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9 questions about Nigeria you were too embarrassed to ask

A man walks past a popular market in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.
A man walks past a popular market in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.
Majority World/UIG via Getty Images

One month after the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls, international attention is broadening to larger issues in Nigeria, and how they relate to the crisis. For Nigerians and expert Nigeria-watchers, these connections are well-known. But you may find yourself wondering: why is this group fighting the government in the first place? What does the country's Christian-Muslim divide have to do with it? What about the oil? What's the backstory here, and what are the larger forces at work?

What follows are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. Giant, neon-lit disclaimer: these issues are complicated and contentious, and this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of Nigeria's history or its problems today. But it's a place to start.

1. What is Nigeria?

Nigeria is a big, diverse country in west Africa. It's the size of Texas and California combined, has a little over half as many people as the United States, and boasts some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East. It is Africa's biggest economy and most populous country. The United Nations estimates that it will be the world's third most populous country by 2050. The population is about half Christian and half Muslim, with Christians primarily living in the south and Muslims in the north, and the middle of the country containing a mix of both.

Nigeria is famous for its religious and ethnic diversity, for its wealth of great writers and musicians and filmmakers, and for political leaders who have consistently failed it. "Nigeria is what it is because its leaders are not what they should be," the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once wrote. "The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership."

Nigeria has been poorly ruled since British colonial officers carved out its artificial borders in the 1800s. Nigeria won independence in 1960, fell into chaos in 1966, and has suffered 50 years of military coups, political violence, and a civil war. Nigeria had a free election in 2011, but the country still struggles under some of the worst corruption in the world, deep political divisions between Muslims and Christians, a terrorist movement in the predominantly Muslim north, and oil reserves that have, in a textbook example of the oil curse, served to worsen domestic turmoil and government corruption. It is also still very poor, with a GDP per capita of only $2,688.

All of Nigeria's problems — the corruption, the oil curse, the not-quite-resolved political divisions between Christians and Muslims, the military still accustomed to solving problems with violence, and perhaps especially the poverty — help explain the story of Boko Haram and how they've managed to kidnap 300 girls for a solid month.

Un-nigeria

United Nations

2. Nigeria is a country with so much. Why does it have all these problems?

Scholars and analysts have long debated the question of why Nigeria, with all its human and resource wealth, remains so troubled by poverty, violence, and instability. While people can and do disagree, they tend to settle on a few root causes, which all build on one another:

  • British colonialism, which left the country weakened by a century of exploitation and manipulation, and which forced disparate ethnic and religious groups into an artificial state, set Nigeria up for decades of conflict for control over natural resources and over the government.
  • A curse of oil wealth worsens those conflicts as well as the already-dire government corruption, feeding popular resentment against the state and at times against Nigerians from the other side of religious or ethnic divides who are perceived to receive more of the fruits of the oil wealth.
  • A global rise in religious extremism exacerbates Christian-Muslim tension, and has introduced al-Qaeda-style violent extremism to the mostly-Muslim north.
  • An ongoing economic malaise, made worse by the oil curse, leaves the lower classes in poverty and the educated middle-classes under-employed. While overall economic growth is high, most Nigerians have not benefitted.

Journalist Karl Maier's 2001 book-length attempt to answer this question, This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis, remains a depressingly relevant diagnosis today. It begins with the epigraph, "Nigeria is like being on an airplane that has just been taken over by hijackers. You do not want to compromise with the gunmen, but the prime concern is to land the plane, so there is no choice but to give in." The book warned, as many have warned before and since, that Nigeria could be on the verge of collapse. Journalist and Nigeria scholar G. Pascal Zachary wrote of Maier's thesis in 2012, when the country was also in crisis, "Now, 12 years later, Nigeria's condition looks unchanged or worse."

