Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days
In this week’s round-up: Gunmen release nearly 300 schoolgirls in northwest Nigeria, vaccine rollout launched after first COVAX doses arrive, and pandemic spawns banking agent boom.
- Gunmen who kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from a boarding school in northwest Nigeria last week beat them and threatened to shoot them during a forced march into captivity, victims said after they were set free. The pupils from Jangebe, a town in Zamfara state, were seized in a raid just after midnight on Friday. All 279 had now been released by the gunmen, Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle said. Dozens of girls in Muslim veils sat in a hall in a state government building before being taken for medical checks. A few parents arrived, and one father wept with joy after seeing his daughter. Farida Lawali, 15, told how she and the other girls had been taken to a forest by the kidnappers. “They carried the sick ones that cannot move. We were walking in the stones and thorns,” she said, covered in a light blue veil. “They started hitting us with guns so that we could move,” she added. “While they were beating them with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time.” Another of the girls, Umma Abubakar, told Reuters they were forced to walk although many had injuries: “They said they will shoot anybody who did not continue to walk.” Relief at their return was tempered by concern over the circumstances of their release. A series of similar school abductions in recent months has led many Nigerians to worry that regional authorities are making the situation worse by letting kidnappers go unpunished or paying them off. Zailani Bappa, a media adviser to the state governor, denied that a ransom had been paid, but said the captors had been offered amnesty, as well as assistance to resettle at a site with newly built schools, a hospital and other facilities. But the state’s apparent conciliatory approach was at odds with the central government. President Muhammadu Buhari called for the captors to be brought to justice and said that if ransoms were being paid, this would make future attacks more likely. His national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, said the president had ordered a massive military deployment to Zamfara, banned mining and imposed a no-fly zone in the state. The central government “will not allow this country to drift into state failure,” Monguno said. “We are not going to be blackmailed.” But the military is already stretched, and it was difficult to assess whether the flight and mining bans would have much impact in a state with no major airport, and where many mines already operate illegally. Boarding schools in northern Nigeria have become targets for mass kidnappings for ransom by armed criminal gangs. The trend was started by the jihadist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014, around 100 of whom have never been found. But recent months have seen a sudden escalation of similar attacks, including the abduction of 344 boys in December.
- The moment when the girls were reunited with their families was marred by violence. Our team in Jangebe reported that cheering children had lined the street as buses brought the girls, grinning and waving, back to their school from the Zamfara state capital Gusau, where they had been cared for in the wake of their release. Less than 40 minutes later, pandemonium broke out. As government officials in a hall were giving lengthy speeches in front of the girls, impatient parents burst in and grabbed their children to take them home. The officials ran out and shortly afterwards, reporters heard gunshots outside the school gates. They saw police firing tear gas at a group of protesters outside the school, and soldiers shooting into the air. At least three people were hit by bullets, but it was not immediately clear by whom. A Reuters journalist’s video showed hundreds of people fleeing down a side street. Two girls grabbed hands, ducked — and then ran as the soldiers fired. Elsewhere, people threw rocks at government officials’ and reporters’ cars hurriedly leaving town. The chaos drives home the desperation of the situation in the northwest Nigeria, where banditry has festered for years, rendering large swathes of the region lawless. Authorities in Nigeria’s Zamfara state declared a curfew and shut market activities after the violence.
- Nigeria received its first COVID-19 vaccines on Tuesday to kick off an inoculation programme in Africa’s most populous nation, delivered under the international COVAX scheme. The West African nation of 200 million people took delivery of 3.92 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Nigeria is the third West African country to receive COVAX shots, after Ghana and Ivory Coast, which have both started vaccination campaigns. Dozens of Nigerian officials, wearing yellow high-visibility jackets and facemasks, met the flight delivering the vaccines on the airport tarmac in Abuja. “The successful development of vaccines and the accelerated process for emergency authorisation has brought hope to humanity all over the world,” said Boss Mustapha, chairman of Nigeria’s presidential task force on COVID-19. The government aims to start by vaccinating frontline healthcare workers, the highest-priority recipients, in Abuja on March 5, followed by strategic leaders on March 8. Mustapha said the government expected to receive 84 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine from COVAX this year, enough to inoculate 20% of the population. COVAX, led by the vaccine alliance Gavi, and the World Health Organization (WHO), with UNICEF as an implementing partner, aims to deliver nearly 2 billion doses worldwide by the end of 2021. Peter Hawkins, the Nigeria country representative for UNICEF, said Nigeria’s extensive experience in combatting infectious diseases, most recently the eradication of wild polio, would facilitate the rollout of COVID-19 doses. “We will use the polio network to be able to ensure that people in the most extreme areas are reached as quickly as possible,” Hawkins said. Ghana and Ivory Coast have begun administering COVAX doses, and Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo and his wife took them in an effort to boost public confidence. Officials have also expressed concern with vaccine scepticism in Nigeria, but food scientist Chinedu Mokeke said people should take the shots and “be happy and move on”.
