Gavin Sarkin And Chris Hays.

It’s easy to write off Nigeria as a place destined to perpetuate violence, corruption and plutocracy. Successive oil-enriched governments have followed the tradition of the nation’s military dictators, dividing the spoils between a Muslim north and a Christian south. Some lawmakers in the capital, Abuja, earn more than $1 million a year in salary and allowances. Lately, the collapse in oil prices has crippled the country’s finances. It’s battling waves of terror from the Islamist militants of Boko Haram in a deepening humanitarian crisis for tens of millions of people. Discontent has brewed among its 177 million citizens, and their number is expected to more than double by mid-century, which would make Nigeria the world’s third-most populous country behind China and India.

Is Nigeria doomed? A new president took office in May in the country’s first democratic transfer of power since the end of colonial rule in 1960, offering a chance for a nation weary of poverty and graft to set a new course. President Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year-old northern Muslim and former general, faced the immediate challenge of a Treasury left “virtually empty” by the plunge in oil revenue, which provides more than two-thirds of government funding. A $3.5 billion bailout of local governments was arranged after half of them were unable to pay salaries. He had delayed naming a cabinet until September to drive out corrupt officials, leaving the nation without a finance minister. Buhari defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in a March vote seen as a a critical test of Nigeria’s ability to hold a free and fair contest and break a pattern of post-election clashes. The vote was relatively peaceful. For the first time, opposition parties united, backing Buhari, whose coup d’etat in 1983 cut short one of Nigeria’s earlier experiments with democracy. He’s pledged to clamp down on graft and improve security after sweeping aside Jonathan’s party, in power since the end of military rule in 1999. Jonathan ousted the head of the country’s central bank in February 2014 for pointing out that billions of dollars of the country’s oil revenue had gone missing. 

The Background. Nigeria’s ethno-religious rivalry is a legacy of colonialists who bundled a Muslim-ruled north with the south’s majority Yoruba and Igbo Christians. In the insular north, the British allowed a hierarchy of emirs to remain intact, while the south was transformed by missionaries. Today more than half of people in the north live in poverty, while the south is endowed with oil and skilled professionals who work in Lagos, Africa’s biggest city. Nigeria has had the fastest economic growth of any major country this century, helping it overtake South Africa as the continent’s largest economy. Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote became the wealthiest African with an empire built on selling cement, sugar, salt, fruit juice and pasta to the masses. The relative lack of development in the north bred resentment that gave birth to Boko Haram, whose six-year campaign of terror has killed more than 13,000 people. The jihadists captured world attention in 2014 with the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls. The conflict has spilled over into neighboring countries, which are working together to push back the militants. Attacks by a different group of rebels on pipelines in the crude-producing Niger River Delta, along with kidnappings and pirate attacks on vessels, have driven investors Shell and Chevron to easier-to-secure installations offshore. 

The Argument. To optimists, rising incomes and a surging, young population give Nigeria the potential to follow in the footsteps of hot emerging markets like India or China. That could spur development and provide a model for African democracy. But first the country needs to overcome its divisions and improve basic services, as the vast majority of its people live without regular access to electricity. Amid the challenges, there are bright spots: Nigeria won praise for its rapid containment of the Ebola virus in 2014. Fewer petrodollars might help the country break out of the resource curse of crude wealth, forcing the new government to diversify the economy and expand tax collection. The election may pave the way for help from the U.S. and other countries to fight Boko Haram. What is certain is that Nigeria is becoming too big to ignore.