Corruption, oil money and tribal politics are continuing to combine in a perfect storm of escalating calamities. Nigeria is drifting towards civil war because of corruption, tribalism and religion. Many Nigerians are well aware of what is going on, but preventing it from happening is not easy, each country requires a unique solution plus some exceptionally capable leaders to make it work. Failure to deal with the current crisis means national disaster and becoming another failed state.
A common problem in failed states is a large number of ethnic or religious groups. This is a common curse throughout Africa, which is why the majority of the worst failed states are there. Europe, and much of Asia, have managed to get past this tribalism and religious strife, although that has not always resulted in a civil society. It usually takes the establishment of a functioning democracy to make that happen.
Tribalism (ethnic and religious) has kept most African nations from making a lot of economic or political progress. The top five failed states are all African. Somalia is also unique in that it is one of those rare African nations that is not ethnically diverse. Instead, Somalia suffers from tribal animosities and severe warlordism, which is usually successful gangsters who establish temporary control over an area.
Nigeria was always a separatist disaster waiting to happen. There are over 200 tribes in Nigeria, which adds another level of complexity for any government. While most of the tribes belong to half a dozen ethnically related coalitions, all consider themselves culturally different.
There are two major tribes that are dominant. The Yoruba are Christian and the major ethnic group in the south. The Moslem Hausa tribes are dominant in the north. Both groups have many members all over the country, which contributes to ethnic and religious misunderstandings that often result in violence. The Hausa have been uniting behind religious leaders, while the Yoruba are forming along tribal lines.
The combination of ethnic and religious differences, in addition to the southerners having been in contact with the West longer, has left the north less educated and less able to deal with modern technological society. Some tribes are very eager for Western education, economic progress and honest government. Other tribes swing in the opposite direction. Local politicians succeed in part by getting to know how each tribe in their area operates and making the most of that knowledge. Boko Haram is exploiting the Islamic conservatism (or fanaticism) of many northern tribes, as well as xenophobia (fear of outsiders) that is common in the north.
Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram is an example of how tribalism works because most (over 70 percent) of those who join are from the Kanuri tribe. This ethnic group contains about four million people, with three million living in northeastern Nigeria and the rest in Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Abubakar Shekau, the recently deceased leader of Boko Haram is believed to be a Niger Kanuri, not Nigerian as was earlier thought. The Kanuri have lived in the region, centered on the city of Maiduguri in Borno State, for over 3,000 years. At times during this period the Kanuri had their own kingdom, but most of the time they were ruled by some stronger tribe as part of a local empire. Kanuri separatist movements generally died out after Nigeria became independent in the 1960s.
A key aspect of Boko Haram is the English translation, which is “Western education is forbidden.” For this reason, Boko Haram was initially compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which also opposes Western education and most members come from the Pushtun tribe. This is a common pattern worldwide and throughout history.
There is another complication in the south; enormous oil wealth that only manifested itself after Nigerian independence in the 1960s. While Islamic terrorists are difficult to find in the south, oil thieves and their collaborators are easier to spot. The oil theft does not just take place in the Niger Delta, where the oil fields are, but throughout the country. There are other pipelines that carry refined products (especially diesel), and these are being plundered. The refined product is more profitable as you can sell it locally. This is risky as you have to drive around in tanker trucks, always one unexpected encounter with the police away from prison or worse. Sometimes the cops will take a bribe and sometimes they will kill you and steal your stolen oil.
One sign of progress is that since the late 1990s more Nigerian politicians have pledged to deal with corruption. Eventually a lot of them actually acted on that. This was helped by efforts to measure the extent of the oil wealth and where it all went. Outside auditors were called in and by 2018 a World Bank study detailed how Nigerian governments wasted opportunities from 1970 through 2014 to invest a trillion dollars of oil income into development. Instead, most of it was stolen or squandered. During that 44-year period there were five spikes in oil prices and demand. These “oil booms” brought in extraordinary amounts of income which made it easy to spend most of it on infrastructure, and other long-term investments in the economy. That was rarely done and all the oil income made a few Nigerians, most of them corrupt politicians, fabulously rich but otherwise has done nothing for Nigeria. The oil income bonanza continues, with income currently about $40 billion a year.
Oil has been a curse rather than a blessing for Nigeria. One thing nearly all Nigerians can agree on is reducing corruption and theft of most oil income. Since 1972 the government has earned over a trillion dollars ($1,300 billion) in oil revenue, most of which has been stolen or misused. This corruption is the main cause of the unrest in the country, especially the oil producing areas. Since 1980, the poverty rate, the percentage of people living on less than $400 a year, has gone from 28 percent to over 60 percent today. For over four decades, the oil money has been going to less than twenty percent of the population, leaving the rest worse off today than they were in the early 1960s, before the oil exports began. The people in the Niger Delta are up in arms because most of them have not benefited from the oil production and have suffered from the oil spills and other disruptions that accompany oil drilling and shipping. The four decades of theft have left the national infrastructure (roads, water supplies, power production, and so on) in ruins. In short, oil has not helped Nigeria at all.
The oil would be a major prize in any civil war and that has kept many separatist-minded groups in check. Someone will always say; “what about the oil” and the question answers itself. Any civil war in an oil-rich nation sees the oil income halted and major damage done to the oil production and exporting facilities. That does not make a nation immune to separatism, but does discourage the more effective leaders from trying it.
The current major threats are the usual north-south/Moslem/Christian divide plus the better educated and more ambitious Igbo tribes of the southeast again seeking their own state of Biafra.
