On a visit to Nigeria eight years ago, Felix Ekundayo spotted what he thought was the perfect business opportunity. Ekundayo knew sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil fields lay in the vast southern swamps of the Niger Delta. As an engineer, he was also aware oil drills suck up natural gas with crude. But instead of capturing gas, Nigeria was flaring it, burning $2.5 billion a year. The pollution was turning a natural paradise for birds, insects and fish into a vast, lifeless black lake. Tap the gas and pipe it to gas-fired power stations, Ekundayo estimated, and Nigeria could generate enough power for the whole country, with exports to spare. An end to flaring – actually illegal since 1984 – would also reduce pollution, perhaps appeasing a rising tide of popular anger in the Delta.
So in 2005, Ekundayo quit a career in London and moved back to Lagos. Six years on, the 42-year-old employs 35 people in a business that turned over $8.5 million last year. Not bad, but a fraction of what it should be. Ekundayo blames corrupt officials, who he says block his expansion to preserve their own monopoly on Nigeria’s energy supply. “We’re basically still where we were,” he says. (See pictures of Lagos.)
Nigeria should be Africa’s star. Its population of 160 million is the biggest on the continent and the seventh largest in the world. It produces 3% of global oil reserves and supplies 12% to 15% of U.S. oil imports. Within its borders is some of Africa’s best farmland, and off its coasts some of its richest seas. But for most Nigerians, the half-century since independence in 1960 has been less than stellar. The population exploded – more than tripling – but little else did. For 25 years after 1980 the economy barely moved. Nigeria slipped ever lower in global rankings of health and poverty, and life expectancy is just 48, an increase of less than four years in three decades. Around two-thirds of Nigerians still live in absolute poverty and most lack reliable power or serviceable roads. Poor maintenance of state oil refineries means Africa’s biggest crude producer has to buy most of its fuel.
Enduring poverty means frustration, which means instability. Seven years after independence, Nigeria erupted into civil war over the attempted secession of the province of Biafra. More than a million people died in the famine that followed. Three decades of military dictators, and six coups, followed, and conflict continued after the return of democracy in 1999. In the dirt-poor southern Delta, the anger has turned into a fully fledged insurgency. In the north, Muslim and Christian militants regularly slaughter one another across the line where North African Islam meets southern African Christianity. (See pictures of the two sides of Nigeria.)
Why did what should have been Africa’s colossus become a continental embarrassment? The main reason is atrocious government. Military or civilian, Nigeria’s rulers have often been indistinguishable from its criminals. According to the World Bank, $300 billion disappeared from Nigeria in the three decades to 2006, while the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) says the figure from 1960 to 2006 is $380 billion. In Nigeria, corruption doesn’t just pollute the system, it is the system. Hence the global perception that Nigeria’s contribution to the world is limited to drug smugglers, e-mail scams and silk-cloaked Big Men.
And yet as Nigeria holds presidential, parliamentary and regional elections this month, it finds itself on the threshold of change. The elite that misruled for five decades is aging. The population explosion of the past 30 years, now finally slowing, means an extraordinarily young Nigeria is emerging: the U.N. says 62% of the country is under 24, while 60% of voters are ages 18 to 35. Factor in an official unemployment rate of 19.7%, then compare those figures with Egypt, where disaffected youth led a revolution despite the fact that the country is older (only 52% are under 24) and more employed (9.7%). Is Nigeria headed for a similar explosion?
That Old Curse Again
Quite how badly Nigeria’s rulers blew the country’s first half-century of freedom is evident in the northern city of Kano. A dusty crossroads on the trans-Sahara trade route and the capital of the Hausa people, Kano is the oldest city in West Africa. Just inside the old city walls are the Kofa dye pits, where for hundreds of years indigo, ash and urine have been mixed in 6-m-deep trenches in which great sacks of cloth are colored blue. History lives on in Kano’s medieval levels of poverty too. Most Hausas scrape by on a dollar a day or less, and Hausa women, according to a March report by UNESCO, are the least educated on earth: 97% of those ages 17 to 22 have completed less than two years in school.
All three leading presidential candidates visited Kano in March and promised wholesale change. When the ruling President Goodluck Jonathan’s caravan rolled into town, the city was hung with banners featuring his slogan, TRANSFORM NIGERIA. Nuhu Ribadu of the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) told a students’ meeting the election was a chance to “make this a country we can be proud of.” Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from the north and attracted the biggest crowd, actually named his party the Congress for Positive Change. (See “This Time for Africa?”)
All promising. And indeed, if bad leadership was the source of all Nigeria’s problems, a good leader might solve them. But there are also systemic reasons for Nigeria’s rot. Economists use the term resource curse to describe the paradox by which countries blessed by a natural endowment are often less stable, less democratic and less developed than those without one. Nigeria is a prime example. Whereas governments are normally directly accountable to their people through elections and tax, in Nigeria the curse shatters those links. Oil accounts for nearly all exports by value and 80% to 85% of government revenue – and the wealth it brings in is split among powerful politicians and officials.
The effect is to upend the normal dynamics of democracy. The oil industry has replaced the people as the government’s constituency. The state exists to serve the industry, and oil revenues pay for the state’s existence. The conventional popular demands of government – service delivery, provision of infrastructure, business assistance, official competence – go unheard or ignored. Politics is reduced to commerce, and political parties to competing businesses. (See “Niger Delta Oil Spills in Spotlight.”)
