THE BROKEN GIANT: A PRIMER ON NIGERIA By John Ford
This is the fifth in a series of guest posts by John Ford. John is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and is a reserve officer in the US Army. He will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore. The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy. You can follow John on Twitter at @johndouglasford.
By many measures Nigeria is well positioned to be a major regional power in West Africa. Nigeria’s population is massive. Its 177 million people dwarves any other country on the continent. Ethiopia, the continent’s second largest country, has less than half as many people as Nigeria does. Nigeria is rich in oil, its 37 billion barrels of oil is nearly double the proven oil reserves of the United States. Nigeria also has one of Africa’s best ports in Lagos and the largest river in West Africa, the Niger. This gives Nigeria a geography that should efficiently promote internal and international trade. Finally, Nigeria is the most culturally predominant country in Africa except perhaps South Africa. Great authors like Wole Solyinka and Chinua Achebe hail from Nigeria as does the world famous singer Seal.
So, if Nigeria has such a massive population, vast natural resources, favorable geography, and a dynamic cultural scene, why has Nigeria not become a regional power? Why is Nigeria instead a borderline basket case? The main reasons are the weak Nigerian state and its arbitrary borders that lump disparate ethnic groups together, a legacy of colonial times.
Nigeria is famous for its poor governance. Corruption is endemic. Nigeria has not used its resource wealth to build the infrastructure required to spur broad based economic growth. Nigeria has no meaningful railway system and half its population has no electricity. Every year, nearly 1 million children die before the age of five, usually because of lack of access to basics like medical care or clean drinking water.
The failure of state formation is driven by Nigeria’s ethnic divisions. The majority Hausa ethnic group in the north has tended to dominate politics by virtue of their numbers. This has caused significant consternation among the other major ethnic groups, the Igbo of the southeast and the Yoruba of the southwest. The other ethnic groups have often felt deeply marginalized.
The Igbo people, who dominate the southeast, felt so marginalized by the Hausa during the country’s early history that the Igbo tried to secede from Nigeria and create a separate country called Biafra in 1966. The Nigerian army had to invade the new “country” and bring it back into the fold at a cost of 1 million lives. Today, many Igbo are part of a guerilla movement that still resists government control of their lands. This has proven problematic because most of Nigeria’s oil is in Igbo lands and Igbo rebels can disrupt production substantially. The rebellion in the southeast is extremely violent and has included the kidnapping of foreigners working in the oil business. The government has been quite rough in return in its treatment of the Igbo rebels.
Nigeria has had three separate failed attempts at building a democracy since independence in 1960; each was aborted by a military coup. Nigeria is now in its fourth attempt to build a functioning democracy. The effort has proceeded in fits and starts. The first President of the fourth Nigerian democracy was Olusegun Obosanjo. Obosanjo had been military dictator after the second Nigerian democracy was overthrown. In fairness to Obosanjo, his efforts to root out corruption, while far from a complete success, have helped play a role in Nigeria’s current attempt at democratic governance being it’s most successful by far.
In addition to being divided by ethnicity, Nigeria is also divided by religion. The country is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims with most of the large Hausa ethnic group being Muslim. For most of Nigeria’s history religious division has not been particularly important. Nigeria’s main political divide was ethnic. That has changed in recent years, though, as Nigeria has drifted into a dangerous and violent religious war with a fanatical terrorist group called Boko Haram.
Boko Haram is a Hausa name that translates roughly to “western education is sinful and forbidden”. As in Saudi Arabia, where the revival of fundamentalism began with a single charismatic preacher, it was a sole preacher from Cameroon who went by the name of Maitatsine (Translation: “The one who damns”) who inspired Nigeria’s current fundamentalist movement. In the 1970s, Maitatsine began to preach to the poorest in Nigeria’s northern provinces, arguing that the country was becoming westernized and should reject secular government. His views were so extreme that he declared reading any book other than the Quran was a sin. This included a prohibition on reading the Islamic Hadiths and Sunnah. This is the equivalent of a Catholic Priest declaring it a sin to read the works of Thomas Aquinas because they do not appear in the New Testament.
