Toxin in the System

Michael Peel reports from Nigeria

Nigeria’s general election, which takes place on 14 February, is expected to be the most closely contested for 35 years or more. President Goodluck Jonathan and his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are riding on the back of a decade of decent economic growth and there is evidence of better governance in some areas. Jonathan’s supporters claim that if he wins a second term he may be able finally to tackle the long-standing corruption and political sclerosis that has damaged the country – the legacy of imperialism, dictatorship and the fight for the spoils of oil. But for all the talk of a booming middle class, and a surge in consumer goods and banking, Africa’s largest economy is still overwhelmingly dependent on income from oil and gas: it accounts for more than two-thirds of treasury revenue and 95 per cent of export earnings. The shale oil revolution in the US and the tumbling international oil price have left Nigeria badly exposed. Inequality continues to rise and internal conflicts – Boko Haram’s grim insurgency is by far the worst – undermine the foundations of this confected state. The British forced the north and south together in 1914, but Nigeria has remained in many senses divided. Memories of the Biafran war, which led to the death of half a million – or perhaps many more – and nearly to the country’s permanent partition at the end of the 1960s, still discourage Nigerians from turning a regional grievance, as the Igbo of Biafra did, into a bid for secession. Even so, some of Boko Haram’s victims in the north no longer have much confidence in the benefits to be had from the federal government in Abuja.

Up to two thousand people are thought to have been killed when Boko Haram captured the town of Baga along with a nearby military base at the beginning of January (the government puts the figure at 150). According to Amnesty International, satellite images show that more than 3700 buildings in the area were damaged or destroyed by fire. More than four thousand people are estimated to have died in the conflict last year: the figures for 2015 could be very much worse. Theories abound as to why the government hasn’t acted with more resolve. One is simply that the military is corrupt and underfunded. Another is that these areas are opposition strongholds and the PDP is happy to see millions of people unable, or too terrified, to turn out and vote. Others argue that moving hard against Boko Haram could even backfire: it has flourished despite – or perhaps because of – successive crackdowns and the death of its founder in police custody. For whatever reason, until the latest massacre Jonathan tried hard to ignore the problem: his visit last month to Maiduguri, the state capital, was his first to the north-east in nearly two years.

Lagos is now a refuge for some of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the crisis. When I recently visited a livestock market on the city’s outskirts, men displaced by the conflict took their turn on a wooden bench to give me depressingly similar accounts of their predicament. Abubakar Adam, a borehole-driller, fled his village after Boko Haram arrived three months ago, and trekked through the bush for six days to reach Maiduguri, before travelling on to Lagos. He thought that if the country was partitioned it might be better for ordinary people ‘than for things to go on as they are’. Goodluck Jonathan, he said, was a man of the south, indifferent to the sufferings of northern Nigerians. All the men were both fearful and scornful of the security forces. The army, they said, had attacked villagers wrongly suspected of supporting Boko Haram and lied about the number of casualties. Abubakar Mohamed, a fruit seller, told me that troops had killed five men in front of him and given him such a ferocious beating he couldn’t stand up for ten days. The military, he said, would often refuse to enter places where there had been massacres. ‘The greatest surprise,’ Mohammed Abdoulaye, an electrician from Maiduguri, remarked, ‘is that whenever there is a gunshot, the military are first to run.’ All these men were cynical about an election in which the inhabitants of conflict zones won’t be able to vote. Abubakar Mohamed foresaw ‘big trouble like has never happened to this country before’ if Jonathan and the PDP try to rig their way back into power. Ibraham Ali, a trader, felt that Nigerians were victims of a conspiracy to split the country into separate states controlled by a handful of potentates, and if that really was the case the sooner they got on with it the better.

Between 2002 and 2005 I worked in Nigeria as a correspondent for the Financial Times. Then, the country was an important US client state, sending half its oil exports across the Atlantic; it represented a key component in Washington’s plans to source a quarter of oil imports from Africa by 2015. But by last July, Nigeria was no longer exporting any oil to the US. Like other parts of the world, the administration in Abuja now looks east rather than west for markets and partners. In mid-December, the government – already reeling from allegations by a former governor of the central bank that up to $20 billion of oil wealth had been lost through suspect subsidy deals and contracts to swap crude – was forced to revise down its budgeted oil price for 2015 from $77.40 to $65 a barrel. In an echo of Russia’s currency crisis, the Nigerian naira fell almost 13 per cent in less than seven weeks to a record low of 187 to the dollar and continued to give ground after the new year. The finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said that Nigerians should ‘begin thinking of the country [as] a non-oil country’. In the long term, that could be an opportunity to break the destructive grip oil has had on national life since the first barrels left the country a couple of years before independence in 1960; in the short term, it could be a disastrous blow to this archetypal rentier economy. ‘The oil boom is nearly at an end,’ a Lagos-based businessman told me. ‘The fall in the crude price could be the first stage of a steep downward spiral.’

