Strategic Posture Review: Nigeria

Strategic Posture Review: Nigeria

Nigeria is a diplomatic force within West Africa, a major participant in continental African politics and an important international actor. As the world’s seventh-most-populous country, its 14th-largest oil producer and home to Africa’s fifth-largest military, Nigeria possesses tremendous resources. Yet Nigeria’s internal security challenges and political dysfunction constrain its role on the regional, continental and world stages.

Cyclical violence undermines the rule of law and entrenches intercommunal enmities. Pervasive corruption drains funding from services and infrastructure and saps public confidence in government. Policy implementation often proceeds haphazardly and generates backlash. Finally, “do-or-die” electoral politics, as former President Olusegun Obasanjo characterized the country’s voting culture, heightens political violence and elevates political tensions.

Though predictions of the Nigerian state’s impending collapse are exaggerated, Nigeria’s foreign policy is often hampered by these and other domestic challenges. After being heavily engaged in regional affairs during Obasanjo’s tenure from 1999 to 2007, Nigeria’s regional role receded under his successor, President Umaru Yar’Adua, especially during Yar’Adua’s severe illness in 2009-2010. President Goodluck Jonathan — who took over during Yar’Adua’s incapacitation, became president on the latter’s death in May 2010 and won a full term in the April 2011 elections — has begun to reassert Nigeria’s role in regional efforts. However, Nigeria’s internal ethnic, religious, regional and political divisions will pose obstacles to this renewed effort at leadership.

National Security Issues and Strategic Priorities

Nigeria faces five major national security threats. First, the Boko Haram uprising in northern Nigeria, which has undermined the rule of law, particularly in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Bauchi, and has exacerbated Muslim-Christian tensions at the national level. Second, localized cycles of Muslim-Christian violence in the Middle Belt, especially in Kaduna and Plateau states, which periodically overwhelm the capacities of local authorities to restore order. Third, electoral violence at the local, state and national levels, which subverts the integrity of electoral processes and claims hundreds of lives, as was seen in the post-election rioting that swept northern Nigeria in April 2011. Fourth, militant groups, criminals and pirates in the oil-rich states of the Niger Delta and offshore zones, which target the government, private companies and ordinary citizens, in addition to stealing oil and destroying infrastructure. Finally, strains on resources and environmental devastation, which sap Nigeria’s capacity to feed and care for its citizens. Several of these threats have transnational dimensions.

Boko Haram emerged around 2002 in northeastern Nigeria as a Muslim sectarian community headed by Muhammad Yusuf, a former civil servant turned preacher who advocated against Western education and science and forbade his followers from working in secular government. In 2003-2004, Boko Haram members clashed first with local residents and subsequently with security forces in Yobe state. In July 2009, following tensions with local authorities and the arrest of sect members, the group launched an uprising that extended to Borno, Yobe, Bauchi, Katsina and Kano states. A crackdown by security forces left more than 800 people dead, some due to brutality by police and soldiers against civilians. Yusuf died in police custody.

In 2010, Boko Haram re-emerged, staging a series of prison breaks and assassinating security personnel and local politicians in northeastern Nigeria. In June 2011, Boko Haram perpetrated a suicide bombing at the National Police headquarters in Abuja, followed by another suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in the capital in August 2011. Throughout 2011-2012, as the Nigerian military’s Joint Task Force hunted the group’s members and attempted to restore order in the northeast, Boko Haram expanded the geographical range and tactical diversity of its attacks, conducting bombings in Kano and Kaduna and attacking Christian churches, Islamic schools, cell phone towers and other targets. The sect’s leaders now demand the implementation of Shariah across all of Nigeria, the release of imprisoned sect members and the departure of Christians from northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram poses both military and political challenges to the Nigerian state. Yet in dealing with the movement, the Nigerian government continues to rely on harsh crackdowns. These have failed to suppress the group, and abuses committed by security forces have fueled civilians’ mistrust of authorities. Meanwhile, efforts at dialogue have failed, with potential mediators withdrawing and Boko Haram refusing to talk. Some observers fear that Boko Haram, if unchecked, could spill into neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Others argue that the group has already established operational ties with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Suspected members of the sect were arrested in Diffa, Niger, in early 2012. In October 2012, Niger and Nigeria announced plans to launch a joint border patrol force meant to prevent Boko Haram and AQIM from crossing the two countries’ shared border.

