Nigeria Report 2012: Still Cautiously Optimistic

Nigeria 2012: Still Cautiously Optimistic
Jonathan F. Fanton  — November 2012

In November 2012, Jonathan Fanton visited to Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria to commemorate the school’s 50th Anniversary Convocation and help dedicate a new Data Center. During his stay, Dr. Fanton discussed the state of higher education in Nigeria, as well as the country’s commitment to human rights advances and its political leadership. Below is his report on activities from the trip.


Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria invited me to its 50th Anniversary Convocation to dedicate a Data Network Center.  ABU is one of four universities MacArthur has supported in Nigeria for over a decade.  This was my fifth visit to the University, which awarded me an honorary degree in 2004.

Even though the Convocation occurred during Thanksgiving I agreed to participate because of my deep commitment to Nigeria and its universities.  I gave due consideration to security issues in light of the Boko Haram suicide attacks but decided the benefits outweighed the risks.  Fewer foreign visitors venture into Northern Nigeria these days so my presence was especially welcomed.  One NGO leader said he has been using my visit to encourage other Western donors to come to Northern Nigeria.

While in Nigeria my long-time colleague and friend, Kole Shettima, Director of MacArthur’s Nigeria Office, organized several interesting meetings, reunions with NGO leaders and former government officials with whom I have worked over the years.1  In the human rights and democracy building fields I met with Clement Nwanko, Director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center, Innocent Chukwuma, Director of CLEEN (and newly appointed Ford Foundation Director for West Africa), Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections, and Saudatu Mahdi, Director of WRAPA.

I met with former Attorney General Akin Olujinmi and his former deputy Yemi Akin George, Former Chief Justice Uwais who chaired the Election Reform Commission.  I also met with the senior staff of the National Human Rights Commission and Attahiru Jega, Chair of the Independent National Election Commission. 2

To get an overview of the state of higher education I met with Julius Okojie, head of the National Universities Commission, A. O. Adigun, Deputy Executive Director of the Committee of Vice Chancellors, and Dr. Aminu Ibrahim, Director of the ICT Forum.

At ABU I met with the Director of three MacArthur supported Centers of Excellence, the Vice Chancellor of ABU and the Vice Chancellor of Bayero University Kano.

ABU 50th Anniversary

ABU is one of Nigeria’s leading universities, one of the flagship institutions in the North.  It enrolls 40,000 students, has over 2,200 academic staff and offers degrees in 87 departments across 12 different schools.  Like all Nigerian universities it fell into disrepair during military rule.  MacArthur played an important role in its revival through thirteen grants worth about $10 million.  Among the MacArthur initiatives:

  • Building the fiber optic backbone opening the way to modern computer centers.
  • A revolving fund through which over 1,000 academic staff purchased personal computers.
  • A significant investment in laboratory equipment for classrooms and a central research laboratory for advanced faculty research.
  • Strengthening the central library with journal subscriptions and digitizing the catalogues.
  • Funds to enable 125 faculty members to finish their terminal degree, many abroad.
  • The establishment of three Centers of Excellence, Rural Finance and Entrepreneurship, Development Communication, Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health.

I was pleased that our role was recognized with a Vice Chancellor’s merit award at the 50th Anniversary Convocation.  And that President Goodluck Jonathan singled MacArthur out for praise in his keynote address, delivered by Vice President Nnamadi Sambo.

MacArthur also helped strengthen the University’s alumni and development office so the University is now ready to launch a $312.5 Million capital campaign.

The Convocation came in two parts, both held outside in the main stadium.  Friday featured the undergraduate degrees and Saturday the post-graduate degrees.  Saturday was the main event of the 50th anniversary.  The pageantry had an English look to it but the feeling and exuberance were distinctly Nigerian.  As I sat between the Chief Protestant Chaplin and the Chief Imam and embraced the massive crowd of faculty, students and their families, I felt very much at home.  As I looked over the thousands of people present I noticed only two other white people, a change from when I first came to the University.  But I did not feel different or out of place or, except for that one moment, think about race.

My tour of the campus was very reaffirming.  Laboratories once barren now well equipped, a vibrant computer lab, a state of the art fiber optic network providing fast, reliable internet connections to over 40,000 faculty and students, a Cisco Telepresence system, a library with fully digitized records and a computer center, and more.  Most touching were the faculty who stopped us on the street to thank MacArthur for providing support to finish their terminal degrees or to buy a personal computer.

