On the 60th anniversary of its independence, Nigeria’s role as the lynchpin of African politics, economics and culture has never been stronger. Neil Ford sketches a portrait of this nation full of vast ambition and countless problems.
Nigeria is the nation of superlatives: the biggest African economy, with the highest oil production and the biggest population. It is home to vast ambition and countless problems but keeps surprising everybody. And the world will be watching the West African giant over the decades to come as it is predicted to become the third most populous country in the world.
Nigeria became independent in 1960 in the middle of the rapid wave of decolonisation that swept the continent in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
As elsewhere, the demand for self-determination was strong but the rapid pace of the British withdrawal meant that the state was ill-prepared, particularly in terms of creating a population with the necessary skills to rule itself.
Poor colonial education standards and racist attitudes meant that there were far too few Nigerian doctors, lawyers, engineers and senior civil servants. At the same time, its economy had been specifically developed for the needs of the British Empire rather than local people.
The colonial era had seen a raft of pre-colonial African political entities – or polities – replaced by colonial territories, with some formerly independent states partitioned and other cobbled together as a result of the European Scramble for Africa.
Even during the colonial era, it was not until 1954 that Northern Province, Southern Province and Lagos were unified into the Federation of Nigeria, so the country that began independent life lacked much of the national cohesion necessary to facilitate an effective state.
Global politics and economics also hampered national development, with the evolving global terms of trade largely weighted against Africa and the continent regarded more as a safely distant battleground in the Cold War than a destination for investment.
Hopes of a democratic future were still high when the first national election was held in 1964 but these were dashed with the first military coup in January 1966. This led to a period of 13 years of military rule, which ended with the creation of a civilian Senate, House of Representatives, state governments and the Federal Presidency, modelled on the US system.
The biggest threat to national unity came in 1967 when the Biafran War – or Nigerian Civil War – began. Secessionists in the southeast of Nigeria, dominated by the Igbo ethnic group, declared the region the independent state of Biafra.
The roots of the conflict are complicated but are connected to the events of 1966, ethnic tensions and control of the Niger Delta’s oil wealth. The federal army eventually reimposed control over the entire country but the 30-month war saw somewhere between 1m and 3m deaths.
The return to democratic rule
The period of coups came to an end in 1999 with the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as President. Despite fluctuating political stability since then, fears of another military intervention have not materialised.
A deciding moment came in 2007 when Obasanjo stepped down as federal leader after serving the constitutional maximum two terms of office and was replaced by Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Some steps were taken to test the water to see if the constitution could be changed to allow Obasanjo to run for a third term of office but the eventual outcome certainly strengthened the political process and helped weaken the traditional system of ‘big man politics’, at least a little.
This improvement has been bolstered by the accepted political norm of alternating the Presidency between Northern and Southern leaders and the accompanying pattern of matching Northern Presidents with Southern Vice-Presidents and vice versa.
This has helped solidify North-South power-sharing, even within the same party. Another positive development was achieved in 2015, when Muhammadu Buhari became the first-ever opposition candidate to become President, demonstrating that peaceful transfers of power are possible. The next big step will be when the country elects its first female President.
Nigeria has certainly faced more than its fair share of security threats since 2000, with militant violence against the oil industry in the Niger Delta; Boko Haram terrorising and destabilising the Northeast since 2009, and the all-too-common but underreported instances of fighting between pastoralists and settled farmers, particularly in the centre and north of the country.
All three conflicts have been fuelled by economic injustice and low living standards among the bulk of the population. Yet despite all these challenges, predictions that the many divisions in Nigerian society would lead to another civil war have not been borne out.
Oil – blessing or curse?
There is great debate over whether the Nigerian oil industry has been a blessing or a curse. Becoming an oil exporter of global importance has injected hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy but much of the money has been illegally siphoned off and so has not benefitted the country as a whole.
At the same time, the obsession with oil diverted attention away from wider economic development. Sectors that could have generated more economic wealth and certainly more employment were overlooked by successive governments as a result of their obsession with ‘black gold’, although a modicum of diversification was achieved when the country became a liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter in 1999.
Oil production began three years before independence and accounted for an incredible 98% of export revenues and 80% of Federal Government income by 2000.
Crude oil production reached its highest ever level of 2.47m barrels a day (b/d) in 2006 and the government had ambitions of pushing this figure up to 4m b/d as new technology enabled the development of Nigeria’s huge offshore deepwater resources.
Simultaneously, however, militant attacks on oil industry infrastructure in the Niger Delta began to have a big impact, both in terms of shutting down oil production but also deterring investment in upstream exploration and field development.
Local people had seen the oil industry boom and oil revenues benefit foreign companies as well as Nigeria’s political elite, while they had to put up with the air, water and soil pollution associated with oil production.
Discontent and peaceful protests created fertile ground for more violent direct action, while generally low levels of security provided the backdrop for various forms of petro-crime. The onshore oil industry has never entirely recovered.
One sector where reforms have had a big impact is the banking industry. Nigeria became synonymous with financial fraud in the early years of the new millennium but the government, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and other regulators have greatly improved the country’s image.
New regulations introduced by the CBN in 2004 were painful, as minimum capital requirements were increased, forcing many banks to close or merge, reducing the number of licensed banks from 89 to 25. As African Banker magazine reports in its Autumn 2020 issue, the smaller number of stronger banks have now become dominant players in the African banking sector and are now in a much stronger position to support the rest of the economy.
Methods of calculating GDP vary but Nigeria is widely reckoned to have overtaken South Africa as Africa’s biggest economy in about 2013 and Abuja is now seeking to speed up economic diversification.
Greater domestic agricultural production has been encouraged and Nigerian’s cement output has boomed as a result of massive investment by the country’s biggest conglomerate, Dangote Group. New restrictions on imports have been introduced over the past decade in order to encourage domestic production, but progress will need to be rapid if jobs are to be created for the many Nigerians entering the workforce every year.
Demography and culture
Nigeria’s population exceeded 200m this year, up from just 45m at independence. While the population growth rate in the vast majority of countries is falling, the Nigerian population is growing by 2.6% a year. This means that its population is expected to overtake that of the US by the middle of this century and reach 733m by 2100, making it the second most populous country in the world after India, although within a far smaller land area.
This will pose huge economic, cultural, political and logistical problems. Most of the rest of the world will have to deal with plunging and ageing populations by that point, so it will be interesting to see whether Abuja tries to encourage lower fertility rates in some way and whether Nigerian migrants will be in demand in other countries starved of young people.
This demographic growth will only strengthen Nigeria’s position as a centre of diverse cultural development, in film, music and television. It also produces a huge proportion of the world’s professional footballers and has become an established power in athletics.
Much needs to be done on health. There are still food shortages, the bulk of the population has limited access to medical services, vaccination scare stories mean that too many children are unprotected from dangerous diseases and too many people have poor access to water and wastewater services. Yet average life expectancy has still grown from 37 in 1960 to 55 today.
Very roughly, the first 60 years of Nigerian independence can be characterised as a bright start followed by a difficult middle period and then, progress on the political front at least.
The country’s role in the world is certain to increase over time because of political development and demographic growth. The great unknown, however, is whether its economic potential will finally be realised, both in terms of its massive market for goods and services, but also as an exporter. Technology and innovation hold the key but it is difficult to predict which way it will go.
Read more from our Nigeria at 60 special report