Boko Haram’s insurgency long ago froze the Niger Delta out of the international news, even though the battle for the region’s oil is the foundation narrative of modern Nigeria. Oil has been a toxin in the nation’s system: an industry that generated many hundreds of billions of dollars, yet has left most Nigerians with very little except swathes of ravaged land. Nigerian oil became an international scandal when in 1995 General Sani Abacha’s military regime hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists who’d carried out a long campaign against environmental degradation and exploitation in the delta. In the early 2000s groups of armed militants who took on the oil companies – and fought among themselves – helped to drive the oil price above $50 a barrel for the first time in the country’s history. Violent activism and self-enrichment continued after 2007’s rigged election, but suddenly subsided in 2009, when the government launched a well-funded amnesty programme to pay off ‘the boys’ in the armed groups. Militant leaders such as Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari – the mastermind of Operation Locust Feast, a plan for an all-out assault on oil interests in the delta that never quite materialised – went into semi-retirement to feed on the new disbursements from Abuja. Ever since, as a friend observed after the amnesty began, there has been a sense that ‘the calm will last as long as the money does.’

In November I travelled south to Port Harcourt to find election season in full swing. At the entrance of Government House, in sight of Port Harcourt’s half-finished monorail, dozens of protesters were milling and clamouring. Inside, sitting at a long table beneath the chandeliers, the governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, was holding court in front of an audience of about fifty. I hesitated at the entrance, but the governor beckoned me in. ‘Come, Peel! I want you to see native town hall politics.’

The audience was composed of loyalist supporters of the governor’s party, the All Progressives Congress. Many had turned out in their Sunday best from the swamps and creeks, worried about the potential for violence in their home district, Degema, a troubled place even by the standards of the Niger Delta. They were especially anxious about Farah Dagogo, a former militant leader who is standing for election on the ruling PDP ticket. Amaechi, who defected from the PDP to the APC with much fanfare in late 2013, was wearing tight green jeans and dispensing justice with rough-edged charm. He promised to pay everyone’s travel expenses and from time to time he tapped the table to stop people talking over one another. They should remain ‘strong’, he said, and respond if they were attacked, though he didn’t say how. ‘Farah is a militant,’ he declared. ‘He will come with guns and he will come with his boys. On election day, can we defeat him?’

‘Yes!’ a few voices answered, but without total conviction.

Amaechi, at 49, is one of a generation of governors from opposition parties who pride themselves on fulfilling their responsibilities – the watchwords are ‘good governance’ – and stress the ways in which they differ from the older, post-colonial elite, with its close links to the army. But good governance means different things to different people. Amaechi has built schools and hospitals but even some of his fans think the monorail may have been a mistake. The first few kilometres of a project supposed to stretch twenty kilometres still aren’t finished, the rolling stock stuck forlornly at a station at the end of the uncompleted track. I asked him what the point was of building a train line beside the main road: he said it would help ease traffic by carrying, among others, civil servants who work at state government offices in the area. He blamed the federal government for the delay in construction, saying it had failed to release oil money that was due to Rivers State. He bridled at the suggestion that some of his projects have been wasteful, including the new parliament building, constructed during his tenure as speaker, with its Italian marble and Chinese mirrored blue glass. Despite the frequency of scheduled domestic flights in Nigeria, Rivers State acquired an official jet after he became governor: it was needed, for instance, for a late flight to Lagos before an early morning TV interview on the Ebola crisis.