This subversive pattern is replicated throughout the state. Nigeria’s police, army and customs services run smuggling rings, steal oil from pipelines and send cocaine from South America on to Europe. State sellers of products and services like electricity or petrol have their own rackets, squeezing supply and causing blackouts so they can hike prices or sell more generators. Traffic cops at roadblocks demand tithes from drivers, bureaucrats require bribes to process paperwork, teachers ask for gifts to turn up at school. And since the focus is on personal enrichment, not service delivery, incompetence reigns.
Tearing down such entrenched corruption would require a social revolution. And it’s not clear that any of the presidential candidates are up to the job. Why? Because all are, to some degree, part of the system. Since 1999, Nigeria has been led by one party – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – and, mostly, one man, Olusegun Obasanjo, 74, who led a military junta from 1976 to ’79, then ruled as elected President from 1999 to 2007. Despite his reputation for clean dealing, Nigerians refused to change the constitution to give him a third term. So Obasanjo appointed the sickly Umaru Yar’Adua as his proxy, and on Yar’Adua’s death in 2010, Jonathan, his Vice President, inherited the same role. Always in Obasanjo’s shadow, Jonathan’s first year has been unimpressive. (See “Umaru Yar’Adua: Remembering Nigeria’s Patient President.”)
Ribadu is a more credible champion of change. He is 50, looks 30 and as head of the EFCC from 2003 to 2007 secured convictions against nearly 300 political figures. But Ribadu is compromised too. The ACN’s party leader is Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos who is repeatedly accused of corruption. Exasperated, millions of Nigerians are turning to Buhari, 68. He may be the least progressive of the candidates – the central selling point of his campaign is that he was military dictator, from 1983 to ’85 – but a firm hand is precisely what some Nigerians think the country needs. “Forget about commanding respect,” says Ekundayo. “Buhari commands fear.”
Hope from the Megacity
So why is it possible to be optimistic about Nigeria? Because although the presidential candidates seem unlikely to spearhead change, the country may be changing without them. Partly because a new election commissioner, Attahiru Jega, has installed a supposedly tamperproof biometric voting system, partly out of the sense that Nigeria is a nation being remade, the election result for the first time in memory is not a foregone conclusion. Initial results from the April 9 parliamentary elections confirm that while the PDP remains Nigeria’s biggest party, its domination is gone. That reflects a crucial difference between Nigeria and the nations of North Africa. However imperfect, Nigeria is a democracy.
Even more significant – despite last-minute problems with Jega’s organization that forced a week’s delay in the poll – it is becoming a better-functioning one. A new oil-industry transparency law is due to take effect in May. Since June 2009, central-bank governor Lamido Sanusi has sacked the heads of eight banks in his reform of an industry that was a source of scams and money laundering. A new generation of entrepreneurs like Ekundayo is driving economic growth: the World Bank says GDP rose 7.8% in 2010 and 8.5% outside oil and gas. The nonoil economy creates more jobs and lessens the government’s dependence on oil revenues, and the leaders of these new businesses are intolerant of the old ways and have the resources to fight them. (See pictures of the stars of Nigeria’s movie business.)
Onno Ruhl, the World Bank’s country director for Nigeria, says that combined with the surge in numbers of young Nigerians, these elements add up to a “fantastic cocktail for change.” The improvements encouraged investment bank Goldman Sachs to include Nigeria in its list of the “next 11” emerging markets in 2007. Ruhl says whoever wins the election will have to govern very differently: “With all this, they can’t afford to continue as before.”
One Nigerian politician is charting a new direction. Before Babatunde Fashola became its governor in 2007, Lagos – Nigeria’s business capital and Africa’s premier megacity – was known as the world’s first failed city-state. The place had seen almost no new infrastructure for four decades, despite its population soaring from 5 million in 1976 to 18 million. Traffic was gridlocked day and night. Slums expanded, on stilts, into the lagoons that gave the city its name. Crime was rife, pollution choking, brownouts constant. It was, says Fashola, a city of “very evident despair.” (See TIME’s photo-essay “Keeping Africa’s Deserts at Bay.”)
Fashola, 47, was perhaps the only person in Lagos who saw that as an opportunity. “You are going to need more water, more roads, more jetties, schools, hospitals, space for housing,” he says. “That all means jobs.” Fashola set about rehabilitating and expanding a maze of overpasses, part of a new transport network that will connect cars and buses with trains, trams, airports and water taxis. He unveiled plans for a new 17,000-hectare industrial zone and a gleaming new 900-hectare city center on land reclaimed from the sea that will be home to 250,000 residents and contain offices for another 150,000 commuters. All that building has indeed created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Efforts to clean the streets had the multiple effect of tidying, employing and cutting crime.
To Fashola, the new Lagos is a “statement … that things could be changed no matter how bad they were.” It’s also an example of how a new Nigeria might emerge from the old. The development of Lagos’ nonoil economy means 70% of the city’s revenue is now raised locally. Citizens not only are willing to pay tax: more to the point, by doing so they and their government reconnect, reversing decades when state and citizens lived in separate worlds.
There are lessons for the whole country here. No Nigerian politician has missed that Fashola is the country’s most admired leader. Though internal ACN rivalries block any presidential bid (and Fashola in any case insists he prefers state politics to national) the governor is proving that results are possible within Nigerian politics. But while change is inevitable, it is unlikely to come fast or smoothly, because the bad old generation of Nigerian leaders will not go quietly. A Western diplomat describes Nigeria as having it “all to lose, rather than poised for victory.” In Lagos, Ekundayo laments the slow pace of change. “It’s like watching a child grow: you only notice if you’ve been away for a while.”
But Ekundayo stays, he says, because he has no doubt that tomorrow will be brighter. “The sad thing about Nigeria is the enormous unrealized potential,” he says. “Of course, that’s also the wonderful thing.”