Oil-state Nigeria Ruthless Criticism

An El Dorado for investors, a place of poverty, corruption and terrorism – no paradox!

Oil-state Nigeria

The Islamist militia Boko Haram has presented the world with a new horror in the heart of Africa, causing a good deal of death and destruction both in northern Nigeria and beyond the borders. It has managed to bring large parts of the region under its control and has been fighting skirmishes with the armies of Cameroon, Niger and Chad. At the same time, according to various reports, the local population has been terrorized by the Nigerian army deployed to fight the official terrorist threat in the North. There have been rumors that Boko Haram enjoys the tacit support of local governors locked in a struggle with the central government over the distribution of oil revenues. The Western media sees in all this a troubling sign that yet another state in Sub-Saharan Africa is on the verge of “failing.” But this time, the state in question is not only the largest oil exporter in Africa, but also the largest economy on the continent. This poses a puzzle for Western observers.

Even before the rise of Boko Haram, journalists and development experts have come to view Nigeria as a paradox. Although the country has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, it is sometimes regarded as having the economic potential to become a “second China” (Goldman Sachs). How can a country so blessed with “natural wealth” and economic potential be so poor and so decrepit at the same time? This question is raised whenever Nigeria makes negative headlines, whether it be due to the contamination of the Niger Delta, the periodic outbreaks of cholera, Boko Haram’s latest attacks, or the fact that President Goodluck Jonathan seems more interested in his own re-election than in fighting the terrorist threat in the North. The usual answer is that all of these glaring ills are caused by a general failure of the political class to govern better, by an “all-embracing corruption” and “lack of political will.”

The usual answer is wrong. The state of Nigeria’s politics is not due to the politicians’ vices, but to the country’s political economy.


Nigeria, despite all the enthusiasm international investors might show for the growing business opportunities in the country, is and remains an “oil state.” Although enormous quantities of oil are extracted within the country, for the most part it is only put to capitalistic use once it gets shipped out of the country. Nigeria’s “natural wealth” only contributes to the “wealth of the nation” – the money in which the economic and political power of modern states are denominated – once it finds its way into the hands of foreign capitalists who use it as an element in their production processes in order to make a profit, mostly elsewhere. The Nigerian state therefore derives its wealth from the delivery services it provides to a global market that is housed elsewhere, in the centers of global capital accumulation.

Nigeria’s politicians have always been more than willing to perform these services for global capital. Throughout all the country’s military and democratic changes of government, all the coups and counter-coups over its history, Nigerian politicians have always cooperated reliably with foreign oil corporations. And the way they have treated their population has always given a clear indication of what the latter is for the Nigerian state: entirely superfluous. Astute observers of foreign affairs will have at some point heard of the destruction that oil extraction in the Niger Delta has reaked upon the livelihoods of local farmers and fishers. Or perhaps they have read about the bloody conflicts between Christian farmers and Muslim herders in the “Middle Belt” over the use of land that is rapidly disappearing as a result of desertification. More likely they have seen one of the many documentaries on the mega-slums in and around Lagos and Abuja, which attest to a more or less permanent flow of refugees from the countryside to the city. All of these segments of the population are simply not needed for the creation of the wealth from which the Nigerian state and the political elite lives. They are, from the cynical perspective of capital and the state, entirely useless. And in some cases, such as the farmers and fishers in the Niger Delta, where the majority of Nigeria’s oil is extracted, their sheer existence is even a disturbance.


The living conditions of many Nigerians may be shocking and tragic, but in no way are they the result of a mere blunder or a moral failing on the part of Nigerian politicians. The reasons are much more fundamental and systemic. First, the vast majority of Nigerians suffer a fate that has always been a hallmark of the market economy: they, like everybody else without any wealth but their own labour-power, depend on making themselves useful for business and the state. But nowhere is it written that the people whom the state subjects to the system of private property must also be used for the profits of companies or for the maintenance and management of state order. In fact, that is the exception to the rule from a global perspective.

Second, the capitalistic uselessness of most of the Nigerian population is merely the flip-side of the Nigerian state’s usefulness as a reliable oil supplier to the world market. After all, because this state derives its financial resources from shipping its “natural wealth” to the rest of the world, the state’s finances do not depend on the success of its own citizens in economic competition. Instead it depends on the reliable servicing of foreign business interests. That is the source of the Nigerian state’s wealth; that is the power basis it serves. Whoever laments what the Nigerian state is doing “wrong” when it comes to good governance, therefore, would do well to analyze what it is doing “right” when it comes to the state’s position in the international division of labor – the somewhat euphemistic expression for international capitalist competition between nations.

