Troubled Past and Present
Nigeria Joins the Crisis Club

Nigeria has been ejected from JP Morgan’s emerging bond index. The fall in the price of oil was always going to hit Nigeria hard, but poor governance only makes the shock worse. JP Morgan’s move is a stunning vote of no confidence and a real problem for President Buhari—the man Washington and much of the rest of the world is hoping can bring some order and progress to the most populous country in Africa.

Almost one out of four people in sub-Saharan Africa live in Nigeria, and its oil riches give it options that many other African countries can only dream of. But if ever a place was cursed by oil wealth, it is this country, where an intense, destructive scramble for unearned oil wealth has created one of the most crooked elites on planet earth.

The rest of the world cannot ignore Nigeria’s troubles. Nigeria is the home of Boko Haram and, as the largest and most important country in West Africa, it is the lynchpin for whatever hopes exist of preventing further spirals of violence, polarization and state collapse across the troubled region. The hope was that President Buhari’s strong ties to the military, deep political roots in the Muslim North, and genuine national political mandate would help him get a grip on Nigeria, tone down the corruption, and begin the development of institutions (including security institutions) that could stabilize the country and lead to strong growth.

A full-blown economic crisis in the first months of Buhari’s presidency isn’t reassuring. Nigeria has been disappointing its own people and well-wishers around the world since it achieved independence from Britain back in 1960. A dynamic private sector has made many Nigerians rich, and the entrepreneurial talents of Nigeria’s people have the potential to make this one of the world’s most dynamic societies. But religious rifts (between a mostly Muslim North and Christian South, and also within the North between Boko Haram and the jihadis and the traditionally moderate Islam of the area) and deep tribal splits make it difficult to create the kind of competent and transparent institutions that would secure the rule of law and provide a framework for the prosperity Nigerians so desperately want.

The scale of Nigeria’s problems and the complexity of its society make it a difficult country for outsiders to help. But what happens there matters to people all over the world. President Buhari has one of the world’s hardest and most important jobs—and the job is getting harder by the day.

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