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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Week Ahead – A Bloody Anniversary

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It has been a year since the infamous and blood riddled Lekki Toll Massacre, an anniversary which the government went to great pains to ensure would be as muted as possible. No such energy, however, on ensuring justice for the victims of both the massacre and the abuses that prompted weeks of protests. This is in keeping with a governing tradition that appears unbothered by escalating violence, wilting revenue flows, low vaccine uptake, military incompetence and anaemic economic consumption. As the home front continues to disappoint, the outlook in the neighbourhood remains worrying.

Remembering Lekki
Police in Lagos fired tear gas Wednesday as hundreds of demonstrators turned up at the Lekki toll gate in a memorial car procession to honour those who died during protests last year in Nigeria’s economic hub. It’s one year to the day since security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters at the Lekki toll gate. The shooting quashed Nigeria’s fledgling youth protest movement, known as #EndSARS, but despite scores of videos shot by protesters, which showed the shooting, as well as the dead and wounded, the Nigerian government continues to deny that a shooting took place. The organisers of Wednesday’s protests called those who had died “fallen heroes” and said they had to come to the toll gate to remember them. There was at times a tense stand-off between security forces and the protesters, who made a number of arrests. Ahead of the memorial event, the organisers and Lagos state commissioner of police agreed that the only way a protest could take place was in vehicles and not through marches on the street. However, some of the protesters spilled on to the streets, chanting “solidarity forever,” and “how many of us will you kill?” Police soon released teargas to disperse those who were demonstrating on the streets, calling them “miscreants” in an interview with the media. Meanwhile, at a press conference held Wednesday in Abuja, the Nigerian government once again denied that police had fired on protesters on 20 October last year — calling it a “phantom massacre” — and described media reporting on the shooting as “baseless.” Earlier this week, the Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS Related Abuses and Other Matters ended its assignment a year after it was set up by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu for enquiry. The Justice Doris Okuwobi-led panel awarded ₦148.2 million as compensation to 24 petitioners, bringing the total amount awarded since the panel started sitting on 26 October 2020 to ₦410 million to 71 petitioners. Justice Okuwobi said the Panel received 255 petitions from members of the public out of which 252 were considered for hearing, adding that it was able to decide on 182 petitions. She also noted that 52 petitions were not heard due to time constraints, adding that they would be included in the Panel’s reports for necessary advice and actions to be taken by the Lagos State Government through the Ministry of Justice. Okuwobi assured those whose petitions were either not concluded – but were adjourned sine die – or not taken, not to despair. The judge further stated that a body that will treat cases of human rights abuses might be set up by the state government to handle some of these petitions. The eagerly anticipated report of the 20 October 2020 Lekki Toll Gate incident was not read. Justice Okuwobi said it was being prepared, noting that the investigation of the incident, including taking of evidence and exhibits, had been completed. The judge emeritus assured petitioners that the panel’s recommendations would include compensation to victims, if any, of the Lekki Tollgate incident, among other recommendations.

The Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry has been the second most active panel of the ones set up by the Federal Government and 29 state governments, receiving 230 petitions over the course of its work. This is not surprising considering that a lot of complaints about police brutality emanate from Lagos. However, its work has not been without controversy. First, the youth representative on the panel, Rinu Oduala, withdrew in February 2021 during which she declared that she would not be a part of a cover up. Ms Oduala’s withdrawal was followed almost immediately by a resignation threat by another panel member, Ebun Adegboruwa. Although Mr Adegboruwa has remained on the panel, he complained in September of attempts by powerful persons to stop the panel from reaching a conclusion, particularly on the subject of the elephant in the room – the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre. Despite taking testimony from numerous parties including protesters, the Nigerian Army, the Lagos State Government and victims of the shooting, the panel ends without reaching a definitive verdict on its main remit. This means that it is likely that there will be no conclusion that places responsibility for the shooting of 20 October 2020 firmly with the Nigerian Army, and aims to find justice for the victims. The completion of the panel’s work, is only the first small step in a much longer journey of not just distributive but retributive justice. Compensations aside, there must be a focused effort to properly account for the actions of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, and ensure that those officers face the judicial process, a process which they denied to their victims, some of which remain unaccounted for. The political will for this level of accountability will be difficult to sustain, and that is why popular pressure on state and federal governments must not let up. To this end, the reports of the various #EndSARS panels, once published, should make for interesting reading especially regarding their recommendations. Going further, it is important to realise that the actions of the police only mirror that of the wider Nigerian state, one only concerned with its own sustenance, with little regard for those it is supposed to serve and protect. The crackdown and arrests of Nigerians seeking to memorialise the victims of the Lekki Toll Massacre this week is yet another illustration of this deep seated animosity the authorities have with any form of accountability. That does not mean it must be tolerated. It is this character flaw that must be confronted and changed in order for the lives lost not to have been in vain.

