The week ahead – In the doldrums

11th August 2023

Coup plotters led by the head of presidential guards, Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, held to power after ousting democratically-elected president Mohamed Bazoum, leading the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to impose heavier financial sanctions on the Niger junta and entities supporting them, and ordering its armed forces to prepare for military action. The development follows the failure of a diplomatic mission involving the African Union, ECOWAS, the United Nations and the United States to resolve the political impasse in Niger. But Nigerian human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, has said that ECOWAS needs the United Nations’ authorisation before intervening in restoring democratic rule in the military-held Niger Republic.

In the Sahelian region, the recent coup in the Niger Republic has triggered swift disapproval from both Nigeria and ECOWAS, and there is a fear that if overlooked, could lead to a growing trend of coups in the region. This move aligns with ECOWAS’ past involvement in member states facing political instability. Notably, in 2010, the community’s troops played a pivotal role in enforcing Alassane Ouattara’s electoral mandate in Côte d’Ivoire after Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to recognise an electoral loss led to chaos and civil war. Similarly, in 2017, the union’s forces contributed to resolving Gambia’s political crisis when President Yahya Jammeh resisted relinquishing power after an electoral defeat. The Niger junta leaders’ rationale for addressing security challenges contrasts starkly with the convictions of Nigeria and ECOWAS, who view the coup as a disregard for the populace’s will and a catalyst for escalated security apprehensions within the region. ECOWAS boxed itself into a tight corner when its messaging was predominantly saturated by threats of using force to reverse the status quo. It simply incentivised the coup leaders to dig into their positions, turn the message on its head and establish a domestic legitimacy they did not have in the first 24 hours of the coup. Even at that, any military action by ECOWAS had a tiny window of success; the more the saga dragged on, the more advantage General Tchiani’s government got. ECOWAS slammed sanctions to ensure maximum pressure to gain quick concessions, but these have not yielded the expected outcomes. The ECOWAS’ no-fly zone has hardly been respected, although commercial flights have been affected. Sanctions are meant to deter and reverse bad behaviour, but the risk is that they can go south and harden the target’s resolve, turning a situation into a victim with the David-vs-Goliath scenario that ordinary people can latch onto. At worst, alternatives can be created, and in Nigeria’s case, the foundation for such exists. The long-existing agreement between Niger and Nigeria, as regards the free flow of the Niger River into Nigeria, is at risk. Under the agreement, Niger would not construct any dam, and in turn, Nigeria would export electricity at a lower cost to Niger. Last week, in a bid to squeeze the junta, Nigeria cut off electricity supplies to Niger. This is potentially counterproductive. As of 2021, Niger’s government under Mr Bazoum had flouted the deal by building the Kandadji Ecosystems Regeneration and Niger Valley Development Programme, also known as Kandadji Dam, funded by international partners including the World Bank, Africa Development Bank and the French Development Agency. On paper, the new junta could accelerate the development of the dam to reduce dependence on and punish Nigeria in return. Though that is not practical now, since its major funders have collaborated to suspend aid and cooperation, it creates an opportunity for other funders from China or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to step in. That may also not go well if the US leans in on both. Given how the junta leaders have been impervious to diplomacy, a change of track is perhaps needed. In international negotiations, zero-sum outcomes lead to more problems. Peace, sometimes, involves making deals with the devil, even if you have to use a long spoon. Currently, the international community’s emphasis has been on reinstating Bazoum, which, to the coup leaders, is a fundamental red line. This is a problem that creates an opportunity: the coup leaders have burnt the bridge with both ECOWAS and the AU. The latter two have to think smart. At this point, the junta is more likely to talk to the Kremlin, whose approval they seek. It may make sense for the Kremlin to mediate in the standoff by offering Bazoum a safe exit while elections are immediately held. The military leadership could also be offered immunity from recriminations while Hausa’s dominance over the military and the presidential guard is maintained. In return, Wagner forces can stay off Niger while select conventional Russian businesses have sanctions lifted by the US and its allies. One such could be Sberbank, a state-owned bank sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury in 2022. This is better than a military confrontation that could leave everyone involved indefinitely worse off. However, for ECOWAS, that military option appears more realistic than talks. The meeting of heads of state in Abuja, yesterday, which authorised the chiefs of defence staff to deploy “a standby force” raises the spectre of war a little higher. In the earliest sign that this looming intervention will not be like what the subregion has seen before, the military coalition to be deployed is called a “standby force,” a departure from the previous operations in which such deployments are named “ECOWAS Monitoring Group.” This time, however, the circumstances are different, and so is the name. For an ECOWAS breathing down a direct military intervention with sovereign forces of a country twice the size of the countries it has deployed to in the past, the stakes become immensely higher, and the reality of a stalemate at the end of the first month might turn out even more devastating than a loss. The other way to look at Thursday’s event is via the lens of brinkmanship—with ECOWAS tightening the noose around Niger and raising the threshold for military intervention, the coup plotters may be more amenable to the diplomacy that ex-Kano Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi brings to Niamey. This stands out because the date for the deployment of the standby force is not exactly given, and as a result, there is still room for diplomacy. A step back from the precipice can only be guaranteed if back channels come through. For now, for a region grappling with a security situation that has seen Islamic State affiliates appoint a new, reinvigorated caliph in the Sahel, the combatants will not only be walking into a slaughter with their own weapons, but every other person will bear the brunt. In whichever way a military intervention ends, there will be only one clear winner in the short to medium term: the hundreds of armed groups who would be handed territories on a platter. But should the West African union’s intervention prove successful in Niger, there can be a reinstatement of constitutional norms, the liberation of President Bazoum from detention, the apprehension and legal action against the coup instigators and the fortification of democratic principles within Niger.

