US’ hypocrisy: To Help Stabilize West Africa, Bolster a Key Partner: Nigeria

US hypocrisy: To Help Stabilize West Africa, Bolster a Key Partner: Nigeria
US hypocrisy: To Help Stabilize West Africa, Bolster a Key Partner: Nigeria

Better democracy and growth in Africa’s heavyweight nation, Nigeria will influence the region.

Continued violence and insecurity in West Africa for which many blame the US and Western powers is sharpening America’s critical challenge to reduce extremism and violence, particularly in the Sahel. Violent deaths in three western Sahel nations surged by 38% last year and Niger’s coup has complicated the U.S. military role in the region. The violence is likely to spread further this year into coastal West Africa, a region five times more populous, with commensurately greater security implications for Africa, the United States and the world. A vital partner in stabilizing both regions is Nigeria, and U.S institutions should consider several priorities for helping it do so.

Farmers in Nigeria’s Gombe state head to work. Inflation has many families skipping meals as Nigeria struggles to restore economic growth, internal security and trust in government, all vital to domestic stability. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)
Farmers in Nigeria’s Gombe state head to work. Inflation has many families skipping meals as Nigeria struggles to restore economic growth, internal security and trust in government, all vital to domestic stability. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)

Nigeria’s Challenges and Potential

Nigeria’s domestic security challenges sharpen the need for the United States and other partners to support its efforts to improve its own stability, and to lead stabilization efforts across the Sahel and coastal West Africa. Over the past decade, governance shortcomings and economic crisis in Nigeria have escalated crime, notably kidnappings for ransom. Violent extremists or criminal groups abducted more than 3,600 people in the year ending June 2023, killing more than 500 and extracting more than $387,000 in ransoms, according to the Nigerian business research firm SBM Intelligence. Fully 77% of Nigerians reported feeling unsafe in their country, an Afrobarometer survey reported last year.

Nigeria’s economic crisis is its worst in decades. Annual inflation now reaches 30%, notably as the 10-month-old government removed costly fuel subsidies in a bid for longer term macroeconomic stability and growth. Nigerian news media report families across the economy — those of factory workers, teachers and others – going hungry on two meager meals per day.

The misery has ignited strikes and protests. In particular, Nigeria’s youth, with three in five Nigerians under age 25, represent a double-edged sword. If supported with education and opportunities, they could drive human and economic development in a country that will nearly double in population by 2050. But the burden of meeting those needs, and the risks of instability if they go unmet, are high.

Nigeria’s economy represents about 65% of West Africa’s gross domestic product and thus has long anchored the region’s stability and development. But sustaining and leveraging Nigeria’s stabilizing potential will require significant investments in peace, governance and economic growth (including diversification from Nigeria’s dependence on oil).

Even with its domestic challenges, Nigeria is the single West African nation best able to act as a stabilizing force in the region. Stronger U.S. relations with Nigeria offer a double benefit because of the country’s powerful role in the Economic Community of West African States. ECOWAS has fostered regional stability in the past but now needs updated capacities to bolster its position as West Africa’s most potent pro-democracy institution. Nigeria’s interests and influence in a strong ECOWAS are many. Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is the bloc’s chairman. Nigeria hosts the ECOWAS Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice in its capital, Abuja; it contributes over 60% of the bloc’s budget; and it has been a main contributor to ECOWAS peacekeeping missions over decades.

As the United States works to build its declared strategic partnership with Africa, Nigeria is a primary contributor. It is the United States’ second-largest African trading partner, a destination for significant foreign direct investment and a top recipient of U.S. aid. Since his election as president last year, Tinubu consistently has urged a stronger partnership with the United States. U.S. officials have spoken in the same vein in visits, like that of Secretary of State Antony Blinken in January. Blinken pledged $45 million to enhance security in coastal West Africa and emphasized the U.S. commitment as a steadfast security partner for Nigeria. A vital element of the countries’ cooperation is their binational commission.

U.S.-Nigeria: Priorities for Partnership

A key U.S. contribution to advance Nigeria’s domestic stability and its help to stabilize West Africa is to encourage private investment and trade that can help Nigeria boost economic growth beyond the roughly 3 percent of recent years. This can include using the African Growth and Opportunity Act to support Nigeria in diversifying its exports beyond oil.

