A Week in Nigeria: 12 December

Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days

In this week’s round-up: multilateral lenders intensify calls for Nigerian currency reforms, fears of second COVID-19 wave as officials look ahead to early 2021 vaccine, and ICC prosecutor to seek probe into alleged Boko Haram conflict war crimes.

  • The World Bank and International Monetary Fund both repeated their longstanding calls for Nigeria to implement currency reforms, intensifying pressure on the authorities in the west African country. The World Bank’s country director said the lender needs Nigeria to strengthen reforms of its naira currency before it can approve a $1.5 billion loan. Nigeria needs the support to contend with low oil prices and the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. World Bank loans are often contingent upon reforms, and its officials said previously it was “recommending” a more unified, flexible exchange rate. The Nigerian naira hit 500 per dollar on the black market last month as a dollar scarcity squeezed the economy. “We recognize how much Nigeria has done,” Shubham Chaudhuri, the World Bank’s Nigeria country director, said during a webinar with journalists. “There needs to be a little bit more.” Nigeria’s central bank devalued the official rate by 15% in March and weakened the foreign exchange rate for exchange bureaux in November and in March. But the gap between the official rate and the parallel markets remains large. The situation is pressuring the economy and making it difficult for private companies to get the dollars they need to import into Nigeria.
  • The day after the World Bank published its report, the IMF said Nigeria’s economy is expected to contract by 3.25% this year before rebounding to growth of 1.5% in 2021. Echoing the World Bank’s assessment, it said broad market and exchange rate reforms are needed to fix balance of payment pressures and raise the medium-term growth path. Africa’s largest economy entered its second recession in four years in the third quarter. The IMF projected a recovery to start next year with subdued growth and output recovering to its pre-pandemic level in 2022. “Under current policies, the outlook is challenging,” the IMF said. Nigeria has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and an oil price crash that have magnified headwinds for its economy, which relies on crude sales for government revenues, triggering a historic decline in growth and large financing needs as well as weakening the naira. The Fund projected inflation in Nigeria to remain in double-digits, despite an expected easing of food prices, and above the central bank target range.
  • Nigeria may be on the verge of a second wave of COVID-19 infections, the health minister warned, as another official said the country expects to roll out a vaccine by April next year. Osagie Ehanire, speaking at a news conference in the capital Abuja, said 1,843 cases were recorded last week compared with 1,235 two weeks before that. “We may just be on the verge of a second wave of this pandemic,” he said. His comments came a day after South Africa said it had officially entered a second wave. Ehanire, in a weekly briefing by Nigeria’s COVID-19 task force, said the rise in cases was mostly driven by an increase in infections within communities and, to a lesser extent, by travellers entering Nigeria. He said he had ordered the reopening of all isolation and treatment centres that had been closed due to falling patient numbers. Nigeria, with a population of around 200 million people, has had 70,669 confirmed cases which resulted in 1,184 deaths as of Thursday. Looking ahead to a vaccine, Faisal Shuaib, executive director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), said Nigeria planned to access one through the Covax initiative backed by the World Health Organization. “We are on course to access safe and efficacious COVID-19 vaccines in the first quarter of 2021,” he said. The health minister later in the briefing said Nigeria hoped to start with at least 20 million doses from the Covax facility, initially covering healthcare workers and vulnerable people who would be most at risk if infected, such as the elderly.
  • The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said she would seek a full investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during Nigeria’s conflict with the Islamist rebel group Boko Haram. Fatou Bensouda said in a statement her office had completed a preliminary examination and found a “reasonable basis to believe” that Boko Haram and its splinter groups had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, through murder, rape, sexual slavery, and torture. Judges must approve the request. Bensouda’s office has been reviewing the conflict between government forces and Boko Haram and its various splinter groups in western and northern Nigeria since 2010. She said the office recognised that the vast majority of the crimes were attributable to non-state actors, but that it had also found a “reasonable basis” to believe that members of the Nigerian security forces had also committed crimes. Bensouda’s statement added that the court, set up in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands, to prosecute atrocities when member states were unwilling or unable to do so themselves, was facing capacity constraints. Bensouda’s office in running investigations in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Sudan, Central African Republic, Kenya, Libya, Ivory Coast, Mali, Georgia, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and a decision on whether to investigate alleged atrocities in the Palestinian territories is pending. Bensouda’s term is due to end June 15 and her successor has not yet been chosen.
  • Nigeria has directed all telecommunications firms, including giants such as Airtel and MTN, to stop selling SIM cards while it audits rule compliance, according to a statement from the Nigeria Communications Commission. The statement did not indicate how long the audit would take but said the NCC could grant exemptions “where it is absolutely necessary.” “Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are hereby directed to immediately suspend the sale, registration and activation of new SIM Cards until the audit exercise is concluded, and government has conveyed the new direction,” the statement said. It said the audit would check whether companies were complying with SIM card registration rules. Nigeria created the SIM card registration rules in an attempt to stop terrorists and criminals from using unregistered SIM cards. Other Nigerian carriers affected by the announcement include 9Mobile and Globacom Ltd. MTN said it stopped the sale, registration and activation of SIM cards as directed. “We regret the inconvenience this will cause some of our customers and are committed to working with the NCC to complete the planned audit in an efficient and seamless manner”. Airtel did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In 2015, the communications regulator handed MTN Nigeria a 1.04 trillion naira fine for failing to disconnect unregistered SIM cards, but MTN negotiated a reduced fine to clear its path to list on the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
