The security crisis seizing Nigeria these days is kidnappings for ransom. A year ago, the spotlight was on violent conflict between farmers and herders. Before that, it was Boko Haram. Even earlier, it was the tensions in the Niger Delta, and so on. As Nigeria lurches from one violent conflict to another, the country’s leaders and its international supporters become easily—and perhaps understandably—fixated on the latest manifestation of insecurity. The larger problem, however, is that none of this will ever change unless the focus turns more firmly and consistently to the thread that runs through all of that upheaval: the failures of governance.

Nigerian men who fled their country’s Boko Haram conflict seek shade to pray in neighboring Niger. Violence involving Boko Haram has uprooted most of the quarter-million Nigerians who have taken refuge in nearby states. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)
Nigerian men who fled their country’s Boko Haram conflict seek shade to pray in neighboring Niger. Violence involving Boko Haram has uprooted most of the quarter-million Nigerians who have taken refuge in nearby states. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

Nigeria’s shortcomings in making government accountable to its citizens form an urgent issue not only for the country, but for the larger region and for U.S. strategic interests. Nigeria’s population is projected to surpass that of the United States by 2050. It will be impossible to advance U.S. strategic objectives of stability and prosperity in sub-Saharan Africa without a peaceful, democratic and economically thriving Nigeria. To get governance right in the region we must start with Nigeria.

Nigerians’ Disappointed Hopes

Throughout the two decades since Nigeria’s transition from military rule to democracy, the country has experienced some kind of widespread violence. Repeated inadequate responses by governments have disillusioned Nigeria’s citizens. In 2015, Nigerians took hope from the country’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power to an opposition candidate. But with those expectations dashed, disappointed citizens this year abstained from voting. In February’s presidential election, only 35.66 percent of registered voters cast ballots, the lowest turnout since 1999.

So Nigerian leaders—and international organizations trying to support the country’s development—need to reinvigorate and sustain a focus on getting governance right. That means ensuring better mechanisms of accountability for top officials and reducing corruption and other abuses that fuel violence.

Achieving greater accountability—a goal sought by a growing Nigerian civil society movement—requires improvements on two of Nigeria’s most difficult underlying issues:

Implementation of Nigeria’s federal governing structure. Nigeria is a federal republic—a logical structure for a large, diverse nation. Yet, its constitutional arrangement grants the central government overwhelming power. The governors of the 36 states are powerful politically, but much weaker in their abilities to govern. Most depend wholly on budget allocations from the federal purse, making local authorities more beholden to central power brokers than to their citizens. And nearly 70 percent of Nigeria’s revenue comes from the oil-rich Niger Delta region, leaving the resources for good governance dependent on the world’s fluctuating oil prices.

Leaders have debated structural changes for years. A national conference in 2014 generated 600 resolutions and a 10,335-page report but little actual change. So calls for restructuring continue to grow amid economic stress, political uncertainty and the persistent violent conflicts. 

Reform of Nigeria’s security structures. The Nigerian Police Force tends to be starved of personnel and resources, and it is too centrally controlled to respond well to local conditions. As a result, the government too frequently uses the military for internal security, distracting that force from border and regional threats. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Nigerian military played pivotal peacekeeping roles in West Africa, bolstering regional security and stabilizing war-torn countries. Today, it is most often deployed to battle internal threats. Years of mismanagement and corruption are also weakening the military. A reformed Nigerian military would be better able to defend its citizens and assist in the global fight against terrorism in the Lake Chad basin and the Sahel.

Nigeria’s leaders must take the initiative to tackle the structural problems at the root of Nigeria’s violence. Failure will only increase internal instability that will radiate across Nigeria’s borders and threaten regional and global security. Already, more than 2 million Nigerians—a population as large as the nation of Gambia—are internally displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency.

It is ultimately up to Nigerians to address these issues of accountability and governance, as many civil society groups are campaigning to do. A vital need is to connect those civic efforts to government leadership.

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