Boko Haram has begun to increasingly target Christians, exacerbating historical Muslim-Christian tensions that remain high in Nigeria. Since the launch of the Fourth Republic in 1999, cycles of violence have taken hold in the religiously mixed Middle Belt region. Though often reductively characterized as interreligious in nature, these conflicts are compounded by a complex array of factors. The violence in Plateau state, for instance, involves struggles over land between pastoralists and farmers; contests over citizenship rights between “settlers” and “indigenes”; ethnic hatred between Fulani, Berom and other ethnicities; and the exploitation of religious rivalry by unscrupulous politicians. The federal government has repeatedly deployed the Joint Task Force to restore order in the state capital of Jos, and violence in Plateau and Kaduna states is a frequent source of heated national debate.

Religious and ethnic tensions in turn contribute to the problem of electoral violence. Throughout the Fourth Republic, national, state and local elections have often been accompanied by violence, whether during the campaigns, at polling stations, after the results are announced or during “rerun” elections ordered by the courts. At the state level, politicians often mobilize youth gangs to intimidate voters and opponents, a problem that has fueled criminal activity, especially in the Niger Delta. Meanwhile, violence, tampering and intimidation have undermined the integrity of elections, with the 2007 polls marking a low point: Observers from the European Union concluded that the contest was neither free nor fair. The 2011 elections received better ratings from outside observers, but in April 2011, following the re-election of Jonathan, himself a Christian from Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta, youth in 12 northern states rioted for three days, resulting in an estimated 800 deaths.

The pronounced dominance of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has held the presidency, a legislative majority and a majority of the country’s governorships since 1999, contributes to perceptions that the political playing field is uneven. Jonathan’s presidency, moreover, has disrupted “zoning” agreements within the PDP under which a northerner was expected to hold the presidency for eight years after Obasanjo, a southerner, left office in 2007. (Yar’Adua was from the north.) If Jonathan stands for re-election in 2015, it could provoke bitter struggles during both the PDP primary and the general election.

The inadequacies of democratic processes are one factor in the emergence of militancy in the oil-producing Niger Delta region. Objecting to environmental devastation and the small share of oil profits that return to local communities, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) launched an insurrection against the Nigerian state from 2006 to 2009, kidnapping and killing oil workers while attacking military units and oil pipelines. After initially responding to the insurrection with military force, the Nigerian government initiated an amnesty program for militants in 2009. This program is meant to facilitate development and job training in the Delta, but critics have alleged that the program merely pays off selected commanders while ignoring the concerns of rank-and-file fighters. Some observers also fear that the amnesty program could prove unsustainable due to its expense, calculated at $400 million for 2012, and that lingering grievances in the Delta could lead to renewed violence on a large scale.

While the amnesty program has reduced violence in the region, sporadic attacks have continued in MEND’s name, including a bombing in Abuja during independence celebrations on Oct. 1, 2010. Militants as well as ordinary people also continue to steal oil, resulting in annual losses estimated at $5 billion. Finally, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is rising, with 34 incidents — including hijacked oil tankers and attacks on offshore oil installations — reported for the first nine months of 2012, up from 25 in 2011. As a result, piracy has become an increasingly important concern, driving governments in the region to coordinate their responses. Nigeria began conducting joint naval patrols with Benin in September 2011, leading to a decrease of piracy in Beninese waters. But attacks off the coasts of Togo and Nigeria have increased.

The final threat to Nigeria’s national security comes from climate change and environmental devastation, both of which help drive the country’s internal conflicts. For example, desertification in northern Nigeria pushes pastoralists south into areas like Plateau state, contributing to the violence around Jos. And environmental damage from the oil industry is a core grievance among militants in the Niger Delta. Climate change and environmental devastation also threaten national security by reducing arable land, exacerbating hunger and helping to generate extreme weather events, such as the massive flooding that swept through much of Nigeria from July to October 2012. Climate change is also a transnational issue for Nigeria, in that desertification and drought in Niger and elsewhere in the region can bring economic and humanitarian refugees seeking relief and work inside Nigeria.

Nigeria’s national security challenges impose tremendous burdens on the state in terms of lives lost, costs incurred and time spent containing violence and attempting to maintain order and legitimacy. The country’s conflicts also intersect in dangerous ways. For example, Boko Haram’s violence elevates Muslim-Christian tensions at the national level, feeds into local cycles of violence and draws threats of reprisal violence from militant Christians in southern zones. Furthermore, these interlocking crises damage Nigeria’s three greatest assets: its economic potential (with billions of dollars lost each year, for example, in stolen oil and below-capacity production), its military might and its human resources. With much of its attention turned inward, Nigeria can only be a partial presence on the regional and continental stage.