Security is still an issue in the delta, despite the fact that Amaechi has hired an Israeli private security firm (he also bought two surveillance helicopters from the US but hasn’t been allowed to deploy them). Kidnapping for ransom is said to be rife, with much of it passing below the radar because its victims are often Nigerians who will never make world news bulletins. An Indian businessman in Port Harcourt told me that the two main problems for anyone operating in Nigeria were ‘Boko Haram and kidnapping’. When I asked him about the extent of the problem for his company he said: ‘I am one of the victims.’ In 2012, he told me, he was ambushed and bundled into a car a hundred metres from his home in Asaba, the capital of Delta State. He was driven for an hour to a house where he was given a beating that fractured his skull. He was held for six days in a bathroom with his hands and feet tied, and given no food, only water. He thinks the paramilitary mobile police, known as Mopol, were involved, since the kidnappers drove through checkpoints and a police officer visited the house where he was being kept. He was eventually dumped by the side of a road after payment of a ransom, which he guesses was between five and ten million naira (between about £17,000 and £35,000). It was just business, he said. In the delta, everyone has a price. If they kidnapped me, he said, they would ask for more on the basis that I am white. ‘They wouldn’t let you go for less than fifty million.’

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It may be hard fully to understand the attraction of a politician like Amaechi, but you only have to look at some of his opponents to see why many prefer him. Wale Ajadi, who runs a film-making project documenting troubled communities in the delta, gave me an account of some of the ‘very interesting people’ running for office; it included men suspected of murder and tainted politicians with a depressing capacity for self-reinvention. It was rumoured that Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, Goodluck Jonathan’s former boss, was poised for a comeback. He fled the UK in 2005, allegedly dressed as a woman, to escape corruption charges, only to be convicted in Nigeria – and then pardoned in 2013 by Jonathan’s government. Joshua Dariye is another Nigerian politician – now a senator – who skipped bail in the UK in the face of moneylaundering charges (he has always denied wrongdoing). By comparison Amaechi and his cohort of new governors seem to be an improvement. But Ajadi was concerned that because the result of the election was likely to be so close there was potential for ‘serious, serious conflict’: ‘Usually there is some clarity about who is going to be the dominant person – who is going to win, whether legally or not.’ This time things were different.

Amaechi and the others like to stress that they are focused on regional issues and always distance themselves from Jonathan’s discredited federal government: Jonathan – incidentally the country’s first president from Niger Delta – is personally blamed for the dismal performance of the national electricity company and of course the inability to deal with Boko Haram. He was also roundly criticised recently in a memoir published in three handsome volumes covered in gold by his predecessor and former patron, Olusegun Obasanjo, another figure of towering ambiguity in Nigeria’s post-colonial history. But Jonathan’s team can point to plenty of shortcomings in the APC, not least that its presidential candidate is Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north who has promised to put an end to Boko Haram’s insurgency. Buhari, however, is also a former military dictator who has already stood three times for the presidency and, at the age of 72, looks more like Nigeria’s past than its future. And Jonathan has the great advantage of riding the financial juggernaut of the PDP, the winning party in every election since 1999. At the first election rally I attended in 2003, the PDP had a simple slogan: ‘Power, power, power.’

Wale Ajadi to0k me to a gathering of young activists and ex-militants at a Port Harcourt hotel and I asked some of them who they were planning to vote for. They said they weren’t necessarily going to opt for Jonathan just because he was from the delta. They wanted new infrastructure projects in the area: a football stadium, for instance. They had been loyal to a man called Government Tompolo, perhaps the canniest and most influential of all the ex-militant leaders; some of them, like him, had qualified for the federal amnesty. The fight against the oil companies in the delta and the arrival of guns had overturned generational hierarchies. Abraham Giant, a former leader now in his twenties, told me that in his village ‘elderly papas are calling me master.’ The amnesty programme paid him 65,000 naira a month, but he complained that it wasn’t enough. ‘They said they would give us a house and a car,’ he said. ‘Along the line, all those promises have failed. The basic truth is this: come 2015, if these things they said haven’t been done, people will go back to the creek to continue where they stopped.’ Giant and his men haven’t yet received the lucrative security or pipeline protection contracts from oil companies that others have received and he wants to buy a fleet of Yamaha 200-horsepower speedboats. ‘I need five,’ he says. ‘I have over six hundred soldiers.’

In a previous life Ajadi gave diversity training to UK government departments. Just before I left, I asked him who was harder to deal with: British bureaucrats or the former militants of the Niger Delta. ‘Middle-ranking British civil servants,’ he said immediately. ‘They have developed a kind of cynicism you can’t shift easily. But these ones,’ he added, ‘tough as they think they are, they are actually optimistic, in a funny sort of way.’

23 January