NIGERIA’S Boko Haram Islamist militants have stepped up suicide attacks as the military intensified its offensive to meet a December-end deadline by President Muhammadu Buhari to end the six-year insurgency.
The deadline is set to expire without Boko Haram being eliminated. One of many acknowledgements that the fight against the militants will be on for a while longer, was the announcement Monday plans to increase the number of its troops backing Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram to more than 300 next year.
In addition, the fact that the once mighty Nigerian military this year often put Boko Haram on the run due to the critical military support by smaller and poorer neighbours, has spurred commentators to argue that Africa’s biggest economy is, at base, a regional power in decline. A champion with its best years behind it.
On the surface, it looks so, but the reality is more complicated.
This year a sitting Nigerian president was beaten at the ballot by a three-time election loser; the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan didn’t cry, throw a tantrum or call in the generals – he conceded defeat generously and congratulated the winner, Muhammadu Buhari.
Moment of democratic deepening
In a continent where the power-clutching antics of leaders are better known than their honourable exits, it was a valuable moment of democratic deepening in the country.
It also spoke to a possible return of Nigeria offering leadership in the continent, on the back of what had been a good run of booming economic growth.
In 2014, after a rebasing exercise, Nigeria knocked off South Africa from its perch as Africa’s biggest economy, and counted its GDP at $521 billion. The same year, however, the giant of Africa was plagued by terrorism and internal strife with Boko Haram insurgency in the north, and had to suffer the embarrassment of being bailed out militarily by the armies of much smaller countries in the region, including Chad and Cameroon.
Historically, Nigeria has always been a useful force for progress and development on the continent. From the country’s role in the liberation movement across the continent, to spearheading peacekeeping missions in West Africa in the 1990s, Nigeria’s foreign policy might has never been in question.
Big African causes
That’s until recently, when it has taken a relatively more subdued tone on the geopolitical stage, a far cry from the days of the feisty Olusegun Obasanjo’s term as civilian president in the early 2000s, when Obasanjo – and Nigeria – were excellent at championing the great African causes of the day.
What is the place of Nigeria in Africa today? How does this once aggressive African superpower fit into the current power dynamics on the continent? Is Nigeria on a retreat ironically at a time when it has just become the continent’s big economic kahuna?
Njoya Tikum, who works with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as regional policy and programme advisor on anti-corruption and economic governance, doesn’t think so.
“Nigeria hasn’t become soft,” said Tikum in an interview with Mail & Guardian Africa. “Not under the current peace and security architecture of Africa. They are becoming shrewd. We used to criticise them as the continent’s bully but Nigeria has now started to use soft politics without annoying its neighbours.
“On the Security Council for instance, the consensus is that Nigeria should take Africa’s place because of its long history in terms of ensuring peace and security in Africa.” Nigeria has only gone back to rework its tools of influence, Tikum said. “Internal exigencies have caught up with Nigeria. Creating opportunities internally will only make the country more powerful. Nigeria is acting like [President Barack] Obama’s America. There is an inward growth perspective, which doesn’t mean they have given up [on external engagements].”
Tikum’s sentiments found some resonance with that of South Africa’s Tessa Dooms who is a National Planning Commissioner and Director with South African think-tank, Youth Lab.
“You can never accuse Nigeria of cowardice. Just because they are not as cut-throat does not mean they have backed off.”
Nigeria is simply fitting into Africa’s contemporary realities, Dooms argued. “Africa has new issues. Countries used to be mostly dealing with their issues by themselves, now there is a sense of collective responsibility. We now have regional blocs with leaders and Nigeria and South Africa are respectively leaders in their blocs.”
Nigeria may be looking inwards, but this may not necessarily be to the detriment of its continental influence. “There is an opportunity in offering leadership by example. If Nigeria solves its energy and unemployment issues for instance, it then becomes a model on how you get things right. That certainly is another version of political clout,” said Doom.
Still, former president Goodluck Jonathan also deserves some praise, according to Chofor Che, an analyst at LibreAfrique.org and Audace Institut Afrique, and co-founder and chair of the Central African Centre for Libertarian Thought and Action (CACLiTA). “I think that we should give some credit to Jonathan because it is under his regime that Nigeria beat South Africa to become number one economy in Africa. Under Jonathan we saw more investment opportunities created.
“Many thought that Jonathan did not do much to contain the Boko Haram crisis, but I think tackling Boko Haram needs a regional strategy with assistance from the international community. It is difficult for a single state to combat such a menace.”
But Chofor took a different position on the role of Nigeria on the continent. “I do think Nigeria became soft politically under Jonathan, and Buhari with his military background is struggling to reinstate that position.”
For his part, Nigerian blogger, Abubakar Usman believes Nigeria certainly retreated. “Even as Nigeria became Africa’s biggest economy, we saw a kind of retreat because while the growth figures were good, the successes recorded were largely uncoordinated,” he said.
While not believing wealth has fundamentally softened Nigeria’s political power in Africa, he believes it was more a lack of will to use those powers.
“Nigeria’s prosperity has not made it politically soft, we only had a leader in Goodluck Jonathan who lacked the political will to use its riches to better the lives of the people.” Boko Haram indeed sapped the confidence of the nation, said Usman, but with a new government, the confidence is being restored.
Nigeria is still viewed as a force of stability and leadership in the region, “but [ the perception] is not as strong as it was some years back,” he conceded.
But there is a form of Nigerian power Africa cannot afford to ignore, said Tikum, quoted earlier. Nigeria is leading the socio-cultural charge and offering entrepreneurial leadership on the continent.
“The first thing that comes to your mind with respect to music and movies on the continent is Nigeria. People tend to forget about these aspects. It is a soft form of leadership but it is a critical one,” said Tikum.
On the contemporary tech battle between Nigeria and Kenya, Tikum believes that Kenya is perceived as doing better because Kenya has had to focus on external markets while Nigeria can afford to focus inwards because it has a huge internal market.
“What goes on in Lagos in a day happens in Kenya in two weeks!” said Tikum.
What has Nigeria been busy with lately on the continent? Along with South Africa, it is involved with keeping peace in the Central African Republic.
The coup plotters in Burkina Faso ignored direction from the presidents of Benin and Senegal despite both countries promising amnesty to the ambitious soldiers. Nigeria, was willing to send troops but used its power of persuasion and got the soldiers to back down.
In South Sudan, the only non-East African contingent of security forces came from Nigeria; and the country is also involved in stabilising Guinea-Bissau. The overall economy of the West African region continues to be fueled by Nigeria.
Much may be said about Nigeria’s current challenge with terrorism and internal strife, Nigeria’s continued influential role in the region and Africa at large remains largely intact. The challenge for policy-makers is to look at it from new perspectives.
This article was originally published at Mail & Guardian Africa