Even for a country accustomed to political turbulences, the recent conflicts in Nigeria have reached massive proportions. According to a recent report by the Human Rights Watch, since the national elections in 2010 no less than 900 people have been killed in a series of terrorist attacks, what has led Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan to declare that the unrest is “worse than the country’s 1960s civil war”. But what are the main reasons for the steady increase in political violence in Nigeria? Amongst many possible answers, there are three factors which I believe account for this new surge in violence: a fragile economic system, the legacy of the civil war, and the rise of the Islamist militants of Boko Haram.
Despite being Africa’s biggest oil producer and having had consistent GDP growth over the last years, Nigeria’s economy still faces significant challenges. Whereas last year the country received about 50 billion dollars with its oil sales alone, the share of the Nigerian population who lives in absolute poverty jumped from 54.7% in 2004 to 60.9% in 2010. In the north of the country the figures are even more staggering: in Sokoto state, for instance, 86.7% of the population lives below the poverty line. It is worth remembering that, in line with many quantitative studies of civil violence, low GDP per capita is one of the strongest predictors of civil war onset, not only because the government does not have the necessary means to fight insurgents, but also because the lack of economic opportunities reduces the individual costs for joining a rebellion.
Adding to this already unfavourable scenario, President Jonathan’s attempts to cut government subsidies have greatly affected the cost of living of the urban poor. It is true that by eliminating subsidies the government corrects significant market distortions – rich oil traders are those who benefit the most from the subsidies – but since Nigeria does not provide a safety net for its citizens, the rise in oil prices fostered a series of protests throughout the country. President Jonathan was forced to withdraw his promise, not without some damage to his popularity. The protests have managed to impose their demands, but unfortunately the public expenditure will still favour those with political ties with the state, what hints at a low chance of sustained economic growth and income distribution in the country. Therefore, both absence of social security and persistent political clientelism have played a major role in increasing the chances of social unrest in Nigeria.
To have a better grasp of the current Nigerian scenario, one must also take into account the legacy of the civil war that raged across the nation between 1967 and 1970. The war started after years of small conflicts between the Igbo, who are mostly Christians, and the Hausa-Fulani, predominantly Muslim and strongly averse to Western culture. A series of coups d’état provided a reason for the Igbo to declare secession, which culminated in the creation of the Republic of Biafra in May 1967. The Igbo eventually lost the war and had its territory again annexed to Nigeria. The aftermath of the civil war is highly visible in Nigeria: the ethnic divide between Muslims and Christians have markedly increased in the last decades, and both groups have systematically used violence against each other. The Igbo are still marginalised in the political and economic realms, and they declare that they are not receiving their fair share of the country’s economic development.
Such ethnic cleavages increase the political volatility in Nigeria. Apart from the two structural factors mentioned above, the third explanatory variable for the recent rise in political violence in Nigeria is the growing influence of the extremist group Boko Haram. Founded in 2001 by Mohammed Yusuf, a salafist clergyman, the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (literally, “Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad”), better known by its Hausa name Boko Haram (“Western education is sinful”), have carried out a large number of terrorist attacks in different parts of the country. As it seems, the original goals of Boko Haram did not include targeting civilians, but in face of growing police brutality against its members, the group has decided to employ violent means to achieve their purposes. After the death of Yusuf in 2009, Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks have successfully inflicted serious damage to very high-profile targets such as the United Nations local headquarters. But what are the currently the main goals of Boko Haram?
The answer is not clear. Group members usually justify their actions by stating a diffuse hatred against the West, the need for implementing the Shari’ah in northern Nigeria and the “punishing the infidels”. However, Boko Haram has not offered a political or social programme, and little is known about their long run strategies. The use of suicide-bombing tactics, until then not common in Nigeria, has led analysts to conjecture that Boko Haram might have links with Al-Qaeda, Al-Sabaab and other international terrorist organisations. Given that the group has attacked not only Christians but also Muslims, it is believed that popular support for Boko Haram is waning, although they can still enlist a number of supporters to their cadre.
Under these conditions, what can the Nigerian government do? One idea, proposed by Todd Moss, is to boost social programmes and create a special investment fund. Since Boko Haram is not a group formed by members of the elite but rather by poor, unemployed young men, the idea might cause some positive effect. Promoting micro-credit and repairing the country’s ailing infra-structure would also be of great help. While President Jonathan has increased the investment in security – it now accounts for about 20% of the government budget – the police is notably corrupt and probably the lion’s share of this money will be channelled to the pockets of a few rich officials. Military intelligence and community policing would perhaps offer better results and have cheaper costs. Without such measures, Nigeria’s future will still look gloomy. Good luck is not enough to keep a country stable.