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Facing the future

Par Cédric Gouverneur - Publié en janvier 2023
The giant Lagos, which has 22 million inhabitants. SHUTTERSTOCK
The giant Lagos, which has 22 million inhabitants. SHUTTERSTOCK

Officially, it is the richest country on the continent, just ahead of South Africa, boosted by its oil economy. It is also the most populated, with 210 million inhabitants including two-thirds living in "multidimensional" poverty. An ethnically complex giant, weakened by terrorist violence. A nation in permanent crisis, which is about to elect a new president, a "miracle" personality...

When the Federal Republic of Nigeria became independent in 1960, its economic performance was comparable to Malaysia’s. Since then, the Southeast Asian country has grown into a prosperous and stable nation. And while the English-speaking West African giant has the largest GDP on the continent with $440 billion (South Africa reaches $420 billion and Egypt $404 billion) thanks to hydrocarbons – a new field with a capacity of one billion barrels of oil and 500 billion cubic feet of gas has just been discovered in the northeast, in Kolmani –, behind the macroeconomic front, the social situation way less positive. According to the latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and UN agencies released in November, two-thirds of Nigerians – 133 million out of 210 – live in "multidimensional poverty" (food insecurity, housing, sanitation, and health issues). Inflation is at its highest level since 2005 (21% in October) due to "a disruption in the supply of food products" linked to the war in Ukraine, "an increase in the cost of imports due to the depreciation of the currency, and a general increase in the cost of production", according to the NBS. The economy, indexed to the price of oil, suffers from a lack of diversification and systemic corruption. Above all, insecurity has spread in almost all the 36 federal states: in the northeast, the jihadist insurgency; in the northwest, rural banditry; in the central Middle Belt region, tensions between farmers (Christians) and herders (Muslims); in the southeast, the resurgence of Igbo separatism, nostalgic for the Biafran secession (1967-1970); in the Delta region, piracy and oil plundering; and finally, in the major cities, kidnapping for ransom.

On the political side, President Muhammadu Buhari cannot stand for re-election after two terms. This former general, who was a coup leader and dictator between 1983 and 1985 (his regime had, among other things, imprisoned the Afrobeat star and father, Fela Kuti), came back to power through the ballot box in 2015, with the promise of restoring order and security. The future looks bleak: as sharp as a knife, the title of a recent report by the Institute for Security Studies (South Africa) gives the measure of the challenge: “Nigeria in 2050: Major Player in the Global Economy or Poverty Capital?” Becoming a world power or earning the title of “world poverty capital”, this seems to be Nigeria’s alternatives.

In an article published by the Nigerian online newspaper Premium Times in October, Jibrin Ibrahim warned that "If we stay on the same course, it's annihilation. The political science professor and development expert knows exactly what he is talking about:  "I recall a similar report we did in 1993-94 with the auspices of the OECD and the World Bank, West African Long-Term Perspective Study 1995-2020. Sadly, all our predictions regarding the dangers that threatened then have since come true," he wrote. "We emphasized rapid population growth," and "gave the alternative" of "educating the youth and diversifying the economy to provide jobs for them," or doing nothing and "enduring the shockwave of a demographic bomb.” Result: "Nothing was done, and the demographic bomb exploded," he says. He also notes that, as early as the 1990s, he and his colleagues had pointed out the “risk of growing conflict between pastoralism and agriculture in the Middle Belt region” and an “Islamist pressure in the Sahel.” These threats were described, he recalls, as “pure speculation!” “Everything is worse than before”, says the professor. The economy remains largely profit-based, dependent on oil and its fluctuating price. The country exports raw products and imports processed products, despite recent efforts towards economic diversification, led by the conglomerate of billionaire Aliko Dangote [see our issue 401, February 2020].


In 2050, with a projected population of 450 million, Nigeria could become the third most populous country in the world, just behind India and China. Unable to feed its 210 million inhabitants, it should be home to more than twice that number in less than thirty years. However, the country, 131st out of 190 on the World Bank's Doing Business index, is not moving in the right direction. The environment is hardly favorable to business. A recent example: struggling to repatriate its earnings from Nigeria, kept by local authorities in need of foreign currency, the Emirates Airlines announced at the end of October the suspension of its routes to Lagos and Abuja. The prestigious UAE company said it was unable to maintain its operational costs and commercial viability in the country. In early September, it had already suspended its flights. Ten days later, the authorities returned $256 million, about half of the total amount. But in the absence of a long-term solution, Emirates Airlines decided to throw in the towel. Instead of stalling, Aviation Minister Hadi Abubakar Sirika snickered: "We will not be intimidated. We are the biggest market in Africa", suggesting that the Gulf carrier would have no choice but to come back. This departure will not improve Nigeria's reputation, which has been tarnished for two decades by the international misdeeds of the mafia (Internet scams, prostitution, drugs, etc.). The implications of these scandals overshadow the assets of the West African giant, such as its ebullient creativity, especially expressed by its start-ups and by its art sector (Afrobeat and Nollywood).

