Nigeria’s battle for stability

by John Campbell

Goodluck Jonathan

Goodluck Jonathan

Recent events in Nigeria, including its presidential elections in April, 2011 have produced two narratives on the current state of that oil-rich West Africa nation with a history of civic turmoil. The first is that events there have unfolded rather favorably since its elected president, Umaru Yar’Adua, fell ill in late 2009 and the country was left leaderless. That raised fears of a military coup, but then Goodluck Jonathan emerged to fill the power vacuum, first as an extra-constitutional “acting president,” then as a constitutional successor after Yar’Adua’s death and finally as the elected executive following the 2011 elections. This optimistic narrative notes that those elections were praised by international observers as better than in the past-and hence they reflected the will of the national majority. An amnesty for militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta, combined with disarmament, training and reintegration, ended a long insurrection there. One serious specter, however, still haunts the country – the expansion of the Islamic “terrorist group” Boko Haram, with its global connections. Hence, Nigeria’s security challenge has become internationalized, and Westerners grappling with Islamist movements need to keep a sharp eye on that situation.

This is the narrative of conventional wisdom embraced by many in President Barack Obama’s administration and in Congress, the business community and the media. The other narrative is quite different. It posits that, despite a veneer of democratic institutions, Nigeria has suffered from dysfunctional governance for decades. The 2011 elections, according to this view, generated serious violence and polarized the country. Militants in the Niger Delta regrouping. Boko Haram, hardly an Islamist threat to the world, is an indigenous uprising spawned by persistent alienation in the largely Muslim North, which is stricken with poverty and official corruption. The country’s Middle Belts is beset by ongoing ethnic and religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, with attendant ethnic cleansing. Crime is ubiquitous in the cities and on the highways. The police, a national entity, are underpaid and notoriously corrupt. They prey on ordinary Nigerians at numerous checkpoints set up to address the breakdown in security. And for many, the police are merely the face of a “secular” or “Christian” Abuja regime. Thus they have become targets themselves for groups disaffected with the federal government.

That is the narrative to which the Obama administration and others concerned about Africa should probably pay some heed.

Thus far, the Jonathan administration has been remarkably inept in addressing the challenges it faces. Its military is exercising more authority in areas formerly under civilian purview. The president’s heavy-handed, even brutalizing, security forces are exacerbating Muslim alienation in the North and have failed to control the Middle Belt’s ethnic and religious strife. Concerns of impoverished Niger Delta residents have not been addressed, and there is anecdotal evidence that officials in the upper reaches of the federal and state governments participate actively in oil theft. More and more Nigerians are alienated from a state they regard as inept and corrupt.

Indeed, Nigeria’s fundamental problem is a system of institutionalized corruption that channels public money into the pockets of a few Nigerian “big man”. The result is some of the greatest income inequality and worst social statistics in Africa. And the political class doesn’t manifest any will to reform the system. Politics are intense and often violent because they are suffused with a winner-takes-all mentality. Patron-client networks control politicians and the political system, and those within the networks get access to the few available jobs and social services. Hence, the political economy favours personal relationships over institutions. Not surprisingly, national sentiment is declining in favour of religious and ethnic identity and animosity.

Despite this bleak picture, there are reasons to consider Nigeria a potentially important U.S partner in Africa. With more than 160 million people, it is the continent’s most populous nation. It has demonstrated impressive leadership in the Economic Community of West Africa States and the African Union. Working through those organizations, it helped end wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And its decision to supply peacekeepers in war-torn Darfur made Nigeria an invaluable partner in an area where America had only limited leverage. Beyond that, Nigeria consistently has been the fourth or fifth largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, and shipping routes from Port-Harcourt and Lagos to refineries in Baltimore or Philadephia have no Persian Gulf like choke points. Importantly, Nigeria has often ignored production limits set by OPEC during politically motivated oil shocks tied to developments in the volatile Middle East. And the country’s “Bonny Light crude” is high quality and require minimal refining.

