“Nobody knows precisely how many Nigerians COVID-19 has killed, but its victims have included President Buhari’s chief of staff, and numerous governors and legislators have gone into quarantine.”
The COVID-19 consequences for Nigeria cannot be separated from the plunge in world petroleum prices occurring at the same time. Nobody knows precisely how many Nigerians COVID-19 has killed, but its victims have included President Buhari’s chief of staff, and numerous governors and legislators have gone into quarantine. Most observers think that the number of victims is a multiple of the official figures. Oil is usually about 60 percent of the Federal government’s revenue, and ninety-five percent of foreign exchange. In April, it was down to zero in price from a late winter price of $57 per barrel. It has since recovered to the mid $30’s.
COVID-19 came to Nigeria from Europe, Egypt, and possibly the Gulf, common destinations for the Nigerian elite. On “the street” there is popular resentment against the high-flyers for saddling them with the disease. The elites have traditionally gone abroad for medical attention. However, with the travel restrictions in place at home and abroad, they cannot do so, at least for the time being. Every year, diseases such as Lassa fever, malaria, and meningitis kill thousands of Nigerians—far more than COVID-19 would be likely to do, even if there were few preventive steps. Nevertheless, in part because of COVID-19’s media attention, the Nigerian elite appear to be terrified of it. But they can no longer flee abroad because their destination countries have closed their borders.
Nigeria’s medical infrastructure is weak, in part because of chronic under funding of its public sector. But the private medical sector is also highly anemic because paying patients go to, say, London or Johannesburg for treatment rather than patronize Nigerian medical practitioners. A consequence is a massive drain of medical personnel from Nigeria to the developed world, as a visit to big-city hospitals in the U.K. or the U.S. will show, and chronic shortages of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. But now the only option for the Nigerian elite is the poor medical care available to most Nigerians.
There are estimates that up to 90 percent of the oil revenue ends up in the hands of one percent of the population, even as Nigeria now has, in absolute numbers, more people living in extreme poverty than India.
Politics in Nigeria is an elite sport by which the competing and cooperating elites access and share-out the oil revenue. What is left mostly goes to keep the government’s doors open, especially salaries. Little is left for education, health, or development. There are estimates that up to 90 percent of the oil revenue ends up in the hands of one percent of the population, even as Nigeria now has, in absolute numbers, more people living in extreme poverty than India, with a population about six time as large as Nigeria.
Up to the present, Nigeria has held together because the population is divided into up to 350 ethnic groups and between Islam and Christianity. The elites cross these divisions and cooperate even while they compete. A question is whether the current “system” can hold together under the twin assaults of COVID-19 and low oil prices that will likely intensify competition among elites frightened of the disease and its consequences.
Nigeria since independence has danced on the brink, but never gone over. And that is the most likely scenario now. A post-COVID-19 Nigeria may see more attention to public health and perhaps measures that could attract back Nigerian medical practitioners abroad and keep others at home. More of the elites might seek medical attention domestically rather than going abroad. This is particularly true if they feel a financial pinch from continuing low oil prices.
An alternative scenario would see increased instability, probably focused in the country’s largest cities. Were this to happen, it may take the form of attacks on ethnic groups that are in the minority in that particular place. However, Nigeria is in uncharted territory. Class identification and resulting conflict has been rare in Nigeria, where ethnicity and religion are the usual sparks. But popular resentment of elites over COVID-19 might have changed this.
About the author
John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and the coauthor, along with Matthew Page, of Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know. From 1975 to 2007, Campbell served as a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service officer. He served twice in Nigeria, as political counselor from 1988 to 1990, and as ambassador from 2004 to 2007.
The views and opinions expressed in this publication are solely those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of COVID-19 Africa Watch or any affiliated organization.
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