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Nigeria's disputed elections may become choice between 'bad and worse' amid oil sabotage, corruption and violence

Key Points
  • Nigerians go to the polls next Saturday to vote for president and members of Parliament.
  • Militants are threatening to stage another series of attacks on oil infrastructure if President Muhammadu Buhari wins a second term.
  • Challenger Atiku Abubakar is vowing to overhaul the energy industry, but analysts say real, positive reform likely remains out of reach.
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari leaves after attending Friday prayers in his hometown Daura in Katsina State, ahead of the country's presidential election, Nigeria February 15, 2019.
Luc Gnago | Reuters

As Nigerians prepare to pick a president and Parliament members, the oil market is bracing for the insecurity and violence that have historically marred elections in Africa's largest crude producer.

Early Saturday, Nigeria's electoral body announced that nationwide elections that were scheduled for Saturday would instead be delayed until February 23. Regardless, the election will take place under the shadow of violence: Only days ago, militants issued a new threat to "cripple" the economy with devastating attacks on the nation's oil infrastructure. Between 2006 and 2009, a wave of sabotage disrupted global supplies, which deepened Nigeria's worst recession in nearly 30 years in 2016.

Next Saturday's contest could also determine the fate of reforms to the nation's lifeblood oil industry. Legislation to overhaul the sector — in development almost since democracy took hold two decades ago — aims to address problems that have fostered the nation's notorious corruption, and kept many Nigerians trapped in a cycle of poverty despite their nation's fantastic oil wealth.

Nigeria is home to Africa's highest population and the continent's largest economy. But with an estimated 91 million people living on less than $2 a day, Nigeria has overtaken India as the nation with the most people living in extreme poverty.

It makes the country a textbook case of resource curse, an economic phenomenon in which countries blessed with fossil fuel and mineral reserves often fare worse than resource poor nations.

To be sure, no one expects a single election to turn the tide for the nation. Oil production peaked in 2005, and the energy sector continues to be undermined by militant violence, widespread theft and regulatory uncertainty. Meanwhile, other West African nations like Ghana and Mauritania have become more attractive to international oil and gas companies.

"Regardless of who wins, I think you are going to still see a lot of the drivers of insecurity," said Imad Mesdoua, a Nigeria-raised senior consultant at Control Risks. "The reasons for that are structural. There are underlying issues like lack of infrastructure and bad governance at the state level, uneven distribution of resources."

Yet depending on how Nigerians cast their ballots, analysts say the presidential and parliamentary elections could produce very different outcomes for the energy sector.

The presidential ballot pits incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, who represents the All Progressives Congress, against former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar of the People's Democratic Party. Buhari currently leads in the polls, but the race remains close, and violence at voting booths makes Nigeria's elections difficult to forecast.

Analysts say Buhari's reputation as an anti-corruption crusader is bolstering him in polls, particularly with Nigeria's vast rural poor. However, the president has struggled to deliver on the three pillars of his 2015 campaign: Fighting graft, delivering security and creating a more inclusive economy.

Meanwhile, Atiku primarily appeals to voters discouraged by Buhari's handling of the economy, which has seen unemployment more than double. Yet while Atiku primarily identifies as a businessman — he has been involved in oil services firms, property development, farming and education — he has also been tainted by accusations of corruption.

Atiku Abubakar, a former Nigerian vice president, attends a gathering of his party in the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt, October 6, 2018.
Tife Owolabi | Reuters

This week, Atiku drew support from the Niger Delta Avengers, the militant group behind a series of sophisticated attacks that cratered Nigeria's oil output three years ago. On Wednesday, the group threatened to wreak havoc throughout the oil rich Niger Delta and the nation's offshore fields if Buhari prevails.

New threat of oil attacks

In a blog post, the Avengers warned that "our strike teams are active and gallantly waiting to receive instructions from the High Command to cripple the Nigerian economy again if Buhari is rigged back to office; and this time it will be a perpetual recession for Nigeria as we shall not relent until oil stops to flow in the pipes that braces our feet in our land."

Oil analysts warn that a major disruption in Nigeria could send global oil prices higher, at a time when two OPEC members are under U.S. sanctions and many producers are cutting output. The impact of a Nigerian outage would be somewhat blunted because the country primary product is light oil, a grade that's in abundant supply thanks to booming U.S. shale production.

Risk analysts believe the threats are mostly bluster, and no matter who wins, Nigeria is unlikely to descend into another period of oil sabotage.

Buhari has learned his lesson after an early attempt to rein in the Avengers with military power failed, and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo has made inroads with the Delta's web of militant groups.

Meanwhile, Atiku is viewed by some as a deal-maker who's less averse to the sort of political transactions that Buhari detests. The central government in Abuja has appeased the militants by paying them to guard the infrastructure they once targeted.

Buhari "hates that and because he hates that he's more likely to drag his feet," potentially prompting a reaction from militants, said Amaka Anku, head of Eurasia Group's Africa practice.

"I'm not very concerned in 2019, but I do think there is higher risk of oil sabotage under Buhari than under Atiku," she said.

'Bad or worse'

Nigeria-watchers also see Atiku more readily tackling a long-stalled overhaul of the oil industry, which accounts for 65 percent of total government revenues. Atiku has pledged to break up the state's Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and rewrite contracts with international oil companies like Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell.

Nigeria's Parliament has advanced legislation to overhaul governance in the energy sector and curtail the power of the oil minister — but Buhari has so far refused to sign the legislation. Other legislation seeks to cut tax breaks and introduce royalties for developing oil and gas in Nigeria and allocate more money to communities that host drilling.

The full suite of reforms "would definitely be transformational," said Malte Liewerscheidt, vice-president at risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence. "NNPC is at the center of the corruption and inefficiency of the entire sector. That would be very welcome news."

However, Liewersheidt does not anticipate far-reaching reform. Instead, he expeccted Nigeria to muddle through. The government is likely to pass bits and pieces of legislation, but nothing ambitious enough to turn the sector around, or end widespread oil theft in the Delta.

Eurasia's Anku is also pessimistic. She said oil industry reform is not a priority for Buhari, and she feared that while Atiku would pursue change, privatization may line the pockets of his associates, and oil revenue would continue to disappear into Nigeria's network of patronage.

"For a country that is the most populous country in Africa ... there is an election where rather than having some hope of reform there's basically two bad choices — it's bad or worse," Anku said. "There's no prospect for real positive reform."

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Imad Mesdoua was raised in Nigeria.