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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Nigeria: Current Issues and U.S. Policy

Lauren Ploch
Specialist in African Affairs

The U.S. government considers its strategic relationship with Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of oil and its second largest economy, to be among the most important on continent. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 170 million people, roughly divided between Muslims and Christians. U.S. diplomatic relations with Nigeria, which is among the top five suppliers of U.S. oil imports, have improved since the country made the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, and Nigeria is a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The country is an influential actor in African politics, having mediated disputes in several African countries and ranking among the top five troop contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Nigeria is a country of significant promise, but it also faces serious social, economic, and security challenges that have the potential to threaten the stability of both the state and the region, and to affect global oil prices. The country has faced intermittent political turmoil and economic crises since independence. Political life has been scarred by conflict along ethnic, geographic, and religious lines, and corruption and misrule have undermined the authority and legitimacy of the state. Despite its extensive oil and natural gas resources, Nigeria’s human development indicators are among the world’s lowest, and a majority of the population suffers from extreme poverty. Social unrest, criminality, and corruption in the oil-producing Niger Delta have hindered oil production and impeded the southern region’s economic development. Perceived neglect and economic marginalization have also fueled resentment in the north.

Inter-communal conflicts are common in parts of Nigeria. Thousands have been killed in periodic ethno-religious clashes in the past decade. The attempted terrorist 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 about extremist recruitment in Nigeria, which has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. Boko Haram has increasingly targeted churches, sometimes triggering retaliatory violence and threatening to inflame religious tensions in the country. While the group has remained primarily focused on a domestic agenda, some U.S. officials state that its members are expanding ties with other 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, by some accounts, 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, but not without problems. Postelection protests and violence across the north highlighted lingering communal tensions, grievances, and mistrust of the government in the northern states. President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, was re-elected and faces multiple, sometimes competing pressures to implement reforms deemed critical to addressing the country’s security and development 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, human rights abuses, and environmental damage in the Delta, as well as with the threat of violent extremism in Nigeria. Congress oversees more than $600 million in U.S. foreign assistance programs in Nigeria—one of the largest U.S. bilateral assistance packages in Africa.

Date of Report: July 18, 2012
Number of Pages: 23
Order Number: RL33964
Price: $29.95

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