Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election victory in February of this year was in many ways a surprise. His first term’s report card included a failing economy, rising violence, higher unemployment, and almost no progress in tackling corruption and lawlessness. This legacy from his first term now presents a series of major challenges for his second.
There are structural challenges – electoral fraud, corruption, and the erosion of the rule-of-law. Then there are issues as a result of Mr Buhari’s own policies – his toleration of violence and barbarity against Christians, and his pursuit of anti-investor policies. Throughout his term as President, Mr Buhari pursued policies that created immense instability throughout the country. This must now change – for the betterment of the people of Nigeria, but also for the strategic interests of the United States. Nigeria is a crucial ally in an unstable region.
The recent general election itself is an example of what needs to change. The contest was marred by obvious and widespread corruption as well as voter intimidation and continual outbursts of violence. More than 600 people were killed in election-related violence between the start of campaigning in November and Election Day in February. The unlawful pre-election sacking of Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen, drew regional and international condemnation. It was as transparent an attempt as you will see to rig the playing field. This was followed by what was likely widespread vote rigging and voter intimidation carried out by Mr. Buhari’s allies, which have tarnished the reputation of a nation that many had hoped would become one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous democracies.
Further complicating an already fraught situation is the fact that, under Buhari’s government, the rule of law in Nigeria has continued to decay. A report recently released by the European Commission ranked Nigeria 12th on a list of 23 countries with the weakest anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing regimes in the world. The dirty money highlighted by the report, currently being allowed by the Buhari government to cycle throughout Nigerian society, serves as fuel for the country’s systemic problems of terrorism, corruption, and religious persecution.
This erosion of the rule of law has practical consequences. Much-needed private investment is stalling, as existing investors find they cannot trust the government to protect their rights and potential new investors are scared from entering the country. This is not surprising: would-be investors need look no further than the recent cautionary tales of P&ID and MTN. Both debacles of the first order, caused, almost entirely, by the incompetence and malfeasance by the Nigerian Government, they serve to illustrate the dangers Nigeria’s corruption and chaos pose to potential investors.
In the case of P&ID, the Nigerian government entered into a legally binding agreement with the company for the extraction and processing of hydrocarbons that would have brought low-cost electrical power to the Nigerian grid (almost half of Nigerians currently lack a regular power supply). The project would have resulted in benefits and profits both for P&ID’s investors as well as the Nigerian populace as a whole. But the government reneged. After Nigeria failed to uphold the contract, a neutral London-based third party arbitration tribunal awarded a $6.6 billion dollars award for lost earnings to P&ID. Characteristically and unsurprisingly, Buhari’s government has refused to honor the arbitrator’s decision.
MTN, a South African based telecommunications company, likewise found itself on the wrong end of the Nigerian government’s duplicity and bad faith when it was sucked into a bizarre controversy with the Nigerian central bank. The bank demanded the company repatriate $8.1 billion dollars of its own money to Nigeria on the flimsy pretext that it had incorrectly filled out the proper forms to transfer the funds, a debacle which served as further evidence to support the increasingly obvious fact that Nigeria has become a risky environment in which to do business.
Two concrete examples of different projects – in telecoms and in energy – that could benefit Nigeria’s people, and the economy, had government incompetence and corruption not stood in the way. In these areas, President Buhari is clearly part of the problem. But this is by no means the most dramatic example: the treatment of Christians in Nigeria is, rightly, an international scandal.
Nigeria’s Middle Belt Region, in particular, has seen a relentless campaign of violence against its Christian residents by Fulani tribesmen, nearly all of whom are Muslims. President Buhari, who is himself a member of the Fulani tribe, has done little to protect his Christian fellow citizens. The government stands idly by while entire villages are burned and ransacked. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians have been killed in this violence in the past 12 months alone.
What can be done? The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended since 2009 that Nigeria be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern” and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has also spoken out on the issue. At a conference in 2017 Vice President Mike Pence listed Nigeria as a country which saw the regular persecution of Christians within its borders. Nigerian native at the Center for Innovative Governance in Washington, Tamara Winter has urged in the pages of the Washington Examiner, to make a start by listing Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern.”
The U.S. Administration can, and should do more than simply impose a new definition. The sale of Super Tucano fighters to Nigeria is important for President Buhari’s regime and for his domestic image. Perhaps it is time for the Trump Administration to ask what is more important: our deeply-held principles of religious freedom and protection of Christians, or a one-time contract for a few planes? We have the ability to help those Christians; we have leverage over the Buhari Government. Now is the time to use it.
The actions of the Nigerian government, from the chaos and violence it oversaw during its general election, to the soft-pedaling of violence against Christians, as well as its backhanded and duplicitous business dealings have demonstrated the danger of engaging with it in good faith. Thus, in spite of Nigeria’s place as Africa’s most populous democracy, and its vast wealth of natural resources, the re-election of Mr Buhari does not inspire confidence. Unfortunately, due in large part to the actions and inactions of the Buhari Presidency’s first term, Nigeria has become a hostile and dangerous country for investors, be they public or private, to live or do business. President Buhari has the power to put it right: but it will require American pressure. The rule of law, respect for courts, freedom of religious worship, and protection of Christians: these are fundamental values. We cannot, and must not, set them aside.