The Rugu affair
A report from the Wall Street Journal has revealed that the Nigerian Air Force coordinated ransom payments to armed bandits in exchange for an anti-aircraft gun seized from the Nigerian Army. There was a need to broker the desperate deal between the two parties as President Muhammadu Buhari was at that time planning a trip to Katsina, his home state, which has been among the worst hit by bandits and cattle rustling. According to the American newspaper, the ₦20 million was delivered to the bandits in Rugu forest by a Nigerian Air Force official, who leaked details of the operation under anonymity. It was said that the military realised that it would be too risky to leave the weapon in the hands of violent criminals operating in an area the presidential jet would fly over. The rugged, lawless jungle that covers parts of Kaduna, Zamfara and the president’s home state of Katsina has served as a vast haven for bandits terrorising Nigeria’s northwestern communities. A large portion of kidnapping plots emanates or terminates in or around the forest, security agencies have previously warned. The WSJ said that “The mission to buy back the anti-aircraft gun began with a handoff from a high-ranking air force intelligence officer in the capital Abuja: a black zip-up bag he said was full of ₦20 million,” after stating that such military hardware in the hands of bandits “posed a threat to President Muhammadu Buhari, who had been planning to fly to his hometown about 80 miles away.” The gun truck with 12.7 calibre anti-aircraft fire was reportedly disassembled and transported back to the military on motorbikes after the deal was concluded. The Journal, however, did not state specifically when the deal was brokered or the presidential trip that was planned. The president has been in his hometown at least twice this year that his office disclosed to the public. The first trip was in late January and another in July. Although the Nigerian government claimed combat victories against armed bandits, several military bases have been sacked by the violent criminals dreaded largely for their abduction of schoolchildren and prominent personalities, including politicians and emirs. Last month, a forward operating base crucial to the military campaign against banditry was raided in Zamfara, leaving at least 12 officers killed. The bandits also seized military equipment when they captured the base in Dansadau, about 80 kilometres south of the capital Gusau, in the 11 September operation. Less than two weeks later on 24 September, bandits again struck a joint base of security forces in the neighbouring Sokoto State, killing several soldiers, Civil Defence officers and civilians. The Nigerian Air Force also confirmed on 19 July that bandits had shot down one of its fighter jets, but the pilot was able to eject and there were no casualties. The incident came as Mr Buhari was visiting his hometown for this year’s Sallah. It was not immediately clear why service chiefs opted for a ransom payment in the operation described by the Journal. This comes as the Punch reports that the military told the National Assembly, through its committees, that an agreement signed with the United States for newly acquired A-29 Super Tucano fighter jets would be deployed against terrorists and insurgents in the North East, not bandits in the North West and pockets of the North-Central geopolitical zones. The Nigerian daily, citing “several” unnamed sources in the National Assembly familiar with the matter, said the complaints by the service chiefs led to the recent demand by the Senate and the House of Representatives that bandits should be designated as terrorists. Nigeria placed an order for 12 A-29 Super Tucano aircraft at the cost of $496 million. The Nigerian Air Force had on 22 July 2021, taken delivery of the first batch of six aircraft from the United States. The second batch of the planes arrived in Nigeria in September. A total of 64 pilots and maintainers from the Nigerian Air Force were trained by the US Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Base in Georgia, United States. The House of Representatives had on 30 September asked President Muhammadu Buhari to designate bandits and their sponsors as terrorists. The Senate had made the demand the previous day.