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People gather in Lagos as part of 2012's Occupy Nigeria protests. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Still, don't make the mistake of categorizing Nigeria as a failed state or as the kind of place where suffering is the norm. For one thing, its citizens are highly engaged in trying to solve what problems exist: mass "Occupy Nigeria" demonstrations in 2012 used outrage over reduced gas subsidies to protest inequality and government corruption. And Nigeria is in many ways the leading edge of Africa's economic and political rise. Still, that makes the recent violence all the more painful. As Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole tweeted on May 2, the day a Boko Haram car bomb killed 19 people in the capital of Abuja:

3. Why is there tension between Nigeria's Christians and Muslims?

It's actually not just Christians and Muslims — consider, for example, the mid-2000s Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a terrorist movement that represented a growing sense of disenfranchisement in the oil-rich delta region rather than religious grievance. There is a pattern, going back to the country's first years of independence, of Nigerians competing for access to the country's resources. Partly this is because Nigeria is so populous and poor, which makes control of national resources unusually important, and partly it's because the country was established by glomming together a handful of religiously and ethnically distinct groups, none of which have a majority and which have never fully come together.

The tragedy of this effect is that it's not about people hating one another for their ethnicity or religion — although it's become tinged with that — so much as it is about circumstance. It just so happened that colonialism left Nigerians organized by ethnicity and religion, but divided such that no one group was large enough to form a majority. That makes things very unstable.

In the first years after independence, for example, the first president happened to be ethnic Igbo, from the country's southeast. Other Nigerian groups felt an Igbo-led government would shortchange or outright exclude them; without their support, the government was unstable, and the military coups began in 1966. Because there were many Igbo in government, the coups killed prominent Igbo leaders, which terrified Igbo that they would be targeted en masse, and in 1967 the Igbo-dominated southeast tried to secede outright. That caused a three-year civil war that killed one to three million people.

The Nigerian civil war was an extreme case (and one that was not about religion), but the point is that Nigeria has still not figured out how to include the disparate groups in the nation's government and make them cooperate. That includes the country's half-and-half religious divide. It's just assumed that Nigeria's mostly-Christian south and mostly Muslim north will compete politically, rather than want to cooperate, and that this competition could dangerously destabilize the country. This assumption runs so deep that, since military rule ended in 1999, there's been an agreement that the presidency alternates between a Christian southerner and a Muslim northerner.

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Nigerian soldiers cross a village destroyed by fighting in the 1967-1970 civil war. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

4. So this tension caused Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram?

No. Well, not exactly. To understand a violent extremist groups you have to look at the group's explicit agenda but also the bigger political and social forces that allow extremists to flourish. Boko Haram's agenda is the imposition a severe interpretation of sharia law on Nigeria, but it owes its base of support to northern Nigerians' sense of economic marginalization and political disenfranchisement.

Remember how Nigeria decided to ease tension between the north and south by alternating the presidency between the two? It's not hard to see how this arrangement could cause trouble, and in 2010 it did: President Umaru Yar'Adua, a northerner and Muslim, died mid-way through his term. His vice president, a southerner and Christian named Goodluck Jonathan, assumed office, then ran for reelection in 2011.

Northern Nigerians were outraged, feeling they'd been cheated of their control of the presidency. Northern Nigeria is poorer than the south and less developed; Jonathan's hold on power (he now plans to run again in 2015) has, for many northerners, reinforced a long-held sense that their government is mistreating them. Public outrage led to rioting, which led to tit-for-tat violence between Muslims and Christians in the country's religiously diverse middle region, which killed 800 people in just the first month after the 2011 election.

None of this caused Islamic extremism or created Boko Haram, which was formed a decade before Yar'Adua died. But it is part of the country's long-running north-south political and religious tension, and contributed to the sense of resentment and disenfranchisement in the north, which helped extremism generally and Boko Haram particularly to flourish.

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A man waves a picture of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari during 2011 northern Nigerian protests against Goodluck Jonathan's reelection. SEYLLOU DIALLO/AFP/Getty Images

5. There's much more to Nigeria than just this. Can we take a music break?

So much more. Music is an easy place to start. You may already know where this is going: Fela Kuti. The pioneer and popularizer of Afrobeat, which layers jazzy big-band instrumentation with traditional Nigerian harmonies and funk rhythms, Kuti had a huge international following from the early 1970s until his 1997 death. He was highly political, within Nigeria and abroad, and known for his high-energy concerts.