Another disastrous example: Energy Voice news platform reported that authorities announced in October the discovery of a four-kilometer-long "illegal pipeline" in the southern Delta State, which had been stealing oil for a decade. The theft of black gold involves "a whole value chain, from the NNPC to the security forces, including oil company employees and villagers," said Ese Osawmonyi, an expert at the research firm SBM Intelligence in Lagos. Corruption and theft in the region are "so lucrative that soldiers pay bribes to officers to be transferred to the Delta State," the economist added.

The situation in the region is in line with the "multidimensional security crisis that affects almost the entire country," says researcher Michael Nwankpa in its article "The North-South Divide: Nigerian Discourses on Boko Haram, the Fulani and Islamization," published in October 2021 by the U.S.-based think tank Hudson Institute. Since 2009, the insurgency of the Islamist sect Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa has killed more than 30,000 people in the northeast and in neighboring states. The two jihadist organizations compete in atrocities including child suicide bombers or mentally handicapped persons strapped with explosives, kidnapping of schoolgirls and sexual slavery, executions of "witches", and massacres of entire families of worshippers in the middle of the religious service... In addition, there is now recurrent violence in the Middle Belt states between Christian Yoruba farmers and Muslim Fulani herders. According to Michael Nwankpa, many people are tempted to equate Boko Haram with the Fulani, "perceiving them both as wanting to Islamize Nigeria," in a dangerous political-ethnic spiral...

In the past decade, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has also been active in the southeast, particularly in Port Harcourt and Abia State. IPOB is considered a terrorist organization by the authorities and is nostalgic for the Biafran secession (which resulted in at least one million deaths). "The unity of Nigeria is at stake, many Yoruba are now showing interest in the formation of an independent state," the researcher stresses. He concludes by explaining, dejectedly, that he "does not trust the elites to fix the flawed political structure and address the ethno-religious tensions generated by the dysfunctions. Any fundamental change must be led from the bottom up by the people," taking the example of the End SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) movement, the youth revolting against police brutality.


In October 2020, Nigeria experienced the largest protests in its recent history. After the release of a video showing a young Nigerian being shot by a police officer of the special anti-crime squad SARS, the youth took to the streets of major cities to protest against arbitrary treatments. These demonstrations against police violence were met with increased police brutality, which logically fanned the flames of popular anger. According to Amnesty International, at least 56 people died on the margins of the End SARS movement. The crackdown culminated in the evening of October 20 at the Lekki toll gate (an affluent suburb of Lagos), when the army shot and killed at least 12 peaceful protesters as they sang the national anthem. In the face of the protest, the government conceded the dismantling of the hated police force and ordered state governors to investigate the abuses.

But nothing has really changed according to the veterans and spokespersons of the social movement, who denounce a simple communication exercise. After some weeks of calmness, brutalities have returned in the daily lives of Nigerians. According to the international NGO, two years after End SARS, around 40 demonstrators are still being detained... Nevertheless, the movement has represented a step forward: the youth has demonstrated its organizational skills (especially thanks to social media). Conscious of its strength, the youth refuses to be deprived of its destiny. Strong, determined, distrustful of failing institutions, the youth has nicknamed itself "Coconut Head Generation". "By the grace of being global citizens, we have traveled, physically or virtually, to more developed lands," explains young intellectual Mfonobong Inyang, author of the 2021 book Lazy Nigerian Youths: Understanding This Coconut Head Generation. "We have experienced, or seen, places where things work. We demand the same opportunities...We don't want a Nigeria where the only dream is to japa ['emigrate' in Yoruba slang, ed.] from a country where you have to know someone to be someone."

The political scene has enough to feed the despair of Nigerian youth. The two dominant parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), have no obvious ideological difference. They lead the country in an alternative way, one after the other, with the same leaders: former governor of Lagos Bola Ahmed Tinubu (70 years old) is the candidate of the APC, President Muhammadu Buhari's party. Facing him is Atiku Abubakar (76 years old), the PDP candidate, who was vice-president under General Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007). Tinubu, who was nominated in June, is likely to pay the price for the outgoing president's poor record. The APC can be worried about one thing: in the election held in July 2022, the PDP candidate won the governorship in Osun state (southwest), one of Tinubu’s strongholds. Abubakar, on the other hand, could suffer from his sulphureous reputation. He is seen as a corrupt official since he made a fortune while he was head of the customs department.

