A Week in Nigeria: 6 December

Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days

Some 43 farmers were buried in northeast Nigeria after dozens were killed by militants in the region

In this week’s round-up: militants attack scores of farmers in northeast Nigeria, central bank makes policy announcements as naira plummets to 500/$ on black market, and activists say crackdown used to intimidate anti-police brutality protesters.

  • Villagers in northeast Nigeria’s Borno state buried 43 farmers killed in an attack by suspected Islamist militants while security forces searched for dozens still missing. Around 30 of the men were beheaded in the attack, which began on Saturday morning last week in the village of Zabarmari, while residents said 70 people in all are feared dead. Boko Haram is active in the area, where Islamic militants have killed at least 30,000 people since beginning an insurgency in 2009. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the killings and said “the entire country is hurt”. Borno state governor Babagana Zulum, speaking at the burials, called on the federal government to recruit more soldiers, Civilian Joint Task Force members and civil defence fighters to protect farmers. “In one side, they stay at home they may be killed by hunger and starvation, on the other, they go out to their farmlands and risk getting killed by the insurgents,” he said.
  • It was another busy week for the central bank. The naira hit 500 per dollar on the black market on Monday to fall to a more than three-and-half-year low. It crossed the mark after the central bank weakened the naira to 390 per dollar for exchange bureaux mostly patronised by individuals, in an attempt to ease pressure on the currency, which has hit new lows on the black market as dollar scarcity squeezes the economy. Nigeria hopes to attract more remittances from its diaspora to boost foreign currency liquidity after the central bank issued a circular on Monday lifting rules that had restricted inflows. The bank said diaspora remittances would be paid in cash in U.S. dollars or into a domiciliary (foreign-currency) account at market rates. In the past, remittances could be paid in naira and the central bank had restricted domiciliary account usage. In the circular, the bank sought to lure more remittances, a major source of dollar inflow after oil. The bank said the changes were needed to deepen the currency market and provide more liquidity. Nigeria is the world’s fifth-biggest destination for international remittances, with 5 million Nigerians living abroad sending money back to relatives, according to Western Union. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that diaspora flows into Nigeria totalled $23.63 billion in 2018, representing 6.1% of GDP. The bank this week also introduced special bills to manage excess liquidity on the money market awash with naira after foreign investors dumped local assets as a result of the pandemic-induced oil price crash. The bank, in a circular dated Dec. 1, said it will offer 90-day zero coupon bills with yields to be determined on issue. It said the instrument will be traded among banks and investors but cannot be discounted by the central bank. Nigeria’s money market has been awash with cash this year. The naira traded at around 470 per dollar on the black market at the end of the week and the currency is seen firmer in the coming week, traders said in the wake of the central bank’s latest measures.
  • Interviews with 18 activists, lawyers representing protesters and human rights advocates depict a pattern of intimidation of those who took part in nationwide protests against police brutality that gripped Nigeria in October. In addition to detentions and the freezing of assets by the central bank, those interviewed by Reuters said some protesters had received threats or been subject to other harassment. They said further that they suspect the authorities are responsible because they bear the hallmarks of tactics used by authorities in the past. Reuters was unable to confirm who was behind the threats. The extent of the detentions of peaceful protesters and intimidation tactics used have not previously been reported. Hundreds of demonstrators have been detained since nationwide protests against police brutality began in early October. A group of lawyers providing legal aid to protesters said it has logged more than 300 detentions nationwide of people they believe to be innocent but that they expect the total to be higher. It added that many of those individuals have been released. Lagos State — home to sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous city — said on Nov. 8 that it had released 253 people. The roughly two weeks of demonstrations, which called for abolishing a controversial police unit that has long been accused of violent harassment, drew thousands into the streets across Nigeria and grabbed world headlines in one of the largest movements of popular resistance to face Africa’s most populous country in years.
  • Nigeria will offer free conversion to enable some cars to run on gas, and its central bank will make some 250 billion naira ($656.69 million) available for infrastructure in a bid to expand gas use and cut reliance on imported fuel, the government said. Africa’s largest oil exporter is aiming to have 1 million gas-powered cars by 2021, and to convert of 40% of its fleet within 10 years. The plan, launched by President Buhari, is part of the oil- and gas-rich nation’s effort to free itself of costly gasoline subsidies while avoiding public anger over higher pump prices. The COVID-19 pandemic has slammed oil prices, which provide 90% of Nigeria’s foreign exchange and more than half of its budget. “These developments have made it imperative to focus on gas as an alternative fuel,” Buhari said via video link to the event. Nigeria removed gasoline pump price controls earlier this year, but is still setting prices ex-depot, which has made it difficult for private companies to import fuel. NNPC’s oil refineries were completely shut down earlier this year in advance of hoped-for overhauls, leaving the nation entirely dependent on imported fuel. NNPC head Mele Kyari said that select NNPC stations across Nigeria will offer free conversion of “some cars” to enable them to run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or compressed natural gas (CNG). There are currently 80 locations in the country capable of fuelling the vehicles. Nigeria has the world’s ninth-largest gas reserves, and vehicles that run on gas are generally cleaner and better for the environment. But gas must be cool or pressurised for distribution, and the infrastructure for transporting, processing and distributing it would cost billions of dollars.
  • There were health stories that, while not entirely focused on Nigeria, were relevant to Africa’s most populous country. More than 409,000 people globally — most of them babies in the poorest parts of Africa — were killed by malaria last year, the WHO said in its latest global malaria report, and COVID-19 will almost certainly make that toll higher in 2020. “Our estimates are that depending on the level of service disruption (due to COVID-19) … there could be an excess of malaria deaths of somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 in sub-Saharan Africa, most of them in young children,” Pedro Alsonso, director of the WHO’s malaria programme, told reporters. “It’s very likely that excess malaria mortality is larger than the direct COVID mortality.” The WHO report found there were 229 million malaria cases globally in 2019, and said that despite the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries around the world had fought hard and held the line against the disease. But “long-term success in reaching a malaria-free world within a generation is far from assured”, it said. Some of the African countries worst affected by malaria have struggled to make significant progress since 2016. Due to ongoing transmission of malaria via mosquitoes in many parts of the world, half the global population is at risk of contracting the disease — and it still kills a child every two minutes. Despite this, the focus of global funding and attention has been diverted, making preventable child deaths more likely.Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, said the WHO report’s findings were “extremely timely”. “The global health world, the media, and politics, are all transfixed by COVID,…and yet we pay very little attention to a disease that is still killing over 400,000 people every year, mainly children,” he told reporters at the briefing.
  • And, as Britain became the first western country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine that would be rolled out within days, there was a reality check for African countries. Africa aims to have 60% of its population vaccinated against COVID-19 within the next two to three years, the African Union’s disease control group said. The continent of 1.3 billion people has recorded more than 2.2 million confirmed coronavirus infections, according to a Reuters tally. Some European countries expect to start rolling out vaccination campaigns in the next few weeks, but the control group said that vaccinations were unlikely to start in Africa until midway through next year. “We hope that for that for this to be meaningful, our 60% must be reached in the next two to three years. We should be deliberate in this,” said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. “If the delay takes us to four to five years then the virus will be endemic in our communities.” He said there were logistical problems to overcome in Africa, including how to keep vaccines cold. “We have a window from now to January and February to keep strengthening our systems, which is the refrigeration,” said Nkengasong.

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