The United States can leverage a unique advantage — America’s Nigerian diaspora, the world’s largest and a vast reservoir of potential — in driving trade and investment. The President’s Advisory Council on Diaspora Engagement offers a starting point for creative programs. Fellowships, modeled on the U.S. Fulbright Program, could empower professionals in health care, education and technology to carry their expertise back to Nigeria, where high levels of emigration include an enervating brain drain. USAID’s Diaspora Invest, a five-year project in Bosnia-Herzegovina, could offer a model for facilitating diaspora investment in small- and medium-sized enterprises, startups and infrastructure projects, fostering an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship. Policy advisory panels with diaspora members, similar to those advising trade negotiations under the U.S. Trade Representative, could strengthen U.S.-Nigeria policy dialogues with more diverse perspectives. The State Department’s Global Innovation through Science and Technology program, which has developed entrepreneurship abroad, offers a model that could advance education and the economy in Nigeria — while also reinforcing economic and cultural ties with the United States.

While successive governments have launched initiatives to tackle Nigeria’s endemic corruption, it remains some of the worst in Africa and the world, according to monitoring groups such as Afrobarometer and Transparency International. Nigeria’s stability requires building citizen trust in government, and international partners should support both government and civil society anti-corruption efforts. The United States could offer more training, technical assistance and capacity-building for Nigerian anti-corruption bodies, such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, much as the U.S. Justice Department does with foreign law enforcement agencies. Anti-corruption support in Nigeria’s massive oil and mineral industries is essential, and could be done in concert with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Last year’s national elections in February suffered record low turnout and failed to deliver on Nigerians’ desires for fully transparent counting and reporting of votes. Yet the election included energetic citizen engagement, notably among youth, working to bolster trustworthy elections and governance. Nigeria could advance this by implementing fully the 2008 recommendations of a high-level Electoral Reform Committee — a step urged by scholars and citizens’ groups. More generally, civil society leaders in a USIP-supported Nigerian Working Group on Peacebuilding and Governance have urged a broad national dialogue on ways to rebuild trust and national cohesion. A vital principle in all U.S. and international diplomatic and other efforts to support these Nigerian initiatives is that they must engage Nigerians more broadly than ever before — across the country’s communities and vast geography.

International partners should prioritize support for Nigerians’ efforts to strengthen human rights and heal conflicts that often trigger abuse. Since Nigeria’s 1999 return to civilian rule, steady activism by Nigeria’s vigorous civil society has advanced government accountability, transparency and human rights — including a strengthening of the National Human Rights Commission. Yet the commission and its allies struggle to win actual enforcement of human rights. A weak point is “political influence and interference” over swaths of Nigeria’s judiciary that permits impunity for abusers, including police, according to groups such as the non-government Policy and Legal Advocacy Center. Support for human rights initiatives, by Nigeria’s federal and state governments as well as civil society, is critical. Past international support for similar efforts has tended to be “too inflexible [and] short term,” a USIP-backed study noted in 2018 — a shortcoming that the United States aims to reduce with its reforms under the 2019 Global Fragility Act. Follow-through will be vital.

Wherever possible, international partners should strengthen coordination among the country’s federal, state-level, non-governmental and traditional peace and security mechanisms. These include home-grown conflict-resolution agencies in several of Nigeria’s 36 states that have mediated peace in local conflicts alongside professional facilitators trained by USIP. Nationwide, international partners should prioritize efforts to promote such peacebuilding, as well as community policing and, particularly in Nigeria’s northeast, the peaceful reintegration of former members of violent extremist or insurgent groups through Operation Safe Corridor. As always, inclusive local dialogues are a cost-effective method to advance such goals.

Security crises in the Sahel and rising risks to coastal West Africa lend urgency to the steps above that a U.S.-Nigeria partnership can advance. Helping 220 million Nigerians build the security and stability they desire at home is the vital step to strengthening West Africa’s heavyweight democracy and economy as the single greatest national promoter of stability and peace across the entire region.


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