- A doctor who has spent the past year treating COVID-19 patients on Friday became the first person in Nigeria to be vaccinated against the disease, kicking off a mammoth campaign that aims to inoculate 80 million people this year. Vaccinating all of Nigeria’s 200 million people and those in other developing countries is seen as key to stemming the global spread of the coronavirus. “I am happy to be the first and I am happy I am not the last,” the doctor, 42-year-old Ngong Cyprian, told Reuters. “I want everybody to be vaccinated.” Two other male doctors and one female nurse were also inoculated in white tents draped in green, the colours of the national flag, while cameras rolled and officials clapped and cheered. Nigeria, with more than 150,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and around 2,000 deaths, has not been as hard hit by the pandemic as initially feared, but is aiming to vaccinate 40% of its people this year, and a further 30% in 2022.
- MTN Nigeria plans to tap the debt market in the first quarter and has applied to the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for approval, its chief finance officer said. Yields in Nigeria are at historic lows after the central bank cut rates twice last year to lower borrowing costs for the government, creating opportunities for firms to sell debt at more attractive rates. Previously, the central bank had kept rates high with a view to attracting foreign investors to buy Nigerian bonds. “There is an application with SEC. We are going to be tap the market to optimise our funding cost,” MTN Nigeria CFO Modupe Kadri told a call with analysts, without disclosing how much the company intended to raise. The Nigerian division of South Africa’s telecoms firm MTN said on Sunday its 2020 pretax profit rose to 298.9 billion naira and that it was at an advanced stage in renewing its operating licence, which is due to expire in August. Kadri said a paucity of dollars in Nigeria was challenging but he hoped that as oil prices start to recover, dollar liquidity would improve. He said that dollar loans accounted for 6% of its total debt. MTN Nigeria was looking to repatriate $250 million to $300 million in backlog dividends and had so far brought back about $20 million, Kadri said. He said the ability of investors to bring funds into the country will help the naira. The naira dropped on Wednesday to a low of 410.58 per dollar on the spot market, based on quotes from investors. Asked about the outlook for growth, Kadri said: “What we have done is to put in place trade lines in excess of $180 million, backed by naira … at different terms to help finance capital expenditure.”
- Nigeria has seen a sharp rise in the number of mobile money banking agents since the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case a year ago. Mobile money firms across Africa are ramping up plans to bring banking to millions after the pandemic caused a surge in the use of digital financial services. Firms in Nigeria say they have recruited more agents to meet demand. Solomon Amadi, vice president of Moniepoint, said the company’s banking agents had increased from 8,000 in 2019 to more than 50,000 in February 2021. Similarly, Dotun Adekunle, vice president of product engineering at payment platform OPay, said it had nearly 400,000 agents nationwide, up from 290,000 in February 2020. “The demand increased for financial services. People could not go to the banks. Naturally the agency then also increased,” said Adekunle. However, a preference for cash is deeply entrenched in Nigeria. Enhancing Financial Innovation and Access (EFInA), a research body that monitors financial inclusion in Nigeria, said a survey it conducted in 2018 showed only 3.3% of Nigerian adults reported having mobile money accounts. But its chief executive officer, Ashley Immanuel, said there had been a “steady increase in digital and mobile financial services” in recent years.
- The central bank said it has extended a regulatory forbearance on restructured loan facilities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The bank last year launched several intervention programs to try to help stimulate the economy battered by the pandemic. It is also setting up a new company to tackle infrastructure shortages in Nigeria. It asked lenders to give customers more time to repay loans and created a fund to combat the impact of the pandemic, which triggered an oil price crash, weakened the currency and plunged the country into recession. Nigeria emerged from recession in the fourth quarter of 2020, despite a contraction in the year as a whole. But growth is fragile as weak infrastructure has stymied the economy for decades, holding back wealth distribution in Africa’s biggest economy. The regulator said it will extend by one year the lower interest rates it has offered on intervention funds granted to businesses, as part of measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. The central bank had reduced interest rates to 5% per annum from 9% on intervention loans last year. Also, with a one-year moratorium on principal having ended last month, it said a roll-over of the moratorium will be considered on an individual basis. By June, Nigerian lenders had received a request to restructure over a third of loans mostly in the manufacturing and general commerce sectors after running into repayment problems due to the pandemic. Mid-tier lender FCMB had said it will restructure half of its loans, mainly in the oil and retail sectors.
- And, finally, the naira is expected to weaken on the spot market in the coming week after it dropped to a record closing low on Wednesday and the central bank last week acknowledged that the currency was trading weaker over-the-counter. The currency was quoted at 411.10 naira to the dollar on the over-the-counter spot market on Thursday, exchange data showed. “Majority of liquidity on the market is traded higher than the closing levels,” one trader told Reuters, adding that he anticipated the weakening streak to continue. The spot market naira has been hitting intra-day lows since February but has remained flat on the official market backed by the central bank at 381 naira since last July. The currency traded at 480 naira on the black market on Thursday.