Foreign Policy

Since Nigeria achieved independence in 1960, a consistent focus of its foreign policy has been promoting peace, stability and unity in Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, Nigeria took an activist stance in favor of the decolonization of Lusophone territories such as Angola and Mozambique, and was a consistent opponent of apartheid in South Africa. West Africa in particular has been a strategic priority, and Nigeria has been active in resolving crises in the region, including, as discussed below, by deploying peacekeepers.

Nigeria’s relations with its immediate neighbors have generally been amicable, with the exceptions of border disputes with Chad and Cameroon. Nigeria does not have major refugee issues, although the close cultural linkages between northern Nigeria and southern Niger mean that many Nigeriens enter Nigeria seeking work and refuge from drought and conflict. The two countries enjoy close ties, however, and have institutionalized their efforts with a Joint Commission for Cooperation.

At times, Nigeria has cultivated strong relations with Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia. Since the 1970s, when the numbers of Nigerian pilgrims on the hajj began to explode due to Nigeria’s oil boom and the expansion of air travel, Nigeria has often sent between 50,000 and 100,000 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia in any given year. Saudi Arabia has invested money into religious and human development projects in Nigeria, such as the construction of mosques and Islamic schools, and Saudi-based nongovernmental organizations, such as the International Islamic Relief Organization, operate in Nigeria.

Despite frequent and massive contacts between the two countries, however, Nigerian-Saudi relations have sometimes been characterized by ambivalence, with Nigeria objecting to the treatment of its citizens on Saudi soil and Saudi Arabia charging Nigerian visitors with impropriety. During the hajj in 2012, for instance, Saudi Arabia deported around 1,000 female Nigerian pilgrims who allegedly lacked appropriate male escorts. Although some of the pilgrims were later readmitted, the incident caused diplomatic tensions between the two countries. In solidarity with Arab countries and like many other African states, Nigeria broke ties with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, though diplomatic recognition was restored in 1992. Educational exchanges, in particular, have formed a pillar of Nigeria’s relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, with an increasing number of Nigerian students traveling to Egypt, Malaysia and elsewhere for training in technical fields, social sciences, Islamic studies and other disciplines.

Outside of Africa and the Arab world, Nigeria’s three closest partners are the United Kingdom, the United States and China. Historical connections, bilateral trade that reached $8.5 billion in 2011 and the estimated 800,000 members of the Nigerian diaspora who reside in Britain are the foundation of Nigeria’s relations with the U.K. The British government is also a major aid donor, providing approximately $280 million in aid to Nigeria in 2011. The U.K. Department for International Development’s operational plan for Nigeria for 2011-2015 emphasizes the goals of improving governance in Nigeria, “unleashing” the country’s economic potential, resolving internal conflicts and boosting investors’ confidence.

The U.S. is another important partner for Nigeria, with an estimated 1 million members of the Nigerian diaspora living and studying in the U.S. Like Ethiopia and South Africa, Nigeria is viewed by American policymakers as a power in its region, and the Obama administration named Nigeria as one of its 13 “priority countries” in sub-Saharan Africa due to its human and economic resources. Although President Barack Obama has not visited Nigeria during his time in office, Nigeria frequently features as a destination for senior U.S. officials visiting Africa. In 2010, the U.S. and Nigeria created a Binational Commission, elevating relations to the kind of “strategic partnership” that Washington also has with South Africa and Angola. Issues the commission discusses include energy, governance and security. Nigeria is the United States’ largest trade partner in Africa, with U.S. imports from Nigeria, primarily oil and natural gas, totaling nearly $33.9 billion in 2011, and exports to Nigeria totaling $4.9 billion.

Nigeria is also the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in Africa after Kenya. The U.S. government allotted $660.5 million for aid to Nigeria in 2012, with priorities including strengthening governance, fighting corruption and improving health services. The U.S. and Nigeria have also cooperated closely on some security issues, although the Nigerian government has objected to some U.S. policies, such as special screening procedures imposed on Nigerian travelers at U.S. airports in the wake of an attempted airplane bombing by Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab in 2009.

