The Shortcomings of a Giant: What Prevents Nigeria from Becoming Africa’s Premier Regional Power?
The central narrative attached to many African nations is one of a post-colonial struggle to overcome political turmoil, violence, poverty and exploitation. The focus on this narrative seems to have facilitated an assumption of victimhood towards the continent. But what if we stopped to consider the potential of a country, such as Nigeria, to overcome these struggles and emerge as a formidable international force in its own right?
At a glance, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, with its massive population and growing economy, would seem to be the prime candidate to become such a force. However, with its apparent strength compromised by a government riddled with corruption, does the country have the tools to overcome its various challenges and emerge as a burgeoning regional, and perhaps even global, power?
The Giant of Africa
Perhaps the most obvious indicator of Nigeria’s potential is its people. The country boasts by far the largest population in Africa, with over 200 million as of 2021, and is projected to be the third most populous country in the world by 2050. The West African state is also the largest oil exporter in Africa, producing about 101.4 million metric tons of oil in 2019. Furthermore, there are roughly 34 million hectares of arable land in the country, as well as potentially vast amounts of untapped mineral wealth. This vast population and abundance of natural resources have translated into significant economic advantages for the country, making the Republic the largest economy in Africa. However, Nigeria still has room for further rapid economic growth.
Another sign of Nigeria’s prosperity is its ability, and willingness, to take on leadership positions among its West African neighbours. This can be most clearly seen through Abuja’s historically active role in various peacekeeping missions, not only under the UN mandate, but also under the mandates of regional organisations such as the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
As such, Nigeria possesses many assets which correspond with geopolitical potential to be at least a regional power. This therefore raises the question - what is stopping it from fully realising its potential?
Challenges to Nigerian Power
Despite its external strength, Nigeria is hindered by internal weaknesses. This primarily materialises as corruption, which is rampant throughout the country as there are very few measures to protect against government officials abusing their power. A 2019 survey showed that at least 30 per cent of people who encountered government officials found themselves having to pay a bribe. This issue is further exacerbated by the intense inequality which permeates the country as a result of most of Nigeria’s precious oil revenue being extracted by multinational corporations. This has led to significant environmental damage and an increasing poverty rate which is currently at over 40 per cent. This inequality greatly undermines the capacity of the Nigerian government to provide services and address corruption.
The #EndSARS movement in 2020 provided another example of the public’s frustration with the widespread corruption amongst public officials. This movement successfully sought the disbandment of the ‘Special Anti-Robbery Squad.’ The Squad, originally created to combat gang-related kidnappings and murders, was responsible for various human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape, extortion, unlawful detention, and extrajudicial killings across the country. This predatory behaviour against the Nigerian populace illustrates how government corruption has compromised the internal stability of the country and the safety of its citizens. Furthermore, while this movement eventually led to the unit’s disbandment, civilian protests were fired upon by the state’s armed forces in the process. Such a reactionary stance by the government further emphasises the strain on the relationship between the Nigerian state and its people.
Another recent concern within the country is the looming threat of civil strife. The grievances of a pro-independence organisation in the South-East of Nigeria, known as the Separatist Indigenous People of Biafra, will likely be stoked by the upcoming trial of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu. The group’s separatist ambitions had involved trying to create a state for ethnic Igbo people, which resulted in Nigeria’s deadly 1967-1970 Civil War. Many fear that this trial may reignite the conflict.
As a result of this immense internal instability, Nigeria’s ability to handle external pressure, such as transnational insurgent groups, has diminished. This is because government corruption has also found its way into the national defence forces, significantly contributing to their lack of effectiveness and leadership. This is evident in the country’s struggle to decisively defeat and eliminate the Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram. The major role of corruption in compromising the Nigerian military’s response to this crisis is highlighted by the fraudulent redirecting of funds for non-military purposes, resulting in significant supply issues and/or the provision of substandard equipment. This issue is further exacerbated by a severe lack of budgetary attention, as the country’s military is grossly under-equipped, underfunded and understaffed in relation to its size and geostrategic needs. Furthermore, this failure to contain Boko Haram has given rise to a questioning of Nigeria’s regional leadership among its West African neighbours.
In addition to mounting internal and external stress, Nigeria’s economy, despite its aforementioned advantages, fell into a rut when the country went into a recession in 2016, causing its growth rate to plummet from 6 per cent to 2 per cent. Abuja’s overreliance on oil exports, as well as the global economic impact of COVID-19 in 2020, has only exacerbated this economic stagnation, resulting in high unemployment and poverty rates.
So, with such formidable issues, can Nigeria overcome these challenges and realign its current political and economic trajectory with its geopolitical ambitions?
Potential Future Policy Directions
The challenges faced by Nigeria are complex and do not come with clear solutions. However, there are a few key policy changes the country could prioritise to address some of these issues.
It would seem the most pressing issue that should be addressed in Nigeria is corruption. Significant policy initiatives could be implemented to strengthen the government's existing anti-corruption agencies, as well as redouble the efforts of traditional law enforcement services such as the police. These could include the creation of evidence-based monitoring systems, the implementation of effective transparency mechanisms, criminal justice policy reforms, the inclusion of mandatory ethics training for government officials, and increasing the availability of avenues to report corruption for the general populace. If these measures were successful, other internal divisions, such as Igbo Separatism, may significantly subside as Nigerian citizens begin to view the central government as a fairer and more accountable institution.
With regard to the country's economic challenges, the Nigerian Government is eager to encourage economic diversification, offsetting the country’s overdependence on oil by facilitating investment in its significant agricultural and mineral resources. Furthermore, the country may be able to take advantage of its large working-age population by taking steps to cultivate a higher-skilled workforce. However, such efforts will require a greater level of attention and investment into the country’s education sector as the Nigerian government's current budgetary commitment to funding this sector remains low, making up only 6.48 per cent of the national budget in 2020. This kind of policy reversal in the near future remains unlikely due to political friction between the government and industry representatives. Despite this, substantial improvements in this area may prove essential in supporting economic diversification, thereby reinvigorating Nigeria’s presently stagnating economy.
While making these efforts, it would also be prudent to address the country’s understaffed and under-equipped army, providing adequate funding, training and equipment with the intended effect of repairing Abuja’s ability to respond to external pressure and regional crises.
With mounting internal and external pressures on its political system and national economy, Nigeria’s road ahead appears daunting. However, the country’s booming population and many growing industries show its clear potential as a geopolitical goliath. Thus, through substantial efforts to address the corruption present within the government and to revitalise the economy, Nigeria can utilise its natural strengths to reset its course and become a power of regional prominence and international significance.
Max Kerr is an amateur writer and university student in his third year of studying Law and International Politics at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He is broadly interested in international affairs, politics and history.