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Too Big To Govern: the real roots of Nigeria's Boko Haram problem

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The now month-long kidnapping of a few hundred Nigerian girls by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram has drawn global attention to something that Nigerians have known for years: their country is dealing with problems that go even deeper than Boko Haram. To get a sense of those problems, their scope, and what to do about them, I spoke to G. Pascal Zachary, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a professor at Arizona State University who has long specialized in sub-Saharan African politics and especially Nigeria. I reached him in Kampala, Uganda, where he's studying the impact of Africa's rising computer science field on a National Science Foundation grant.

Max Fisher: A theme of Nigeria's post-colonial history has been the divisions between ethnic and religious groups, which you and lots of others have argued has its roots in the country's somewhat artificial, British-imposed borders. Can you talk a little bit about how those borders came to be and why they've been so problematic?

G. Pascal Zachary: Nigeria was stitched together out of three separate administrative units that the British used to govern Nigeria during their colonial period. Northern Nigeria was brought together with two different southern units, and with part of what was then Cameroon.

Actually four pieces of territory that have been independently administered; the Cameroon part had been a German colony most of World War I. These four pieces get stitched together and fairly quickly the tensions and contradictions of this mega-country appeared. There's the Biafran War [of 1967 to 1970] where the south tries to secede and fails.

One of the reasons that Boko Haram movement inspires so much anxiety is Nigeria has been subject to civil wars before and Boko Haram is increasingly looking like a Civil War.

MF: Those four subdivisions, three of Nigeria and one of Cameroon, where did those come from? Did those reflect organic organizations of people on the ground or were they just purely artificial?

GPZ: Each of the three Nigerian units, they reflected what [British Governor-General of Nigeria Frederick] Lugard, the architect of west African colonialism, had called indirect rule. The British sought to find an ethnic group or an ethno-national Group in each of these units.

In the south, it was the Igbo. In the south-central, it was the Yoruba and in the northern part, it was the Hausa. Of course, the Hausa were Muslim. The Yoruba were an ethnic group with a common language and who were half-Muslim and half-Christian.

The British were trying to leverage what they thought of as existing tribal structures that would help them manage their colonial domination. At the peak of colonization there were only about 100 British in Nigeria, so they depended heavily on the Nigerians themselves. Whereas the French had many more people invested in administering their colonies in Africa.

So indirect rule meant these administrative units rely heavily on local actors. In the north, it was the Sultan of Sokoto, these clans and Islamic ethnic groups that have persisted to this day.

MF: To what extent have conflicts like the '67 Biafran War been a result of glomming together these different regions and groups and the legacy of British indirect rule?

GPZ: I think that initially the new Nigeria was represented as a grand bargain between northerners and southerners, Christians and Muslims. It's worth noting that almost no other country in the world has roughly a 50/50 split between Christians and Muslims. Hence the notion of a grand bargain and that people get something in a round robin fashion [as with the presidency informally alternating between a Christian and a Muslim].

One of the first problems that emerged was that in the north, Igbo's were commercial leaders and that didn't sit well with northern Muslims and they tried to pry the Igbo out. In response the Igbo took control of the army and that led to divisions in the central government. Then the Igbo themselves attempted to secede from the rest of Nigeria.

By the way, [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie's novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is about to appear in theaters, so this is lucky for the movie makers, but it's rare for a historical movie about Nigeria to be produced by Hollywood. People are going to be thinking about that Biafran War.

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When that war ended, the grand bargain reasserted itself. That bargain has two elements that are relevant here. One is revenue sharing of the oil, so that northern states receive a substantial portion of the mostly southern oil, although that's actually been reduced over time. The Ogoni and the Ijaw, which is [current President] Goodluck Jonathan ethnic group, protested in the late 90's and early 2000's. They were only getting an equal share of the oil revenues. Since the oil was coming from their lands, they said they should have gotten a larger share, and they did get a larger share.

The second element of the grand bargain that is really important is the alternating presidency. You see something similar in such uncivilized places as Belgium, where two ethnic groups share government. Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, was not supposed to be president; Umaru Musa Yar'Adua [who was Muslim] was president but he died in office during his term in 2010.

Goodluck Jonathan, who was vice president, took over and instead of not running for reelection [in 2011 as was expected to adhere to the informal grand bargain], he did run.

The suspicion has been that Boko Haram, along with some other movements in the north, was a way of sending a message to the Christian administration that this wasn't fair.

MF: But Boko Haram was founded in the early 2000s and got really violent in 2009 when Yar'Adua was still president, right?

GPZ: That's right. This political explanation is not the only reason for Boko Haram's existence. Mohammed Yusuf, who founded Boko Haram, was executed in front of photographers [by Nigerian security forces in 2009] and his death alienates Boko Haram further.

They're a fundamentalist movement. But when Goodluck Jonathan stands for re-election, there's a suspicion that northern leaders help Boko Haram in some way, maybe out of common cause.

This also flows out of anti-Western tendencies that existed in that belt of countries. Northern Cameroon, northern Nigeria, southern Niger, and Chad. I remember being in Northern Cameroon in 2005 and finding a little bit to my dismay, people with the bin Laden t-shirts, people with a lot of anti-American paraphernalia.

MF: To what extent would you say that Boko Haram, while on the one hand being a fundamentalist purification movement, could on the other hand be an extension of this expression in the north of a sense of separateness from or competition with the south?

GPZ: I think that there are both forces at work. I think that it's hard to imagine that Goodluck Jonathan can broker an agreement with the north that would allow him to crush Boko Haram and satisfy the north at the same time.

