Specialist in African Affairs
The U.S. government considers its relationship with Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of oil and its second largest economy, to be among the most important on the 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 regularly among the top 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 both state and regional stability, 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 state’s authority and legitimacy. Despite extensive oil and natural gas resources, Nigeria’s human development indicators are among the world’s lowest, and a majority of the population faces extreme poverty. Years of social unrest, criminality, and corruption in the oil-producing Niger Delta have hindered oil production, delayed the southern region’s economic development, and contributed to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Perceived neglect and economic marginalization also fuel resentment in the predominately Muslim north. 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 2009 and the rise of a militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, have heightened concerns about extremist recruitment in Nigeria, which has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. Boko Haram has increasingly targeted churches, among other state and civilian targets, sometimes triggering retaliatory violence and threatening to inflame religious tensions. While the group remains primarily focused on a domestic agenda, some of its members appear to have expanded ties with other violent Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A Boko Haram splinter group, Ansaru, appears intent on kidnapping foreigners. The State Department designated both Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) in November 2013.
Nigeria’s last elections, in 2011, were viewed by many as a key test of the government’s commitment to democracy. The U.S. government had deemed previous elections to be deeply flawed. Election observers described the 2011 polls as a significant improvement over previous efforts, but not without problems. Post-election protests and violence across the north highlighted communal tensions, grievances, and mistrust of the government in that region. President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, was reelected and faces multiple, and sometimes competing, pressures to implement reforms to address Nigeria’s security and development challenges.
The Obama Administration has been supportive of Nigerian reform initiatives, including anticorruption 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 some Members have expressed concern with corruption, human rights abuses, environmental damage from oil drilling, and the threat of violent extremism in Nigeria. Congress oversees an estimated $700 million in U.S. foreign aid programs in Nigeria—one of the largest U.S. bilateral assistance packages in Africa.
Date of Report: November 15, 2013
Number of Pages: 27
Order Number: RL33964
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