The Nigerian Air Force has predictably denied the report. However, it is very conceivable that the report is accurate. Such an action, paying a bribe to terror groups, reflects an admission on the part of the military that it lacks the capacity to use kinetic actions against security threats, and has thus been forced to resort to what is essentially pleading with non-state armed actors. The actions described in the report raise a lot of questions about how the so-called bandits came into possession of it, why an anti-aircraft weapon was being used by the military in the region (considering the fact that bandits do not use any aircraft), and why the decision was to negotiate with the bandits rather than ensure that the President used a flight path and landing zone away from the Rugu Forest location of the bandits. Uncomfortably, we must not lose sight of the possibility that the money was appropriated from within the Nigerian Air Force, using the ruse of a payoff for the weapon as a cover for such pilfering. Nonetheless, this report has caused public confidence in the military to further dwindle, and could also impact the morale of soldiers fighting on the front. As with other internal security challenges, it exposes the gap in terms of the capabilities of the military and other security agencies to adequately gather intelligence that translates into action to eliminate security threats. It does not seem to appear that the military has enough intelligence about the groups they are fighting in terms of number, capabilities, motivations and location, which leaves them looking like they are playing a game of whack-a-mole. In saner climes, a flurry of resignations will trail such developments but this is Nigeria. This is one more shot in the foot by the authorities.

Gunmen have killed at least 43 people in an attack in Sokoto state, the governor’s office has said. The assault began at a weekly market in Goronyo on Sunday and continued into Monday, Sokoto Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal said in a statement. Gunmen across northwestern Nigeria have killed scores of people and kidnapped hundreds more for ransom over the past year in a security crisis that the government is trying to tackle via communications blackouts, military operations and stepped up policing. Iliyasu Abba, a local resident and trader, told the news agency Reuters that there were 60 bodies at Goronyo General Hospital mortuary and that others sustained injuries while escaping. “The gunmen stormed the market as it was crowded with shoppers and traders,” he said. The men were “shooting sporadically on us after they surrounded the market firing in every direction killing people.” Bandits have terrorised northwest and central Nigeria for years, but attacks have become more violent in recent months. Another village market was raided on October 8, in Sabon Birni district near the border with Niger, killing 19 people. Last month, 17 Nigerian security personnel were killed when gunmen attacked their base in Sabon Birni’s Dama village, an assault the military blamed on ISIL (ISIS)-aligned fighters. “We’re faced and bedevilled by many security challenges in our own area here, particularly banditry, kidnapping and other associated crimes,” Sokoto government spokesman Muhammad Bello said. Nigerian troops began conducting air and ground operations last month, targeting bandit camps in the neighbouring Zamfara.

Although attacks by terror groups, euphemistically referred to as bandits, have taken place in Sokoto State prior to now, incidents in the state were far fewer relative to neighboring Zamfara, which has been the epicentre of the latest wave of attacks and even Kaduna and Katsina, both of which have been dealing with large-scale violence by these groups. It does appear that the current escalation is a direct result of military campaigns in Zamfara intended to neutralise these terrorists, but has instead caused these groups to move westwards into Sokoto. We need to point out, however, that a more local reason for this violence was in response to the killing of 11 herders at Mamande market in neighbouring Gwadabawa Local Government Area by the outlawed Yan-Sakai group, a Hausa vigilante group. This vigilante group has, under the guise of securing areas in the state, been attacking ethnic Fulani people indiscriminately, worsening a seemingly endless cycle of violence. This further illustrates how the Nigerian state is losing grip of its rural backwaters and is shrinking, in terms of security, thus creating vacuums that are being filled by armed non-state actors. This is hardly confined to rural settlements as Thursday’s attack on a train on the Abuja-Kaduna rail service (which has led to the suspension of services) illustrates. It further buttresses the need for security-side and governance reforms that will enable the Nigerian state to regain control of such areas. Such reforms will include improving policing in terms of numbers and quality, improving border security, mopping up illegal weapons, using intelligence to target leaders of such violent groups and non-kinetic actions such as resolving resource access disputes that are often the remote causes of the violence.