The meeting with the three Directors of MacArthur supported Centers of Excellence was reaffirming.  The Centers all speak to strengthening the connection between the University’s curriculum and society’s needs.

The Center for Rural Finance and Entrepreneurship will offer undergraduate, master’s and certificate programs.  Its Director said the central goal is “how to make the market work for the poor.”  When fully operational it will produce one hundred graduates a year.  It already is offering workshops on micro financing and how to revive faltering small businesses.  It is also running pilot projects on rice farming.

The Center for Development Communication is training students to produce materials on best development practices in health and sanitation, conservation, combating lead poisoning, sustainable fisheries among other topics.  It will soon start an on-line graduate program on conflict reporting for journalist with the support the British Aid agency DFID. This year it enrolled fifty-two students (from 150 applications) and for next year there are three hundred applicants. Most applicants to the program are employed by governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Graduate Program in Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health is offered through the Nigeria Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program. NFELTP aims to improve public health systems in Nigeria through training of field epidemiologists and public health professionals and conducting high-quality research. By offering coursework in veterinary epidemiology, the program also looks at the connection between animal diseases and human health.

We had a good meeting with Abubakar Rasheed, Vice Chancellor of Bayero University where MacArthur has made 11 grants worth $9,535,000.  At Bayero MacArthur has supported a faculty revolving fund for personal computer purchases, fellowships for 75 faculty to finish terminal degrees, and journals for the library.  MacArthur made major investments in a new Computer Center and in a strengthened Department of Agriculture.  Recently MacArthur supported the creation of a Center of Excellence for Research on Dry Land Agriculture which will be dedicated in January 2013. It has already established relations with universities in Egypt, Syria and Israel. The Deputy Chair of the House of Representatives on Agriculture joined our conversation and promised to help the Center to establish linkage with universities in India.  The Vice Chancellor gave us an exciting report of a University on the move with a new School of Medicine that includes allied health and dentistry and nursing.  Agriculture and Engineering are being expanded. All new will be departments of fisheries, food science and forestry.  As the University adds modern disciplines that prepare students to meet Nigeria’s needs, BUK has also started a Center for Shariah Studies.  And while MacArthur has not directly invested in these new initiatives, it did strengthen the technology infrastructure which makes them possible.

I checked in on two other MacArthur projects that serve more than the four universities.  The Committee of Vice Chancellors, which MacArthur support has strengthened, has started an equipment purchasing consortium based on a model MacArthur pioneered with the International Science Foundation.  The idea is to get aggregate orders for scientific equipment to get a favorable price.  As important, this program trains university staff in the best use and maintenance of the equipment.  Under the IFS program, $3.2 million of equipment was purchased for 4 universities in Nigeria.  The CVC will continue the program and expand it to more universities.

The CVC also provides safe space for Vice Chancellors to talk about common problems, offers training workshops for new Vice Chancellors, recommends best practices on issues like standards for outside employment by faculty, and guidance on practical issues like enhancing campus security.  It is also gaining in sophistication about how to use alumni to advocate in Parliament for larger appropriations for higher education.

Another MacArthur project meant to serve many universities is the expansion of the availability of bandwidth and sharing best practices in bandwidth management.  To advance ICT at universities across Nigeria, MacArthur supported an ICT Forum that now has thirty-five full members and many associate members.  It includes federal, state, polytechnic and private universities as well as research centers.  I met with its Director, Dr. Ibrahim Aminu, who told me about workshops the Forum was convening on topics like Internet services, alternative power supplies for ICT, the management of ICT resources.  A recent workshop in Kaduna attracted representatives from fifty-three institutions.  Other workshops are on such topics as e-learning and building local networks like the one in Kaduna linking eighteen institutions.

In addition to MacArthur funds, the Forum is supported by membership dues, consulting fees and recently a grant from Google.

I had time to reflect on MacArthur’s work in higher education at the lengthy Convocations.  I think the Foundation really made a difference, meeting practical needs on the ground, giving hope where there had been resignation, raising aspirations for higher quality and better connections to the needs of Nigeria.
Human Rights

MacArthur has supported 20 human rights organizations over the years focusing on access to justice, police reform and strengthening institutions like the National Human Rights Commission.

Our meeting with the Commission’s senior staff was encouraging as I noted clear improvement compared with five years ago.

