I Insist Nigeria is Dancing on the Brink — John Campbell
A former United States of America Ambassador, John Campbell, in this interview says that his view about Nigeria has not changed and that the country faces formidable challenges that will either make or break it based on the choices made by Nigerians
In your critically acclaimed book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, you talked about Nigeria exhibiting symptoms of a failing/fragile state. Has your view changed?
My view has not changed about the serious challenges Nigeria faces. I think the challenges are more pronounced than they were before the Boko Haram insurrection began in the North. Political life is also unsettled by the approach of the 2015 elections. The ruling party has not yet presented a candidate. But most observers expect that the president will seek re-election. As for the opposition party, there does not seem to be a consensus presidential candidate.
Will you say things have gone from bad to worse since you wrote that book?
The challenges Nigeria faces at the moment are considerable and differ somewhat from four years ago when I wrote the book.
Considering what you wrote in your book four years ago, if you were to revise it again, what will you add about Nigeria?
I would pay more attention to the problems of corruption. It is mind-boggling how millions of dollars go missing. Take for instance, the serious allegation made by the former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Lamido Sanusi. He has claimed that an amount he variously estimated at $10 billion, $20 billion and $50 billion is unaccounted for. The Finance Minister has called for an audit, but I do not believe the results have yet been made public.
There are different types of corruption in Nigeria. For example, there is petty corruption. Nigerian policemen are poorly paid. At a checkpoint you hear a policeman saying ‘Do you have anything for me today?’ Because they are poorly paid, it will be difficult for them to keep their families without the ‘bribes’ they levy to let people pass through their checkpoints. Another instance is where a civil servant insists on being paid to perform a service which is supposed to be free of charge. This type of corruption will be very difficult to deal with because it will require a massive restructuring of salaries paid to public servants. But, then there is the corruption where millions of dollar go missing through rigging of contracts, money laundering or oil bunkering.
Many see your book as a doomsday prediction for Nigeria. What exactly was the focus of the book?
In my book, the focus was to tell the American people how vastly important the country Nigeria is to America. I should add that a few Nigerians who see it as a prediction of the collapse of their country are mistaken. It is a warning, however, that Nigeria’s challenges must be addressed. Nigeria faces huge challenges. The confluence of Boko Haram, upcoming 2015 elections and the epidemic of ethnic clashes leave it as it were ‘dancing on the brink.’
Did you point to 2015 in your book?
So far I can recall, I did not point to 2015. There is an ‘urban legend’ in circulation among some Nigerians that, somehow, the United States wants to see Nigeria break apart. Nothing could be further from the truth. US policy consistently has been to support the unity of Nigeria. My own warnings about the challenges Nigeria faces have also been taken by some as somehow promoting Nigeria’s breakup. As a person who knows Nigeria well, I can imagine no greater disaster.
It doesn’t appear the Federal Government is happy about the Boko Haram situation but many Nigerians feel it is not doing enough. What more do you think the government can do?
The Boko Haram insurgency is complex and diffuse. Boko Haram does not appear to be a conventional political struggle. Shekau does not speak in conventional political terms in his videos. So far as I am aware, he never refers to “economic development.” There are also splinter groups, such as Ansaru. Therefore, the government will need to follow a multi-pronged strategy. I think the Federal Government should go back and look at the recommendation by the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, in April. These are well-thought out long-term solutions. If the government carefully follows through, this could be an effective approach to the insurgency.
It seems, at the moment, the Nigerian government isn’t looking at the Dasuki recommendation. What does this portend and what are some of the points of the recommendation?
The former national security adviser’s proposals are well-thought out and long-term in scope. They would also require a significant diversion of government spending. They likely will require a long time to implement. What disappoints me is that there is no sign that preparatory work is being done, and Dasuki’s recommendations seem to have largely disappeared from public discourse. It is possible, of course, that government’s preparation is going forward. If so, I wish the Jonathan administration would publicise what it is doing.
The UK law banning sales of lethal weapons to Nigeria is still extant; the US is hesitant on fully assisting Nigeria in the fight against terrorism, reportedly, because of the African country’s records of human rights violations. Is that enough to keep them away from helping Nigeria?
Nigeria’s military human rights record is not encouraging. It’s one of the reasons the United States of America’s assistance to the Nigerian military is limited. Any US military assistance to Nigeria is governed by American law, including the Leahy Amendment that requires the US assistance to be suspended if a military unit is credibly accused of human rights abuses.
A lot is being said about the Boko Haram insurrection, from being a political attempt to discredit the incumbent president to being a religious madness of some militants. Where do you think the real cause of this violent crisis in Nigeria lies?
Boko Haram has become a political football between the governing party and the opposition party in this pre-election period. I have heard the allegation that the opposition party and Boko Haram cooperate to discredit the present administration. On the other hand, there is the allegation that Goodluck Jonathan is using Boko Haram to prevent 2015 elections from taking place in the North. I don’t think there’s any truth to these two scenarios. But such accusations indicate a lack of trust among many Nigerians. The drivers of northern alienation that Boko Haram feeds on are a sense of political marginalisation, economic impoverishment, and resentment of security service human rights abuses.