Jab politics
Kaduna on 19 October announced a 12-day ultimatum for all state employees to receive COVID-19 vaccine in the latest of compulsory vaccination push embarked on by the federal and some state governments. The ultimatum was announced in a statement issued by the Special Adviser to the Governor on Media and Communication, Muyiwa Adekeye. According to him, all civil servants are expected to be vaccinated by October 31, after which they will be denied entry into government offices if found not to have complied with the directive. Visitors will, however, be permitted entry upon presentation of evidence of registration with the State Ministry of Health for vaccination, while wearing their facemasks. In September,  Edo said all civil servants who are yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine will be barred from entering their offices. The order came into effect on 15 September. According to the Head of the COVID-19 Enforcement Team in the state, Haruna Yusuf, the state had “trained special teams and these special teams will be spread across the 18 local governments” to ensure that only “those who have the authentic vaccination card [can] access to their government working places and those without, can go back and work from home and government will know how to deal with that.” Ondo announced similar measures in October. Nationally, the federal government announced last week that all federal employees will be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test result to access their offices. Chairman of the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC) on the COVID-19 pandemic and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Boss Mustapha, announced this during the Committee’s briefing in Abuja. “With effect from 1st December 2021, Federal Government employees shall be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result done within 72 hours to gain access to their offices, in all locations within Nigeria and our Missions. An appropriate service-wide advisory/circular will be issued to guide the process,” he said.

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Since March, Nigeria has received over 13 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. The bulk of these vaccines have been delivered through the international COVAX initiative that aims to reduce global vaccine inequality. However, just 5,246,523 Nigerians have received at least one dose and only 2,546,094 Nigerians are fully vaccinated as of 14 October. This demonstrates the low demand for these vaccines among its population – primarily the result of misinformation around the vaccines, as well as a lack of urgency and caution by policymakers. This is despite the fact that Nigeria has had over 208,000 COVID-19 cases with almost 3,000 deaths. The announcements of federal and selected state vaccine mandates is part of the push to enable Nigeria meet its target of vaccinating 70% of its population by September 2022. These policies also coincide with the approval of a US$400 million loan by the World Bank to Nigeria as part of its COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Project, which will be used in part to fund the purchase of more vaccines. This will require the ramping up of capacity of health systems, especially at the subnational level, to meet the inevitable rise in demand. Additionally, a carefully designed public awareness campaign regarding the vaccines to mitigate and reverse the impact of vaccine misinformation is required. This campaign should incorporate the input and support of key opinion leaders such as religious and traditional leaders. Lastly, there is the issue of verification. It needs to be harder for those who have not been vaccinated to fake their status. Fake vaccination cards not only undermine the credibility of the country’s COVID-19 response internationally, but also puts others at greater risk of getting infected. 

A crude hole
The global Brent crude benchmark crossed the $85 mark — the highest level since October 2018 — in what is a potential boost to Nigeria’s oil export revenue. Brent crude futures traded as high as $85.07 a barrel on 15 October. US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures rose 0.85% to $82 a barrel. Two weeks prior, Brent crude topped $80 per barrel. The surge followed a rise in demand for energy that resulted from the decision of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies to maintain its gradual monthly oil production increase. The crude oil market has continued to boom amidst surging gas prices, gradual global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout. The rise in crude oil price will result in increased revenue for Nigeria, but the country’s subsidy shortfall payments may erode the gains. Nigeria, one of Africa’s top producers, is struggling to boost output to the quota set by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to keep up with increasing global demand. In September, Nigeria’s oil production increased marginally to an average of 1.25 million barrels per day from 1.24 million the previous month. In June, Mele Kyari, Group Managing Director of the old Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and incoming Chief Executive of the new Nigeria National Petroleum Company said rising crude oil prices will cause problems for resource-dependent countries such as Nigeria. He lamented that oil prices had started exiting the comfort zone set by the NNPC and becoming a burden for the country. President Muhammadu Buhari has budgeted $57 per barrel as the oil benchmark in the 2022 budget.

