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Nigeria: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Nigeria’s national borders were drawn by British colonial officials after WWII. Since then, nothing but tension and violence, interspersed with periods of relative calm, have characterized the relationship between Nigeria’s religious and tribal groups. Several times since independence, conflicts have escalated into civil war or efforts by one group or another to form their own state. The current crisis is again making some policy-makers consider breaking up the state we know as Nigeria.

Nigeria’s states, with population density

National borders drawn by colonial powers are a problem in modern Africa. They force very different tribal and religious groups — often historical enemies — into a modern, Western political structure. Often the Western political framework does not fit African realities. Such is the case in Nigeria: the Muslim north and Christian south struggle to coexist with each other and with the country’s myriad of tribes; political leaders from different groups advance the aims of their constituents and funnel money to their patrons at the expense of other Nigerian peoples. This arrangement stays the same regardless of who is in power in Abuja: a change in Nigerian national politics is usually characterized by the replacement of one corrupt bureaucrat by another. Rarely does any Nigerian politician put the nation ahead of tribal and regional priorities.

So what to do? Boko Haram’s attacks on police stations are increasing in ferocity. As John Campbell, a former ambassador to Nigeria and WRM colleague, writes in the NYT:

Boko Haram is more focused on political power. This reflects concerns by the Northern elite that Jonathan’s decision to end an informal agreement to alternate presidential power between the Muslim North and Christian South before the 2011 presidential elections will exclude the North from any possibility of future control of the state.

Further, there is a radical Islamic dimension to Boko Haram’s fight, focused on “justice” for the common people vis-à-vis the resource-rich, corrupt state. Some of the group’s operatives have adopted a violent stance against the “evil” federal government. Its attacks against police stations are far bloodier than those MEND ever committed in the Delta.

Breaking the country up along regional, religious, or tribal lines sounds attractive to some Nigeria experts, like G. Pascal Zachary, who writes in the Atlantic:

Nigerian society, deformed as it is, remains in some rough kind of workable condition. But for how much longer? […]

Rather than try to renovate the broken vessel of Nigeria, the friends of the people of Nigeria must ask whether the very structure and organization of Nigeria must be re-conceived and, in the process, serious consideration should be given to breaking Nigeria into three or more “organic” territories.

The problem with breaking up Nigeria into different states is that it might result in more violence than keeping the country together. Nigeria’s different regions are not homogenous and with more than fifty years of independence people have migrated all over the country; it is easy to picture the traumatic migration of Christians out of the north and Muslims out of the south. Other groups would similarly move to safe havens as cultural realities change in their previous homelands. Through history, in other parts of the world, this process has been extremely violent. The breakup of Nigeria would be no different.

Yet keeping the country together may entail an increasingly violent crackdown by the central government on restive provinces. The insurgency in the north is getting worse, not better. Other groups might seize their change and rebel against President Jonathan.

The Nigerian Question — whether the state should remain united and if so under what arrangements — is one of the many questions in world politics for which no clear answer exists. Historically, a good many questions like this one have led to much spilling of blood and destruction of property before some kind of answer is finally found. If Nigeria does break up, few countries in Africa face a secure future. If the largest and wealthiest country north of South Africa can’t hold itself together, many other multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-confessional states are likely to fall apart.

It’s possible, but by no means certain, that in the end a better governed and more sustainable Africa would emerge, as smaller but more cohesive countries were able to develop economically and politically. This is more or less what happened in central and eastern Europe, but the human cost between 1850 and the last Kosovo war in the 1990s was incalculably great.

In any case, Boko Haram is a small group, but it poses huge questions about the future of Africa. The fault lines it triggers are between the Muslim and Christian halves of Nigeria, a fault that runs across the continent.  Business as usual, writes Ambassador Campbell, is no longer good enough for Nigeria; the muddling through policies that have gotten it this far may not work anymore.  If so, Nigeria itself and Africa as a whole could be facing the biggest and most consequential set of challenges since the end of European rule.

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  • WigWag

    Jerry Z. Muller’s April 2008 Foreign Affairs article, “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism” should be required reading for every high school and college student in America. Muller cites Winston Churchill who, when asked about the massive population transfers that took place after World War II famously said,

    “Expulsion is the method which in so far as wan have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble…A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed by these transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions.”

    Today, anyone who advocates carrying out the policy that Churchill recommended 68 years ago would be hauled before the International Criminal Court. Of course history has proven Churchill right. Just imagine what India and Pakistan would be like if Hindus and Muslims were still trying to live together in one country.

    The only other alternative is even bleaker; the forcible conversion of Nigeria’s Muslims into Christians. If this sounds unreasonable, it pays to remember that forcible religious conversion of the losing population in a war was the rule not the exception for centuries. It’s the reason that there are Muslims in Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo.

    Absent one of these sad remedies the bloodshed in Nigeria will almost certainly continue interminably.

  • Anthony

    “The Nigerian Question – whether the state should remain united and if so under what arrangements – is one of the many questions in world politics for which no clear answer exists.” Prospects WRM don’t look good and the central and eastern Europe solution carries blood and destruction probabilities – so here we are. Major consequences potentially for African continent as we contemplate rock and hard place.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Just imagine what India and Pakistan would be like if Hindus and Muslims were still trying to live together in one country.

    We don’t have to imagine! We can look at India, with the world’s third largest Muslim population and the world’s largest Muslim-minority population. Seems like a more peaceful place than homogeneous, pure Pakistan. Maybe the key is for governments to govern individuals and not racial, ethnic, or religious groups. Imagine what it would be like if somebody formed a government on that basis. I’ll be this might even make you think twice about affirmative action.

  • LarryD

    The root problem for Nigeria and other such cobbled together states is that there is no Nigerian identity.

    Peaceful and orderly segregation of population has happened, the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations and the Treaty of Lausanne (both 1923) constitute an example where this was done. If such “ethnic cleansing” isn’t done in a planned manner, then the same result will eventually be achieved by violence.

  • Multi-tribal societies don’t have a chance. We all know that deep down but don’t want to say it.

  • To give readers a better idea of what Nigeria is up against, here is a list of the tribes in the country:

    Maybe every tribe could become a little, independent country, which of course is what they used to be?

    Maybe there’s an answer but it won’t be along the lines of a Western-style liberal democracy. Crucially, we got rid of our tribes a long time ago:

  • Here’s a good link on the “corporate” nature of Western European societies:

    As American foreign policy becomes more and more involved with these far away parts of the world we are going to have to start thinking more seriously about these sorts of issues. The British developed cultural anthropology. In the 21st century we have are confronted with the perplexities of bio-cultural anthropology. We see it in Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other parts of the world.

  • Albert

    Isn’t the most important question who gets the oil?

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