Why would you say one of the drivers of Northern alienation that Boko Haram feeds on is a sense of political marginalisation?
Yes, Boko Haram feeds on a sense of political marginalisation along with economic marginalisation. Poverty in north-east Nigeria is, in the best of times, among the world’s worst, as are the social statistics. But, alienation and marginalisation have far more complicated roots than just poverty. My sense is that many in northern Nigeria feel “dis-respected” by their fellow countrymen, and certainly Abuja has long ignored it.
How and by who are they marginalised?
With the end of “zoning,” many political figures sense that they will be excluded permanently from power in Abuja. But, the North-East is also ‘marginalised’ by many businessmen in the South, who avidly pursue opportunities in other parts of Africa but ignore the North. Opinion leaders, too, often dismiss the North as ‘backward.’ Factors such as this all contribute to marginalisation.
More than 100 days away from their schools, from their parents, their neighbours and the normal society, the whereabouts of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls remains a mystery. Can their rescue ever be pulled off? By what means do you think this can happen?
I think it is extremely difficult to rescue the abducted schoolgirls. It is possible that the girls are held captive in more than one place. And if that’s the case, rescuing the girls won’t be easy. The Nigerian government has always been open to negotiate with Boko Haram. It has always opted for dialogue. But Boko Haram has always refused to negotiate. What the terrorist group initially asked for was that the wives and children of its members who are in extra-judicial detention should be released. Subsequently, the Islamist group demanded the release of its operatives in exchange for the girls. That’s dangerous. Third-party negotiation is not that simple. If Boko Haram is highly diffuse, it may be that Shekau is just one of many leaders in the group. It’s difficult to know exactly who you’re dealing with.
Do you think the Federal Government’s employing an American PR firm is a solution to the current Boko Haram insurgency?
Foreign governments often employ public relations firms to burnish their image in the United States; most of the time, I think it’s a waste of money. I also think harassing the legal demonstrations by BringBackOurGirls is not right. What the campaigners are doing is entirely legal.
What do you think about the loan request of the president to fight Boko Haram?
I am not the National Assembly; but, I think there are a lot of questions. Why is the loan necessary, given Nigeria’s anticipated revenue? What steps are being put in place to prevent corruption?
You show keen interest in the Nigerian nation; what’s the attraction?
Why am I interested in Nigeria? I think Nigeria is an extraordinarily attractive country. Its artistic achievements are under-reported; what is being achieved in terms of arts does not get enough publicity. The paintings in my small collection from Nigeria are widely admired. Also, Nigeria’s contribution to music is tremendous – high-life, for example. Some think it originated in Ghana but actually it is Nigerian. Nigeria is very big — it is almost a world unto itself.
How do you think the Nigerian government can ensure a credible, free and fair election come 2015?
It is going to be a major challenge. I have heard concerns expressed by Nigerian civil organisations about the state of election preparations. Then there is the question of how to conduct free and fair elections in the three states under a State of Emergency. The election in Ekiti State does not fill me with confidence. Elections are, of course, much more than polling day. It will be essential that the ballot counting and the collating of the results be transparent if the elections are to be credible — to Nigerians. That is what really matters: that the elections should be credible to Nigerians throughout the country.
Do you think the US-Africa Summit scheduled for August 4-6 will be an opportunity for Mr. Goodluck Jonathan to seek more assistance from the US president?
I am not qualified to say what President Jonathan will ask for.
With increasing turbulence in Nigeria, what impact can it have on the African continent and on nations like America?
Nigeria has been Africa’s ‘indispensable’ country. It was a founder and animator of Economic Community of West African States and the African Union. It addressed a range of security crises ranging from Liberia to Sierra Leone to Cote d’Ivoire. Not now. I think a strong, outward-looking Nigeria would have led to a very different, and more positive, outcome to the Mali crisis than what happened – and made non-African intervention unnecessary.
Nigeria was the most important strategic partner of the United States in Africa. Now that Nigeria is almost entirely focused on Boko Haram and the upcoming elections, that partnership is on the shelf.
Interestingly, with all its economic incursion into Africa, China appears to be silent about Nigeria’s challenge. Will you say this is deliberate?
I cannot say what motivates China’s policy toward Nigeria.
Cameroon also is facing attacks from Boko Haram insurgents. Do we say the terrorist group is a West African issue or why is its violence extending to neighbouring nations?
Violent insurrections can be found straight across the Sahel in differing forms. What they seem to have in common is a local focus and a response to bad governance. I do not see evidence of coordination for a common purpose among the various insurgent groups, though they may share tactics and even occasionally personnel.
From your observatory, what insights can you offer on Africa’s political and security development?
In general, the way forward for Africa is improved governance and the strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Where that is achieved, economic development will surely follow. Positive examples are Botswana and South Africa.
A lot of Nigerians are already wondering if their country won’t end up like Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan. How close or far is Nigeria from any of these countries’ situation?
I am leery about such comparisons. Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria are very different countries with different histories. Nigeria’s future will be determined by choices Nigerians make. The same is true of Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
If you have an audience with Mr. President, what will you tell him to do?
I would ask him quickly and responsibly to address security service, human rights violations in the country.
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