Nigeria, presently writhing in economic woes, must multitask in order to address a range of urgent security challenges, from stabilizing areas wrested from Islamist militant control to dealing with rising unrest in the oil-rich Delta, Philip Hammond has said.
The British foreign secretary, visiting Nigeria on Saturday for a security summit convened by President Muhammadu Buhari, said the country — which he described as “without a doubt the most important” nation on the continent—is facing “very big strategic challenges” that must be tackled simultaneously. Mr Buhari, addressing the summit, stressed the need to remain focused on returning more than 2m Nigerians displaced by the conflict to their homes “in peace and dignity”.
The economic crisis is compounded by new security problems that cannot be ignored, he said.
“You can’t say, ‘we’re fighting a war in the northeast and we can’t do anything else’,” Mr Hammond told reporters on the sidelines of the security summit on Saturday. Nigeria must “deal with unrest in the Delta, in the [middle] belt . . . with the broken economy, with the power crisis, with the population challenge, all of those things need to be addressed”.
Nigeria is forecast by the UN to become the world’s third largest country by 2050, but its skyrocketing population growth is far ahead of its economic growth, Mr Hammond noted.
Tumbling oil prices have slashed government revenues in what was Africa’s top oil producer until last week, when output dropped to 20-year lows due to a spate of militant attacks by a new group threatening to bring production to zero. Mr Hammond called the security situation in the southerly region a “major concern, not least because of its direct and dramatic impact” on the economy.
The new threat in the Delta risks overshadowing Nigerian military gains against Boko Haram. In a campaign launched in early 2015, the army has forced Boko Haram off of a swath of territory roughly the size of Belgium that the terror group seized in 2014. Though the push was launched before the elections that brought Mr Buhari to power, the military has continued its advances on his watch.
The president’s claim that the group is only able to launch “hit-and-run” attacks, not military-style operations, seems justified, but the next phase of returning displaced people to their homes is likely to be complicated. Security experts and Western diplomats in Abuja say most “liberated” areas are not yet safe for residents to return to, and resources for policing and restoring civilian authority are limited.
“I’m afraid . . . that beating Boko Haram looks like the easy bit of the strategic challenge,” Mr Hammond said. “The flow of battle has turned and I believe Boko Haram will be defeated, but some of these challenges are going to be much more difficult and take much longer.” In remarks earlier in the day, he referred to Britain’s fight in Iraq and Afghanistan in stressing the long-term effort to address underlying grievances that enabled the rise of Islamist extremism.
Though militants have since expanded their reach in neighbouring countries, most recently Cameroon, coordination between Nigeria and its Francophone neighbours has improved dramatically on his watch, as evidenced by the comments of West Africa leaders and their Western partners on Saturday, all of whom stressed that working together in the fight to end Boko Haram’s threat was in their common interests.