  • Employees at Royal Dutch Shell’s Nigerian joint venture orchestrated damage to oil pipelines to profit from the money spent on clean-up operations, Dutch investigative TV programme Zembla reported. Employees of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) recruited local youth to sabotage the pipelines and then hired them back as workers to clean up the mess, the report said, citing research by Dutch environmental group Milieudefensie. Shell’s SPDC said it investigates all credible reports of misconduct and takes action where needed. “As of now, we are not aware of any staff or contractor having been involved in acts causing oil spills in the Niger Delta”, it said in a reaction sent to Reuters via Shell’s Dutch head office. The Dutch Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Shell officials and the Dutch ambassador to Nigeria were made aware of the matter by local leaders in 2018, but did not act on those warnings, Zembla said. Milieudefensie said in a statement on Thursday its research centred on the village of Ikarama, where it said there had been 30 spills in the last 13 years. “The majority of the leaks in Ikarama were the result of instructions given by Shell Nigeria employees,” it said. The profit made on the cleaning operations was split between SPDC employees and the youths, Zembla said, citing statements provided to police and Nigeria’s Ikarama Youth Council by witnesses and people who said they or their family members had taken part. The programme did not provide any figures on how much profit was allegedly made. Pipeline sabotage is a major source of pollution in the Niger Delta. In 2019, Royal Dutch Shell’s onshore Nigeria subsidiary said it had seen a 41% rise in the number of crude oil spills caused by theft or pipeline sabotage. Of a total 164 SPDC spills of more than 100 kilograms in the delta, 157 were from theft and sabotage, Shell said. SPDC is a joint venture of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which holds a 55% stake, Shell, its operator, with 30%, France’s Total with 10% and Italy’s Eni with 5%.
  • We reported on the search for a 27-year-old man whose famly believe was killed at the shooting of anti-police brutality protesters in the Lekki district of Lagos on 20 October. A picture of the man, Victor, draped in a Nigerian flag and covered in blood has been shared on Facebook. A stranger, using Victor’s phone, called the man’s sister to say that he had been killed at the shooting. But Victor’s loved ones have heard nothing since then. Rights group Amnesty International said 12 protesters were killed in two districts on the night of 20 October, prompting the worst unrest since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999. Both the military and police have denied the shootings. The government ordered state governments to set up judicial panels to investigate police abuse allegations. Witness testimonies to a Lagos judicial panel said the bodies were trucked away. Victor’s best friend, David Friday, said Victor went to Lekki because it looked fun, with food, drinks and a party atmosphere; a gardener and amateur comedian, he was not politically engaged. “Right now, I am alone,” said Elisha, a softly spoken 24-year-old. “There is nowhere to find him.” Few families have come forward publicly to demand answers about their loved ones, and activists say some are too afraid to reclaim the bodies of those killed that night, leaving them with painful questions about their fate nearly two months on. The Lagos state government has said those who lost family members between Oct. 19 and 27 should go to Lagos State University Teaching Hospital to try to identify their bodies. Victor’s brother said he was turned away from the hospital three times, first for not having proper documentation, then because a hospital doctor had not accompanied him to the mortuary in nearby Yaba and finally because the chief doctor was not available.
  • A group of activists and celebrities, including a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, signed an open letter to Nigeria’s president demanding that he hold accountable security personnel accused of shooting anti-police brutality protesters. The letter, published in the New York Times on Thursday to mark International Human Rights Day, comes nearly two months after what witnesses and Amnesty International say was a fatal clash in Lagos between peaceful protesters and military and police. The military and police deny shooting protesters. The demonstrators had called for an end to police brutality and a much-hated unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, 36, an American with Nigerian parents, organized the letter after watching the protests descend into violence. Tometi said she has friends and family in Nigeria, but said it was not difficult to get others to sign on. “We care about the issues of police brutality no matter where they’re occurring,” she told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday. “The violence that people have been met with is intolerable.” Spokesmen for President Muhammadu Buhari did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Police disbanded SARS on Oct. 11, and the government asked each state to form judicial panels to investigate claims of brutality. But protesters have outlined a campaign of harassment since the shootings, and some still do not know what happened to their missing friends and family. The letter, signed by supporters including climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg, also asks the government to release jailed protesters, lift a ban on protests and allow an independent human rights monitor investigation into “the actions that led to the killings” at Lekki Toll Gate. “People are missing and people have died as a consequence of speaking out,” Tometi said. “We will not abide it.”

Nigeria bureau chief for Reuters. Ghanaian family, British accent. Ex-BBC, before that newspapers.