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Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked 144th out of 177 by Transparency International, where almost 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line. Corruption is so voracious that an estimated 400 billion dollars of public funds have vanished since independence. The security forces, politicians and magistrates are corrupt, but the top prize for the most corrupt official of all times goes to Sani Abacha. During his presidency, he systematically embezzled between 2 to 3 percent of Nigeria's GDP. But all military rulers have behaved along the same lines, regardless of their religion or ethnic group.

Corruption in power

Current Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, first elected in 2011, is also going down the same path with the active participation of some of his ministers. But no one investigates. The latest episode of corruption is dated February 2014 when the Nigerian Parliament annulled the sale of the exploitation rights over oil block OPL 245, whose estimated reserves top 9 billion barrels. Originally assigned to a local company called Malabu Oil, owned by one of Abacha's sons and by the Minister of Petroleum Resources of the time, the oil block was sold, with the help of Shell, for 1.1 billion dollars to the Italian oil company Eni and its local subsidiary Agip. The exorbitant amount of money paid was filtered first by Nigerian authorities and then by Malabu Oil whom, in turn, distributed the sum to a series of nameless bank accounts. The allegation floating in the air is that President Jonathan may be among the concealed beneficiaries. And now that the deal has been canceled, it is unclear whether the Italian oil company will ever see any of the money it paid.

Corruption is systematic in Nigeria. Anyone with power will demand a bribe. It is so rooted that it has become a means of survival and a source of subsistence. It is the basis on which the entire economic system lies on. And it is so widespread that it hardly makes the news anymore. Corruption is just part of the rules of the game in Nigeria.

What makes the African country special, or terribly banal, is its enormous oil wealth which could, at least in theory, feed Africa's most populated nation. Oil and gas reserves, in fact, amount to 95% of foreign currency income and fuel the entire corruption pipeline. A yearly influx of about 100 billion dollars satiating the hunger of a few selected individuals, while the masses starve.

jonathan goodluck
Goodluck Jonathan

Some have it all

25 percent of Nigerians are unemployed; 70 percent of the population works in agriculture; 40 percent are illiterate. The oil industry alone could potentially absorb all the unemployed, but it accounts for a mere 10% of the country's workforce. If the average pro-capita income is of about 2.700 USD per year, there are a few people who eat four chickens and way more that eat none. There is no other industry, infrastructures are in decay and oil is the typical African word that rhymes with doom. Not for everyone, of course. Nigeria is one of the major importers of luxury vehicles in the continent: Porsche, Ferrari and Mercedes roam freely on the roads of Lagos or Abuja. Among the 40 wealthiest Africans, 11 are Nigerians.

The result of such an uneven distribution of wealth is social instability, growing discontent and endemic forms of uprising and terrorism. Radical Islamic groups, like Boko Haram, gain supporters not only on religious grounds, but mainly for economic reasons. Islam has been capable of channeling the resentment of the people of northern Nigeria, who are majority Muslim and also among the poorest in the country.

The State of Sokoto, among the 36 Federal States composing Nigeria, is home to the Hausa and its unemployment rate is over 80 percent. In the south of Nigeria, where most oil reserves are located, those without a job are half as much.

From discontent to terrorism

The social divide between Muslims and Christians has become the excuse to provide a religious angle to an economic issue.

If Boko Haram represents the people's dissatisfaction in the north of Nigeria, the same role is played by MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of Niger's Delta) down south. MEND's official logo contains the motto “non violent, progress, freedom” when the group has gone to war against central authorities to achieve its political goals. MEND does not have a religious agenda, even though the threats of attacking Boko Haram to revenge its attacks against churches hints to the fact that most of its members may be Christian.

What MEND and Boko Haram have in common is their fight against the government. The Movement claims a greater share of oil revenues for its people and fights against the environmental pollution that is destroying any alternative to oil, such as fishing or agriculture. The Nigerian authorities have tried to negotiate with MEND, in 2009 an amnesty was signed for 26 thousand of its combatants, who were promised a series of economic incentives that were never delivered. The outcome of the government's broken promises was the return of MEND on the scene in 2013. Their main sources of funding remain the same: the kidnapping of oil workers (better if foreign), the contraband of oil and weapons. Their return to arms coincided with the 24 years jail term for terrorism related charges handed in South Africa to its historic leader, Henry Okah.


A giant resting on feet of clay

Statistical data implies Nigeria is a fast growing and emerging economy rising 6-8% every year. But there are also other figures to look at. Demographical data, for instance, shows population is growing at a 3.8 percent rate. This means that the current 300 million Nigerians will double over the next 20 years. Without a policy of wealth redistribution, that 40 percent of people who now have less than 14 years of age, summed with the 19 percent below 24, will equal chaos and social violence. If we project this data in the future, the social turmoil affecting Nigeria today will be nothing compared to what we should expect of tomorrow. The only factors mitigating such a scenario are a low life expectancy rate, a mere 52 years at birth, and a high infant mortality rate, 14% of the world's total according to the WHO.

Nigeria has also always been in the spotlight for human rights abuses. Freedom of the press is written in the Constitution, but the arrests and disappearances of journalists, especially of those writing against the powerful, are recurrent. The judiciary is also allegedly independent, but corruption often dictates the outcome of a sentence. Police will investigate if you pay, will arrest or free you if you pay, will convict or acquit you if you pay.

If Boko Haram are accused of crimes against humanity, and for this reason blacklisted among the terrorist groups (since September 2013 by the UK and November 2013 by the US), the Nigerian security forces cannot show off a better human rights record. Ever since May 2013, when Nigerian President Jonathan decreed the state of emergency in some of the northern States, the abuses inflicted on the civilian population by both Boko Haram and the Nigerian security forces have become systematic. These include attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings, extortions, rapes and extra-judicial killings. The self defense militias authorized by the government have also joined the parade and contributed to the violations. The civilian population is caught in the middle and, especially the weakest among them, the women, have become the primary targets of violence.

The issue is, hence, what priorities does a country, or an international community, have. You'll never end up in jail for corruption in Nigeria if your friends are influential, nor will you get locked up for drug trafficking in one of the countries traffickers use to reach Europe. At the same time, you can be convicted to 14 years in prison for a gay marriage, or to 10 years behind bars if you show your homosexuality in public. These provisions have come into force on January 14th, 2014 and were signed by president Goodluck Jonathan, whose drop in popularity lead him to pull the classic rabbit out of the hat. Nigeria will vote for a new president in 2015 and it is yet unclear whether the incumbent president will run for a new term in office.

The question could be why no one really cares about what happens in Nigeria. There is a simple reply to the query: Nigeria is a big country, it is emerging demographically and economically, it is filled with oil and natural resources, it contributes heavily to the UN's peacekeeping missions. This is more than enough to have the international community look the other way.