Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days
In this week’s round-up: Gunmen kidnap more than 300 schoolgirls, suspected Islamists fire rocket-propelled grenades at northeast’s biggest city, first COVAX vaccine doses to arrive within days, and vice president urges cryptocurrency regulation rather than prohibition.
- Gunmen abducted 317 girls from a boarding school during an early hours raid in the northwest Nigerian state of Zamfara state. It was the second such kidnapping in little over a week in the country’s northwest, a region increasingly targeted by militants and criminal gangs. Zamfara police said they had begun search-and-rescue operations with the army to find the “bandits” who took the 317 girls from the Government Girls Science Secondary School in the town of Jangebe. “There’s information that they were moved to a neighbouring forest, and we are tracking and exercising caution,” Zamfara police commissioner Abutu Yaro told a news conference. All the abductees remained at large, but the parent of one of them, Mohammed Usman Jangebe, said seven of their schoolmates had resurfaced after escaping the raiders by hiding in gutters. The assailants stormed in at around 1 a.m., firing sporadically, said Zamfara’s information commissioner, Sulaiman Tanau Anka. “Information available to me said they came with vehicles and moved the students. They also moved some on foot,” he told Reuters. School kidnappings were first carried out by jihadist groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province but the tactic has now been adopted by other militants whose agenda is unclear. They have become endemic around the increasingly lawless north, to the anguish of families and frustration of Nigeria’s government and armed forces. Friday’s was the third such incident since December. The rise in abductions is fuelled in part by sizeable government payoffs in exchange for child hostages, catalysing a broader breakdown of security in the north, officials have said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The government denies making such payouts, and President Muhammadu Buhari reiterated on Friday that it would will not succumb to blackmail. In a statement issued late on Friday, he also appealed to state administrations not to reward bandits with money or vehicles. Buhari replaced his long-standing military chiefs this month amid the worsening violence. Last week, gunmen kidnapped 42 people including 27 students, and killed one pupil, in an overnight attack on a boarding school in the north-central state of Niger. The hostages are yet to be released. In December, dozens of gunmen abducted 344 schoolboys in northwest Katsina state. They were freed after six days but the government denied paying a random Islamic State’s West Africa branch in 2018 kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria, all but one of whom — the only Christian — were released. A ransom was paid, according to the United Nations. Perhaps the most notorious kidnapping in recent years was when Boko Haram militants abducted 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state in April 2014. The incident drew widespread global attention, with then U.S. first lady Michelle Obama among the prominent figures calling for their return. Many have been found or rescued by the army, or freed years later after negotiations between the government and Boko Haram, according to sources, but 100 are still missing. Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM Intelligence, said many northern governors were keen to pay to avoid protracted hostage situations attracting international outrage, which in turn gave an incentive for more abductions. “When you have these mass abductions now and you see victims are released relatively quickly, unlike Chibok, the one thing that has changed is money,” Effiong said.
- In a sign of the growing unrest in northern states, suspected Islamist insurgents pounded the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri with rocket-propelled grenades late on Tuesday, killing at least 10 people and injuring dozens, officials, security forces and residents said. It was the worst attack for a year on Maiduguri, the government’s stronghold in the northeast and the heart of its conflict with Boko Haram jihadists in a shattering, decade-long war. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the latest attack. Nigeria’s northeast is the hotbed of two Islamist insurgencies: Boko Haram and Islamic State’s West African branch, which split from the former group in 2016. “It is a very sad moment for the people and government of Borno state. About 60 persons were affected, among them, 10 have died,” said Babagana Zulum, the governor of Borno, of which Maiduguri is the capital. All of those killed were civilians, according to hospital and security officials. Airborne explosives began to rain down near the University of Maiduguri in the city’s east around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, said a Reuters witness, a resident and security officials. Blasts soon rocked other parts of eastern and northeastern Maiduguri. Insurgents were launching rocket-propelled grenades into Maiduguri from a distance, said Borno’s governor and security officials. One of the projectiles hit a children’s playground, Zulum said, without saying whether anyone was injured. “An explosion killed four people near my house,” said one resident, Ali Ciroma. A policeman and two security officials confirmed the deaths. Highlighting the rising instability, gunmen killed 36 people in two attacks in the northwest, a day after the attack on Maiduguri. The series of attacks by armed bandits occurred over the past 48 hours with 18 people killed each in villages of Kaduna and Katsina states and several others injured. The assailants burnt down houses, displacing the villagers. Hundreds of people have been killed in northern Nigeria by criminal gangs carrying out robberies and kidnappings.
