Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days
In this week’s round-up: Nearly 2,000 inmates freed in massive prison break, authorities to limit first doses of AstraZeneca due to supply concerns, and company hopes to tap into growing appetite for spirits.
- More than 1,800 prisoners went on the run in southeast Nigeria after escaping when heavily armed gunmen attacked their prison using explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, the authorities said. Nigerian police said it believed a banned separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), was behind the attack in the city of Owerri, but a spokesman for the group denied involvement. The secessionist movement in the southeast is one of several serious security challenges facing President Muhammadu Buhari, including a decade-long Islamist insurgency in the northeast, a spate of school kidnappings in the northwest and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Buhari said the attack, in a city near the oil-rich Niger Delta region that is the mainstay of Africa’s top crude exporter and biggest economy, was an “act of terrorism”. He ordered security forces to apprehend the fleeing prisoners. The attackers stormed the facility at around 2:15 a.m. (0115 GMT) on Monday, according to the Nigerian Correctional Service said. “The Owerri Custodial Centre in Imo state has been attacked by unknown gunmen and forcefully released a total of 1,844 inmates in custody,” its spokesman said in a statement late on Monday. The police said attackers used explosives to blast the administrative block of the prison and entered the prison yard. “Preliminary investigations have revealed that the attackers… are members of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB),” said Frank Mba, a spokesman for the Nigeria Police Force. IPOB wants independence for a region in southeast Nigeria it calls Biafra. One million people died in a 1967–70 civil war between the Nigerian government and secessionists there. In recent months security in the region has deteriorated. Several police stations have been attacked since January, with large amounts of ammunition stolen and reports of the IPOB’s paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), clashing with the military. But an IPOB spokesman told Reuters the group did not carry out the prison raid. “IPOB and ESN were not involved in the attack in Owerri, Imo state. It is not our mandate to attack security personnel or prison facilities,” the IPOB spokesman said in a phone call.
- The prison break was the most eye-catching example of Nigeria’s parlous security situation, but it was not the only flashpoint. One army officer and 10 soldiers were killed in Benue state in what a spokesman said was an unprovoked attack on Thursday. The army said in a statement that it would “fish out and deal decisively with these bad elements.” Civilians, in fear of soldiers looking to root out the perpetrators, were fleeing the Konshisha local government where one local leader’s house had been burnt to the ground, sources told Reuters. The violence in the restive Middle Belt region marked the latest bout of instability in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. Armed gangs have kidnapped hundreds of school children in the northwest in recent months and Islamist militants in the northeast have waged a decade-long insurgency. Troops patrol in the Middle Belt due in part to clashes between farmers and nomadic cattle herders that have killed thousands and displaced half a million over the past decade, according to estimates from French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres. Army spokesman Mohammed Yerima said the troops were initially declared missing while on a routine operational task, but a search-and-rescue team later found the bodies. “Efforts are ongoing to track down the perpetrators of this heinous crime with a view to bringing them to justice,” Yerima said in a statement. Yerima did not immediately reply to further queries about the attack.
- Nigeria has directed its 36 states and federal capital territory to stop giving first doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines once they use half their current stock in order to safeguard supply for the second dose, its health minister said. Osagie Ehanire said the directive came amid concerns over when Nigeria would get another shipment of the shots after India put a temporary hold on all major exports of the doses made by the Serum Institute of India (SII). India, the world’s second most populous country, is aiming to preserve supply to meet domestic demand. It reported a record 115,736 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, a 13-fold increase in just over two months. “We thought that it was proper for us under the circumstances to ensure that those who were vaccinated were fully vaccinated,” Ehanire said in a televised briefing on Tuesday evening. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, and inoculating its 200 million citizens is seen as key to stemming the global spread of the virus. The country has used roughly a quarter of the 3.92 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines, produced by the SSI, that it received on March 2. It had administered 964,387 first doses as of April 6, but progress varied widely by state. Twenty-one of its states and capital territory had given first doses to more than half of those targeted for shots, but it was not clear whether the figures also reflected the proportion of shots available within the state. It is spacing the doses by three months. The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control said India’s decision would undermine Africa’s vaccination plans, and could have a “catastrophic” impact if extended. Nigeria hopes to receive up to 70 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this year through the African Union.
