KAI RYSSDAL: The oil markets weren’t paying much attention to anything but Nigeria today. Crude rose a buck and a half to about $63.40 a barrel. Mostly because there’s a presidential election in Nigeria this weekend. Nigeria’s one of the world’s top oil producers. And if the election goes off as planned — that is, without violence and fraud, it would be a big deal. The first civilian to civilian transition of power ever in that country.
But that’s not a sure thing at all. And that could have far broader economic fallout. Michael Watts runs the Center for African Studes at the University of California-Berkeley.
MICHAEL WATTS: I think it’s fair to see that over the last seven or eight years that so-called democracy has been characterized by increasing religious and ethnic violence. An extraordinary degree of corruption, in which billions of dollars of oil revenues have simply disappeared. And, if the Nigerian body politic don’t see this current election as being something other than business as usual, then this could be generative of even deeper political turbulence. So that’s internally.
Externally, of course, the Gulf of Guinea, as it’s called, extends from Nigeria down to Angola. And this is a very important supply region now, obviously for the United States. And the stability or turbulence in Nigeria has, as it were, knock-on effects for the entire oil producing region.
RYSSDAL: If we went to the streets of, say, Lagos, and just looked around, what would we see? Would we see any idea that that country has an economy that’s vibrant and regionally important and a great oil resource? Or would it be quite the opposite?
WATTS: I think it’s quite the opposite. And, in fact, the great paradox of Nigeria, of course, is that even though, since about 1970 let’s say, something like $500 billion of oil revenues have flowed into that country, oil revenue has had an insignificant impact on the average Nigerian’s standard of living. The numbers of people that subsist on $1 a day or less was about 36 million in 1970. It’s 90 million now.
RYSSDAL: Who would we see on the streets, if we could get over there. Would we see people going to work, going about their business day? Or is it a population that has really nothing to do?
WATTS: Well, I mean, I think the great issue, in a sense, confronting Nigeria right now is two-fold. You mentioned Lagos. I mean, who knows exactly what the unemployment rate is in that city. We really don’t know. But I would say that the vast majority of people are partially or underemployed. And the second aspect is not just employment, it’s the fact that the population — don’t forget we’re talking here about 150 million people; an enormous country — 75 percent of that population is less than 30 years old. Often, you see in Nigeria the reference to a type of restive youth. It’s referring to millions of people who are young, who are cynical about politics, who feel that their economic prospects are extremely grim. And, honestly, they’re alienated. They’re bitter. And they’re rageful. The insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta — this is exactly an exemplar of a frustrated and bitter generation of people who have no confidence in the political leadership, and have turned to militant means to pursue their political goals.
RYSSDAL: Most of the rest of the world is watching these elections because of the oil issue that Nigeria presents in the world economy. What about African countries? Are they as interested for that reason, or do they have their own concerns?
WATTS: I think much of Africa is looking to these elections, obviously. You know, Nigeria is a huge country. I mean, one in every five Africans is a Nigerian. So it’s of fantastic significance to the continent as a whole. And I think many Africans are looking to these elections to see if, in fact — in a country as important as Nigeria — that the energy that was released by the return to civilian rule in 1999, whether that can now be deepened and extended to provide something like full citizenship to Nigerians. So I think a lot is actually riding — externally, as it were — from the vantage point of other Africans on this election.
RYSSDAL: Michael Watts, thanks for your time.
WATTS: Thank you.
RYSSDAL: Michael Watts is the director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California-Berkeley.
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