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Remarks by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson “Nigeria, One Year After Elections” (April 9, 2012)

Center for Strategic and International Studies Washington, D.C. | April 9, 2012


A year ago today, Nigerians began casting ballots in the first of what would be four days of voting for legislators, governors, and a president.  Tensions were high.  Voting that had been scheduled one week before was abruptly canceled shortly after polls opened.  We did not know for certain whether months of careful election preparation would result in a process Nigerians considered fair and credible or a rerun of the deeply flawed 2007 presidential elections.  Skeptics were everywhere and many said good elections in Nigeria were not possible.

Nigerians had a different idea.  They waited in line for hours.  They stuck around after the polls closed to ensure that every ballot was counted.  They monitored polling places and compilation centers by the thousands, and they sent text messages reporting any irregularities they observed.

The result was clear.  Nigeria conducted its most successful and credible elections since its return to multiparty democracy in 1999.  Despite obvious imperfections, these elections have given the country a solid foundation for strengthening its democratic institutions in the years ahead.

As a witness to those historic elections, I can vouch for the enthusiasm that Nigerians demonstrated towards these elections and their democratic rights.  Civil society groups across the country were actively engaged in the process, and on election day, diverse groups, including the Federation of Muslim Women, the Nigerian Bar Association, and the Transition Monitoring Group, joined together in a massive election monitoring effort called Project Swift Count.

There was also a strong commitment on the part of the government to improve the election process.  Months before the election, a new and highly-regarded Independent National Electoral Commission Chair chairman was named, and the Nigerian government provided adequate funding to pay for the election process.  The new INEC Chair – Professor Attahiru Jega – made a good-faith effort to follow the law and register as many voters as possible and to organize the elections in a short time frame.

The April 2011 elections were clearly another step forward in Nigeria’s continuing democratization process, but more work has to be done to improve Nigeria’s electoral procedures and, more importantly, to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions and governance.

We all need to see a strong, vibrant and growing Nigeria – because what happens in Nigeria affects us all:  The United States, Africa, and the global community.  We cannot run away from the facts.  Nigeria is probably the most strategically important country in sub-Saharan Africa.  At about 160 million people, Nigeria is home to over twenty percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population.  It is the largest oil producing state in Africa, it is the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, and the tenth largest global producer.  It is home to the sixth largest Muslim population in the world, and it’s by far the largest country in the world with approximately equal numbers of Christians and Muslims.  In the United Nations, Nigeria is the fifth largest peacekeeping contributing country in the world.  And as the most influential and militarily powerful member of the Economic Community of West African States, Nigeria has played a key role in helping to resolve every major political and security dispute in West Africa from the Liberian and Sierra Leone crises in the 1990s to the political problems in Guinea, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, and I might add, Mali.  Nigeria is a dominant economic and financial force across West Africa, and if Lagos State were an independent country it would be the eighteenth largest country in Africa and its economy would be well within the top twenty in Africa.

Nigeria is important and a lot depends on Nigeria’s success.  That’s why Secretary Clinton inaugurated the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission in 2010, providing the two countries with a high-level vehicle to work together on the most crucial issues we face.  We have supported Nigeria’s political and economic reforms, and we have tried to be a useful partner as it addresses its social, economic, and security challenges.  We provided technical assistance to support reform in the power sector.  We have taken a high-powered energy trade mission to the country and we have encouraged the swift passage of a strong Petroleum Industry Bill that brings more transparency to that critical sector.  We have recognized the importance of Nigeria’s agricultural sector and supported Nigeria’s comprehensive agriculture development plans.  And in the health sector, we have committed over $500 million a year to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, showing how critical we consider Nigeria in the worldwide fight against HIV and AIDS.  President Obama and Secretary Clinton both recognize the importance of this relationship and both have met with and engaged with President Jonathan on a number of occasions over the past three years.  Later this week, Nigeria’s vice president will be in Washington and he is expected to meet Vice President Biden in the White House and with senior officials at the State Department.

Nigeria’s success is important to us, but we recognized that success cannot be achieved unless Nigeria overcomes the challenges that have frustrated its progress.  Decades of poor governance have seriously degraded the country’s health, education, and transportation infrastructure.  Despite hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue, Nigeria has virtually no functioning rail system and only half of its population has access to electricity.  The 80 million who have electricity share intermittent access to power equivalent to what we use here in the Washington, DC metro area.  Living standards are the same today as they were in 1970, and nearly 100 million Nigerians live on less than one dollar a day.

Nigerians are hungry for progress and improvement in their lives, but northern Nigerians feel this need most acutely.  Life in Nigeria for many is tough, but across the North, life is grim.  A UN study shows that poverty in the 12 most northern states is nearly twice that of the rest of the country.  The health indicators reflect this.  Children in the far north are almost four times as likely to be malnourished.  Child mortality is over 200 deaths per 1000 live births, leading to lower life expectancy.  Educational standards are just as bad.  Literacy in the far north is 35 percent as opposed to 77 percent in the rest of the country.  Seventy-seven percent of women in the far north have no formal education, compared to only 17 percent in the rest of the country.  In northern Nigeria, primary school attendance is only 41 percent, while youth unemployment is extraordinarily high.  All of this contributes to joblessness and a deepening cycle of poverty.