- The African Union’s disease control body said it had dropped plans to secure AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines for its members from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine supplier, amid global shortfalls of the shot. AstraZeneca’s $3 shot is by far the cheapest coronavirus vaccine launched so far, and the easiest to store and transport, making it well suited to developing countries. On Wednesday, European and British medicine regulators said they had found possible links between the vaccine and extremely rare cases of brain blood clots, while emphatically reaffirming its importance in mass vaccination against COVID-19. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), said the AU’s decision had nothing to do with those findings, and reiterated his advice that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks. He said the main reason was to avoid duplicating COVAX’s efforts by the World Health Organization-backed COVAX facility, which will continue to supply AstraZeneca to Africa. He said the AU was focusing on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, citing a deal announced last week to supply Africa with up to 400 million doses. COVAX aims to deliver 600 million shots — most of them from AstraZeneca — to some 40 African countries this year, enough to vaccinate 20% of their populations. Africa trails most other regions in COVID-19 vaccinations; fewer than 13 million doses have been administered on a continent of 1.3 billion people, according to the Africa CDC. The AU had wanted to secure up to 500 million additional AstraZeneca shots for its 55 member states, at $3 per shot. However, last month India suspended its exports to meet rising domestic demand. Nkengasong said the subsequent delays were complicating vaccination across Africa, noting that health systems had to know that second doses would be available in time for those who had received a first dose. Matshidiso Moeti, who heads the WHO’s Africa office, confirmed the two organisations wanted to ensure they were “not competing and stepping over each other looking for the same vaccines”. “I am very much assured that it is not to do with doubts about the safety and other considerations on the AstraZeneca vaccines. It’s simply to recognise that there are challenges with the volumes that are available,” she told a separate news briefing. The single-shot J&J doses secured last week will not arrive until the third quarter, and Nkengasong said Africa would find it hard to bridge the gap in the meantime. South Africa has cancelled orders of the AstraZeneca vaccine after finding it gave only minimal protection against mild-to-moderate infection caused by the country’s dominant, highly infectious variant. Russia and China are also offering vaccines, but there are questions about their cost and availability in large volumes. The virus is confirmed to have killed more than 110,000 people across Africa, and infected 4.33 million.
- Nigeria is working on issuing eurobonds and plans to pick advisers through an open bid process, the head of the debt office told Reuters. Patience Oniha, the director general of the Debt Management Office (DMO), said the amount to be raised would be within the foreign borrowing plans for 2021. The country budgeted to raise 2.34 trillion naira ($6.14 billion) from foreign sources. Nigeria had planned a eurobond issue early last year after its sixth sale in 2018 where it raised $2.86 billion. But it decided to defer the 2020 sale due to the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In February, it trimmed offshore borrowings in a new debt strategy after it repaid a $500 million eurobond in January. Oniha had said the DMO was monitoring international markets for new issues by frontier countries. Last week, West African neighbour Ghana raised $3 billion via eurobonds, a year after COVID shut developing countries out. The Institute of International Finance had said it expected African governments to return to capital markets this year to sell bonds as investors embrace more risk. The country has been in talks with the World Bank for a $1.5 billion loan but approvals have been delayed due to concerns over reforms to its currency. Nigeria emerged from its second recession since 2016 in the fourth quarter but growth is fragile. The government expects a 2021 budget deficit of 5.60 trillion naira to be financed largely from foreign and local borrowings.
- We reported on a drinks company that hopes to tap into a growing appetite for spirits in Nigeria after coronavirus restrictions forced people to host friends at home. Pedro’s is an upmarket version of the Ogogoro spirit drunk locally. Ogogoro, a gin-like spirit produced after liquid is extracted from palm trees and later fermented, varies in potency and quality. Market research firm Euromonitor said Nigeria’s premium spirits market was growing from a low base, “creating interest among the younger, wealthier population whose budgets have been less affected by the COVID-19 epidemic”. Spirits are more usually drunk more at home than other alcoholic drinks and are seen as a growth area in Nigeria because of their high price and low production costs, said Stanbic IBTC Africa analyst Fola Abimbola. “The spirits market is fragmented,” said Abimbola. “Smaller players can compete.” Pedro’s is sold in the shops, bars and restaurants of affluent Lagos districts. It’s also available in Ghana, Kenya and Britain.
- Nigeria’s oil and gas regulator has revoked four licences held by Addax Petroleum, it said in a statement, a highly unusual move for licences with producing assets. Department of Petroleum Resources director Sarki Auwalu said in a post on the DPR website that Addax was not developing the assets sufficiently. A DPR spokesman said the licences had already been re-awarded to Kaztec Engineering Limited and Salvic Petroleum Resources Limited. Two Addax representatives in Nigeria did not immediately respond to messages on LinkedIn seeking comment. Addax is owned by China’s Sinopec Group. Of the four revoked assets, OML 123, OML 124, OML 126 and OML 137, three have producing fields, Addax’s website says. Addax said it had 11 fields with 80 production wells in OML 123, two fields with 15 producing wells in OML 124 and two fields with 17 production wells in concession OML 126. DPR has the authority to revoke licences when the holder is not meeting its agreement to invest in and develop them, but moves last year to revoke 11 marginal oilfield licences resulted in at least two court challenges. DPR is also typically required to prove that the company is not developing the assets as agreed. Auwalu, who visited Addax as recently as September last year, said over 50% of the assets were underdeveloped, which he said cost the government lost revenue. Gas from Addax was also expected to feed an ill-fated P&ID gas processing plant. P&ID is fighting to enforce an arbitration award against the Nigerian government worth nearly $10 billion over the collapse of the deal, and it never built the gas