In normal cycles, rising oil prices should be exciting news for oil producers like Nigeria, but news of current market dynamics has been met with indignation by most Nigerians and economists for obvious reasons. First, Nigeria is experiencing shortfalls of up to a fourth of normal production due to infrastructure challenges. No surprises here as years of underinvestment in the sector and the continuing exit of oil majors have seen Nigeria unable to take advantage of its OPEC chaperoned quota, simply because it cannot raise production. It remains to be seen whether the raft of reforms that have resulted from the signing of the PIB will unlock investment in the sector. Secondly, Nigeria’s structural issues and policy choices continue to put it in a place where oil price swings still leave it with a net negative outcome financially. The dual fixations on controlling the exchange rate and maintaining petrol subsidies mean that whether high or low, Nigeria either leaks and loses revenue or absorbs rising import costs. Before President Buhari entered office, his rhetoric on this issue was that there was no subsidy, and the payments made were simply a result of mismanagement and corruption. However, since he entered office, subsidy payments have grown exponentially, and he has not shown any willingness to tackle the issue. Considering that the country will be entering the general elections season in the next few months, we do not expect any changes to the major issues bedevilling Nigeria’s economy. What is imperative, however, is that Nigerian policymakers and the general public need to fully embrace the market and let it determine the pricing of the two big commodities that impact the fiscus – the US dollar and petrol. Maintaining the current policy track of currency demand management and subsidies will only expand an already large hole in the country’s precarious finances.

Black pot
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) says spending by Nigerian residents rose to ₦54.84 trillion in nominal terms in the first half of 2021. The figure is higher than ₦48.22 trillion recorded in the first half of 2020. The NBS disclosed this in its recent Expenditure and Income Gross Domestic Product (GDP) report released on Monday. According to the bureau, the expenses incurred by Nigerian households increased by 13.7% in the last six months of 2021 (H1) when compared with the corresponding period of 2020. However, it was 7.45% lower than the ₦59.25 trillion spent by Nigerian households in the second half of last year. Household final expenditure is the amount of final consumption expenditure made by resident households to meet their everyday needs, such as food, clothing, housing (rent), energy, transport, durable goods (notably cars), health costs, leisure, and miscellaneous services. The report shows that the final expenditure for households on consumption increased by 8.90% in Q1 and 19.08% in Q2 of 2021. The report also revealed that household consumption accounted for the largest share of real GDP at market prices which stood at 53.68% and 51.82% in Q1 and Q2 2020, respectively, compared to 76.83% and 72.88% posted in the corresponding quarters of 2021. The report further shows that the final consumption expenditure of non-profit institutions serving households stood at ₦504.38 billion, which is 18.6 percent higher than ₦425.29 billion recorded in the previous period. Also, the compensation of employees during the first and second quarters of 2021 grew by 9.26% and 19.44%, respectively, in real terms on a year-on-year basis. For 2020, the growth rate stood at 0.96% compared to 8.99% in 2019. On the other hand, the report said national disposable income declined by 2.25% in the first quarter of 2021 and 5.35% in the second quarter of 2021. In the first quarter of 2021, Nigeria’s real GDP grew by 0.51% on a year-on-year basis showing a steady improvement in the economy, following the 2020 Q4 GDP rate of 0.11%. It improved further in the second quarter of 2021 with a positive GDP growth rate of 5.01 percent — posting the strongest growth since the fourth quarter of 2014.