- Nigeria is expecting its first 4 million doses of coronavirus vaccines next week from the global COVAX programme for poor and middle-income countries, the World Health Organization said on Friday. Walter Kazadi Mulombo, head of WHO’s mission in Nigeria, told a briefing by video link that Nigeria was expecting 14 million doses in total. Chikwe Ihekweazu, Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), said the situation in Nigeria was so far much better than had been widely predicted early in the pandemic. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with some 200 million people, has reported fewer than 1,900 COVID-19 deaths so far. “The whole world expected the continent of Africa, and Nigeria with our social and economic realities, to basically fall apart,” Ihekweazu told the briefing. He also referred to the findings of seroprevalence studies, published on Monday, which suggested that 23% of Lagos state inhabitants — around 4 million people — may have had COVID-19 in October. He said studies in four Nigerian states had shown that serious illness appeared to be rarer than feared, possibly in part because of the young average age of the population. “Getting the vaccine into Nigeria will serve the continent well, will serve the world well,” he said. Nigeria plans to inoculate 40% of the population this year and 30% more in 2022.
- Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed said Nigeria will draw up a supplementary budget in March to cover the cost of vaccinations, for which no provision was made in the 2021 finance bill adopted in December. She told reporters that ministers were working with health authorities on a plan to be approved by the president and then lawmakers. In a separate development, we reported that the African Export-Import Bank (Afrexim) has approved $2 billion to support the acquisition of vaccines for African countries, according to its president. The African Union initially secured 270 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from manufacturers for member states. In January, it was announced that the bloc would receive another 400 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. President Benedict Oramah told CNBC Africa Television the Afrexim board has approved the funds and that it was seeking to raise more funds for vaccine acquisition. He said that the 270 million doses will only cover around 15% of Africa’s population, far short of the 40% to 60% needed for immunity. Africa’s reported COVID-19 death toll surpassed 100,000 last week, a fraction of that reported on other continents but rising fast as a second wave of grips several countries. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday supported a call by French President Emmanuel Macron to donate vaccines to health care workers in Africa, as a star-studded event was announced to support equitable distribution. “Vaccines are still scarce everywhere but it is in our common interest to share,” von der Leyen said in a webcast with the WHO.
- The finance minister talked about more than just vaccines when addressing journalists after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in the capital, Abuja. She said Nigeria has yet to conclude a $1.5 billion loan agreement with the World Bank because of disagreements on exchange rate reforms. The World Bank has said Nigeria needs to strengthen reforms to its naira currency before it can approve the loan. Ahmed said she felt Nigeria had met the World Bank’s requirements but that it had asked for the gap in the naira’s exchange rate on the over-the-counter spot market and on the black market to be narrowed.
- Nigeria’s central bank and securities regulator need to find ways to regulate cryptocurrencies rather than prohibiting their use, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said on Friday, urging them to come up with a regime that would support growth and innovation. The central bank this month barred banks and financial institutions from dealing in or facilitating transactions in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, warning that banks that fail to act could face “severe regulatory sanctions”. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has meanwhile sought to regulate cryptocurrency investments on the grounds that they qualify as securities transactions. Both regulators said they had identified certain risks within the digital asset sector, without explaining further. Cryptocurrency use has boomed in Nigeria in recent years. But the central bank has argued that cryptocurrencies, which are unregulated and not legal tender, are risky for the user. “I fully appreciate the position of the central bank, the Securities and Exchange Commission and … the possible abuses of cryptocurrencies,” Vice President Osinbajo said. “There’s a role for regulation here and it is the place of our monetary authorities and SEC to provide a robust regulatory regime that addresses these serious concerns.” But addressing top bankers at an online meeting also attended by central bank governor Godwin Emefiele, Osinbajo also said disruption creates efficiency and progress, as has been seen in other sectors. “Cryptocurrencies in the coming years will challenge traditional banking, including reserve banking, in ways that we cannot yet imagine, so we need to be prepared for that seismic shift,” he added. Bitcoin has soared over 60% this year, hitting an all-time high of $58,354 this month as mainstream companies such as Tesla and Mastercard have embraced cryptocurrencies.
- The Senate unanimously approved a new anti-corruption chief nominated by the president. Lawmakers in parliament’s upper chamber approved Abdulrasheed Bawa, a regional head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), in a voice vote. The EFCC investigates and prosecutes corruption in Africa’s largest oil exporter and its biggest economy, which has grappled with endemic graft for decades. Bawa told senators his 16 years at the EFCC had prepared him well for the top job. “I am versed in the investigation of advance fee fraud, money laundering, public sector corruption and other financial crime-related issues,” he said during the confirmation.
