Complexities in Nigeria’s democracy and development

This week’s writer is Cora Siebert, advocacy research intern at the Ottawa Office.

Nigeria’s presidential election in March 2015 was heralded in the media as a monumental turning point in the country’s political history. Local and international media alike deemed the election to be free and fair, resulting in Goodluck Jonathon willingly and peacefully transferring power to a new leader, Muhammadu Buhari. This is in a country with a long history — since independence from Britain in 1960 — of rigged elections and military coups.  It was also one of the first times in contemporary African politics that an incumbent was defeated and peacefully conceded power without any violent uprising or taking the results to court.

This woman and her son were among many people displaced by violence in northeastern Nigeria in 2014. She makes bowls to sell and earn some income. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

An electoral victory and peaceful transfer of power can be used as a simple measurement by the international community to say, look, it’s here, free and fair democracy is working. Yet the appearance of democratic institutions can be seriously undermined when an underlying factor such as corruption affects all areas of life, disempowering citizens. Corruption in Nigeria occurs usually through bribes or government funds being pocketed by officials. Transparency International ranked Nigeria 136th out of 173 nations in terms of corruption in 2014.  When surveyed, Nigerian citizens indicated they perceived all institutions from political parties, to police to the media to be corrupt.

Buhari came into his presidential role with a campaign to end the corruption.  So far he has made significant changes to national security in replacing military chiefs accused of misusing government funds. Despite his positive intentions, it is difficult to separate corruption from politics when corruption has plagued the political system for so long. Even the head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency was recently fired after denying that $5 billion had gone missing from the agency.

Being able to cast a vote for a President does not speak very loudly when individuals are disempowered and marginalized on a daily basis due to systematic corruption. For example, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), has been accused of ignoring government subsidies for household necessities like kerosene, which is commonly used for cooking. The NNPC charged consumers 98 cents a litre for kerosene, when the price was actually supposed to be 26 cents a litre because of a government subsidy. This extra charge was pocketed by the NNPC. Yet many people who use kerosene to cook for their families were completely unaware there was a government subsidy. This shows how corruption can work not only to deny those in poverty access to financial benefits, but also to deny them the knowledge and power to improve their living situation.

MCC supports the development of peace clubs in schools, such as this one in Plateau State. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

Despite Nigeria’s economic growth, poverty is also on the increase. Nigeria’s GDP was 568.51 USD in 2013, the highest of all African countries, yet over 60% of Nigerians live on less than $1.25 a day. Lack of transparency for government funding means significant lost money earmarked for educational and healthcare facilities. Economic growth in Nigeria is not usually distributed equally throughout society due to these structures, and those in poverty have little power to improve their situation.

So where does Canada fit in with this?

Canada operates in the Nigerian context through trade deals and development projects. The oil and gas industry has long been a priority for Canada in Nigeria. In 2012 Nigeria was number 7 in Canada’s worldwide oil and gas trade, with almost $2 billion in trade. Any Canadian efforts to stimulate economic growth or development happen within a structure where transactions involve bribes to those with power, and government money often goes missing – to those responsible for distributing it.

The Canadian government has paid little attention to bridging the inequalities within Nigeria that have been exacerbated through corruption on every level of governance and industry. Instead of recognizing the underlying problem of corruption, Canada focuses on increasing overall wealth within Nigeria through trade and building industry.

Margaret Ahmed, director of Homemakers Income Generation for Women, speaks to a group about its work at grassroots empowerment. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

While Buhari is working to tackle corruption from within government structure, another approach is to empower individuals at a grassroots level. MCC works with partners in Nigeria on projects that help to do this, including the Homemakers Income Generation for Women. This project provides women with microloans and offers them training in money management, techniques for developing marketable products, training in conflict mitigation and advice in small scale agriculture. Women participate in cooperative groups and meet on a regular basis. All of these things help to build the capacity and confidence of women, making them more economically empowered and less susceptible to the corruption which they normally encounter when making a living and buying goods on a daily basis.

The Canadian government has, since 2010, shown some support for empowering individuals in the democratic process through providing technical assistance to Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission. The Commission has been a positive force in supervising democratic processes and extending voter and civic education to Nigerians.

But Canada needs to do more, especially if, under the new Liberal government, it continues to invest in trade and industry as it has in he past.  Trade levels should be matched with grassroots efforts to empower Nigerian citizens personally and economically so that they are eventually able to stand up to systematic corruption.

The type of corruption that is seen in Nigeria will not be quickly or easily eliminated. However all international actors operating in the country — including Canada — must recognize corruption as a major problem and act in ways that can help diminish it from a grassroots level.

2 Thoughts

  1. This would be an important time (with our new federal gov’t in place) to send letters of encouragement regarding Canada’s role and responsibility in supporting the new leader in Nigeria to continue addressing the issue of corruption. I appreciate what MCC is doing in support of the Homemakers Income Generation for Women initiatives. This is a very informative article.

  2. Thanks for this analysis. It really is hard to see how corrupt habits can be undone except through a deal. We’ll raise your salaries if you agree to stop extracting bribes before providing services. This coupled with consistent enforcement and international sanctions might help to swing the tide.

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