The statistics are disturbing, but they are not the whole story.  Poverty in northern Nigeria is increasing.  Despite a decade in which the Nigerian economy expanded at a spectacular seven percent per year, the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics estimates that extreme poverty is 10 percent higher than in 2004.   It’s even worse in the North.  Income inequality is growing.  These trends are worrying for economic, political, and security reasons.

While ninety-one percent of Nigerians across the country considered the April 2011 elections to be fair and transparent, most people in the far north backed opposition candidates that did not win.  The post-election violence that occurred in several northern cities reflected strong dissatisfaction with elites who protestors thought controlled the election process.  Public opinion polls and news reports suggest that there is a strong sentiment throughout the country, but especially in the North, that government is not on the side of the people; and that their poverty is a result of government neglect, corruption, and abuse.  This is the type of popular narrative that is ripe for an insurgent group to hijack for its own purposes.

Which brings me to Boko Haram.

  As you all know, over the last year Boko Haram has created widespread insecurity across northern Nigeria, increased tensions between various ethnic communities, interrupted development activities, frightened off investors, and generated concerns among Nigeria’s northern neighbors.  They have been responsible for near-daily attacks in Borno and Yobe states.  And they were behind the January 20 attack in Kano that killed nearly 200 people as well as three major attacks in Abuja, including the bombing of the UN headquarters last August.  To underscore this point, there were two more attacks this weekend.  Boko Haram’s attacks on churches and mosques are particularly disturbing because they are intended to inflame religious tensions and upset the nation’s social cohesion.

Although Boko Haram is reviled throughout Nigeria, and offers no practical solutions to northern problems, a growing minority of certain northern ethnic groups regard them favorably.  Boko Haram capitalizes on popular frustrations with the nation’s leaders, poor government service delivery, and the dismal living conditions of many northerners.  Boko Haram seeks to humiliate and undermine the government and exploit religious differences in order to create chaos and make Nigeria ungovernable.

Boko Haram has grown stronger and increasingly more sophisticated over the past three years, and eliminating the Boko Haram problem will require a  comprehensive and broad based strategy that establishes a comprehensive development plan rather than the imposition of martial law.  While more sophisticated and targeted security efforts are necessary to contain Boko Harm’s acts of violence and to capture and prosecute its leaders, the government must also win over the population by addressing the social and economic problems that have created the environment in which Boko Haram can effectively thrive.  The government must improve its tactics, avoid excessive violence and human rights abuses, make better use of its police and intelligence services, de-emphasize the role of the military and use its courts to prosecute those who are found to be responsible for Boko Haram’s kidnappings, killings, and terrorist events.

Nigerian officials should focus on the political environment that makes Boko Haram so dangerous.  By demonstrating the benefits a pluralistic society has to offer, the government can deny Boko Haram and other extremists the ability to exploit ethnic and religious differences.  The government should redouble its efforts to resolve ongoing disputes in Jos and other high-violence flashpoints.   By becoming more responsive to the people, the government can put distance between itself and the accusations that it is blind to the needs of northern Nigerians.  Numerous northern civil society organizations have come out against Boko Haram – at great personal risk – and they could multiply serious government efforts to address longstanding northern grievances.  I want to stress that religion is not driving extremist violence either in Jos or northern Nigeria.  While some seek to inflame Muslim-Christian tensions, Nigeria’s ethnic and religious diversity, like in our own country, is a source of strength, not weakness, and there are many examples of communities working across religious lines to protect one another.

Containing and eliminating Boko Haram today will be much more difficult than it was four years ago, when it was under the leadership of its now deceased leader, Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed in police custody.  Today, Boko Haram is not a monolithic, homogenous organization controlled by a single charismatic figure.  Boko Haram is several organizations, a larger organization focused primarily on discrediting the Nigerian government, and a smaller more dangerous group, increasingly sophisticated and increasingly lethal.  This group has developed links with AQIM and has a broader, anti-Western jihadist agenda.  This group is probably responsible for the kidnapping of westerners and for the attacks on the UN building in Abuja.  Complicating the picture further is the tendency of some officials to blame Boko Haram for all bank robberies and local vendettas occurring in the North when these should be ascribed to common criminals and political thugs.

There are also some who say that Boko Haram is comprised mostly of non-Nigerian foreigners, and that the group is being funded by a handful of resentful politicians nursing their wounds from the last election.  This would be deeply unfortunate if true, but I have not seen any evidence to support either of these theories.