The consequences of this position in the world economic order has consequences for the relationship between the Nigerian state and the economic pursuits of its citizens. Due to a general lack of the undoubtedly wonderful opportunity to make a living with lots of work and little pay at the service of capital, the vast majority of Nigerians depend on the money that the state allocates (or does not allocate) to them from the revenues generated by oil exports. Therefore, the state itself, not the capitalistic economy over which it rules, is the main source of the money that can be earned in the country. This has consequences. For if the state is the only notable source of wealth in the country, then the only way to make a relatively reliable livelihood consists in competing for a share of the wealth that lies in the hands of the state – what Nigerians call the “national cake.” Economic competition thus consists in a fight over some share of political power, which decides almost exclusively over the distribution of oil rents.

This competition characterizes the functioning of the Nigerian state from top to bottom. After all, no special moral failings are needed to take part, just the need and the desire to make money, which is certainly not a violation of the principles of a market economy. Anyone who does not use their official position to acquire wealth directly can use their influence to share in the organized theft of oil. Or those who have authority over various development projects can allow allocated funds to disappear into “dark channels” before they get spent at all. Or they are spent on projects whose only conceivable aim is to line the pockets of local politicians and their minions. Sometimes governors embezzle months’ or years’ worth of salaries and pensions. Even at the lower levels of the bureaucracy, the smallest bit of authority can be used to levy “petits taxes,” right on down to the issuing of driver’s licenses. High-ranking military officers, who are among the richest people in the country, often obtain their wealth by simply embezzling the funds transferred from the national budget to the military – while lower-level ordinary soldiers often sell their weapons to the enemy in order to supplement the wages that are occasionally from them. Currently, they are suspected of having sold off significant portions of their own arsenals to Boko Haram.


Given the widespread nature of such “rent-seeking behavior” in the country, it would not seem surprising that Western observers view Nigerian politics with a mixture of disdain and incomprehension, denouncing “systematic corruption“ and accusing Nigerian politicians and functionaries of neglecting their duties toward the Nigerian people and the country's economic and political development.

This accusation should not to be confused with an objective analysis of Nigerian politics. After all, such an analysis would find little evidence for the claim that the systematic use of public office for private enrichment constitutes a violation of an otherwise valid set of principles and government tasks anchored in the Nigerian state apparatus. If the use of public power for private gain is indeed systematic, then perhaps this derives not from the politicians’ dubious moral character, who all mysteriously seem to be afflicted by the very same vices, but from the Nigerian political and economic system?

In truth, those experts who denounce “corruption” in Nigeria and other third-world countries do not analyze these political systems at all, rather they merely contrast them with the political customs found in the successful market democracies, where, at least for the most part, there is a clear separation between the exercise of public power and the pursuit of private wealth. To view this separation as a service to the citizens, however, is quite a generous distortion. The fact that democratic politicians exercise rule strictly according to the law does not mean that they rule any less over the population, and the fact that there is a separation between political and private-economic power does not mean that the population is any less subjected to the dictates of superior authorities. What this separation testifies to is not a kind of superior morality on the part of democratic politicians, but to a situation in which private economic competition represents a fertile source of state power. Here, it pays off for the state to dedicate the use of its power to the flourishing of its own economy, to promote the competitive efforts of its citizens to earn and accumulate money. Each in his own way, that is: on the one hand, this means providing favorable conditions for business, promoting their profitmaking; on the other hand, it means taking various regulatory and social measures for ensuring the functioning of a useful working class. After all, the way that capitalist entrepreneurs make use of their labor-power makes social safety nets an absolute necessity, which, unfortunately, rarely moves the left to condemn the capitalist market economy, but instead to praise the welfare state.

But by contrast, as mentioned above, things are different in Nigeria. There the state does not derive its wealth from the successful exploitation of labor by enterprising capitalists. It does not derive its power resources from the wealth generated by its own economy. It gets it from profits that are made elsewhere, in the centers of the world market, with raw materials that the state sends abroad. The Nigerian state thrives on its functionality for these foreign business needs, and the power of the state functions accordingly.


This is not an entirely original claim. Certainly, not all critics dismiss the “corruption” and the “self-enrichment” of Nigerian public officials as a moral failing. Some look for objective reasons and find a “resource curse” afflicting countries in which the state’s source of wealth lies in exporting raw materials to the world market. According to critical development economists, governments in countries such as these have no political and economic “incentive” to “invest” in their people and promote their competitive efforts because the source of national wealth does not lie in the productive functioning of their own economies. But this way of putting it stands the issue on its head. In countries where a national capital accumulation only takes place here and there, while its natural resources only find capitalistically productive use abroad, these critics regard the government as having too much money at its disposal. With so much wealth, and with so little of it resulting from the nation’s own economy, it is no wonder that the elite succumbs to the temptation to enrich themselves rather than engaging in the arduous business of stimulating accumulation in their own country. They thus demand that such a “structural” deficit must be corrected by the rulers themselves, completely ignoring the economic foundation upon which these states rest. They simply demand that if those in power have no good reason to treat their people as the productive basis of their power, then they have to be forced to just govern better, that is, according to “our” methods. This meands installing democratic institutions.

