Visiting Nigeria: Tragic Poverty, Pervasive Insecurity Extraordinary Potential

ABUJA, NIGERIA—Like so many developing states, Nigeria showcases poverty while exhibiting potential.  People are entrepreneurial but the state is exploitative.  Wealth is made but too often stolen.  Evidence of security—which really means insecurity—is everywhere.

I traveled with a journalist group on a business tour of Nigeria.  We were met by representatives of the organizer, along with a driver and two national policemen armed with AK-47s.

All of my hotels around the country had metal detectors.  High walls and gates manned by armed security personnel. 

Nevertheless, Abuja, as the seat of government, is relatively safe.  Former governor Orji Uzor Kalu, a successful businessman considering a presidential run, complained that “without a police escort you can’t move” in much of the country:  “You can move in Abuja, maybe some parts of Lagos, but you cannot move elsewhere.”  Security checkpoints on major roads were common as we traveled outside of major cities.

As I explain in my latest article on the American Spectator online:  “The Niger Delta, host to manifold energy and maritime operations, is particularly risky.  Residents resent northern domination and perceive that, as one businessman put it, money being extracted from the ground and water isn’t going to the local people.  These attitudes have prompted kidnappings of foreigners and attacks on facilities and ships.” 

Being careful isn’t enough.  Nor is hiring protective personnel.  Company officials privately acknowledge more directly buying protection, spreading cash throughout local communities. 

The smart outsider makes sure he has a well-armed friend or two.  A sign on the door leading from the pool to the hotel proclaimed:  “All Escorts Terminate Here.  Fire Arms Are Prohibited In This Facility.” 

Nigeria has had its share of conflict—four decades ago the central government brutally suppressed the attempted secession of the eastern region as the state of Biafra, resulting in anywhere between one and three million dead.  More recently ruthless military dictators ruled.

Today the greatest problem may be internal divisions within the population of about 175 million divided into roughly 500 ethnic groups.  The country is almost evenly divided between Christian and Muslim, leading to complicated political bargaining.  Recently the terrorist group Boko Haram has been slaughtering Christians and moderate Muslims.

The country already suffers from the usual Third World maladies of the over-politicized state.  Bureaucracy is pervasive and corruption is rife.  One expatriate worker observed:  “Nigeria is not a country.  It is an opportunity.”

These economic disincentives are greatly exacerbated by problems of insecurity.  A potential investor or trader cannot move freely.  Expatriate employees much watch their backs.  And the costs roll down to indigenous peoples, who lose economic opportunities.

Kalu, who is considering a presidential run, emphasized the need for deregulation and privatization and professed his admiration of Ronald Reagan.  He also highlighted the problems of corruption and energy for his oil-rich nation, where bribes are expected and power outages are constant.

But he suggested that the lack of personal safety is even more basic.  During a recent interview in Abuja he noted that “internal security is crucial.”  Without security, he said, “I don’t know how we can develop.  We need internal security so citizens and non-citizens can move more freely.”

Nigeria’s security problems underscore the country’s extraordinary unmet potential.  It has Africa’s largest population and Nigeria’s GDP will soon surpass that of South Africa. Nigeria’s energy reserves are an envy of the continent.

Moreover, the Nigerian people exhibit both hard work and entrepreneurship.  People are every where on the move, hawking products.  What Nigerians lack, one businessman complained to me, was an “enabling environment” from the government.

Which should include security, perhaps the most foundational government responsibility.

Nigeria has many advantages lacking in its neighbors, and other developing states.  However, so much of its potential is yet untapped.  It is well past time for Nigeria’s leaders to put their people’s interests first.