A recent amendment to the Act creating the Commission provides direct funding from the Federation Account, no longer filtered through the Ministry of Justice.  Previously the Justice Department appointed – and could remove – members of the Commission.  Now they are appointed by Parliament.  Perhaps most important, decisions of the Commission now have the force of law.

We met with the senior staff of the Commission and were heartened by what we heard: there had been an increase in the number of complaints coming forward to the Commission from 5,000 in 2003 to 40,000 this year. Eighty percent are being resolved.  Domestic violence, child support, police abuse are getting increased attention.  But the Commission staff concedes that more needs to be done to monitor the implementation of its decisions.

The National Action Plan (supported by the Foundation) is under revision. Going forward it will focus on issues such as rights of the disabled, internal displacements, discrimination, religious intolerance and ethnic tension.  A new department of conflict prevention has been added, more field offices are planned (from current eight to thirty-six over time) and human rights officers will be placed in each Ministry.  The Commission hopes to do an annual State of Human Rights report.

Nigeria will be up for a Universal Periodic Review by the Geneva Human Rights Council in 2013.  The Nigeria Commission will use that occasion to push domestication of international protocols such as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women  to which Nigeria is a signatory.

I talked to several leaders of civil society about the ICC and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights and was pleased to see a clear shift in views about international justice. On previous visits most conversations about the International Criminal Court were negative.  This time I heard support for domesticating the Treaty of Rome, for ratifying the protocol that would give individuals and NGOs in Nigeria direct access to the African Court, and for expanding the mandate of the African Court to criminal matters.

I had a follow-up conversation with Dooter Malu, Principal Legal Officer at the Human Rights Commission, who had interned at the ICTY and the ICC and is a strong supporter of a system of international justice.  He favors extending the jurisdiction of the Regional Court to criminal matters because it has a lower threshold for accepting cases than the ICC and therefore could prosecute offenders who fall below the ICC leadership level.

Dooter had worked on the Kenya post-election violence case which opened his eyes to the fact that election-related violence in Nigeria might become of interest to the ICC.
Both he and MacArthur program officer Goodwin Odo thought the new prosecutor Fatou Bensouda from Gambia offered an opening to rebuild support for the Court in Africa.  Odo also thinks the Habre Case is a golden opportunity for Africa to show the world it can handle high level cases.  He hopes the African Union will form a hybrid panel to move the case, long stalled in Senegal, forward.

Our conversations with Yemi Akin George and Dei AdeKunle, Special Assistant to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General brought encouraging news on justice reform.  There is a draft law on Criminal Justice Administration pending before the Parliament which includes:

  • Alternatives for incarceration for first offenders of non-violent crimes.
  • Better data systems,
  • Required magistrate review of pre-trial detention cases after thirty days,
  • Guidelines for plea bargaining.

George thinks it has a good chance of passing.

One important counter to this trend of improvements are the abuses by the military and police in the effort to contain and root out the Boko Haram group responsible for 275 suspected attacks in 2012 responsible for 815 deaths (roughly 1,500 since 2009). In response, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency and the Nigerian Joint Military Task Force (JTF), which is comprised of police, military, and intelligence officers, have reportedly killed hundreds of members of the public with no known links to the group as “collateral damage.” The JTF has also allegedly burnt homes, stolen money, tortured suspects, publicly executed suspects, and held detainees for months without a trial. Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC to enforce Nigeria’s compliance with the Rome Statue and the Nigerian military to investigate the human rights abuses of its soldiers.3  Daniel Bekele, head of the Africa Division of HRW, has stated: “Nigeria’s government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence, but also to respect international human rights law.”

I was not able to piece together a clear picture of Boko Haram.  A common view is that poverty and youth unemployment in the North have been the seed bed for this hydra-headed movement.  And that its origins go back many years, partly religious, partly economic and social.  Most people I talked to believe heavy handed tactics by police and military have escalated the tensions and that political leaders have failed to open up a dialogue.  Some believe that northern politicians have tried to use Boko Haram to discredit Goodluck Jonathan.  Most people I talked with concede there is outside influence from groups like Al Shabab, most evident in training in such tactics as suicide bombings.  But the prevailing view is that the root causes and main actors are local, at least so far.

