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Coup rumors, an absent president, and a stagnant economy are putting Nigeria on edge

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

A mystery container of weapons suddenly appeared this week at the Tin Can Island port in Lagos, Nigeria. Upon opening, the Nigerian Customs Service found it loaded with 440 arms and ammunition of various sizes and designs.

This was the second time in four months that a shipment with weapons was intercepted at one of Lagos’ ports. In January, the container had 661 weapons, and suspects were arrested. While covered by Nigeria’s newspapers as an ordinary daily event, the timing of the weapon finds is particularly unnerving. Nigeria’s political and military circles have been swirling with rumors that that some unknown people are discussing a military coup. How do we know? Because the military has come out to refute such allegations.

The chief of Army staff Tukur Buratai on May 16 issued a statement saying the Army had “received information that some individuals have been approaching some officers and soldiers for undisclosed political reasons.” He warned “such persons to desist from these acts.” Soon after various key politicians, union leaders and pretty much everyone who was anyone queued up to denounce the idea of a coup or supporting any such thing.

Coup talk has revived because president Muhammadu Buhari is again on an extended medical leave for an undisclosed length of time while his vice president Yemi Osinbajo acts in his place. It’s the second time Buhari has been absent this year; last time, the president was away for 50 days.

African countries have a long history of military coups taking place while the president is away. But many of those coups took place in an Africa that is different from today and certainly Nigeria is a different place from 1993, the last time a coup occurred. Most Nigerians hadn’t yet been born—the country’s median age is under 21.

Many can’t fathom, much less support, the idea of a coup. Nigeria’s current political uncertainty has more to do with whether: a) Buhari is healthy enough to continue in office; b) If not, should Osinbajo stay on as president till 2019 when the next elections are due; and, most crucially of all, c) Whether Osinbajo, who hails from Ogun state in Nigeria’s southwest, would be allowed to run for president in 2019 given the unwritten political agreement not to have a southerner running then. Based on the unofficial power-sharing pact, the presidency is meant to rotate between the north and south at eight-year intervals. With the uncertainty over the health of northerner Buhari, the north likely fears losing their “tenure” to a southerner.

To make things even more complicated there are several other delicately balanced and significant political issues. Perhaps the best known outside the country is the Boko Haram insurgency which has devastated parts of Nigeria’s northeast over the past eight years. While Buhari’s government has made progress to contain the deadly terrorist insurgency—recovering swathes of territory and rescuing abductees—it has struggled handling the aftermath and now is dealing with a humanitarian crisis in the region. More than five million face acute food shortages in the northeast.

Meanwhile, the Niger Delta region, where most of Nigeria’s oil production is located, is calm for now, but requires constant government input to soothe unrest. Farther east, talk that a “republic of Biafra” will once again try to break away continues as secessionist groups call for a referendum. Many think the government’s brutal crackdown on pro-Biafra protests and its detention of the leader of a major pro-Biafra group is only making matters worse.

The biggest issue of all is the economy, which has suffered five straight quarters of recession. Though tiny shoots of recovery have emerged, the downturn has gone on long enough that key businesses and sectors are loudly complaining that the government hasn’t moved quickly enough to diversify the economy beyond oil production.

The drop in oil prices has kept Nigeria’s economy from rebounding. The Buhari government came into office just as oil began its great decline from the peak in 2014. “The Nigerian economy is not set for a dramatic turnaround anytime soon,” says Teneo Intelligence’s Manji Cheto.

The government has talked up the idea of diversifying the economy away from oil and gas exports, but while the ‘D’ word is a mantra from the lips of every government minister, especially when trying to convince investors to bet on Nigeria, oil still largely drives the economy.

“The key driver [of the economy] was the contraction in the oil sector, and we see this improving in the coming quarters,” says Razia Khan, chief Africa economist for Standard Chartered. Non-oil sectors are growing, notes Khan. Reforms to boost other exports have been put in place. Crucially, Central Bank policies boosting the supply of dollars to keep Nigeria’s currency stable has proven somewhat effective over the last few months.

The central bank’s solution may be temporary, says Nonso Obikili, a Lagos-based economist, given the continued demand for dollars on the black market. “The forex policy is still not ideal with multiple prices and multiple windows. It is not clear that an economy can grow under such market structure,” he says. “The structure is not equipped to deal with shocks, any of which could tip it back into chaos.”

Fears of a backlash should inflation spike due to the forex issue as well as increased politicking given current uncertainties could “militate against any serious reforms,” says Cheto.

Long-term, for Nigerians to see any notable impact, Obikili says the economy will require significant growth. “My fear is that we will remain in a low-growth scenario for a while—and for Nigeria, anything below 3% growth really means we are moving backwards given that population growth is estimated to be about 2.9%.”

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