Nigeria: Current Issues and U.S. Policy

Successive Administrations have described the U.S. relationship with Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of oil and its largest economy, to be among the most important on the continent. The country is Africa’s most populous, with more than 200 million people, roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. Nigeria, which transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1999, ranked for years among the top suppliers of U.S. oil imports, and it is a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The country is the United States’ second-largest trading partner in Africa and the third-largest beneficiary of U.S. foreign direct investment on the continent. Nigerians comprise the largest African diaspora group in the United States.

Nigeria is a country of significant promise, but it also faces serious social, economic, and security challenges, some of which pose threats to state and regional stability. The country has faced intermittent political turmoil and economic crises since gaining independence in 1960 from the United Kingdom. Political life has been scarred by conflict along ethnic, geographic, and religious lines, and corruption and misrule have undermined the state’s authority and legitimacy. Despite extensive petroleum resources, its human development indicators are among the world’s lowest, and a majority of the population faces extreme poverty. In the south, social unrest, criminality, and corruption in the oil-producing Niger Delta have hindered oil production and contributed to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Perceived government neglect and economic marginalization have also fueled resentment in the predominately Muslim north, while communal grievances and competition over land and other resources— sometimes subject to political manipulation—drive conflict in the Middle Belt.

The rise of Boko Haram has heightened concerns about extremist recruitment in Nigeria, which has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. Boko Haram has focused on a range of targets, but civilians in the impoverished, predominately Muslim northeast have borne the brunt of the violence. The group became notorious for its 2014 kidnapping of over 270 schoolgirls and its use of women and children as suicide bombers. It has staged attacks in neighboring countries and poses a threat to international targets in the region. Boko Haram 2015 pledge to the Islamic State and the emergence of a splinter faction, Islamic State-West Africa (IS-WA), have raised concerns from U.S. policymakers, though the extent of intergroup linkages is unclear. IS-WA is credited with a number of devastating attacks in 2018 against Nigerian military bases; the army has struggled to defend them.

Domestic criticism of the government’s response to corruption, economic pressures, and Boko Haram contributed to the election in 2015 of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. In what was widely hailed as a historic transition, the ruling People’s Democratic Party and President Goodluck Jonathan lost power to Buhari and his All Progressives Congress, marking Nigeria’s first democratic transfer of power. Buhari has since struggled to enact promised reforms amid persistent security challenges and a struggling economy. He faces a challenge from former vice president Atiku Abubakar in elections scheduled for February 2019; it is forecast to be a close race. As in previous elections, there are concerns about violence around the polls, and intense, high-stakes contests over a number of legislative and gubernatorial posts increase the risk of conflicts. U.S. officials and Members of Congress have called for credible, transparent, and peaceful elections. U.S.-Nigeria relations under the Trump Administration appear generally consistent with U.S. policy under the Obama Administration. Both Administrations have supported reform initiatives in Nigeria, including anticorruption efforts, economic and electoral reforms, and energy sector privatization.