One thoughtful person said, “there is no one approach – the problem is complex, needs more study and the solution must be a mixture of carrots and sticks.”  Another stressed the need to “address underlying causes – the inability of the state to meet the needs of its citizens, persistent poverty, youth unemployment.”  Still another NGO leader said bluntly, “we can’t defeat the terrorists with force alone.  We need to disaggregate the groups and separate the foreign trained terrorists from the locals acting out of despair.”  Most thought President Jonathan should pay a visit to the Northern states where the trouble is centered and take the lead in opening a dialogue even as he steps up military action.  And he should get a youth jobs program going in the North in a visible way.

I was surprised to see how many people believe the terrorist problem will fade.  We heard of more vigilance by the general population.  And there are organized leadership efforts to promote dialogue.  A new Kano Peace Forum will meet for the first time on December 10th.  Among the members will be the BUK Vice Chancellor, Chair of the Civil Society Forum, a representative of the Crown Prince, three religious leaders, the Army and Police Commanders.  The idea is to have an open conversation which will include the topic of excessive use of force by security personnel which have been counterproductive.

Contrary to my expectations, I did not feel any personal insecurity during my trip. Perhaps I was reassured by the 12 armed soldiers standing behind the VIP section at the Convocation. On the 3.5 hour drive between Abuja and Zaria we passed through many check points. On the return trip Saturday night we passed by a military barracks in Kaduna that was the target of a suicide bomb 12 hours later, a reminder that the security risks are real. And there was another assault on a military prison in Abuja showing us that the terrorists could strike in the capital district.

Just after I left Nigeria, the ICC announced an investigation into the actions of the Boko Haram. Presumably the ICC’s presence in Nigeria will also send a signal to the government that if it uses excessive force in combating the Boko Haram (with increasing civilian casualties) the investigation could be widened to include government action.

There is no question that the government’s inability to curb the tension in the North has undercut Goodluck Jonathan’s popularity.  Virtually everyone I talked to was critical of the President, basically saying he was not up to the job.  As one NGO leader put it, “The President is laid back, narrow minded, captive of a tight inner circle, not in touch with the reality across the country.”  Another told me, “people are depressed about where we are.  The President is not smart, poor at analyzing the issues and just plain weak.”

This is much more negative than I heard on my last trip when Jonathan appeared to be exceeding low expectations.  But it does not surprise me.  I met him in March 2009 when I gave the Yar’Adua lecture in Abuja.  The speakers platform gathered in the “Green Room” for informal conversation before the event, former President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, former President Obasanjo, former Vice President Abubakar and a withdrawn man dressed differently than all the rest.  He sat next to me on the couch but it was not easy to get a conversation going.  Shortly I learned he was Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.  I wrote in my report, “there is skepticism that Jonathan could succeed Yar’Adua were the President to resign for health reasons…he is uncomfortable in the Abuja political environment and does not inspire confidence.”  Mercifully President Yar’Adua arrived and I was rescued from the awkward silence.

Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections, told me, “the only thing that can save Jonathan is a better performance – but that is unlikely”.  Ezeazu said he needs to move on corruption, go after people named by the Commission he has appointed.  He needs to improve security, make progress in reliable electricity which is the key to economic development, and produce jobs, especially for the youth.

People seem convinced he will run for a second term.  But most think he will first have to fight for the re-nomination within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)  where there is significant opposition.  Former President Obasanjo has resigned as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the PDP and publicly criticized Jonathan for being weak on terrorism.  Northern politicians are restive because the PDP had adopted a sectional rotation policy.  After Obasanjo it was meant to be eight years of leadership by a Northerner, Yar’Adua. But when he died Vice President Jonathan from the South succeeded him. Many in the North believe the PDP candidate in 2015 should be from the North.  So there is likely to be a challenge for the nomination.  The Governors of Niger and Katsina states have been mentioned.  Niger State Governor Babangida Aliyu gave a rousing speech at the ABU convocation lecture that seemed to me close to a declaration of his candidacy.

Meanwhile the opposition parties, Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) are in serious conversation about an alliance.  There is a meeting planned for December 18th that may yield a “manifesto for the opposition parties.” 4  And a recent summit of NGO leaders concluded that they had made a mistake in staying out of politics in 2011, “How can we be bystanders while our country is aflame” one leader asked.

In addition to the leader of the CPC, Buhari, another name often mentioned is Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, Speaker of the House, from the ruling PDP. Other names talked about include the Governor of Jigawa State, Sule Lamido, who is alleged to be backed by former President Obasanjo and Governor of Katsina State, Ibrahim Shema.