China has become an important trading partner for Nigeria and an important investor in Nigerian industries and infrastructure. As of 2010, Nigeria was China’s fourth-largest trading partner in Africa after Angola, South Africa and Sudan, and bilateral trade reached $10.7 billion in 2011. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Nigeria in 2004 and 2006, and senior Nigerian and Chinese officials regularly exchange visits. China has been particularly interested in Nigeria’s oil sector: In May 2010, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and the China State Construction Engineering Corporation signed a $23 billion agreement to jointly build three oil refineries in Nigeria, though as of October 2012 none of these refineries had come on line. China has also worked to develop Nigerian infrastructure, for example by loaning Nigeria $1.1 billion in September 2012 to finance airport and rail projects.

Despite deepening economic ties between China and Nigeria, there have been some tensions in the relationship. Nigerian workers have decried conditions at Chinese-owned businesses in the country, while Nigerian businessmen have complained that cheap Chinese imports undercut their ability to sell their goods. In May 2012, Nigerian immigration officials arrested 45 Chinese nationals in Kano on charges of trading illegally in textiles, one of Kano state’s major industries.

The focus of Nigeria’s foreign policy with regard to bilateral relations has been on attracting foreign direct investment. In particular, Jonathan has stressed the importance of foreign direct investment, estimated at $9 billion in 2011, for fulfilling his government’s 2011-2015 Transformation Agenda, intended to strengthen the economy, improve governance and promote human development, and its Vision 2020, intended to make Nigeria one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2020. The Jonathan administration has promoted foreign direct investment through Nigeria’s embassies overseas as well as through bodies like the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, which strives to build public-private partnerships around infrastructure development, and the Bureau of Public Procurement, whose mission is to promote transparency in the public sector. Another critical factor in shaping the investment climate in Nigeria will be the Petroleum Investment Bill, which has been heavily debated at several junctures since it was first introduced in 2008, and which may be passed in 2013. Although Shell, one of the largest multinational oil companies operating in Nigeria, complained in September 2012 that the draft bill was unfair to investors, the bill’s architects hope it will reform the oil sector, reduce corruption and boost government revenue.

In addition to its bilateral partnerships, Nigeria belongs to a number of multilateral organizations, including the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, the World Trade Organization and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which Nigeria joined in 1986. Nigeria joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1971. At the continental level, Nigeria was a founding member of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 and is a member in good standing of the OAU’s successor organization, the African Union (AU).

Nigeria has often participated vigorously in the diplomatic affairs and crises of West Africa. Nigeria was a founding member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, and in 1989, Nigeria, along with other West African states, signed the Protocol on Mutual Defense Assistance. In 1990, during the Liberian civil war, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea and Sierra Leone established the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). This peacekeeping force was primarily comprised of and commanded by Nigerian forces, as Nigeria not only has the largest military in the region but is also the only country in the region with major sea and airlift capabilities. ECOMOG forces deployed to Liberia from 1990 to 1997, to Sierra Leone from 1998 to 1999, to Guinea-Bissau from 1998 to 1999 and to Cote d’Ivoire from 2002 to 2004. ECOMOG successfully restored peace in these West African countries, but has been criticized for logistical gaps and a lack of close communication with political representatives from ECOWAS.

Outside of the framework of ECOMOG, Nigeria contributed peacekeepers to the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone from 1999 to 2005, to the ongoing United Nations Mission in Liberia established in 2003 and the African Mission in Sudan from 2004 to 2007. Nigerian peacekeepers have served outside Africa as well, for example in the former Yugoslavia. According to the U.S. State Department, 6,000 Nigerian peacekeepers were deployed in 12 U.N. missions as of April 2012.

In addition to Nigeria’s role in providing peacekeepers, Nigerian leaders have served as mediators during regional political crises. For example, Obasanjo served as ECOWAS’ special envoy to Cote d’Ivoire during that country’s post-electoral crisis in 2010-2011, and he also led a joint AU-ECOWAS delegation to Senegal to address political tensions on the eve of that country’s February 2012 presidential elections.

Given Nigeria’s military and diplomatic might in West Africa, regional and international policymakers expect Nigeria to play a major role in the ECOWAS-led military intervention in Mali planned for 2013. The Jonathan administration has supported ECOWAS’ parallel efforts to restore civilian rule in Mali and retake the country’s Tuareg north from a loose coalition of Tuareg nationalist and Islamist militias. Jonathan visited Mali in October 2012, and in August he expressed both his hope for a negotiated settlement and his willingness to endorse the use of force to resolve the crisis. ECOWAS has proposed to deploy 3,245 soldiers in Mali, of whom nearly 700 would be Nigerians, an involvement that will test the Jonathan administration’s effectiveness as a guarantor of stability in West Africa.