Only a Muslim president is going to do that. He's either facing an extended period of instability or perhaps he'll be forced out of office. I think that there's some indication that northerners think they can depose him. Goodluck Jonathan has very, very poor legitimacy. I think that you've seen few northern politicians supporting means to make the counter-insurgency movement more effective.

MF: You wrote in 2012 that Nigerian leaders may want to consider rethinking these internal divisions that have been so problematic and asking whether the country should be broken up in to three or more district territories along more organic lines. How would this work?

GPZ: I think that is true that it's hard to imagine satisfying northerners without rethinking the political arrangements that have brought together these three regions. Goodluck Jonathan hasn't addressed this in any way so far. I don't think there's much of a chance to address it in the middle of a crisis like this. I think that's part of it. The longer term problems of holding Nigeria together in this unwieldy organization — that's not going to happen in a crisis like this.

This kind of crisis engenders the opposite. I do think, longer term, Nigerian civil society needs to think about how they might undo this state. One of the things that has hurt Goodluck Jonathan's credibility is earlier he faced a revolt in the Delta by Christian resistance fighters.

He gave them amnesty. I think that he should be considering amnesty now, but it fuels the suspicion that in fact he is partial to Christians and that Muslim grievances are real. While Boko Haram's tactics are terrible, the underlying grievances are real. They're not in a Christian state, and yet they have a national government that they believe sides against them.

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PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/GettyImages

I think that also suggests that perhaps political arrangements need to be addressed because there is almost no other country in the world with a 50/50, Muslim Christian split. We're asking them, the Nigerian civil society, to achieve something that almost no other country has achieved or is in a position to achieve.

I think that is another reason to be thinking about changing the political arrangements.

MF: So does that mean greater autonomy for the north or does it mean independence for the north? Is that something that northern leaders would even be interested in?

GPZ: In general the north enjoys great autonomy already. The reasons the Sharia movement didn't gain such traction politically was that in a sense northern states already have Sharia law.

I think that the real goal of the mainstream northern political elite is to restore the rotating presidency. There's a fear that that's not going to happen. Goodluck Jonathan might explicitly just state to civil society and the northerners that hey, this has got to happen. That a Muslim president must replace him and they must hold office for eight years. That was the deal.

They were denied their years by Yar'Adua's death and they want to know when they're going to get them. They're not guaranteed to get them in an election just because of the complexities of Nigerian politics and elections. I think that would be one thing that's not on the table right now that Goodluck Jonathan could do. He could say, we need to explicitly recognize this rotating presidency and get it back on track.

MF: It sounds like your thinking on this has maybe shifted a little bit and you believe now that maybe Nigeria should focus on making its current borders work rather than thinking about splitting up. Does that have anything to do with the example of south Sudan, which looks a lot less successful now than it does a few years ago?

GPZ: No. I think that south Sudan's independence remains an unchallenged fact on the ground. The governance of south Sudan is bad. I think, in the case of Nigeria, that kind of restructuring can't occur. I wouldn't argue it should occur through violent insurrection.

I would say however that if Boko Haram widens its support after this, then maybe Nigerians will begin to realize that they're dealing with a civil war where one side wants to secede. This is an inflection point that might reunite the nation around some new forms of reconciliation and community. It's also satisfying the needs of the Yoruba communities, the Delta communities. That's foremost in Goodluck Jonathan's mind.

That's mainly what his policies have been designed to do so far is to make sure that the prosperity that the south is experiencing is enough to keep those two parts of Nigeria in pursuit of this shared national project. There's no doubt that the crisis involving Boko Haram makes it very difficult to have some kind of clean surgical division of the country. You've got to have some level of non-violence in order to engineer something.

That's why I think one of the things Goodluck Jonathan could do is say, "I'm not going to stand for re-election. I'm going to try to build some kind of government of national unity while we prepare for a Muslim leader that's acceptable to the political establishment."

The predicament of northern Nigeria is complicated by the divisions. Boko Haram tried to assassinate the Sultan of Sokoto, a religious leader of the north. This is in the past year. This is like a group of renegade Catholics trying to kill the pope. Pretty clearly there are some serious divisions within the Muslim north and that would make it difficult for them to give birth to some kind of inland empire.

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Militants with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

I think that where I have changed is, the premise of a few years ago is that there was a cohesive north, a cohesive Delta region, a cohesive Yoruba land, and then in a uniform way, they could kind of negotiate with each other. Now the north is clearly divided between the militant, violent fundamentalists and just traditional conservatives. Sultan of Sokoto was supporting the Gates Foundation's polio vaccine campaign. That's not exactly calling for gay marriage. That got a bunch of polio workers killed and the sultan's bodyguards killed. That's how close they got to killing him.

The other thing about Boko Haram is that we don't know what its roots are in northern Nigerian society, how deep they run. It could be a case where northern Muslim elites allowed a certain slack to occur and now it's like a Dr. Frankenstein situation. The US Department of Defense has had a trans-Sahel initiative. This goes back about three, four years now. It's been clear that this belt across Chad, Cameroon, into Niger and north Nigeria has been highly unstable.

MF: It seems like political disunity has been a big theme in some of Nigeria's problems.

GPZ: Yeah. No, that's right. Again, addressing deep and structural problems is part of at least a wider, more productive discussion. The same could be said about the Democratic Republic of Congo, where [President] Joseph Kabila is threatening to change the law to run again. In a country where eastern Congo continues to be this global source of concern and outreach, and it's a similar situation where in northeast Nigeria, until the girls were taken, the government's position was hey, this is a lawless area and we'll use whatever means we want to subdue it. It's nobody else's problem.

I think eastern Congo has similarly been seen as a responsibility of a sovereign Congo. There are some parallels among these super states of Africa. Sudan's been cut down to size. Congo and Nigeria continues to be too large to govern.