A third candidate could be a surprise: Peter Obi, a 61-year-old businessman, who left the PDP last year after failing to win the presidential nomination. He joined the small Labour Party (with only a few elected members) and began campaigning on social media. A survey conducted in September by the American company Premise Data and based on a representative panel of about 4000 Nigerians showed that 72% of the 92% respondents who made up their minds would vote for him. Why such an enthusiasm? As a challenger, he stands out from the APC-PDP two-party system that alternates in power. As a Catholic, he could be an alternative to the two main candidates, who are Muslims - and potential successors to a President who is also Muslim. He is also Igbo (Nigeria's third largest ethnic group with 18% of the population), a characteristic that could be a conciliatory factor in this federal country where the lack of unity is huge.

Peter Obi is the former governor of southeast Anambra State where he was known for his rigorous management, paying civil servants on time, and heavily investing in education. He also has a lifestyle that is the antithesis of the elites’ and their ostentatious luxury. Graduated in business and in philosophy, Obi presents himself as frugal. And in a country where nepotism ubiquitous, his youngest son is a modest teacher. Obi understands that these characteristics set him apart from his two main opponents, and he is not shy about playing on them, calling on his voters to "take back the country" in an election that he says, "pits the old against the new.” He called on "the 100 million Nigerians who live in poverty and the 35 million who don't know where their next meal is coming from" to vote for him.

On social media, his supporters call themselves "Obidients". Many are young veterans of the End SARS movement, eager to sweep away the APC and the PDP, experienced in the use of online applications, fundraising, and organizing street mobilizations. Peter Obi is clearly claiming the political legacy of the youth rebellion. On October 20, on the 2nd anniversary of the Lekki massacre, the candidate tweeted, "Today we commemorate our brothers and sisters whose lives were cut short during the End SARS protests. They died fighting to build a better nation."​​​​​​​


But some put forward his lack of political base in the Muslim north, a huge pool of voters from which PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar comes. More importantly, the Labour Party does not have the same network of local officials and experienced activists that the two leading groups have across the country. APC candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu, known in yoruba country as "the godfather," claims to be a "kingmaker" and has received the support of former President Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015).

He has also been criticized for being too quick to present himself as a new man, even though he was Abubakar's running mate in the previous election four years ago. Others have noted that the candidate's entourage is less enthusiastic about supporting the End SARS movement: his running mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, said that the use of the term "massacre" to describe the Lekki shooting “raises questions”. A member of his campaign staff, military officer John Enenche, said that the images of the crackdown were "photoshopped". Above all, the press recalls that his name appears in the Pandora Papers, the huge tax evasion scandal uncovered in October 2021 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The businessman and former governor pleads good faith and says he "forgot" to declare certain assets...

“It's hard to say who will win,” says young essayist Mfonobong Inyang. “Nigerians and - hopefully - credible elections will decide.” The main candidates have already pledged to respect the verdict of the ballot box. Twenty years after the return of democracy in Nigeria, this is good news. It is also a sign that the elites, like most citizens, want to avoid the worst. Despite ethnic, social, and generational tensions, the trauma of the Biafran secession war remains in the minds of the people and is preventing the giant from falling into the abyss... ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Lagos, boiling but submersible

In the era of climate change, the most populated city on the continent and Nigeria's economic and cultural capital faces multiple challenges to manage its uncontrolled growth.

With only 300,000 inhabitants in 1950 and 5 million in 1990, Lagos has now more than 22 million residents. And every day, 3,000 to 5,000 newcomers arrive... In 2100, Lagos will be the most populated city in the world, with 88 million people! And the megalopolis will “only” be the eastern end of the sprawling conurbation of a thousand kilometers stretching along the Gulf of Guinea coast: from the Ivory Coast to Nigeria, the string of cities composed of Abidjan and Bingerville, Takoradi and Accra (Ghana), Lome (Togo), Cotonou (Benin) and Lagos, should, at that time, gather half a billion people! The infrastructures are unable to keep up with the pace of this exponential growth: Lagos suffers from endless traffic jams (go slows), massive pollution, and is overwhelmed by garbage (13,000 to 15,000 tons per day, which often ends up in the ocean). Regularly, buildings erected too quickly collapse on their occupants (45 people killed in Ikoyi in November 2021). The metro has been under construction for years and the first line should finally be inaugurated in the first quarter of 2023. The authorities are also encouraging the collection and sorting of waste by small and medium-sized enterprises, and volunteers are cleaning the Lighthouse beach, near Benin. But the biggest concern is still to come: its viability is threatened by global warming. The city - whose name means "lakes" in Portuguese - is built around a lagoon, right on the water, and two thirds of the inhabitants live in floodable areas... The mangrove, which once absorbed the waves, has been replaced by concrete, and the megalopolis is now at the mercy of the onslaught of the Atlantic, whose level is inexorably rising: the dyke surrounding the Eko Atlantic business district (whose construction is behind schedule) has pushed the waves back onto the less affluent neighboring areas, notably Alpha Beach​​​​​​​