Nigeria’s Malaise

On 28 July, Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, a Dubai-based 38-year-old Nigerian internet influencer better known as Hushpuppi, pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering in a US court. Born in a Lagos slum – his father was a taxi driver and his mother hawked bread – he burst onto the scene in 2014 and quickly totted up 2.4 million Instagram followers as he recorded his increasingly lavish lifestyle. This naturally attracted the attention of the FBI. When he was arrested, detectives seized about $40 million in cash, along with 13 luxury cars worth $7 million. He was charged with defrauding a US law firm of about $40 million, illegally transferring $14.7 million from a ‘foreign financial institution’, and attempting to steal $124 million from an English football club. Initially he protested his innocence; then he came clean and started singing.

Among those he has fingered is Abba Kyari, a deputy police commissioner in Nigeria, whom he allegedly paid $20,600 to detain one Vincent Chibuzo. The latter had apparently threatened to rat on a $1.1 million scam he and Hushpuppi had perpetrated against a Qatari businessman. According to US court documents, Kyari sent a text message to Hushpuppi confirming that the deed was done: ‘We have arrested the guy. He is in my cell now. This is his picture after we arrested him today.’ To which Hushpuppi replied, ‘I want him to go through serious beating.’ Before his recent suspension, Kyari had been one of the most decorated police officers in Nigeria’s short history. An internet celebrity with a milieu of actors and musicians, he also had a reputation for killing alleged criminals and stealing their riches.  

What is the wider national context in which such internet scammers and rogue police officers can flourish? As I write, the US is seeking Kyari’s extradition, but the Nigerian government appears reluctant to comply for the simple reason that he is a member of the Hausa-speaking aristocracy: a group from the Muslim-majority north (as opposed to the Christian-majority south) which has effectively ruled the country since independence in 1960. Compared to the north, the south has greater resources (notably crude oil) and higher levels of education, plus the major port and commercial centre of Lagos. Demographically, southern ethnic groups outnumber their northern counterparts. Shortly after independence, the northern Hausa and Fulani ethnicities made up 29.5% of the population, whereas the southern Yoruba and Igbo constituted a combined 36.9%. Yet the distribution of political power has always run in the opposite direction.

The northern emirs were used as enforcers by early twentieth-century British colonialists who vigorously promoted regional solidarity in the north and exploited cultural-ethnic divisions in the south. When, under British influence, the state adopted the principle of regional per capita representation; this gave the Nigerian government a locked-in northern majority. Northerners were also overrepresented in the military, as the colonial administration identified them as the ‘martial races’ most fit for active service. As the northern leader Ahmadu Bello put it in 1960, ‘We must ruthlessly prevent a change of power. We use the minorities of the North as willing tools and the South as a conquered territory and never allow them to rule over us, and never allow them to have control over their future.’

Northerners ruled for all but two-and-a-half of the years 1960–1999 under a succession of military dictatorships. After an attempted putsch by Igbos in January 1966, a July counter-coup consolidated the power of the northern generals. Igbos were slaughtered in pogroms and forced to flee their homes en masse. When the Igbo colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu led a successionist movement the following year, establishing the independent state of Biafra in the south-east, the government of Yakubu Gowon embarked on a campaign to retake the territory. Armed and financed by the British, he waged a brutal civil war that killed an estimated 50,000 people and prompted a mass famine in which up to two million Biafrans died.

With Nigeria reunited under Gowon and Ojukwu sent into exile, post-war reconstruction efforts channelled southern oil revenues to northern Hausa-Fulani areas. There was little challenge to the country’s hegemonic faction amid a series of faltering attempts to revive civilian rule. However, things changed in 1993, when General Ibrahim Babangida promised to hold democratic elections, and the presidential campaign of southern Yoruba businessman M. K. O. Abiola gained ground. Abiola, a UK-educated military hardware supplier and founding member of the National Sharia Committee, ran on an anti-poverty platform, promising to renegotiate Nigeria’s debt repayments amid a dramatic increase in the urban-slum population – the result of punishing IMF structural-adjustment policies.

Yet, unwilling to cede the presidency, Babangida swiftly annulled the election, sparking riots in the south-west in which over a hundred people were killed by state forces. Journalists were arrested and courts prevented from challenging the annulment. Amid the crackdown, Defense Minister Sani Abacha – a participant in the July 1966 counter-coup and commanding officer in the civil war – seized power. He imprisoned Abiola, escalated repression and appointed military officers to key positions in regional and national government. Southern-based extractivist industries were central to his economic programme, as rising oil prices allowed him to reduce debt and inflation. When Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other prominent environmental activists protested against the activities of Royal Dutch Shell in the Ogoni region, Abacha had them hanged.

However, despite his iron-fisted rule and 3,000-strong personal security service trained in North Korea, Abacha died in mysterious circumstances in 1998 and was buried without an autopsy. Fearful of another attempt at southern secession, the northern power-brokers made a concession to the marginalised ethnic groups. Henceforth, they decided, presidential power would rotate between north and south, with representatives from each region serving a maximum of two four-year terms. If the president was a northerner, the vice-president must be a southerner and vice versa. Olusegun Obasanjo, the first leader under this arrangement, was a south-western Yoruba, seen as a safe pair of hands who would generally do the north’s bidding. He selected an even number of cabinet ministers from both parts of the country and loosened the state’s grip on the media. Yet, in most respects, the military-era model remained intact. Economic policy rested on an oil-driven neoliberal ‘development’ plan overseen by the IMF, which involved mass privatizations and public sector downsizing. Communal tensions were dealt with through a massive expansion of the police force, which regularly beat and tortured detainees. The army was deployed to the Niger Delta to quell secessionist sentiments among a cluster of militant groups, killing thousands of civilians in the process.  

Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, died just three years into his tenure, disrupting the smooth alternation of power. His vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger delta, was left to see out the remainder of his term. For the next half-decade, Jonathan presided over a corrupt regime that did nothing to rebalance the country’s geographically inflected power structure, allaying the anxieties of northern elites with billions’ worth of kickbacks. In 2015 he faced off against Muhammadu Buhari, the former army major general who had ruled as military dictator from 1983-85 after toppling the fragile Second Republic. In his first incarnation, Buhari drew worldwide condemnation for imprisoning journalists and executing convicted criminals with a retroactive decree. (His damaged reputation on the world stage was partly why he could be overthrown with minimal resistance after just 20 months in office.) Yet, this time round, southern intellectuals – not excepting the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka – persuaded themselves that he was a reformed character who would rescue the country from the cluelessness of his predecessor. Running as a ‘born-again democrat’, he opportunistically opposed Jonathan’s removal of fuel subsidies – winning the support of the northern urban poor, and picking up 54% of the vote.

Buhari pledged to strengthen the security apparatus and wipe out Boko Haram, which had kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in April 2014 while Johnathan stood by. Yet behind the façade, he was no different to the man who ruled in 1983: a kleptocratic Islamic fundamentalist who often declared his willingness to die for the cause of Sharia. Invested in maintaining Hausa-Fulani supremacy, he was banned by Twitter for his incitement of violence against Igbo dissidents: ‘Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War’, he wrote last June. ‘Those of us in the fields for 30 months who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.’

Among the Igbo groups Buhari has confronted is the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Nnamdi Kanu, which seeks to revive the breakaway state that millions died for in the late 1960s. Kanu, a divisive figure with a Messiah complex (you can watch him on YouTube having his feet kissed by acolytes), started broadcasting on Radio Biafra in 2009 and founded IPOB three years later. In 2015 he was arrested on treason charges and held for twelve months. The high court has designated IPOB a terrorist organization, and state forces have regularly been deployed to assassinate its members. As regional polarization widens under Buhari, such outfits have taken steps toward administering their own territory. In late 2020 Kanu established a paramilitary offshoot, ostensibly to protect farmers in the south-east from bandits and deter Fulani herdsmen who bring their flocks south to graze on Biafran land. The central government responded by burning to the ground several buildings thought to be housing IPOB operatives, prompting weeks-long clashes in January 2021 which ended in a setback for the secessionists.

Since he came to power, Buhari has been steadily appointing northerners to every top position in the army, air force, police, security services and judiciary. ‘I have been with them throughout trying times,’ he said of his former military colleagues, describing the political appointments as a reward for their ‘dedication and suffering’. One such ally, the Police Inspector General Usman Baba, launched ‘Operation Restore Peace’ last May: a large-scale offensive in the south-east to beat back Igbo insurgents. As well as promising a pension review to boost morale among the force, Baba has made the government’s intentions clear. ‘Don’t mind the media’, he told his officers. ‘If anyone accuses you of human rights violation, the report will come to my table and you know what I will do. So take the battle to them wherever they are and kill them all. Don’t wait for an order.’

Alongside the skirmishes in the south, Buhari is busy spending almost $2 billion on a railway line from the northern city of Kano to Maradi in Niger, even though the country’s trade flows in the opposite direction. The megacity of Lagos, home to 20 million people, accounts for 90% of goods entering West Africa. Aliko Dangote, the wealthiest person on the continent, has recently revealed that Lagos State accounts for half his profits from sugar interests. Yet public investment is withheld from these industries and redirected to the north, in line with the government’s ethnic ties and patronage networks – causing high levels of unemployment in the south (sometimes reaching almost 40% in border states). Nonetheless, poverty is even more rampant in the north, with one of the highest illiteracy rates worldwide. Large sections continue to suffer from economic neglect which Buhari’s transport renovations will do little to redress. Endemic corruption has hobbled the healthcare sector, dominated by commercial interests and sapped by an ongoing brain-drain. Huge numbers of northern ‘migrants’ flock to Lagos each year to do work typically shunned by southerners: motorcycle taxi riders, shoeshine boys, water sellers. Frustration at these conditions sometimes spills over into popular protests. But if such disparities breed resentment at the more affluent south, then Buhari and his northern clique remain the ultimate beneficiaries.  

Now, with the next elections looming in less than 18 months, there is talk of the north deserving a third term on the grounds that Yar’Adua’s death robbed them of their rightful time in office. It will be instructive to see whether this disingenuous attempt to cling to power can succeed. The fact that the northern political establishment have yet to name a candidate is perhaps an indication that they are themselves uncertain about the endeavour. The leading contender is Nasir el Rufai, the former minister of the Federal Capital Territory and current governor of Kaduna State, where Islamic police known as Hizbah – not recognised in the 1999 constitution, yet no less powerful for that – have been known to arrest secular police officers for drinking beer. Should el Rufai take the reins, we can assume that the new regime will be continuity Buhari: cronyist appointments, rising inequality, and the entrenchment of northern rule underpinned by violent repression.

The inability of this model to create a productive economy is what accounts for the large number of educated, unemployed youths like Hushpuppi – many of whom naturally turn toward crime. Nigeria’s kleptocracy is equally unable to support a justice system worth the name, hence the ubiquity of corrupt cops like Kyari, who will not be extradited lest he drags other senior officers down with him. Both figures are symptomatic of a malaise that has only deepened under Buhari. This sickness was not cured by one civil war; now we look set to descend into another.

Read on: Rob Wallace & Rodrick Wallace, ‘Ebola’s Economies’, NLR 102.