Beyond economics, cultural and family links between Nigeria and the United States underpin the official relationship. The Nigerian Diaspora community in America is economically successful and  often vocal in its criticism of the corruption and poor governance in its home country. Two million Nigerians live in the United States, and an additional million have spent time here in recent years. Thus, it isn’t surprising that Nigerian influences can be seen in American culture. Fela Kuti’s “Afrobeat” and other musical styles of Nigerian origin have seeped into American popular music, and popular culture from New York and Los Angeles is ubiquitous in Lagos. Nigeria’s dynamic and confident Christian churches have influenced American Christianity, sometimes controversially. A retired Anglican primate of Nigeria, a bitter critic of the Episcopal church in the United States over gay issues, encouraged a schism within that church that sharpened differences between American liberal and conservative approaches to Christianity.

Given the prevailing narrative and ongoing ties between the United States and Nigeria, it isn’t surprising that the Obama administration embraced Goodluck Jonathan when he assumed office as the country’s best hope for stability and reform. But managing the U.S relationship with Nigeria should be based on current Nigerian realities. Otherwise, the Obama administration risks undermining its credibility among Nigerians working for meaningful democratic change. It also risks alienating Africa’s largest Muslim population.

Since the beginning of 2012, the country has been roiled by demonstrations against the Jonathan government’s ending of the traditional fuel subsidy for Nigerian consumers. The protests appeared to crystallize widespread Nigerian anger at the country’s current political leadership. It remains to be seen whether these demonstrations will morph into a “Nigerian Spring” or what their impact will be on northern alienation that provides Boko Haram with its oxygen. Events are moving rapidly and pose particularly difficult challenges for administration policy makers.

The way forward for the United States in its relations with Nigeria can become discernible through a review of that country’s recent history. President Yar’Adua was evacuated to Saudi Arabia in November 2009 for treatment of kidney disease and organ dysfunction. His departure left the country leaderless and precipitated a constitutional crisis when he withheld the necessary authorization to install his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Amid rumors of a brewing coup, political elites working through the National Assembly installed Jonathan extra-constitutionally as “acting president.” This  action prompted Yar’Adua’s midnight return to Nigeria and a subsequent standoff between Jonathan and Yar’Adua’s wife, Turai, who continued to prevent access to the president until he died of complications from a rare autoimmune syndrome. After Yar’Adua’s death, Jonathan became the constitutional president, and the standoff between the Jonathan and Turai camps ended.

Nigeria was ruled by military dictators for nearly thirty years before civilian governance was established in 1999. Since then, under an informal understanding within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the country’s presidency has alternated every eight years between Christians, who dominate the southern part of the country, and Muslims, who dominate the North. Under this approach, if the president were a northern Muslim, the vice president would be a southern Christian and vice versa. Often referred to as “zoning,” the arrangement was intended to keep sectarian identity out of presidential politics and promote an elite consensus in favour of a single candidate. Hence, the southern Christian Olusegun Obasanjo held the presidency from 1999 to 2007. He was succeeded by Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, who was expected to hold the presidency until 2015.

Yar’Adua’s death upset this rotation by restoring a southern Christian to the presidency before the North had completed its turn. According to the Nigerian press, it was widely understood that Jonathan would hold the presidency only until the 2011 elections if Yar’Adua were to die. Then he would step aside for a northern Muslim candidate to preserve zoning. Jonathan would then run for the presidency in 2015, when it would again be a southern Christian’s turn.

Perhaps under pressure from members of his Ijaw ethnic group and other southern groups hitherto excluded from the upper reaches of government, Jonathan reversed himself and ran for the presidency in 2011. Employing the power of incumbency, he defeated the northern Muslim Atiku Abubakar for the PDP presidential nomination at the January 2011 party convention, which participants described as an “auction” for delegate support. As a result of Jonathan’s decision to end zoning, the presidential election became a polarizing contest between the incumbent and northern Muslim Muhammadu Buhari.