Here's Fela Kuti performing "Teacher Don't Teach Me No Nonsense" in the UK in 1984, followed by an interview in which he explains the song's political context:

Don't stop at music. You should absolutely read some of Nigeria's celebrated literature. Best-known is Chinua Achebe's 1958 Things Fall Apart, which like many of his works touches on Nigeria's politics and history as well as more universal themes. You may also want to start with the play Death and the King's Horsemen by Wole Soyinka, who became Africa's first Nobel laureate for literature in 1986 and still speaks on contemporary Nigerian issues today. There are also the wonderful works of Buchi Emecheta, Teju Cole, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, and so many more.

6. What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group based in northern Nigeria, which in April kidnapped 300 girls as part of its now five-year war against the Nigerian government.

The group was founded in northern Nigeria in 2001 as an Islamist organization that called for replacing the Nigerian government with an austere interpretation of sharia law (like many Nigerian political groups, they also lamented the government's corruption and its economic failures). The group grew along with popular discontent and its rhetoric gradually turned to action. In 2009, fighting broke out between some Boko Haram members and local police; violence quickly spiraled and the group used the moment to launch its national uprising, which has included killing political leaders, bombing civilians, and enlisting child soldiers.

Part of the problem is that the Nigerian government seems capable of responding only in ways that make things worse. The heavy-handed military — which, recall, ruled as dictators not so long ago — has been accused time and again of atrocities in its campaign against Boko Haram. They are typically accused of targeting civilians, but sometimes of bombing whole areas out of what appears to be simple incompetence. As journalist Peter Dörrie wrote, "In what was to become a recurring pattern, Boko Haram emerged strengthened and even more violent from this confrontation." The cycle of self-perpetuating violence has continued since. (There are also long-running allegations that some northern Nigerian officials support Boko Haram, presumably to put pressure on the southern-based central government.)

When the military's response has not killed northern Nigerian civilians, it has left them with an impression of indifference or inability or both. Amnesty International accused the military of having several hours warning that Boko Haram was going to kidnap those girls and doing nothing. Regional officials in northern Nigeria say they are desperate for more help but that the military has not sent enough troops or provided enough equipment; some soldiers have reportedly mutinied or deserted because they were too poorly equipped to face Boko Haram in battle. None of this created Boko Haram, but it helps provide an environment where the group is able to operate more widely and freely than it otherwise could.

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Women in the northern city of Maiduguri stand in a school destroyed by Boko Haram. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/GettyImages

7. But why would Boko Haram kidnap 300 girls?

Kidnapping hundreds of local children would certainly seem to be a terrible strategic misstep, even by the extremely low wisdom standards of an al-Qaeda-praising jihadist group like Boko Haram. So why, in mid-April, did the group seize some 300 girls from a school in Chibok in northern Nigeria, whom Boko Haram leaders first threatened to sell into slavery and now are attempting to ransom?

The simplest explanation is that Boko Haram hates the idea of educating girls. Their name, which is often mistranslated as "Western education is forbidden," actually has a more complex origin. Haram is Arabic for sinful, although in the context of Islam it is typically used to mean "forbidden by Islam." Boko is a word from the northern Nigerian language Hausa that means "an idea or object that involves a fraud or any form of deception." During British rule, "Boko" was long used to refer to values and ideas imposed by European imperial authorities; for example, the British-imposed, English-language education system. So Boko Haram might be said to mean something like "Western-imposed thinking is forbidden by Islam" — which, in practice, could include educating girls.

Still, this is not just about Boko Haram's views on education. There are two important things to understand here. The first is that Nigerian security forces, in their campaign against Boko Haram, have actually been detaining (some might say kidnapping) the family members of Boko Haram fighters since 2011. The family members, often women or girls, are not accused of crimes, but held for what appears to be simple leverage (some might say ransom). Of course this does not excuse Boko Haram for adopting the same tactic, but it helps shed some light on why the group might see this as a valid way to fight the government it so hates.