 

The World of Statistics reported that Nigeria has the highest global unemployment rate at 33.3%. Meanwhile, Oyo State’s Governor Seyi Makinde has announced a short-term plan to mitigate the effects of the fuel subsidy removal. He said his administration aims to address food security, transportation and other sectors to alleviate economic difficulties. Makinde directed the civil servants to resume work after their recent strike, promising to pay their August salary with the two-month owed deductions and explore further dialogue options.

It is quite disappointing that Nigeria has not officially released updated unemployment figures for the past three years. Despite discussions about changing the calculation method, the new numbers still need to be made available. However, a rough analysis indicates a worsening situation since 2020: fewer people are employed, and those with jobs are grappling with rapidly eroding purchasing power. This has pushed many Nigerians to the brink of poverty, and the government’s responses have mostly been limited to rhetoric. This situation is a potential powderkeg of social unrest as seen in Yola, Adamawa state last week. Like most sub-Saharan African countries, Nigeria has a serious productivity problem, with most of its farming population producing just enough to feed their families. Over the past decade, farmer-herder clashes have caused many families to migrate internally from rural farming communities to urban towns. About 50 percent of Nigerians live in urban areas, and many of these people are either unemployed or underemployed. Much of what is consumed in Nigeria, including food, is imported, and there is little incentive to establish production factories. Where there are factories, challenges are daunting. Noteworthily, Seyi Makinde has showcased progress in food and energy security, yet all governors, including him, must intensify their endeavours. Nigeria can produce and export significant quantities, such as 16 million metric tonnes of palm oil, 1.8 million tonnes of cocoa, 11 million metric tonnes of corn and 7.5 million metric tonnes of rice. Regrettably, realising this potential has been hampered. The imperative lies in the government investing in agriculture and infrastructure to elevate food production and tackle sector-specific challenges like insecurity and corruption. Governors across Nigeria must heighten their commitment to food and energy security. Developing robust strategies to address challenges, shared resource utilisation, and collaborative expertise-sharing must happen. Additionally, the states must capitalise on the newfound legal freedom to build railways, a significant advancement recently permitted by the federal government. This avenue empowers states to cultivate their transportation infrastructure, yielding economic benefits. Railways are integral to modern economies, fostering food and energy security by enhancing goods and passenger transport efficiency. The resulting job creation and economic progress will contribute to Nigeria’s prosperity.

