Nigeria: On the brink of chaos?

Since its return to civilian rule in 1999, Nigeria’s political and economic development has been mixed. On the plus side, the country is making some strides in the direction of democracy, corruption is down a bit, the government has paid off its public debt, and telecommunications have improved for many Nigerians. Negative developments include: persistent lack of economic diversification, ongoing turmoil in the oil-producing Niger Delta, overwhelming dominance of one political party over all others, the emergence of the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, and intense communal violence. Despite this mixed record, some portray Nigeria at a dangerous political precipice, not least because of recent flare-ups of communal violence. For now, this assessment seems to be too pessimistic.

The rise of Boko Haram is a serious problem for the Nigerian state, though externally influenced Islamic radicalism is not unprecedented in the country. In particular, the early 1980s included the rise of militant Islamism that led to brief but deadly confrontations. The tactics of Boko Haram – including the use of suicide bombers – are more sophisticated, though. Yet, for all of the division that Boko Haram is provoking between Christians and Muslims, Nigeria does have a rich well of religious tolerance to draw upon. It is likely just a matter of time before this Islamist group will fade from public attention.

What about more localized communal violence, driven by ethnic differences and citizenship claims? The problems related to the claims of “indigenes” (those tracing patri-local ancestry to a place) and “settlers” (Nigerians or others without patri-local ancestry in their place of residence) remain deep and widespread. Non-indigenes – even though they are Nigerians – face both formal and informal discrimination on a variety of fronts. John Campbell, for example, warns of an uptick in weapons stockpiling and mobilization among local militias eager to exploit indigene-settler divisions. Is this cause for great concern? Yes, absolutely. But it is instructive to recall the initial years of Olusegun Obasanjo’s second tenure as Nigerian head of state (1999-2003). During that period more than 10,000 Nigerians died in communal clashes of various kinds (e.g. over farmland, urban spaces, religious issues, and government patronage). Though most Nigerians regret their present state of disunity, they have been here before. And they will likely weather this storm, too. Nigeria is still a “crippled giant” (Eghosa Osaghae’s phrase), but it is not on the brink of chaos.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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7 thoughts on “Nigeria: On the brink of chaos?

    • The aftermath of Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) is a key point of background. The spirit of reconciliation and lack of victor’s justice after the failed Biafran bid for independence is an inspiring chapter from the past. As I said in the post, Nigeria has been through bouts of widespread communal violence before, and it is quite possible that urbanization will actually help communal relations.

      • The Nigerian Civil War was followed by an unprecedented Oil Boom.

        No one should deceive you into believing that the wounds from that war were even addressed, much less healed. The Oil Boom simply attenuated the impact the antagonisms.

        When the economy nose-dived in the eighties, we went back to our “natural state”.

        How do I know? I come from the “Biafra” part of Nigeria.

      • Nobody told you about the “abandoned” property saga (properties owned by Igbos were seized since they were deemed have been “abandoned”).

        Or the mere 20 pounds given to each male irrespective of the amount he had in the bank, or the massacre at Asaba or the genocide or the deliberate attempt to exclude the Igbo from Nigerian politics. Or the economic marginalisation.

        The truth about Biafra is yet to be told and Western scholars did a very poor job of telling the story (probably because they were blinded by greed for Oil money).

        Chimamanda Adichie tried to tell the story in “Half of a Yellow Sun” and the post-War disdain with which the Igbo were treated triggered the rise of pro-Biafra organisations.

        Ojukwu was buried this year, it was one of the grandest affairs in a long time, that should tell you something.

      • After the Civil War, Nigeria tried very hard to “forget” the event occurred. Real documented genocides occurred (Murtala Muhammed etc) and starvation was used as a weapon of war.

        That was a serious mistake and since the Nigerian state was emboldened by the unquestioned support provided by the British, Russians, Arab Nations and Americans – it saw it as licence to ride roughshod over perceived “opponents” in total disregard for international norms.

        The same methods adopted in Biafra were applied to the people of the Niger Delta – i.e. apply force, ensure compliance, disregard the objections of the aggrieved and ignore calls for dialogue. This state of affairs proceeded until a full blown insurgency emerged – and by then it was too late.

        The only serious attempt at reconciliation occurred almost 30 years after the fact. Prominent perpetuators of genocide were not only unrepentant but boasted they would do the same thing if given the opportunity. I remember the sight of a full-grown man weeping, when he recalled the massacre at Asaba.

        So at the end of the Oputa panel, we were no nearer to coming to terms with Biafra than we were in 1970, but history has a way of bringing issues to our attention.

        “Reconciliation” goes a lot further than not rounding up “enemy combatants” and shooting them, it involves communication and since the Nigerian state preferred to “forget Biafra” than ask hard questions, it never learned the lessons of Biafra.

        In Rwanda, reconciliation was applied to the local/personal level, it was deeper and more meaningful. In Nigeria, it never occurred.

        A word about Western scholars – there seems to be almost a conspiracy of silence about War crimes committed against Biafrans, this is possibly because the leading scholars include names like Jean Herskovits, who most intelligent and informed Nigerians understand has a transparent regional bias.

      • Could you suggest some citations for alternative readings of the post-Biafran period? Reconciliation is a relative issue, with regards to the post-1970 situation in Nigeria.

      • I don’t have any citations, I’m not a scholar. I’ve read Herskovits article in the CFR (dated from the early 70’s), the analysis was an inch deep. I speak from an experience of both living in and being from Nigeria.

        Biafra and its aftermath were badly handled, the empirical evidence abounds. One would have thought that a nation that had fully come to terms with the sense of grievance that led to Biafra (the dominant Western narrative is that Nigeria “effectively dealt with reconciliation”) would have pre-emptively dealt with the Niger Delta and Boko Haram.

        But no, the Nigerian state is dealing with those problems using the same methods the West applauded during and after the Civil War.

        The result is a deep suspicion of the West by many Nigerians for its duplicity and “willfull ignorance”.

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