The second thing to understand is that some scholars believe that Boko Haram is turning a bit more to "soft targets" such as kidnapping children, rather than storming police stations, because they've been weakened by years of fighting. This issue is debated by scholars, but there is some data to suggest that the group, while still attacking some hardened military targets, is shifting a bit from challenging the military on the battlefield to subverting the state through terrorism. Many insurgent groups have followed this same pattern before.

8. I hear Nigeria has a lot of oil. Is that playing a role in the Boko Haram conflict?

Sort of, yes. The conflict with Boko Haram is not immediately about oil — Nigeria's huge oil deposits are mostly in the south — the oil worsens many of the larger problems that contribute to the extremist group's persistence and the state's failures against them.

One study after another has found that an influx of oil wealth in non-democracies dramatically worsens corruption, encouraging officials to focus less on governing and more on siphoning off oil wealth. When the government organizes itself around capturing oil wealth, rather than on attracting and keeping votes, poor populations and people in non-oil areas get left behind. That means northern Nigeria.

Too much oil money distorts incentives; Nigeria's oil revenue provides a staggering 70 percent of the government budget. That makes officials less responsive to actually dealing with the country's problems — their incentive is to put the oil first. That also leads them to under-develop other sectors of the economy, for example in oil-poor northern Nigeria, where poverty and illiteracy are high. Thanks to under-development, the region is also unusually susceptible to drought and food scarcity, both of which have coincided with Boko Haram's rise.

Nigeria's oil boom, mostly in the Niger Delta region in the south, has also led to ecological disasters there — oil spills are alarmingly frequent and dangerous — and contributed to the rise of political and criminal insurgencies. The insurgencies often make their money by taking middle class Nigerians and expat oil workers hostage or by siphoning off oil to sell themselves. That distracts Nigeria's already-weak security services and has helped give rise to the practice of kidnapping and ransom-taking. The ecological disasters and corruption take up central government resources and attention, leaving the north yet more neglected.

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A woman carries tapioca seeds near a gas flare fire. LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty

9. I skipped to the bottom. What's going to happen next?

It's tough to say what will happen to the girls Boko Haram has kidnapped. The terrorist group is trying to ransom them off — a good sign that they won't be harmed — but both Boko Haram and Nigerian authorities have made missteps, or launched misguided rescue operations, in hostage negotiations before.

A lot of the underlying problems here play into each other, which makes them tougher to solve, and makes it easier for those problems to get worse on their own. For example, violence in northern Nigeria contributes to poverty there — as many as two million people have tried to escape fighting by moving from rural areas in northeastern Nigeria to just the city of Maiduguri — which sets conditions for more unemployment, marginalization, resentment, and perhaps the sort of extremism that can lead to more violence.

Communal violence, particularly in religiously diverse central Nigeria, is just as self-reinforcing here as it is everywhere else it happens in the world. That's continuing, aided along by occasional Boko Haram attacks on Christians. Oil production is actually declining, which is leading the state to invest even less in infrastructure or safety equipment, allowing the ecological disasters such as spillage to increase as insurgencies continue to fuel themselves on stolen oil.

So something needs to change. Nigerians, long politically active, are becoming more so; the 2012 "Occupy Nigeria" protests, sparked by gas subsidy cuts, were a great show of Nigerians' ability to popularly force political change. The hope is that Nigerians will be able to use this moment as well to pressure their leaders to change. As for the value of the international awareness campaign, centered around the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, that's disputed: some analysts warn it could give Boko Haram the incentive to just commit more kidnapping for money and attention, while others say it could help force the Nigerian government to improve its behavior.

But all of these issues are part of a much larger story: Nigeria's continued growth and rise. It is already Africa's largest population and economy and both are predicted to continue growing rapidly. Nigeria is already a big and important country and it's only going to become more so. It plays a major leadership role in African politics, security issues, and economic trends today; those roles are likely to become more global over time. The way that Nigeria handles it crises today will help shape the sort of country it becomes tomorrow, and that has big implications for all of us.