Nigeria’s regional partners and international powers have greatly valued its leadership in peacekeeping operations. Nigeria’s willingness to provide manpower and logistical support for such missions has reduced, though not eliminated, pressure on the United States, France and other external actors to intervene in West African crises. Yet Nigeria has at times over the years approached pariah status due to abuses by different regimes. Military ruler President Ibrahim Babangida’s annulment of the 1993 presidential elections caused an international outcry. Under the rule of military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha from 1993 to 1998, Nigeria faced international isolation, with Abacha’s imprisonment and execution of dissidents drawing sanctions from the United States and Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth from 1995 to 1999. Though the return of civilian democracy in 1999 improved international perceptions of Nigeria, the deeply flawed elections in 2007 reactivated international concern. A sense that Nigeria was flirting with disaster grew during the period of legal limbo surrounding Yar’Adua’s incapacitation from late-2009 until May 2010. Despite the violence following the elections of 2011, observers generally rated the contest as credible, which repaired Nigeria’s international image to some extent.

A final factor in shaping Nigeria’s relations with other countries is Nigeria’s complex political and demographic landscape. Divisions among regions, as well as among different religious constituencies inside the country, can affect how different communities react to the Nigerian government’s foreign policy choices. For example, Nigeria’s entry into the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 1986 occasioned opposition from some Christians, who denounced the move as a form of top-down Islamization. Furthermore, in the context of growing transnational linkages among global religious communities within both Islam and Christianity, constituencies inside Nigeria increasingly react to events on the global stage. Examples include the global Muslim protests during the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006 and the anti-Islamic video controversy of 2012, both of which extended to parts of northern Nigeria. At the same time, foreign countries’ engagement with constituencies inside Nigeria sometimes arouses the government’s opposition. The recognition of the short-lived secessionist state of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria from 1967-1970 by the governments of Tanzania, Zambia and elsewhere caused diplomatic tensions between those governments and the government of Nigeria, as did support provided to Biafra by countries like Israel. More generally, the fractured nature of Nigerian society complicates the government’s efforts at making foreign policy.

Defense Policy

Defense is a major priority for Nigeria. The federal government’s $31.3 billion budget for 2013 allocates 7 percent to defense, the second-highest expenditure after education. As of 2010, Nigeria’s military expenditures ranked sixth in Africa, following those of Algeria, Egypt, Angola, South Africa and Morocco. According to the World Bank, Nigeria had 162,000 military personnel in 2010, making the Nigerian military the fifth-largest on the continent following Egypt (835,500), Algeria (317,200), Morocco (245,800) and Eritrea (201,750). The U.S. State Department, in contrast, estimated the number of active-duty military personnel at 76,000, including 60,000 in two mechanized infantry divisions, 9,000 in the air force, 7,000 in the navy and 6,000 peacekeepers deployed overseas, as well as other divisions such as a composite airborne and amphibious unit, the Lagos Garrison Command and the Brigade of Guards, based in Abuja. The navy’s assets, according to the State Department, include frigates, patrol boats and fast attack vessels, while the air force possesses helicopters, fighter aircraft, transport planes and training vehicles.

Outsiders have questioned the battle readiness of the Nigerian armed forces, particularly in the context of ECOWAS’ planned intervention in Mali. Critics have alleged that Nigerian troops lack discipline and proper equipment. International watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also criticized the Nigerian army in the context of its interventions against Boko Haram in the northeast. Soldiers have sometimes reportedly panicked during battles or bombings, opening fire on civilians or breaking ranks. In terms of cohesiveness, many Nigerians formerly perceived the senior officer corps as dominated by northerners — with the exception of Obasanjo, the other six military heads of state between 1966 and 1999 were all northerners. Since 1999, the senior officer corps appears to have become more balanced in regional terms, though Yar’Adua was accused of promoting more northerners than southerners to the rank of general.