 

A week after attacks on Kenyan firms, Anonymous Sudan, a pro-Sudan hacktivist group, claimed responsibility for cyber assaults on MTN Nigeria and Nigeria’s National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), reacting to Nigeria’s proposed military action in Niger. Anonymous Sudan warned Nigerian financial services, government and telcos to brace for attacks. Simultaneously, Interpol reported that a transnational investigation into West African cybercrime groups scamming web users yielded over 100 arrests and over two million euros seized. The operation, tagged “Operation Jackal,” was coordinated between 15-28 May across 21 countries on six continents, and it targeted cybercrime groups like the Nigerian “Black Axe” gang.

Cyberwarfare refers to actions taken by nation-states or international organisations to attack and potentially damage another nation’s computer systems or information networks using methods like computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. This practice has grown in frequency and scope, becoming a significant aspect of many conflicts. Around the globe, countries and businesses must confront the reality that security has shifted from the physical realm to the digital domain. Nigeria, unfortunately, isn’t among the countries actively addressing this threat, although, in June, the Indian cybersecurity research firm Indusface named Nigeria the second most cyber-secure country in Africa. The research claims Nigeria has fewer compromised systems per 100,000 internet users among other African nations evaluated. This yardstick acknowledges Nigeria’s successful advances in countering malware like the Gamarue botnet, which primarily steals information and performs other activities like click fraud. On an interpersonal level, cybersecurity education among Nigerians thrives as more people get on the internet. However, corporate bodies and government agencies do not show the same level of commitment to better security. In March 2020, then-Minister of Communication Isa Ali Pantami was criticised for using Windows 7 operating system in government video conferencing gadgets. A few months later, during the #EndSARS protests, the personal data of police officers across the country was leaked after hackers got into the police’s online database with ease. In May, Sennaike David, an Information Security expert and bug bounty hacker, wrote on LinkedIn that he infiltrated a group of hackers on the dark web, stating they were selling the private data of a Nigerian fintech institution, including access to the company’s servers, username, password, Application Programming Interface (API) keys and private customer data. Mr David identified 43 Nigerian banks with feeble security and whose customer data were sold. To a certain degree, that expose explained the story behind bank users’ complaints about missing money in their accounts, which the banks had no explanation for. In the previous years, not only were banks easy to attack, but ride-hailing services such as Bolt and fintechs such as Flutterwave were also exposed. Flutterwave was hacked for ₦2.9 billion ($6.3 million) in over 60 transactions in February this year, and even though the company tried to deny it, court documents exposed the dysfunction in the corporate sector, endangering end users. Fraud attempts in Nigeria increased by 186% across mobile and web channels between the first three quarters of 2019 and the same period in 2020, according to the most recent data from the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System (NIBSS). Fraudsters were successful with 91% of over 46,000 attempts in the first nine months of 2020, stealing ₦5 billion ($10.9 million) in the process, NIBSS said. Most attempts are by manipulating victims to give up sensitive personal information. At the core of this problem, which considers poor cybersecurity practices, is regulation. Although NITDA occasionally steps in to sanction erring businesses, it has not changed the behaviour of companies who treat data protection as an afterthought, and there is little assurance that the proposed Nigeria Data Protection Commission will be able to change that space. Despite the perception held by many Africans that cyber risks primarily affect Western countries, incidents like these serve as a reminder that cybersecurity threats are just as relevant for African governments and individuals. There are fewer recovery mechanisms and redundancies built into cyberspace in Africa; hence, an attack on one part usually leaves many of the users stranded, with losses they cannot afford. It is, therefore, crucial for governments and businesses to make the necessary investments in protecting cyberspace while being careful not to impinge on the cyber rights of citizens in the process. As the world converges increasingly into the digital space and more Africans get included, this becomes even more crucial. Public and private institutions in Nigeria and other African countries must learn that cyberattacks are part and parcel of daily life going forward and must implement strategies and best practices to mitigate such risks. To fortify Nigeria’s prowess in the digital realm and bolster defence, the government must strengthen cybersecurity, invest in cybersecurity infrastructure and training for government bodies and private enterprises, collaborate with international partners globally and provide more economic opportunities for the vulnerable youth. Groups like the Black Axe gang are driven partly by Nigeria’s grim unemployment and poverty crisis. Many unemployed or underemployed youths perceive cybercrime as an opportunity for financial gain. Therefore, by implementing these initiatives, Nigeria’s government can thwart the mounting menace of cyberwarfare and cybercrime and simultaneously cultivate a more secure and prosperous future for the country.

