a book like this – about two years ago – and it literally took that long to get the book edited and then published. So the fact that it is appearing a year before next national election is purely coincidental. Now, what I hope is that, the fact that Nigeria is having an election I hope that more people will focus on Nigeria. One of the issues I’ve always had is to try to get Americans to understand just how important Nigeria is and so with the upcoming election I hope they’ll be paying attention to Nigeria and if so, this book may give hope to them.
Why should America pay more attention to Nigeria?
It is because of the country’s size and importance. I mean, the estimates are that the country already has a population of more than 200 million. And by the middle of the century, the population would be somewhere between 400 million and 450 million. Nigeria has the potential to be a great power. It is already now by far the largest country in Africa in terms of population. Its economy is probably the largest on the continent. What happens in Nigeria impacts on what happens in Africa and what happens in Africa impacts on the United States. So, not to pay attention to Nigeria is not very wise.
If you have the opportunity to meet President Trump, what will you tell him?
If you remembered that President Trump invited President Buhari to Washington – shows he had actually met President Buhari and learnt the meeting went very well. If I would have had five minutes President Trump, I would make the following points to him: The first is that Africa is of increasing importance to the world stage. Secondly, that Nigeria is the most important country in Africa. Thirdly, there are more than 50 countries in Africa and therefore, it is a great mistake to over-generalise about the continent. Yes, there are areas of considerable instability on the continent, but there are other areas that are really quite stable. If – for example – we look at Nigeria itself, there are certain areas, I’m thinking of Lagos-to-Ibadan corridor, other areas like Port Harcourt where the economy is booming; growth is very rapid. You can actually see the development on the ground. The other parts of Nigeria – the North-east – are still combating the Boko Haram insurrection; in the Middle Belt there continues to be strife; and this is all in one country. It’s very important not to over-generalise about Africa and also about Nigeria.
In your book you said President Buhari has taken concrete steps against corruption but with little effect. Why did you come to that conclusion?
I think the issue is what exactly can a government do? President Buhari has taken concrete steps to recover loot abroad and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has taken steps against specific individuals but corruption is deeply structured in Nigeria. It affects a wide range of activities. It is also very long-standing so that addressing corruption at its most fundamental level is something that’s going to take a very long time. That’s why the effect of what the current government has done over the years is limited.
But do you think the Buhari administration is addressing the issue of corruption the way it should?
It’s a question of how much can a government do in a limited period of time and with limited resources. By resources – I don’t just mean that oil revenue, not that kind of resources. To address corruption it’s going to require reform of the educational system. It’s going to require the development of a much stronger civil service; a system of policing and justice that earns a popular respect. These are all issues that take a long time address.
Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election got everybody worried, including the US and the UK wondering if the country would successfully transition from a democratic government to another. There was also the urban myth linked to your previous book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, that you predicted the disintegration of the country by 2015…
(Cuts in) There’s an important point here: It is said that I predicted Nigeria would collapse in 2015. I never did. I never made such a prediction. And, I never made such a prediction because I never believed it. I have always that Nigeria faced with immense challenges is also fundamentally very resilient and that fundamentally it’s strong enough to address the challenges that it faces. Where the myth came from that I was predicting the disintegration of Nigeria I have no idea. I never said anything along those lines.
…In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, which was characterised by hate speech, there was immense tension with many fearing an outbreak of violence in its aftermath. Today, some people believe the country is on the cusp of collapse because of the state of insecurity and political agitations across the country, ahead of 2019 elections. What is your view?
I don’t think the country is in the same degree of danger going into the next elections as it was going into the last elections. So, one thing: every time there is an election and is better than the previous election, the election process gets stronger. The fact that in 2015 the opposition came to power and the fact that Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat that strengthened the whole system of governance in Nigeria. The stronger governance and elections become over time, the more stable the country becomes.
You noted in your book that Nigeria is far from being the dystopia that the international and local media portray it to be. Do you think the country will weather every storm?
I think it will weather the storm – I do. The challenges are very real. A lot of things could go wrong. But on the other hand, a lot of things could go right.
What gives you this optimism about the country you described as the troubled giant of Africa?
What’s the basis of my optimism from? Several: First of all, Nigeria has already endured the same since 1960. It has already been through civil war, coups, and military dictatorships and yet it has at present a civilian democratic government. Nigeria in lots of different areas shows resilience and the ability to address problems – that it’s really quite commendable. I don’t mean to minimise the challenges that the country faces. We can continue to reel them off: economic issues, conflicts in the Middle Belt, dissatisfaction in the (Niger) Delta and of course, the issue of Boko Haram in the North-east. Nevertheless, back to the Lagos-Ibadan corridor, the fundamental strength of the country is really quite clear.
Concerning the ongoing fight against the Boko Haram insurgency, what do you think is missing?