To secure victory, Jonathan’s political allies spent large sums of money to win the support of incumbent governors who control the election process in many states. In the North, they also co-opted certain traditional Muslim rulers, and the Sultan of Sokoto openly supported him.


It is difficult to know how much public money was spent for political purposes during this period. The lack of transparency in official expenditures, such as from Nigeria’s Excess Crude Account, creates the appearance that state resources could easily be used on behalf of incumbents. For example, the Excess Crude Account dropped from about $20 billion (in U.S. dollars) when Yar’Adua assumed the presidency in 2007 to $3 billion when Jonathan became “acting president,” then rose to approximately $5 billion. There has been little credible explanation for the fluctuations. According to the central bank, foreign reserves fell from $34.6 billion in 2010 to $30.86 billion in 2011. They have since recovered to $32.8 billion. (Throughout this period, oil prices have been high).

The April 2011 elections, despite being hailed by international elections observers as better than the 2007 “election like event,” appear to have been rigged strategically in certain places to ensure Goodluck Jonathan’s victory. To avoid a runoff, he needed a countrywide plurality of total ballots cast and at least 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the country’s thirty-six states. In the Christian Southeast, Jonathan’s vote totals were in the range of 97-99 percent. This guaranteed that he met the first requirement. Twenty-six of the thirty-six governors were from the ruling PDP, and governors were deeply involved in the conduct of the elections. Two or three governors in the North likely ensured that Jonathan received more than 25 percent of the vote in their states, thereby meeting the second requirement. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the ostensibly independent body that conducts elections, reported Jonathan’s share of the vote in Sokoto as 35 percent; in Gombe, 38.5 percent; and in Jigawa, 38.7 percent. These numbers seem high for the sharia heartland.

While the president appoints the chair of the INEC, his authority over the state electoral commissioners is limited; they are often beholden to the governors. Jonathan appointed Attahiru Jega, an American educated academic known for his integrity, as INEC chair. Under Jega’s leadership, the registration and voting processes improved, though they remained far from perfect. In more places than in the past, polling stations opened, ballots were available and security service intimidation declined. However, in other areas it is widely believed that registration numbers were inflated, ballot boxes were stuffed and vote tabulation was manipulated sufficiently to ensure Jonathan’s victory without a runoff. If the mechanics at the polling places in 2011 were an improvement, the outcome of the elections remained elite business as usual, albeit with more sophisticated methods than in the past.

Not surprising, in the southern half of the country people generally believed the election was credible and accepted Jonathan’s victory. But in the predominantly Muslim North, Jonathan’s national victory was widely viewed as fraudulent. The announcement of his victory sparked three days of riots in northern cities in which at least one thousand people were killed, making the 2011 elections the bloodiest in Nigeria’s history. The private houses of the sultan of Sokoto and the emirs of Kano and Zaria were destroyed because they had supported Jonathan. What started as protests against the largely Muslim political establishment, which was believed to have sold out to Jonathan, degenerated into ethnic and religious violence. Today, many in the North continue to see the elections as lacking legitimacy.

The Abuja government appointed a panel to investigate the causes of the violence, informally called the Lemu Panel after its chairman, Sheikh Ahmed Lemu, a prominent retired Islamic judge. The text of the report has not been made public, but Chairman Lemu’s public comments on the report amount to an indirect indictment of Nigeria’s current political economy. He concludes that the postelection violence resulted from widespread frustration with Nigeria’s poverty, corruption, insecurity and inequality, as well as with the inability of successive governments to address these issues.

Nigeria’s vast oil reserves underpin its economy and its dysfunctional political culture. Its oil comes from the Niger Delta and from offshore platforms in the Atlantic’s Gulf of Guinea. Though these oil reserves constitute the source of much of Nigeria’s wealth, the region is remarkably undeveloped. Fifty years of oil exploitation have led to numerous environmental accidents, hindering the traditional aquaculture of the indigenous people. For example, some environmental NGOs estimate that the region suffers from oil spills equivalent in magnitude to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill each year. While there is a multitude of ethnic groups, the most prominent are the Itsekiri and the Ijaw, whom in certain areas compete for turf and power. Governance in the region has been particularly corrupt, fueled by oil revenue to state and local governments with little or no accountability. The line between politics and thuggery is thin.

