About 10 days ago I sat at breakfast in Lomé, the capital of Togo, a sliver of a country in West Africa, watching French TV news of the capture, and what turned out to be false reports of the liberation, of seven French tourists in northern Cameroon by the Nigerian radical Islamist group Boko Haram. It was hard not to feel concerned about the future of this part of the world. Lomé is a good 800 miles as the crow flies from where this most recent drama occurred – and a similar distance from northern Mali, where fierce fighting continues for control of the city of Gao – and I was in far more danger there from motorcycles going the wrong way down one-way streets than from terrorist kidnappers. But the fairly recent emergence of economic dynamism in much of Africa after decades of stagnation due to poor governance and political and ethnic strife remains fragile, and these developments highlight the risk.
The world has begun to wake up to Africa and its enormous potential. Images of fierce battles between French troops and jihadists in northern Mali and of unspeakable horrors in Darfur and Eastern Congo now have to vie for the world’s attention with pictures of gleaming skyscrapers, shopping malls, cell phones, and new ports and roads, and with reports of stunning rates of economic growth and innovative new solutions to age-old problems of poverty. Ten of the 20 fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa, and not all of them are big energy or mineral producers. Consumer spending is expected to double over the next ten years and the number of countries with average household incomes of more than $5,000 will also double.
The Palms Mall in Lagos, Nigeria
Kenya has what may be the world’s most advanced mobile payments system, developed by the leading mobile phone operator, Safari.com, and used by everyone from gardeners to executives to pay their electric bills, send money to their parents in the village, and pay the housekeeper. According to some estimates, one-third of Kenya’s GDP flows through the system. Jumia.com, a Nigerian company, has slick online retail web sites in Nigeria, Egypt, and Morocco, selling everything from electronics to shoes and promising door-to-door delivery, no small challenge in countries where few people have fixed street addresses. To get around the payment problem, people go online and use their domestic debit cards or a bank transfer to pay for goods. A Jumia affiliate in North America then buys the stuff from Amazon and other online retailers, using U.S. and Canadian funds, consolidates the goods, and ships to Lagos three times a week via Fedex. Local knowledge is important: without it, these shipments might take ages to clear customs and cost substantial amounts of baksheesh. It’s not exactly Amazon Prime free overnight delivery, but it works, and it shows a way for companies to cater to the large and growing African middle class, people who can’t afford to fly to London or New York to do their shopping but who want, and have the means to pay for, a wide array of consumer goods.
The Nigerian Stock Exchange Index is at a 52-week high and is up nearly 65% over the past year, so regional insecurity has yet to translate into economic instability, and indeed the links between the two can be tenuous. Only a little farther afield, Egypt’s CASE (Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange) Index has been a star performer, up over 57% in local currency terms and 41% in dollar terms over the past 14 months, even as the Arab Spring has turned into what looks to be a long winter of discontent.
Over the long run, though, political instability and civil unrest tend to take their toll on economic growth and investment performance. If for no other reason, a country like Nigeria, whose economic prospects are bright, needs to address the problems caused by its homegrown radical Islamists. I have written previously in this space about Indonesia, another huge, ethnically and religiously diverse country, which appears to have dealt fairly successfully with a militant separatist Islamist movement in the northern province of Aceh by giving the province a substantial degree of autonomy to impose its austere version of Sharia law. The Philippines, similarly, appears to have neutralized the 40-year insurgency by the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front on the southern island of Mindanao, granting the region significant autonomy in a peace agreement signed last October.
Each country is different, of course, and there is no guarantee that what seems to work in Indonesia and the Philippines will also work in Nigeria. Nine northern Nigerian states have already instituted full Sharia law, while another three have given wide authority to Sharia courts to adjudicate family and commercial disputes between Muslims. But Boko Haram is based in Borno, one of the nine Sharia states, and has carried out some of its most vicious attacks in the state capital of Maiduguri. Granting additional autonomy to Borno State may be insufficient to pacify the group. At the same time, trying to crush Boko Haram militarily could instead aggravate the situation, victimizing and radicalizing innocents and swelling the ranks of Boko Haram supporters.
One problem is Nigeria’s federal system, which grants a tremendous amount of power to state governors, who control most state revenues, dispense vast patronage, and typically pick their own successors. Greater state-level autonomy means little if Boko Haram remains locked out of power.
A three-pronged approach, while it does not guarantee success, seems the only reasonable way forward. It would entail a concerted but highly-disciplined effort by the Nigerian military to weaken the group militarily – one source of popular grievance has been looting and other abuses committed by Nigerian troops in prior anti-insurgency campaigns – accompanied by efforts to prise away less radical elements with bribes and offers to share power, thus isolating the more intransigent factions and also weakening the links between Boko Haram, a homegrown movement, and international jihadists affiliated with Al Qaeda. A special, even more autonomous, status for Borno State – similar to the special status granted by Indonesia to Aceh Province – and a political dispensation which guarantees the Islamists a real voice, would also help, provided it comes with strict prohibitions on the state becoming a haven for terrorist adventurers, backed up with military force. Finally, although he has so far done a good job, President Goodluck Jonathan should consider announcing that he will not run for re-election in 2015.
Nigerian presidential politics is governed by an unwritten rule that the presidency should alternate between the Muslim north and the largely Christian south. This rule was broken when Umaru Yar’Adua, the northerner who succeeded outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo after Obasanjo had completed two full terms in office, fell gravely ill only two years into his term and then died following six months during which Vice President Jonathan served as Acting President. Jonathan, a southerner, served out the remainder of Yar’Adua’s term and then won election in his own right in 2011.
Although Nigerian presidents are subject to a two-term limit, the Nigerian High Court recently ruled that Jonathan could run for another term because, in the words of the ruling, “after the death of Umar Yar’Adua, there was no election. President Jonathan was merely asked to assume the office … in line with doctrine of necessity…He is therefore currently serving his first tenure of office and if he so wishes, he is eligible to further seek his party’s ticket … to run for office in 2015.” Northerners felt, and still feel, short-changed. If Jonathan were to run and serve another four-year term, a southerner would have ruled Nigeria for 18 of the previous 20 years. There is no guarantee that a legitimately elected northerner in the state house in Abuja will soften Boko Haram’s stance, but it could make some difference.
Nigeria, as Africa’s biggest country by population and its second-largest economy, is too big to ignore. We don’t know what a Boko Haram-ruled Borno State would look like, and we can’t exclude the possibility that it would entail the death penalty for apostasy, stoning of adulterers, and denial of education to girls. This could be hard for most Nigerians – not to mention the rest of the world – to accept, but the alternative could be far worse for everyone.
03-07-2013 12:47 AM