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Why the EU has a Stake in Nigeria’s Democracy

What’s the connection between Nigeria’s ability to promote progress at regional and continental level and its domestic affairs? Credibility. Despite having the size—as one of the continent’s most populous and powerful democracies—to offer a counterweight to Africa’s autocrats and dictatorships, Nigeria is hobbled by corruption, lawlessness, and a security regime that often proves both brutal and ineffective. If Nigeria could address these problems effectively and punch at its true weight, Africa’s political and social indicators might be improving at the rate of its economic indicators. Could the European Union help to make that more likely?

Nigeria is referred to as an African giant. Its economy is second only to South Africa’s. It has a population of roughly 150 million and it holds the biggest oil reserves on the continent after Libya. It is a strategic partner for the European Union, an essential leader in the West Africa sub-region and plays a stabilizing role both bilaterally and through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peace and security architecture.

Domestic challenges, however, continue to undermine Nigeria’s constitutional democracy and its potential as a major economic and diplomatic power. Such challenges—insecurity, increasing poverty, escalating unemployment and bad governance—must be addressed at the domestic level, but they also represent important avenues for international partners to engage, based on Nigeria’s needs.

Recent efforts by the national assembly to consult on revisions to the constitution to ensure a more democratic document that can reposition the country on its path towards progress and unity are commendable. To complement these efforts, Nigeria should adopt meaningful reforms to tackle pressing economic and social imbalances and political exclusion.

International partners can help by fine-tuning their own analysis of Nigeria’s political, economic and security dynamics and pushing for a realistic review of the practices that have held Nigeria back.

The European Union is a critical partner in this process. It 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 whilst preserving internal unity. Attempts to address national and regional challenges to peace are consistent with the Union’s values, and reflect the EU’s own interest in having a stable regional partner.

In the 2009 Nigeria-EU Joint Way Forward both parties agreed to enhance their dialogue and cooperation including with the federal Nigerian government and state and local governments.  They also agreed to seek participation, whenever relevant and appropriate, from civil society, private sector and other non-state actors as defined in Article 6 of the Cotonou Partnership Agreement.   Given the growing importance of Nigeria's influence in the region and in international fora, dialogue should cover regional and international cooperation, in addition to the domestic situation and include migration and peace, security and stability issues.

The EU needs an effective ally in ECOWAS to address the increasing number of security challenges in the Sahel, such as those currently present in both Mali and Niger. Nigeria is instrumental to ensuring ECOWAS plays an effective role in maintaining peace and security, and has shown itself capable of doing so through past interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In stark contrast, however, domestic abductions and armed robbery are on the rise and there are almost daily reports of “terrorist attacks”. Boko Haram’s terrorist activities threaten the political and economic survival of the country and undermine Nigeria’s capacity to intervene positively in the region.

The security architecture in Nigeria is fundamentally defective and operationally flawed. The government’s response to Boko Haram has been a disproportionate use of force, resulting in escalating casualty figures and alienating relevant communities who could otherwise provide a valuable intelligence reservoir, or at least act as a moderating factor.

Corruption has undermined the credibility of government, impoverished the country and fuelled insurgency and violence. Nigerians have come to believe that their government not only condones corruption, but facilitates it. The federal system that operates in Nigeria allocates much of its funds to the central government without the administrative infrastructure to account for their use.  Oversight mechanisms that should monitor resource allocation, at both the federal and state level, are weak. This opens the door to extensive misappropriation. The constitutionally recognized, unqualified immunity granted to governors and the president allows for widespread impunity and fiscal fraud. Grassroots demands for greater resource control and a revised allocation formula between the federal government and states will not achieve the desired goal unless there are effective anti-corruption mechanisms.

The EU has the opportunity to make a difference in Nigeria by promoting democracy and supporting the fight against corruption. It can start by highlighting the inadequacies of current anti-corruption efforts and supporting civil society engagement that introduces constitutional reforms to strengthen the anti-corruption framework. Fortunately, this coincides with the EU’s own efforts to increase the transparency of European oil companies operating abroad – Nigeria being one of their major investment areas. The current debate on an EU law that will ensure disclosure of payments to governments at country and project level represents a vital step towards accountable revenue expenditure. Multinational corporations working in Nigeria can be held to the highest standards of transparency that would then complement national efforts to discourage the misappropriation or misuse of national revenues.

Confused citizenship rights are also a major source of tension in Nigeria. Legislation has not helped in clarifying the content of residency rights, the ambit of citizenship rights and the limits of the rights of indigenous or original inhabitants. This has led to inter-communal violence, exclusion and the denial of fundamental rights. These problems need urgent attention through constitutional re-engineering and social re-orientation.

Constitutional revisions are times of opportunity for any country, provided they create the space for national dialogue to address lingering governance challenges. The EU could use its influence to support the review process and pressure the Nigerian government to address those political challenges that have an impact on the constitutional process. 

Constitutional reform is vital but it will not resolve the security problems referred to above. Threats to the country’s stability require economic, political and social interventions. The EU can help on this front by discouraging Nigeria’s reliance on brutal military repression to respond to terrorist threats. Rule of law assistance can help Nigeria develop its capacities for meaningful intelligence-gathering and analysis, while boosting its technical capacity to fight crime. Targeted EU efforts to strengthen institutions that protect individual and communities’ rights could be an entry point for supporting those capacities.

Civil society partnership and support will be key in the reform process. Nigerian civil society has, time and again, proven capable of mobilizing citizens’ responses to government policies, such as with the protests surrounding the removal of the oil subsidy. Supporting civil society groups is critical for effective engagement in governance and constitutional reform processes that address entrenched elite interests and promote the public good.

If Nigeria is to play a leading role in advancing peace and democracy in Africa then it has to show progress on these fronts at home; present performance undermines the country’s ability to lead. Constitutional reform and improved security policies are the way Nigeria can build its legitimacy and authority as an advocate at regional and continental level.  The EU should support those goals.

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