• Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Nigeria’s kidnapping racket is a symptom of a failing state

The many lessons of Kuriga

Ever since Nigeria moved its capital to Abuja three decades ago, Africa’s most populous nation has been run from Aso Rock, a 400-metre granite monolith that doubles as the seat of government.

The fact that the president and the national assembly, elected since democracy returned in 1999, should be governing from under a giant rock is oddly symbolic of a neglectful elite who preside over the oil- rich nation as though the people occupied a different country.

Much of Nigeria is in effect ungoverned. Millions of children, especially girls in the north, are out of school and health provision is so dire that life expectancy is 53. In many parts of the country, law and order is non-existent.

This month, in Borno state, at least 200 mainly women and children were kidnapped searching for firewood. A few days later, in Kaduna state, less than 300km from Aso Rock, armed men abducted nearly 300 schoolchildren.

The incidents will rekindle memories of 2014, when Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Chibok. Ninety-eight are still missing. Abductions have become hideously common, mostly carried out not by religious zealots, but by criminal gangs who have turned kidnapping into a racket. Last year, almost 4,000 people were abducted.

What explains such prolific criminality? Part of the answer is economics. Ordinary people’s incomes have gone backwards for a decade. Former president Muhammadu Buhari oversaw eight years of economic self-harm, with clumsily executed state intervention that fuelled corruption.

Bola Tinubu, his successor, has implemented market policies, scrapping multiple foreign exchange rates and removing a costly fuel subsidy. But his policies have backfired, stoking higher inflation and causing what is being described as the worst economic crisis in a generation.

Economic hardship does not exonerate kidnapping gangs. But it helps explain them. Tinubu’s priority is to stabilise an economy in freefall. He must end the rampant theft of oil in which state officials are implicated. He also needs to raise funds, from Gulf states or markets, to clear the backlog of foreign currency demands and to help the plunging naira find a floor.

Once that happens, foreign investors stand ready to return to what, for all its difficulties, will be Africa’s biggest economy for decades to come.

The deeper problem is the failure of the Nigerian state. The country had a challenging start. Post-independence governments inherited a country that jammed together people from two major religions, three large ethnicities and 350 language groups. The discovery of oil did not help, transforming the business of government into divvying up rent, not creating wealth.

With oil gradually dwindling and the influence of colonialism receding, a line must be drawn in the sand. Tinubu should start with the first duty of a state – protecting its citizens. He wants to reform the 350,000-strong federal police force. Police are often posted in regions where they don’t even speak the language.

Creating state- level police forces could help, though they will need to be properly paid in a country where 40 per cent of officers moonlight as private security guards.

Deeper changes are required. Nigeria’s state needs to start acting like one, providing basic health and education and the nuts and bolts of a decent society.

Building a credible state is principally a matter for Nigerians. But it matters to everybody. By 2050, Nigeria is on course to be the world’s third-most populous nation with 400mn people. Each one deserves the chance in life that only a functioning state can provide.