The Igbo people in the southeast are again seeking what has long been forbidden, openly partitioning Nigeria. In the southeast Imo, Enugu and Anambra states are meant to be the core of the independent Igbo Biafra. Pro-Biafra groups began to appear again in the late 1990s, trying to revive the separatist movement. Since then, over a thousand separatists have been killed, and many more imprisoned, while the government continues to insist that Biafra is gone forever. But as details of the extent of government corruption during the last few decades came out, Biafra again seemed like something worth fighting for. Senior government officials, including president Buhari, are paying attention and seeking to work out a compromise with the Igbos. The Fulani are less amenable to any compromise, especially since the Fulani are Moslem and consider themselves defenders of Islam against non-believers like the Christian Igbo.
Since 2016 separatists have been organizing armed militias and threatening to expel Moslems recently arrived from the north, by force if necessary. This is another escalation in Igbo efforts to gain autonomy, if not a separate state. This movement has been around for over half a century and is commemorated every May 30th by a growing number of Igbos who have not forgotten the 1967 war for Igbo independence. This is all about reminding the Nigerian government that the Igbo are still a force to reckon with.
The Biafra separatist rebellion threat has not only returned but is resisting suppression. During 2017 there were thousands of arrests related to the Biafra demonstrations and other pro-independence activities. That simply made Igbos angrier. In 2018 police were ordered to deal with the protests and unrest carefully and avoid bloodshed. Someone in government apparently remembers that the original 1967 rebellion began because in 1966 over 40,000 Igbo in the north were murdered by Fulani groups after a much smaller number of Moslems were killed. The subsequent Biafra rebellion did not end until 1970 and left more than a million Igbo dead. Yet the Igbo remain a major force in Nigeria, comprising nearly a fifth of the population and dominating even more of the economy. This is particularly resented in the Moslem north, where the Igbo returned in greater numbers after 1970 and are now a key part of the northern economy and, as Christians, a favorite target of Boko Haram.
This time around the separatists face a new problem; many Igbo, especially those living outside of “Biafra” openly oppose the separatist movement. Many Igbo in the southeastern homeland also oppose it but cannot say so publicly because they would be physically attacked by the separatist zealots. Not surprisingly, the governors of the states that comprise the proposed Biafra oppose leaving Nigeria. While the corrupt Igbo politicians oppose Biafra, what everyone is worried about is the large number of Igbo willing to fight for Biafra and a less corrupt government.
There is a similar problem in the Moslem north, where many oppose Boko Haram for practical reasons. Most parents realize that getting a “Western” education is the surest way to future prosperity. Local politicians, tribal leaders and most Moslem clerics agree that education is a good thing. The radical clergy may be a minority, but they are supported by young gunmen willing to kill, and die for an Islamic religious dictatorship. A modern education would have shown them how and why that has never worked in the past.
June 19, 2021: In the northeast (Borno State) senior clerics that advise Boko Haram have confirmed that Abubakar Shekau, the veteran Boko Haram leader was dead. He was killed by dissident Boko Haram members that had joined ISIL and considered any Boko Haram who did not do the same as traitors to Islam. Shekau had been active in Boko Haram from the beginning, in the 1990s, and has been leader since 2009. The army claimed to have killed Shekau several times and the “dead” Boko Haram leader soon put a video on the Internet mocking the military and saying they would never kill him. He was right. Now there is talk of ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) the local ISIL affiliate absorbing Boko Haram. That is not happening because many remaining Boko Haram members would rather fight ISWAP or simply leave the movement, which many Boko Haram and ISWAP members have done in the last few years. Boko Haram has already appointed a new leader; Bakura Modu (or Sahaba). The new leader is half the age of Shekau and has been in Boko Haram for less than a decade. Boko Haram and ISWAP are both dealing with money problems. Over a decade of Islamic terrorist violence in the north have ruined the local economy there are more unemployed young men who can be enticed to join the Islamic terrorist for a “joining bonus” of less than $20 with the promise of more if they can learn to handle an assault rifle and succeed at looting and plundering what is left to steal in the northeast.
June 18, 2021: Foreign economists (the IMF) see Nigeria GDP growth of 2.5 percent in 2021. Inflation and unemployment are still high but the situation is turning around. A year ago, the global recession triggered by covid19 and made worse by a concurrent collapse in oil prices hit Nigeria hard. GDP declined about five percent in 2020. It could be worse. The other economic powerhouse in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, suffered an eight percent GDP decline. That means less money to buy some peace among the warring tribes and not as much financial support for the army and national police fighting Boko Haram and other Islamic terrorists in the northeast.
June 17, 2021: In the northwest (Kebbi State) over a hundred local bandits raided a state-run high school and kidnapped 80 students (most of them girls) and five teachers. Soldiers, police and the air force were quick to respond and tracked down the kidnappers seeking to get away to a hideout. The kidnappers also had several hundred stolen cattle with them. Within 24 hours the kidnappers had split up to help with the escape. The pursuers, using local trackers as well as cooperative local civilians, plus air force reconnaissance aircraft were able to track both groups and force the bandits to let the captives go. The pursuers, aided by local volunteers who knew the area and were expert trackers, made it possible to catch up with the bandits and organize ambushes that killed about half the 150 bandits involved without injuring many of the captives. Kidnapping in the north, usually by bandits rather than Islamic terrorists, has grown into a major problem with over 700 people taken in the last six months.
June 15, 2021: In the north (Kaduna State) leaders of nineteen Igbo communities met with local politicians and news media so the “northern Igbo” could make it clear they oppose the efforts of the more numerous in the southeast to become the separate Igbo of Biafra.
June 14, 2021: In the southeast (Anambra state) the legendary Bakassi Boys vigilantes have been revived. The original Bakassi Boys appeared in the late 1990s as teen-age boys following a charismatic leader who claimed magical powers. Popular initially for their efforts to fight crime, the group eventually became criminals and soon disappeared after becoming a local legend.