Since 2006, turnover has been rapid among senior defense and national security staff, with ministers of defense often serving less than two years. In June 2012, facing criticism over the government’s handling of Boko Haram, Jonathan fired his minister of defense and his national security adviser, naming Col. Sambo Dasuki to fill the latter post and leaving the former post open as of November 2012. Furthermore, between August and October 2012, President Jonathan conducted a shake-up of senior military officers, replacing the chiefs of defense staff, naval staff and air staff, while retaining the chief of army staff. As with other government posts, appointments to national security and military posts strive to maintain regional and demographic balance. Dasuki’s appointment in particular seemed intended to bring a member of the northern Muslim aristocracy — Dasuki is cousin to the sultan of Sokoto, the pre-eminent hereditary Muslim ruler of northern Nigeria — into a top national security position.

Nigeria has engaged in significant military cooperation with the U.S., in particular as part of the U.S. State Department’s Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership, a framework launched in 2005 to provide counterterrorism training and facilitate cooperation among the militaries of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad. Yet Nigeria has also evinced skepticism about U.S. military activities in Africa. Yar’Adua opposed efforts to base the U.S. military’s Africa Command (Africom) headquarters on the African continent in 2007, for example. As a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Nigeria voted to authorize the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya during that country’s civil war in 2011, but although Nigerian authorities consistently defended that decision, they showed ambivalence about the subsequent NATO-led intervention in Libya. In March 2011, then-Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia charged that the international community had applied different standards to the conflicts in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. One explanation for this ambivalence may be an attempt by authorities to take popular sentiment into account: Many Nigerian Muslims and Christians opposed the NATO intervention in Libya, and many Nigerian Muslims condemned the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Historically, the Nigerian military has played a major role in the country’s politics. Beginning with the junior officers’ coup of January 1966 and the senior officers’ coup of July 1966, the military has ruled Nigeria for three periods: from 1966 to the handover to the civilian-led Second Republic in 1979; from the 1983 coup of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (and the 1985 coup of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida) to the attempted transition to civilian rule in 1993; and from the takeover of Gen. Sani Abacha in 1993 until the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in 1999. The period of civilian rule since 1999 has been the longest unbroken stretch of civilian control since independence. The lack of coup attempts since 1999, including during the succession crisis sparked by Yar’Adua’s absence and incapacitation in 2009-2010, provides evidence that the military has renounced political involvement.

Yet at the same time, former military rulers and senior officers remain influential figures in Nigerian politics, including Obasanjo, who unsuccessfully attempted to secure an extra-constitutional third term as civilian president in 2006-2007, but remains a powerful presence within the PDP; Buhari, who was the main opposition presidential candidate in 2003, 2007 and 2011; and Babangida, a presidential aspirant and PDP member. Given that many of these senior military figures were born in the 1930s and 1940s, one important issue in Nigerian politics concerns the transition from the generation of Obasanjo, born in 1937, to the generation of Jonathan, who was born in 1957. The younger generation of Nigerian political leaders seems to be primarily civilians, which could indicate that the military’s political influence is waning.


Nigeria’s demographic and political weight will increase in the coming years, with the country’s population set to pass 400 million by 2050 and its role as a source of peacekeepers in conflict zones in Africa and elsewhere expected to continue. Efforts to resolve diplomatic and military crises in West Africa, including a planned military intervention by ECOWAS in Mali in 2013, will likely rely heavily on Nigerian manpower and participation. Nigeria also has growing importance on the global stage. With proven oil reserves of more than 37 billion barrels and proven natural gas reserves of approximately 180 trillion cubic feet, Nigeria will continue to be an important player in global energy markets. Nigeria will, moreover, continue to attract massive foreign investment from rising powers like China.

Nigeria’s internal problems, however, limit its capacity to carry out an effective foreign policy. National security threats, ranging from the Boko Haram insurgency in the north to Muslim-Christian clashes in central Nigeria to pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, consume government attention and resources, harm the country’s economy and exacerbate divisions among its population. The fractured nature of Nigerian society, along with issues of corruption and weak governance, compound Nigeria’s domestic challenges and hamper policy formulation. At the same time, Nigeria’s challenges are, by virtue of the country’s size and importance, also regional challenges, and Nigeria’s porous borders expose neighboring countries to its own internal threats, with the potential spread of Boko Haram the latest example. The future success of Nigerian foreign and defense policy will depend heavily on Nigerian leaders’ ability to address these challenges, while providing security for their people and managing the country’s considerable resources in a fair and effective manner.

Alex Thurston is a doctoral student at Northwestern University, where he studies Islam and politics in Africa. He writes at Sahel Blog.