To fix the Boko Haram problem, the government will have to develop a new social compact with its northern citizens.  It will have to develop an economic recovery strategy that complements its security strategy.  It will have to draw on the support of northern governors, traditional Hausa and Fulani leaders and local officials and organizations.  The Nigerian government should consider creating a Ministry of Northern Affairs or a development commission similar to what it did in response to the Niger Delta crisis.

Northern populations are currently trapped between violent extremists on one hand and heavy-handed government responses on the other.  They need to know that their President is going to extraordinary lengths to fix their problems.

Achieving this will not be easy.  Although the problems are not the same, it has taken the central government in Abuja nearly a decade to bring the problems in the Niger Delta under some semblance of control.  Resolving the problems in northern Nigeria will require the government to act more swiftly and to make a strategic course correction.  It will need to adopt a comprehensive strategy, and remain disciplined and committed to its implementation, especially at the state and local level where accountability is low and corruption high.

Despite the challenges that Nigeria faces with Boko Haram and other issues, Nigeria is simply too important to be defined by its problems.  Nigeria must be defined by its promise and its enormous potential, as well as the resourcefulness of its people.  Although some political observers have accused the government of getting off to a shaky start after the elections, that is not a judgment shared by all – especially when you look at key players in the President Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet.  By all accounts, President Jonathan has put together one of the strongest and most competent economic teams ever assembled in Nigeria.  Finance Minister Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former vice president of the World Bank, has a pushed a strong reformist agenda, pushing for an end to costly government subsidies, deregulation of the electrical supply and distribution, the sale of the country’s oil refineries and the rapid improvement of the country’s infrastructure.  She has been supported in her efforts by the Central Bank Govenor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Agricultural Minster Alhaji Bukar Tijani, Trade and Investment Minister Olusegun Aganga, and the Minister of Power Professor Bart Nnaji -- all of whom have put a high premium on promoting sustained economic development, job creation, greater agricultural productivity and more foreign investment.  Given time and political support from the top, this team has the ability to shape and lead Nigeria’s long term economic transformation.  It is one of the most powerful economic teams anywhere on the continent.

The Nigerian government has also taken a positive step in trying to address its long standing problem of corruption.  Through two strategic appointments, the government has signaled that is once again going to try to get a handle on high level corruption.    For four years, the United States scaled back our technical assistance programs to Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) because we did not believe the previous leadership was committed to reform.  In November, President Jonathan appointed a new Chairman to run the EFCC – the country’s main anti-corruption agency.  The appointment of Ibrahim Lamorde to lead the EFCC gives us confidence that the high-level corruption that has hobbled the delivery of government services will be seriously addressed.   President Jonathan’s appointment of Nuhu Ribadu to oversee a commission to monitor and audit the government’s vast oil and gas revenues is also a very promising sign.  Before he was fired several years ago, Ribadu earned a well-deserved reputation as Nigeria’s most zealous prosecutor of high level corruption.  His return, like that of Ngozi and other economic reformers, should be taken as an indication of the promise and potential of getting it right.  We hope these high performers will encourage others, like the Petroleum Minister, to accelerate key reforms, including passing the long awaited Petroleum Industry Bill.

There is also a bright side to be found in a number of statehouses across Nigeria, where governors are responsible for delivering most public services.  A handful of governors embraced the challenges of their jobs and have made a real difference.  The governors in Lagos State, Edo State, and Kano State have demonstrated what strong, honest and responsible leadership at the state level can accomplish.  They deserve our support.

We continue to use the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission as our primary vehicle for exchanging ideas and promoting engagement with Nigeria. 

We want to elevate and expand our dialogue and are ready to work with Nigerian authorities at the national and state level and to expand our programs in states with high performing executives, particularly in northern Nigeria where the need is greatest.  We are committed to helping Nigeria develop a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy and to improving collaboration among Nigeria’s intelligence and security services.  We want to support the Nigerian government’s efforts, especially in the areas of agriculture, electrical power generation and transmission, and anti-corruption.  We sent a high-level energy trade mission to Abuja and Lagos in February to attract U.S. private investment in the energy field, and we would like to do something similar to highlight the opportunities that exist in agriculture and infrastructure – where we think we have something real to offer.    The agricultural investment forum sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa and the Nigerian Embassy starting tomorrow similarly aims to direct U.S. resources towards Nigerian development.

I am bullish on Nigeria.  I have been ever since I served there as a young Foreign Service officer many years ago.  There is no doubt that Nigeria’s challenges are serious, but we should not underestimate the skill and ability of the Nigerian people and leaders to address them.  I believe the forces that are holding Nigeria together are stronger today than the forces that are pulling Nigeria apart.  Nigeria remains the giant in Africa, and I remain optimist about the long term future of that giant.   By working with Nigeria, we can contribute to the country’s economic growth and political unity – two objectives that are important to the United States, to Africa, and to the global community.  A strong, vibrant, politically stable, and economically prosperous Nigeria is in everyone’s interest. I hope you agree. Thank you.


Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson

  • Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson - Assistant Secretary Bureau of African Affairs