Why the EU should pay attention to Nigeria

March 19, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

As Nigerian armed forces, backed by a multinational African coalition, make strides against Boko Haram strongholds in the north while Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) secures the final touches on the new voting system, the international community waits in anticipation ahead of the March 28th presidential elections. Largely fought between incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s presidential elections will be a turning point for Africa’s leading economy. But is the EU really paying attention?

A country of approximately 170 million and a GDP of $521 billion, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populated nation. What’s more, Nigeria is set to become one of the world’s 10 leading economies by 2050, surpassing countries like France and the UK thanks to a projected average growth of around 4.5% to 5.5% per year.


A blossoming partnership

As the most powerful member of the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS), Nigeria is a vital partner of the European Union in the political, economic and security fields. Specifically, the EU “has supported Nigeria’s efforts to improve its democracy and proceed to a fairer distribution of power between its central and federated elements, mediating between national and local interests while preserving internal unity”. However, despite the 2009 “Nigeria-EU Joint Way Forward” agreement aimed at enhancing dialogue between Nigeria’s domestic political forces, the EU stopped short of tackling some of Nigeria’s more deep-rooted problems, including poverty, corruption, institutional consolidation and unemployment.

Given the increasing importance and influence of Nigeria in the region and on the international arena, the EU should also work with Abuja on tackling the regional challenges of peace and security. Such an approach would be consistent with the EU’s values and its interest in having a committed and stable partner in the region. Commenting on the rising threat of the violent Boko Haram insurgency, which has taken the lives of over 14,000 people since 2009 and displaced millions of Nigerians, the EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini recently underlined that the “EU remains committed to providing a comprehensive range of political, counter-terrorism and development support measures to Nigeria and its neighbors”. Again, the Union felt content with airing some wooly comments, but has not taken any meaningful, non-rhetorical steps towards joining the fight against radical extremism.

Indeed, Boko Haram is not included in the 2012 EU Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, despite the fact that the group controls an area the size of Belgium in northern Nigeria, which has become a channel for arms trafficking, kidnappings and terrorist activities. The increasing regional threat stemming from Boko Haram’s violent actions warrants further security collaboration between the EU and Nigeria, especially under the auspices of ECOWAS and the Africa Union. Even if Boko Haram has registered setbacks in recent months, West African terrorism has by no means started with the group and will definitely not end with it. Nigeria has been battling terrorism for decades, making it hard to overstate the importance of finding a durable security solution for the region as a whole.


The X-Factor

This year’s much awaited presidential elections, already postponed by 6 weeks from the original February 14th date, are decisive not only for Nigeria’s future but also for the subsequent role the EU will play in the country. 

President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party is fighting for re-election, in a poll that will come down to the wire. During his term, his administration made many strides in various sectors, creating 1.6 million jobs, reforming the agricultural sector and lowering inflation to its lowest level since 2008. His National Industrial Revolution Plan (NIRP), launched in February 2014, aims to raise annual revenue of manufacturers, industrialize and diversify Nigeria’s economy, and create new opportunities for the country’s small and medium enterprises. However, in spite of his considerable economic achievements, Jonathan has been blamed for his inadequate response to the Boko Haram insurgency as well as his inability to root out corruption among government ranks. According to a report released by Global Financial Integrity, between 2003 and 2012, Nigeria lost some $160 billion to corruption via illicit financial outflows.

Taking advantage of Jonathan’s pitfalls, ex-military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, candidate of the All People’s Congress Party (APC) has gathered the support of large parts of the population. Promoting his rather non-descript platform for “Change” Buhari has vowed to squash Boko Haram once and for all and embark on a fight against corruption in the country. But is that a credible promise or is it just hot air meant to draw to his side the disenfranchised Nigerian population?

Since Buhari is not a newcomer on Nigeria’s political stage, his past actions should speak louder than the carefully crafted words of today. Following a military coup d’etat in 1983, Buhari came to power and ruled Nigeria with an ‘iron fist’, embarking on a war against indiscipline that resulted in ghastly human rights abuses, the jailing of opposition forces and severe restrictions on the freedom of press. His dismal economic record, which saw the country’s GDP fall by 33% in two years, led to his overthrow in a counter-coup in 1985. While many believe General Buhari is the strong leader the country needs to fight a growing feeling of insecurity, his former controversial rule and lack of real policy, threatens his chances at the polls. As noted by Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society (UK), “Buhari talks about the same old disciple, but cannot offer a new vision”.

According to Pakistan’s former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, “democracy is necessary to peace and to undermining the forces of terrorism. Although Buhari has proven his dedication to fighting corruption, his stained past, former human rights abuses and propensity for violence, put the former General at odds with the professed values of the European Union. The EU will therefore have a vital role to play in Nigeria’s future by doing what it does best: promoting democracy, human rights and helping the country address problems of corruption and security, both domestically and on a regional level. While Nigeria offers multiple opportunities for economic and security cooperation, the country’s future leader will be the deciding factor for the path Nigeria will take as a leading African country. Brussels should bear in mind.