Country profile: Nigeria

Young woman from animist community

A young woman from an animist community listens to a visiting Christian preacher in Maiduguri. © Seamus Murphy/Panos Pictures

Flag of Nigeria

There is a joke sometimes told about the self-styled ‘Giant of Africa’. It is said that when other countries complained to God about the many blessings bequeathed to Nigeria in the form of natural resources, he replied: ‘Wait till you see the people I put there.’

Over 55 years after it gained independence from Britain, Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation – still grapples with basic problems such as unsafe drinking water, inadequate healthcare and bad roads. These are problems the country should have been able to solve, given the plethora of resources – notably, abundant oil reserves – at its disposal. Instead, when it was recently revealed that Nigeria still imports toothpicks and pencils, and spends about two billion naira a day on importing rice, there was no sense of popular surprise. Nor was it exactly a revelation when the World Bank reported recently that the country’s private sector is constrained by unreliable electricity supplies, poor access to finance, and corruption.

Corruption, in particular, has been endemic. Many link this to the oil resources that should have enabled Nigeria to leap over the hurdles facing the more impoverished nations of West Africa. Oil exports began in 1958, just before independence, but it was the 1970s boom in oil prices that led the country effectively to put all its economic eggs in one basket. Over the years, this ‘black gold’ has arguably been a curse rather than a blessing. Many consider that it has led to the brazen theft of government revenues and fostered a culture of laziness. The ongoing trial of former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki for mis­appropriating $2.1 billion has revealed that people from all parts of the country took a cut out of this corrupt deal.

The tripartite problems of ethnicity, religion and corruption have played a key role in the country’s underdevelopment. There have been six successful coups d’état since 1960, each using one or all of these as their justification.

The current phase of democratic government, the Fourth Republic – instituted in 1999 following the death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha – is by far the longest there has been since independence. There has been a reasonably orderly transition of power involving four presidents – though the current incumbent, Mohammadu Buhari, himself once led the military coup of 1983.

A market scene in Lagos.

Seamus Murphy/Panos Pictures

Recent elections have not, however, been without problems, many of them connected to ethnic affiliations. In the 2011 election, Goodluck Jonathan was mostly supported by the Christian-dominated south while in 2015 Buhari won largely thanks to the backing of the mainly Muslim north. Many people fled their homes before last year’s election, particularly in the north, for fear of a recurrence of the violence following the 2011 event, which left more than 800 dead.

The aftermath of the electoral victory for Buhari’s All Progressives Congress has not exactly been unproblematic. ‘When you campaign, you say you will do A, B, C, but when you win the election, you prioritize,’ said information minister Lai Mohammed. This was in response to popular displeasure at President Buhari’s statement that, instead of paying unemployed youths 5,000-naira ($25) monthly stipends, as promised, he would use the money to build infrastructure that would create employment.

Buhari claims that his administration will mark an end to ‘business as usual’. In particular, the government says it is determined to rid the country of corruption while diversifying the economy. It stresses that this will mean taking tough and unpopular decisions. A case in point are new restrictions on foreign-exchange transactions imposed in January.

Nigerians will be sceptical about Buhari’s claims given that countless betrayed promises by past leaders have brought the country to its present state, where the general perception is that nothing is working as it should.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled 2001

At a glance

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  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)