Really, I do think about it in two different ways. First of all, addressing Boko Haram is extraordinarily difficult. It’s extraordinarily difficult because and to really address the drivers of Boko Haram that means addressing issues of mis-governance, poverty, and poor educational services. But to address those issues require a degree of security. And, of course, it’s well known that there have been security service abuses. Security service’s abuses have at least in some cases been the driver of recruitment for Boko Haram. The dilemma is: How do you bring about the social and economic change that is necessary when you don’t have security? Thus, to get security, how do you do that and avoid security service abuses of civilian population? This is a very difficult problem to try to unravel.
State governors in Nigeria have been accused of being part of the country’s problems in terms of mis-governance and corruption. What do you think?
I think it’s a big issue. I think the detachment of the state and local governments from the needs and concerns of the people that they are ostensibly trying to govern is a major problem for Nigeria to overcome. If after all people on the ground are disaffected from state and local governments, it becomes much harder to address social and economic issues.
Despite President Buhari being described as ‘Mr. Integrity’, there are allegations of large-scale corruption taking place under his watch. It is interesting as noted in your book that ‘if Nigeria is a democracy, it is also a kleptocracy.’ What exactly does that involve?
What is involved is down to the ubiquitousness of corruption in so many different aspects of Nigerian life. Yes, there’s corruption in the government. But there’s also corruption in the educational system, in the medical system, in part of the army. Corruption is very deeply rooted and addressing corruption of that sort particularly when it is deeply rooted is going to take a long time.
It will appear that the anti-corruption is being waged based on the strength of the acclaimed integrity of the president with no genuine institutional framework – even though the EFCC and the ICPC exist – some have claimed. How do you see it?
I guess the way I’ll see it is that to address fundamentally corruption, will require Nigerians to become intolerant of corruption. In other words, every Nigerian will have to join the struggle against corruption, refuse to give or take bribe and call out corrupt officials, which is why I see relationship between addressing corruption and greatly improving the educational system in the country.
Despite Buhari’s claim to being a true democrat, his government has been accused of gross abuse of human rights and violation of the rule of law. Does that bother you?
Yes, of course, it does. It also bothers me that relatively large number of civilian population accused of being Boko Haram, who are held in prisons without having gone through any judicial process. Of course, this situation undermines popular support for the rule of law and the judicial system.
A couple of years ago, former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, described Nigeria as ‘fantastically corrupt.’ Do you see President Buhari’s re-election as helping in stamping out corruption in high places?
Stamping out corruption in high places ultimately is something that Nigerians themselves are going to have to do. Friends of Nigeria can help at the margins. Friends of Nigeria can help by doing things right – trying to track down the looted funds from Nigeria and end up and used as real estates in Los Angeles and New York or end up being laundered through US banks. That’s really at the margins. The bulk of the looted assets in Nigeria end up being squirrelled away in all kinds of different places like London and New York.
What do you make of the fact that despite the Nigerian Army receiving training from the American and British armed forces, cases of rights abuse continue to rise?
That’s because the amount of training provided is quite small. I mean, the transformation of the Nigerian security services – which in many respects I think is necessary – that’s going to be huge, huge efforts. And, certainly the American training programmes in Nigeria are very small.
There are fears being expressed that the farmers-herders violence can snowball into a bigger crisis if the government of Buhari continues to address the crisis the way it is doing at the moment. How best do you think the conflict can be resolved?
Well, it’s going to be extremely difficult. There are all kinds of issues that have to be looked at. All kinds of issues that are difficult for the government to address. The conflict in the Middle Belt reflects in part climate change. The desertification – the way the Sahara is moving south that this places herders to then move south in which they collide with the farmers. You also have a huge increase in population which means the territory involved is more crowded. The traditional ways by which farmers and herders lived together is not really as it used to due to due to climate change and the increase in population. The issues are very wide. It’s easy at all.
Looking at Nigeria as it is today do you think it is attractive to the world?
Attractive to the world? Aspects of it certainly are. I’m thinking for example, the towering feats in Nigerian literature, Nollywood, music, and the fact that despite all the challenges and the generation of military rule, the fact that the country’s political trajectory is towards democracy – those things are extremely attractive to the rest of the world. Conflicts that seem to be based on religious or related to ethnic and religious rivalries obviously that’s not attractive. Similarly, the brutality of the fight against Boko Haram in the North-east – brutality on both sides, that certainly is not attractive to the rest of the world.
If you have five minutes with President Buhari what will you tell him?
Five minutes with President Buhari, what will I tell him? I will emphasise the necessity to reform the security services; the need to take concrete steps to increase Nigerians’ confidence in the government. I will congratulate him on the steps he has been taking against corruption and I will urge him to do more. I will also urge him to devote more resources to the judicial system – because in fact, the courts move too slowly. And, when the courts move too slowly people tend to take justice into their own hand – and when that happens justice is not done. In fact, too many people are in prisons awaiting trials.