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It was expected that as the economy opened up post-lockdown, household expenditure would expand as people moved from conserving their funds due to economic uncertainty to more regular spending patterns. Segments such as education, travel, bars and restaurants were bound to drive both consumption and GDP up from what was a low base. A key data point that should worry stakeholders and policymakers alike, however, is the fact that national disposable income continues to decline. In the past it was difficult to explain to Nigerians that Nigeria is a poor country, afterall the country subsidised the consumption of many necessities such as power, fuel, and foreign exchange. Unfortunately, those subsidies were unsustainable and the effects are clear for all to see. The decline in national disposable income suggests that most of the increased compensation and by extension, consumption, is spent on necessities – hence the disposable income decline. A 2019 SBM study found that 63% of Nigerians have no discretionary income after taking care of necessities, chiefly food. Tht number is almost certainly higher now. Many of the higher value-add industries Nigeria hopes to grow require a domestic market with disposable income to consume these products. The bad economics that Nigeria has grown fond of has resulted in low and shrinking wages as well as little incentives to produce and innovate. Now, the country is going through painful withdrawal symptoms and the politicians, who lack the political will to scrap the vestiges of failed policies, have left the country’s economy in limbo. The government needs to prioritise policies that reduce the cost of necessities like food, shelter and clothing, all of which have become more expensive chiefly due to policy making. Nigerians are hardworking people, but as long as wages remain depressed, inflation will continue to erode what little value remains.

White flag
Mali’s government said on Tuesday that it asked the country’s main Islamic body to open peace talks with leaders of al Qaeda’s local affiliate in an effort to end a decade of conflict. Malian authorities have previously endorsed the idea of talks and have quietly backed local peace initiatives with the militants as security deteriorates and Islamist groups expand beyond their traditional strongholds. But the latest announcement by the religious affairs ministry marks by far the most concrete step toward negotiations with militant leaders. Such an approach is vigorously opposed by Mali’s chief military ally, France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, said in June that French troops would not conduct joint operations with countries that negotiate with Islamist militants. The Minister of Religious Affairs asked the High Islamic Council (HCI) to open negotiations with the leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), ministry spokesperson Khalil Camara told Reuters. “The minister met the High Islamic Council last week to inform them of the government’s desire to negotiate with all the radical Malian groups, (including) Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Koufa,” Camara said. Ag Ghali is JNIM’s chief and Amadou Koufa leads JNIM’s most active affiliate in central Mali. Both are frequently targeted by French bombing campaigns. Mohamed Kimbiri, a senior HCI official, confirmed the body had been tasked with negotiating with Malian JNIM leaders but was instructed not to negotiate with foreign Islamists. Another HCI official said no talks had yet taken place. The HCI mediated talks in central Mali’s Niono Circle area – quietly backed by national authorities – that led to a peace deal in March between JNIM militants and traditional hunters that oppose them. But the deal broke down in July and violence in the area has since surged.

Mali is fast shaping into an active geopolitical arena. Just this September, there were international concerns over Bamako’s discussions with the Russian private military contractor, The Wagner Group, to provide the country with mercenary support following a deepening security crisis. When that development is assessed along with this move by the government to open negotiations with these Islamist groups, particularly JNIM and its affiliate, it represents a clear admission of its lack of capacity to project force within its own borders. This problem has become more acute after France withdrew its troops from northern Mali as part of a wider drawdown that will see it reduce its military footprint in the Sahel by about 60%. This leaves an ill-trained and under-resourced Malian security architecture with the task of policing a land area bigger than France and Germany combined that is riddled with other security challenges such as conflicts between herders and sedentary farmers as well as numerous ethnic clashes. A possible demand by JNIM in the negotiations will be that bombing campaigns against it cease; however, considering that France has criticised the idea of a negotiation, they may not feel bound to abide by such a ceasefire arrangement. Another thing that remains to be seen is if the negotiations will be sustained considering the experience with a similar peace deal between the JNIM and traditional hunters. What is clear is that whatever peace that emerges from this will be a tenuous one, prone to breaking down. At best, it will buy the Malian government time, in theory, to build up its capacity to be able to take on security threats and reassert control over the country. Such governance issues, however, will need a lot of time to fix and that is one commodity Bamako has very little of.

Credit: SBM Intelligence

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