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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nigeria: Elections and Issues for Congress

Lauren Ploch
Analyst in African Affairs

Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of oil and its largest democracy, is one of the U.S. government’s key strategic partners on the continent. It is Africa’s most populous country, with over 155 million people, roughly half Muslim and half Christian, and its second-largest economy. Diplomatic relations with Nigeria, which is among the top five oil exporters to the United States, are strong, and the country is a major recipient of U.S. foreign assistance. After 16 years of military rule, Nigeria made the transition to civilian governance in 1999, and emerged as a powerful actor in African politics. Nigeria’s government has mediated disputes in several African countries, and the country ranks fourth among troop contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Nigeria faces serious social and economic challenges, however, that some analysts contend threaten the stability of both the state and the region, and which have the potential to affect global oil markets. The country has faced intermittent political turmoil and economic crises since independence. Political life has been scarred by conflict along ethnic, religious, and geographic lines, and misrule has undermined the authority and legitimacy of the state. Nigeria’s annual oil and natural gas revenues are estimated at over $60 billion, but its human development indicators are among the world’s lowest, and a majority of the population suffers from extreme poverty. The government relies on the oil sector for over 85% of revenues. By some estimates, Nigeria could rank among the world’s top five exporters of oil within a few years, but social unrest, criminality, and corruption in the country’s oil-producing Niger Delta region have hindered production as well as development.

Inter-communal conflicts in parts of the country are common. Resentment between the northern and southern regions, and among communities in central Nigeria, has led periodically to considerable unrest. Thousands have been killed in periodic ethno-religious clashes in the past decade. The attempted terror attack on an American airliner by a Nigerian in December 2009 and the resurgence of a militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, have also heightened concerns regarding the possible radicalization of Nigerian Muslims. While Boko Haram has remained primarily focused on a domestic agenda, there are reports that some of its members may be expanding ties with more developed violent Islamist groups on the continent.

Nigeria’s most recent elections, held in April 2011, were viewed by many as a critical test of the government’s commitment to democracy. The State Department had deemed the previous elections to be deeply flawed, and some observers contended that Nigeria had not held a free and fair general election since the return to civilian rule in 1999. Election observer groups characterized the 2011 elections as a significant improvement over previous polls, although not without problems. Post-election violence across the north highlighted lingering communal tensions, grievances, and mistrust. President Goodluck Jonathan, who was re-elected, faces mounting, and at times competing, internal and external pressure to implement reforms deemed critical to addressing corruption and other development and security challenges.

The Obama Administration has been supportive of Nigeria’s recent reform initiatives, including anti-corruption efforts, economic and electoral reforms, energy sector privatization, and programs to promote peace and development in the Niger Delta. In 2010, the Administration established the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission, a strategic dialogue to address issues of mutual concern. Congress regularly monitors Nigerian political developments and has expressed concerns with corruption and human rights abuses. Congress provides oversight for over $600 million in U.S. foreign assistance programs in Nigeria—one of the largest U.S. assistance packages in Africa.

Date of Report: January 19, 2012
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: RL33964
Price: $29.95

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