- Nigeria is losing 200,000 barrels of crude oil a day because of theft and vandalism, the head of the state oil company said, underscoring how insecurity is causing vast financial losses for the West African country. With Brent Crude oil prices hovering around $66.70, the losses would amount to more than $13 million a day and more than $4.8 billion a year, at a time when Nigeria needs funds to tackle poverty, improve security and boost the economy, which shrank 1.92% in 2020 in part due to the pandemic. The group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mele Kyari, made the comments on Wednesday while meeting the new head of Nigeria’s military, Lucky Irabor, a statement from the firm said. “In terms of crude losses, it is still going on,” said Kyari in the statement. “On the average, we are losing 200,000 barrels of crude every day,” he added, attributing the losses to thieves and vandals. Irabor said the armed forces would protect Nigeria’s oil and gas. “Our existence, economically, rests almost solely on the NNPC, and to that extent, we must do everything possible to give you everything that you require,” he said.
- Still on oil, NNPC has extended until June its contracts with private companies to swap crude oil for fuels, a company spokesman told Reuters. That’s the second extension of the one-year contracts to exchange more than 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) with 15 company pairings, which had been set to expire in October 2020. “The DSDP was extended till June 2021 to enable us conclude the ongoing process of putting new contact in place,” NNPC spokesman Kennie Obateru said on Monday. NNPC issued a tender for new contracts, known as direct sale, direct purchase (DSDP), in December last year. The coveted swaps supply nearly all of Nigeria’s gasoline, and some of its diesel and jet fuel, in exchange for cargoes of crude oil. Nigeria eliminated pump price caps for gasoline last year, but NNPC controls over ex-depot pricing have made it tough for private companies to make money importing the fuel, leaving the government as the sole supplier.
- A Nigerian judge dismissed, on jurisdictional grounds, lawsuits brought by Oando Plc challenging the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission’s removal of its management team, the oil company said on Friday. In the latest twist in the long-running battle between the regulator and Oando, the federal high court judge in Abuja referred the case to the Investment and Securities Tribunal, a specialized judicial body created to adjudicate disputes involving capital markets and investment. Oando said it has appealed the decision. The SEC declined to comment. Shares in Lagos-listed Oando, which peaked at 127 naira per share in 2008 but tumbled amid continual turmoil in recent years, closed 2.99% higher on Friday at 3.45 naira. The lawsuits challenged a 2019 SEC order setting up an interim management team and ordering Chief Executive Wale Tinubu and others to resign. The order cited “certain infractions of securities and other relevant laws” it found following an investigation. Tinubu and the company said the allegations were unsubstantiated and obtained a court injunction blocking the SEC from replacing him and taking further actions against Oando, pending a hearing on the case. Oando also argued that the SEC lacked the power to remove management. Earlier in the week, a judge approved an Oando shareholder’s suit that would force the company to hold an annual general meeting. The SEC had suspended the company’s AGMs. The SEC has been investigating Oando since 2017 following two petitions alleging gross abuse of corporate governance and financial mismanagement, one from a shareholder and another from a company that holds shares in an investment company that is a shareholder. Oando, dual listed in Johannesburg, has transformed itself from a fuel retailer to an oil producer competing with multinationals such as Shell and ExxonMobil. It financed its growth, particularly the 2014 acquisition of ConocoPhillips’ Nigerian assets for $1.65 billion, largely by debt.
- African e-commerce giant Jumia said its cost cuts helped it reduce fourth quarter losses by 47% from a year ago as revenues continue to slide, showing that its path to profitability was on course. Jumia, the first Africa-focused tech start-up to list on the New York Stock Exchange, is selling fewer expensive one-off products such as electronics and focusing on cheaper but frequently ordered items like beauty and cleaning supplies. It is also cutting fulfilment and advertising costs. Revenue slid to 41.8 million euros in the fourth quarter, down from 49.3 million euros in the 2020 period. But Jumia reduced its adjusted loss in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) to 28.3 million euros. Co-CEO and founder Jeremy Hodara said this proved the company’s strategy was paying off. “We grew where we wanted to, and very efficiently,” Hodara said. For the full year, revenue slid nearly 13%, to 139.6 million euros and adjusted loss EBITDA fell by 34.5% to 149.2 million euros. Jumia outlined long-term hopes of expanding into new markets, including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, and said that payment platform JumiaPay and Jumia Logistics could be spun off. But Hodara said no such plans would be considered until the company became profitable. “We have to make sure that Jumia is a business that can make money,” Hodara said. Jumia’s share price was steady around $48 at 1550 GMT, having gyrated dramatically since its listing at $14.50 on April 26 2019, valuing the firm at $1.1 billion. It hit a peak of $49.77 shortly after listing but later plunged close to $2 a share after a negative short seller report. In December 2020, the company raised €203 million in a primary offering. Last year it also exited three countries and closed its travel unit to focus on profitability.