Indeed, Nigeria’s transition from military rule to democracy shortly before the new millenium was widely accompanied by the hope that it would put an end to rampant “corruption.” The idea was that once Nigerian subjects became free citizens with the right to vote, and once those in power were obligated to respect the interests of the people, government would finally be compelled to serve the interests of the Nigerian people as a whole. It did not take long for disappointment to set in. The use of public power for private enrichment proved so persistent that some observers even claimed that the corruption had become even worse than under the many Nigerian military dictatorships. Indeed, Nigeria has become a democracy. For over fifteen years, millions of impoverished Nigerians have been granted the honor of periodically being wooed by the politicians that vie for their vote. They enjoy the democratic privilege of being able to put politicians in power who then freely decide what they do with this power. However, because a political office still represents the sole secure source of wealth in the country, the democratic process and constitutional institutions represent nothing but new vehicles for the same old struggle for power.


On the one hand, Nigerians know very well that getting a share in state power, no matter how paltry, is absolutely crucial for survival, so that joining in the machine of “corruption” is accepted as being basically legitimate. To succeed in using political machinations to get rich is even considered honorable, as long as the rich are generous when it comes to handing out favors. Many poor Nigerians expect their representatives to succeed in garnering a share of the national cake so that they can get some for themselves, however few the crumbs are that remain. Success in getting money and generosity giving it away are thus the key political qualifications. On the other hand, although “corruption” may be considered a necessity of survival, it is at the same time considered to be Nigeria’s most serious ill. Every campaigning politician promises to root out “corruption,” only for the public to then note with a good deal of resignation that the corruption has only gotten worse. But that does not stop anyone from turning their disappointment into a renewed call for “good governance.” In this respect, the country’s democratic morals are thoroughly intact. Even in Nigeria, the ideology reigns supreme that poverty and deprivation are not caused by the purpose and means of government, but by poor governance.

Not infrequently, the Nigerian people itself are regarded as a cause for Nigeria’s political ills. Often the political and economic failure of the nation is traced back to a general lack of patriotism, both among the elites and everyday Nigerians. Nigerians themselves lament a lack of will to pledge their loyalty and their efforts to the success of the entire nation, instead clinging to their traditional pre-national and sub-national loyalties. This is the Nigerian version of the dislike for “special interests” in any good Western democracy. Nigerian intellectuals deplore the absence of a Nigerian “national narrative,” calling for the development of a truly credible fiction that could unite all Nigerians despite the conflicting social roles they occupy in the actual life of the nation. Then they would know what their suffering is good for! This is the Nigerian version of the benefit of a national identity, the commitment to a greater collective which would ensure unconditional respect for the state. Even in this respect, the Nigerian canon of values is very modern; in fact, it’s pretty much the same as in the Western democracies.

However, this has not managed to produce actual national unity. The latter only comes about as a result of negotiation, vote-buying, favor-buying and extortion. In this sense, oil money proves to be a real lubricant for national unity – a means for compensating discontented governors or reward militants in the Niger Delta for giving up their guerrilla war against the oil companies. So it is with some surprise that Western journalists and political observers recognize that, for all the concerns about a dissolution of the Nigerian state, rival elites have always somehow managed to settle their disputes. This is also exactly how the need of foreign business people and statesmen for “stability” is satisfied: by the reliable fulfillment of the services they expect from the Nigerian oil state.


This strategy seems to have reached its limits with Boko Haram. Even the name of this Islamist militia – “Western education is sinful” – shows that this is a very different type of opposition to the corruption in the country. It does not condemn a failure of government in comparison to the ideal of the Western democracies, but a fundamentally false, “un-Islamic” orientation of the political system itself. It does not provide the people with the strict moral regime in which they can live devoutly in their poverty. So they hunt down everything “un-Islamic” – from representatives of the “anti-Islamic,” Western-servile federal government to their Christian fellow citizens who practice the false, “Western” faith, all the way up to their Muslim brothers and sisters who “stray from the right path” because they send their children to Western schools.

This gives a slightly different twist to the West’s call for good governance in Nigeria. Now it is a matter of eliminating a “terrorist threat to our security.” The poverty of the (Northern) Nigerian masses are now viewed as a potential hotbed of “Islamism.” All the advice on how to wipe this out with a more successful capitalist economy and better, i.e. pro-Western, governance culminates in the demand that the government neutralize the terror of Boko Haram with even greater terror. Thus the accusation that Nigerian politicians are corrupt has turned into the accusation that they are too hesitant to deploy military force. This is the task which currently defines the critical view of Nigerian politicians, who have once again failed to govern in the interests of the West.