Is Africa’s Richest State Ready for a Breakthrough?

July 18, 2022 Updated: July 18, 2022


Nigeria, in 2022, remained the state with the largest economy in Africa and the African state with the largest population (211 million in 2021). But it is a nation that even its staunchest supporters would admit was economically mismanaged—and in social and security upheaval.

Yet its economy grew, albeit slightly, in 2021 over 2020, and has become far less dependent on oil and gas exports for the daily welfare of most Nigerians. The country proceeds toward presidential elections in early 2023, in which the party of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari—who cannot run for a third term—has a chance to win, despite the widespread rise in violence and poverty, which he promised to eradicate.

What is significant is Nigeria’s economy and society has been progressing in large part despite, rather than because, of the national government and even the governments of many of the 36 states. There is little evidence that endemic corruption has diminished during the seven years thus far of the Buhari administration (even though he ran on an anti-corruption ticket). Still, much of Nigerian society goes about its business without much reference to modern governance. Indeed, due to massive public outcry, on Jan. 26, 2020, Buhari finally dismissed the full panel of service chiefs, including the defense chief. All of them had been implicated in corrupt practices over several years.

Defense corruption had caused massive inefficiencies in fighting the war against Islamist radicals, such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which had not only caused major loss of life for little progress in the war against the insurgents, but had destroyed the morale of the armed forces. At least with the change of defense leaders in 2020, morale and fighting capabilities began to improve. But, by that time, the war by the foreign-supported Islamists had spread throughout Nigeria’s north and had now even reached the federal capital, Abuja.

Epoch Times Photo
Nigeria’s chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alex S. Badeh, second from left, and other army chiefs arrive to address the Nigerians Against Terrorism group during a demonstration calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok, in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 26, 2014. (Gbenga Olamikan/AP Photo)

But there was no attempt by the Buhari government to address the underlying structural conditions that had led to either the massive discontent of the north because of the changed economic conditions caused along the Niger River Basin or the social incompatibilities created by the nomadic movement of traditional Fulani herdsmen and the sedentary farmers. Both of these challenges are difficult, but there was the belief that because Buhari is a Fulani that he had exacerbated some of the problems.

Nonetheless, Nigeria’s socio-economic base has shown resilience despite facing challenges that would typically have been expected to return to the civil war brittleness of the early post-colonial period (1967–70). Nigeria is now a very different place in which a sense of democracy is inherent in the population. Nigerians expect that democracy will work while relying on traditional leaders in the various parts and customs of their diverse society to do the heavy lifting of providing cultural security.

Much of its settling into the status of a major modern state has to do with urbanization, which has also helped slow population growth rates. Even so, Nigeria’s population, now at more than 211 million, still grows at some 2.5 percent yearly. From 2010 to 2014, it was growing at 2.7 percent a year. But Nigerian urbanization is still in the phase of bringing healthcare benefits, which see an increase in life expectancy levels. By 2020, the Nigerian average life expectancy, in general terms, had reached 55 years. In 2000, it was 46 years.

In advanced Western economies, life expectancy averages have ceased to grow for much of the past decade. For example, the average life expectancy in the United States fell from 78.9 years in 2019 to 76.6 years in 2021. Urbanization appears to help in the process of extending life expectancy, both through health care and in improving childhood survival rates. Until, at some point, it doesn’t—possibly due to the rise in urban-related diseases related to stress.

But Nigeria, and much of Africa, are still at the point where average life expectancy is rising. This, rather than increased fertility rates, is driving Nigerian population growth. Urbanization in Africa is curbing average family sizes over earlier generations.

People's Democratic Party (PDP) supporters
People’s Democratic Party (PDP) supporters gather in Lagos’ Tafawa Balewa Square, where the official opposition PDP party is holding a rally, in Nigeria, on Feb. 12, 2019. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

So how does all this impact the outlook for Nigeria’s fateful 2023 presidential election? What separates the two major candidates?

Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) has offered up Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu, 70, who served for eight years (until 2007) as governor of Lagos State. His running mate is Sen. Kashim Shettima, a former governor of Borno State in the north. They enter the race with the advantage of party incumbency of the presidency, but the disadvantage is that Buhari’s popularity had been consistently low, a situation that worsened in 2022. Tinubu, however, has a major media empire at his back.

The main contender is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) team of former Vice-President (1999–2007) Atiku Abubakar, 75, and Delta State Gov. Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa.

The old, informal “power sharing” of Nigerian politics typically saw an alternating of the presidency between northern and non-northern candidates. Even though this arrangement has been largely observed in the breach, it will still be raised in the 2023 election. Buhari is from the north, and if the PDP wins, it would mean that another northerner, Abubakar, would succeed him. That will be a factor in the coming election, but to an extent as yet unknown.

Perhaps more significantly will be the question of whether election integrity can be maintained. Significant and credible claims of election fraud and intimidation have prevailed during the past two Nigerian presidential elections, at least, and Abubakar—who contested the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections—is keenly aware of that.

Both candidates are older men in a country where the average age is under 18.5 years. Thus, both candidates must address the aspirations of a youthful voter bloc—but one which is highly divided—as top priorities. The northern youth remain angry at their loss of security and opportunity. And the southern and south-south youth are concerned about other things.

PDP candidate Abubakar is more attuned to attracting foreign investment and creating a vibrant marketplace economy than APC candidate Tinubu. As a northern candidate, Abubakar is aware that unless the north’s security crisis is addressed, Nigeria cannot make the breakthrough to major growth. Tinubu, a southerner, however, is the status quo candidate.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gregory Copley is president of the International Strategic Studies Association based in Washington. Born in Australia, Copley is a Member of the Order of Australia, entrepreneur, writer, government adviser, and defense publication editor. His latest book is The New Total War of the 21st Century and the Trigger of the Fear Pandemic.