Now that every deep hole in East Africa seems to yield oil or gas at the bottom, there is a growing smell of money in the air in the years ahead.
There are also those who say we could be consumed by the “oil curse,” where we all become lazy bums and resort to queuing to get easy petrodollars. At the level of politics, we could see a return to military coups in countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, which have had soldier dictators in the past. Or in those nations that didn’t, like Kenya and Tanzania, the generals could finally come knocking on the doors of State House.
However, recently I met a dry-eyed Nigerian journalist who told me that there is a “new” politics of oil, which is playing out in his country. His story started with his explanation of Boko Haram, the hardline Islamic militant group that has killed hundreds of people in Nigeria with terrorist bombs in the past year.
Boko Haram, he said, is a child of both the Nigerian political establishment, and its military elite. That puzzled me.
The military in alliance with some state governors, he explained, allow Boko Haram to operate, because then a larger slice of Nigeria’s budget — most of it from oil revenues — will be allocated to security (i.e. to combat Boko Haram), and the military elite will have more to cream off.
That is an old trick through which the securitariat extracts more money for itself all over the world, so nothing new there. However, it is the attitude of the Nigerian civilian government — an elected one — that is intriguing.
It knows that Boko Haram is partly channelled by the military, but it will not do anything drastic about it, because it is happy to pay more money to security that the officers will pocket, as it considers it a reasonable price for bribing the military not to re-enter politics. It is difficult for the media and parliament to question rising allocations to the military, or even to investigate closely whether the money is being well used, when Boko Haram bombs are killing people all over the place.
The past two or so years of President Goodluck Jonathan’s rule have been among the freest in Nigeria’s history. The Boko Haram attacks, and the fear of the military, have forced the Jonathan administration to manufacture public support by granting the media, civil society, and the people generally, more freedom.
Still, President Jonathan, the journalist told me, is smart enough to know that he cannot survive only by buying off the military. He needs to further discourage it from seeking power by confronting it with a large public support for elected civilian rule. While the government bribes the military with larger budget allocations to “fight terrorism,” it bribes the people with more democratic space.
Nigeria today, therefore, is an oxymoron of a country. It simultaneously demonstrates how oil can corrupt, but also expand freedom at the same time.
Oil has produced a kind of klepto-security-democratic-liberal political system in Nigeria. It is what you would end up with from getting both the best and worst of Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda politics today and boiling them down into one political stew.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cobbo3