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.
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.