 

The Bank of Ghana (BoG) has denied printing “fresh cash” in 2021 and 2022 to finance the government’s expenditure amid allegations that the central bank printed ¢77.6 billion for the government and converted it to a 15-year bond. The National Democratic Congress (NDC) has asked the BoG governor and his deputies to step aside, accusing them of “mismanaging” the central bank and causing economic distress. Dr Cassiel Ato Forson, the Minority Leader in  Parliament, faulted the leadership for the Bank’s 2022 GH¢60 billion loss and accused the BoG of writing off a GHS 48.4 billion, about half of Ghana government’s indebtedness to the central bank, without parliamentary approval.

2022 will undoubtedly be remembered as a challenging year for Ghana’s Central Bank. The Bank of Ghana faced a significant loss of around $6 billion, twice the anticipated bailout amount the country expects from the IMF. This substantial loss was primarily attributed to the Bank’s decision to accept reductions in both the principal amounts and coupon payments on the government’s debt owed to it. This move became necessary due to Accra’s implementation of a Domestic Debt Exchange Programme (DDEP), resulting in the restructuring of about $8 billion of domestic debt. The IMF’s Country report cautioned that this debt restructuring could impact the Bank of Ghana’s balance sheet. It recommended that the government and the Bank of Ghana collaborate to assess the repercussions and devise recapitalisation plans, with the IMF providing technical assistance. The primary factor behind this loss was the devaluation of marketable government securities and non-marketable government instruments held within the Bank of Ghana’s records. Furthermore, the Bank of Ghana’s exposure to COCOBOD, which had built up over the years, also suffered impairment. While other participants in the DDEP did not experience principal reductions, instead receiving new instruments with revised tenors and coupon structures, the Bank of Ghana absorbed losses for the entire debt exchange programme. This was a crucial prerequisite for Ghana’s government to meet the necessary conditions for approval of the IMF programme. Consequently, the Bank of Ghana had to bear a 50% reduction in principal on the total amount (which was $6.5 billion at the time of the exchange). The 50% reduction in non-marketable instruments translated to a loss of $3.2 billion, while the restructuring of marketable instruments resulted in a loss of $1.6 billion. The COCOBOD exposure impairment amounted to $470 million. These three components from the DDEP collectively accounted for $5.3 billion of the total $6.0 billion loss in 2022. Price and exchange rate valuation effects contributed $520 million to the loss, while interest expenses related to monetary policy operations added $330 million. The Minority Caucus in Parliament has conveyed a direct message to the Central Bank’s governor – a call for resignation within 21 days. They argue that the governor’s oversight has contributed to reckless government spending, which in turn has exacerbated the persistently high inflation rate, surpassing 43% in July. Apart from consenting to writing off nearly $6 billion in government debt, the central bank also engaged in lavish expenditure in 2021 and 2022, leading to this substantial loss. For instance, the Minority Caucus believes the Bank of Ghana’s foreign and domestic travel expenses amounted to a staggering 97.4 million cedis, marking a 246% increase compared to the previous year. The Bank of Ghana also allocated an additional 8.6 million cedis solely for Directors’ remuneration, signifying an 87% increase over the previous year’s spending. Moreover, the decision to invest $250 million in constructing a new head office in Accra added to the financial burden. It is anticipated that these losses incurred by the Bank of Ghana will impact its reputation and authority, possibly influencing macroeconomic trends. Although an oversimplified view, the perception of potential financial instability might undermine its capacity to oversee the financial system and constrain its ability to employ moral persuasion as a policy tool. The Bank’s autonomy in managing internal affairs might be diluted by pressures, such as the demand for the central bank’s administrative budget to undergo government or legislative approval to mitigate losses. Without extreme circumstances, quantifying the erosion of the central bank’s authority would prove challenging. These losses could manifest more tangibly in economic aggregates and monetary management efficiency.