Over the years I have learned not to handicap Presidential possibilities so early.  Often a late entrant will rise to the top of a party’s ticket.

So one scenario has Jonathan winning a tough PDP primary and, in a weakened state, facing a united opposition.  And then losing the election, forcing the first turnover to an opposition leader in a democratic election since Independence.

A second scenario has Jonathan losing the primary succeeded by a more viable candidate probably from the North, who beats the opposition which may not be as unified with Jonathan out of the running.

There are obviously variants in which Jonathan wins a tough primary and wins a close general election.  Or the opposition prevails over any PDP candidate.

Several people opined that they thought Jonathan would accept the result of the election if he lost which all by itself would give him a place in Nigeria’s history.

In my 2006 report I concluded that the fact – and perception – of a fair election in 2011 was essential to keeping the people’s faith in democracy.  Fortunately, as Justice Uwais put it, “The 2011 election was far better than 2007 and international observers pronounced it free and fair.”  And since then several state governors elections have been good.  Uwais chaired an election reform panel that produced a widely praised set of reforms, 70-80% of which were implemented.

But more remains to be done.  Among the key Uwais recommendations unimplemented are (according to him):

  • Create a commission to judge electoral offenses,
  • Create an independent body to audit party performance,
  • Make it easier for independent candidates to run.

We met with Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, Chair of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) with whom we had worked when he was Vice Chancellor of Bayero University Kano.  By most accounts he has done a good job at INEC restoring public confidence in the agency.  He listed lessons learned from the last elections.

Be patient, listen to complaints and follow-up on every complaint even if the odds are the complaint is not correct.
Logistics require more advanced preparation.  “We underestimated the challenge” he told us.


  • Voter education needs to be continuous, not a burst of activity just before the election.
  • Better staff training is needed for the 450,000 voter registration staff and the 320,000 election monitors.
  • Get more funding and get it early, by next year to prepare for 2015 election.  For the last election INEC got only 60% of the budget it requested.

As for goals for 2015 and forward, Jega told us:

  • INEC should be well established so that fair elections are routine and the institution is not dependent on Jega.
  • Reduction of violence and intimidation.
  • Better turnout, a goal of 65-70% compared with 50-55% in 2011.
  • Develop alternative dispute mechanisms to cut down on post-election litigation.

Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections set some additional benchmarks.  He agrees with Jega’s list, especially the emphasis on stronger logistics.  But he would give more attention to how parties chose candidates.  He believes the quality of leadership in the country will not improve until all parties put forth stronger candidates chosen through a democratic process.  He believes INEC should have the power to monitor party primaries.  Help should be given to parties to computerize their membership rolls.  He also thinks INEC should publish election results from the precinct level up to encourage public reality testing of the results, including the number of people voting in a locality.  He points out this can be done by INEC without additional laws.

ACE recommends a different procedure for selecting INEC members: have the National Judicial Council nominate three to the President for final selection.  He concludes that “Jega has done well but there will not always be a Jega.  So now is the time to reform INEC.”


As I complete a visit to Nigeria – and a report on the visit – I always push myself for a bottom line assessment: How are things going?  To get ready for that moment I often ask people I have known for some time now, “are you more or less optimistic than when we last met, than you were say five years ago? “  Hear some of the responses.

Emma Ezeazu said, “I am optimistic – we are moving to a more stable democracy.”  Judge Uwais: “I am optimistic about the future of both political reform and the economy.”   Yemi George told me, “I am optimistic about the future.  Democracy has come to stay, the elections are good, reflecting the desire of the people.”

In 2009 I wrote that cleaning up the electoral process was essential to Nigeria’s survival as a nation.  The problems of poverty, inequality, corruption, poor electric supply, are not going away soon.  Expectations will continue to outpace performance.  The only real safety valve is the belief that citizens can choose their leaders, exert some measure of control about their destiny.  In 2006 I concluded, “Time is precious, because every year the underlying foundation for democracy gets stronger more good people get invested in a shared future as hope replaces the disabling forces of cynicism and despair.”

I conclude that the improvements in the electoral system have bought time – years not decades – for there to be real improvement in people’s daily lives.  And it is that hope that reflects itself in the bottom line judgment of the smart people we talked to.  And it is that sentiment that will lead Nigeria to pick a new leader in 2015 capable of uniting the country and moving it forward. So count me among the optimists.

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