Maitatsine’s movement was ignored at first but as his sermons became more explicitly anti-government the government started to pay attention. When Maitatsine’s followers started rioting in the streets of northern cities the government cracked down in 1980. 5,000 people were killed in the riots including Maitatsine himself. His movement went underground after the government crackdowns in the 1980s but was never ended. Religion is now a dominant force in northern politics and fundamentalists have gotten Sharia law instituted in all the northern provinces.
Nigerian Islam was changing radically, becoming stricter and more political at the same time. Matters began to spin totally out of control in 2009. By that time a group called Boko Haram had emerged and its main goal was to abolish western style schooling in favor of exclusively religious schools. They had been inspired by Maitatsine’s ideas about abolishing anything not officially sanctioned in the Quran. Government forces cracked down again, killing hundreds of Boko Haram supporters including its leader, Mohammed Yusuf.
After this crackdown Boko Haram morphed from a fundamentalist group to a full-fledged terrorist group. Boko Haram started launching sophisticated bombings of secular schools, Christian churches, and government targets like police stations. In 2010, its leaders began publicly declaring Boko Haram to be aligned with international terrorist groups like al Qaeda. In 2011, they launched their first attack on an international target when they bombed the United Nations building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
Boko Haram has been able to execute multiple mass casualty attacks since 2010. In March of this year they killed 22 people by driving a car bomb into a bus station in Kano. In May, 200 Boko Haram members attacked a military barracks and a prison. They were able to free over 100 prisoners in a firefight that killed 55 people. This past July, in keeping with their hatred of secular schools, Boko Haram members attacked a government boarding school. They murdered 42 people, mostly children. Earlier this month, Boko Haram militants walked into a Mosque and began shooting people during morning prayers. 44 people were killed. The total number killed in Boko Haram’s campaign of terror is nearly 4,000. A state of emergency exists in much of northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram is not interested in any kind of negotiated settlement. When the Nigerian government offered amnesty to members of Boko Haram if they laid down their arms Boko Haram’s leaders responded by rejecting the idea and offering the Government an amnesty if they turned over the reins of power to Boko Haram. Boko Haram has not launched any attacks outside Nigeria but that does not mean other countries have not been affected by Nigeria’s fundamentalists. The infamous “underwear bomber”, Farouk Abdulmutallab, was a Nigerian citizen.
Boko Haram is another example, along with Al Shabaab in Nigeria and AQAP in Yemen, of how weak states can fall prey to violent terrorist groups. It is also an unfortunate example of the increasing religious militancy in West Africa. Nigeria’s ethnic divisions are a major impediment to forming a strong state. Now, the country faces a dangerous militant movement of religious fanatics as well.
Though Boko Haram is able to launch sophisticated and deadly attacks it does not have broad public support. In the wake of the recent Mosque shootings Nigerian Muslim clerics began publicly denouncing the group. There is now a movement of Christian and Muslim vigilantes who literally hunt members of Boko Haram with machetes. Let me repeat that because it bears repeating: Vigilantes are hunting Boko Haram with machetes.
It will certainly help to end Boko Haram’s insurgency that they face a severe public backlash in the wake of their recent attacks. But a stable, functioning nation state doesn’t rely on vigilante groups to end insurgencies. A functioning state can maintain stability within its own borders. America’s challenge in Nigeria is to help the Nigerian government begin to control its own territory.
In recent years, the US has seemed to recognize that this is what it needs to do. The US has increased military to military contacts with Nigeria significantly in the last decade and Nigeria is a major recipient of American foreign aid (from both the US government and private donors). However, the Obama administration has threatened to cut off foreign aid or even sanction Nigeria because of inadequate progress in fighting corruption. Given the severity of the conflict with Boko Haram this would be a terribly short-sighted decision that would dramatically weaken the government’s ability to fight Boko Haram. The decision on aid to Nigeria mirrors the decision on aid to Egypt. Does the US side with an imperfect government to preserve stability and fight terror or does it prioritize democracy and good governance at the risk of weakening nation-states and strengthening terror groups and insurgencies?
For further reading:
“Reforming the Unreformable” by Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala
“Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink” by Ambassador John Campbell
“The Trouble With Nigeria” by Chinua Achebe
“The Open Sore of a Continent” by Wole Solyinka