20 years of democracy: Has Nigeria changed for the better?

Two decades after the West African country’s army handed power to a civilian leader, many question if life has improved.

Nigeria economy - UpFront
Nigeria's economy has grown six-fold since the return of democracy in 1999 [Dan Kitwood/Getty]

Two decades ago, in a colourful ceremony held in the capital, Abuja, Nigeria’s military handed over power to an elected civilian leader.

Generals had ruled the oil-rich West African country for the previous 15 years.

The ceremony was attended by heads of state and representatives from more than 40 countries.

The mood was upbeat and the new leader promised prosperity to the thousands of his countrymen who were in the stadium. Millions of others watched the ceremony on television. Others listened to newly elected president Olusegun Obasanjo’s speech on radio.

But after 20 years of democracy and four presidents, where is Nigeria today?

Economic malaise

The country’s economy has seen a boom since the return of civilian rule. Nigeria’s GDP has grown six-fold since 1999, according to World Bank data.

In 1999, despite its vast oil wealth, Nigeria’s GDP was a mere $59bn. That figure skyrocketed to $375bn by the end of 2017.

“The economy is doing much better now because there is a greater level of trust in our economic institutions. There is also more foreign investments now compared to the military era,” Aliyu Audu, an Abuja-based economist, told Al Jazeera.

Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, is still heavily reliant on oil. Petroleum represents more than 80 percent of total export revenue, according to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

When the global oil price crashed in 2016, Nigeria’s economy was not spared. The country went into a recession, its first in 25 years.

Is democracy the answer to Nigeria’s woes? (24:50)

The economy, the biggest on the continent ahead of South Africa, has not fully recovered. Unemployment stands at 23 percent and inflation at 11 percent, according to official figures.

“Nigeria’s economy needs to diversify. We need to tap into the agricultural sector where the country can put millions of the unemployed to work. Investment in infrastructure will also put many young people to work and reduce double-digit inflation,” Audu said.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics figures, 43 percent of the country’s 190 million population is either unemployed or underemployed.

Despite the recent economic boom, extreme poverty is common. Some 87 million Nigerians live in dire poverty, according to Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Nigeria overtook India, a country of 1.3 billion people, last year as the country that is home to the most extremely impoverished people in the world, it said.

Vast corruption

Nigeria still remains one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. Transparency International ranked the country 144 out 180 in its 2018 corruption perceptions index.


If corruption is not dealt with immediately it could cost Nigeria up to 37 percent of its GDP by 2030, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a global auditing firm.

This cost equates to nearly $2,000 per Nigerian resident by 2030, PwC said.

President Muhammadu Buhari launched an anti-corruption drive after taking office in May 2015.

“Corruption is still a huge problem, but it is not like what it was before. That is because the people have the choice to get rid of a leader if he is corrupt. That was not possible under the military generals. There are also whistleblowers now,” Audu noted.

Security issues

Since 2009, northeastern Nigeria has been hit by security challenges. Boko Haram, a group that wants to establish an Islamic state following a strict interpretation of Islamic law, has waged a deadly insurgency.

The violence has killed thousands of people and forced more than two million from their homes.

The United Nations and human rights activists accused both Boko Haram and security forces fighting it of putting civilians, including many children, in harm’s way.

The violence has spread to neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting a regional military coalition against the armed group.

In recent weeks, the coalition forces have pounded Boko Haram hideouts in the Lake Chad area with air strikes as well as launching ground assaults.

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Boko Haram fighters kidnapped at least 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok town. Five years after the attack, more than 112 girls are still missing.

A total of 107 girls have been found or released as part of a deal between the Nigerian government and the armed group.

Boko Haram allegedly operates its largest camp in the vast Sambisa forest in Nigeria’s northeast.

The forest stretches for about 60,000 square kilometres in the southern part of the northeastern state of Borno, which has borne the brunt of Boko Haram’s violence.

“More needs to be done to protect and preserve basic human rights in parts of the northeast. People live in fear from Boko Haram,” Eze Onyekpere, a human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

“Apart from the areas facing Boko Haram insurgency, rights of citizens have improved significantly since the return of civilian rule. Arbitrary arrests and torture are not common. We also have a constitution that safeguards the rights of all citizens,” Onyekpere added.

Press freedom

Under the military, press freedom was severely restricted. Whistleblowers faced detention and possibly torture in custody.

Twenty years later, Nigeria has a vibrant media with the country also hosting bureaus for some of the world’s major media groups.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Nigeria 120 out of 180 in its 2019 press freedom index.

“Nigeria has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go. We could have been far ahead of where are currently,” Onyekpere said.

Source: Al Jazeera