The result of this witches brew has been a low level insurrection that has waxed and waned for years. At times, insurgents have been able to shut down significant amounts of petroleum production, which has had a serious impact on international markets. At other times, federal and state governments have bought off militants but never for long because the fundamental grievances that fuel the insurrection are never addressed.

As an Ijaw from Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta, Jonathan was widely expected to address Delta grievances, building on President Yar’Adua’s 2008 amnesty for militants. But the disarmament, education and reintegration included in the amnesty have been incomplete. Instead, the most salient characteristic of the amnesty has been payoffs to militant leaders. While the insurrection in the Delta has been relatively quiet, it will likely escalate as new militant leaders rise to replace co-opted ones. Kidnappings and piracy are increasing; oil production facilities have been attacked; and new militant leaders have expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s focus on insecurity in the North. In 2012, shadowy Delta groups are threatening the region’s small Islamic community, ostensibly in revenge for Boko Haram attacks on Christians in the North.

The suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja galvanized international attention on Boko Haram, the violent radical Muslim sect centered in the Northeast that claimed responsibility. Book Haram is often translated from Hausa, a major West African language, to mean “Western education is evil”. Originally, the name referred to followers of Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic Islamic preacher who was murdered by police during a 2009 uprising. (The group generally referred to itself as The Movement for Sunna and Jihad). Now, the term “Boko Haram” is used mostly by the media and security services to label loosely organized groups in northern Nigeria waging war against the federal government. What appears to hold these groups together is support for sharia and, for some, a millenarian version of Islam. However, the label implies more coherence in this grassroots movement than probably exists.


Daily attacks on politicians, soldiers, police, bars and churches, particularly since Jonathan’s inauguration in May 2011, have led British Prime Minister David Cameron and AFRICOM commanding general Carter Hamm to suggest counterterrorism assistance. They are concerned that Boko Haram may establish links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab in Somaila. Suicide is cultural anathema in West Africa. Hence, to many, a suicide bombing indicated influences from outside the region. There is also concern about Boko Haram’s apparently new access to sophisticated weapons and bomb making technology.

Waves of radical, eschatological and millenarian Islamic revival occur intermittently in northern Nigeria, especially during periods of alienation and hardship such as now. Until recently, this anger normally has been directed against the indigenous, corrupt political and religious establishment that exploits the poor and is perceived as un-Islamic. Some militants seek to establish the kingdom of God on Erath and justice as defined by sharia law. In their efforts to achieve such an outcome, uprisings can be quite bloody. The Maitatsine uprising centered in Kano during the early 1980s, which claimed five thousand lives, superficially resembles aspects of Boko Haram.

This tradition animates Boko Haram, its founder Mohammed Yusuf and his followers. Yusuf, a young, charismatic Islamic preacher based at the Railroad Mosque in Maiduguri, initially led a somewhat pacifist community of thousands of university graduates, high school dropouts and political figures, as well as the impoverished and uneducated. Like many, he and his followers welcomed the imposition of sharia law in 1999 in twelve Nigerian states. But they were disappointed and disillusioned by its lackadaisical enforcement by secular authorities. In 2009,Yusuf launched an insurrection against the secular state, ostensibly prompted by the killing of  some of his followers in a dispute with police. Hundreds, if not thousands, were killed on both sides before the army suppressed the insurrection. The army capture Yusuf and turned him over to the police. The police then murdered him and his father-in-law while they were in custody. Yusuf’s surviving followers went underground and turned to field preaching.

Probably small in number, these groups appear to have won much wider public support. When they can, they murder government officials and members of those parts of the Islamic establishment that they see as allied with Abuja. They attack venues of un-Islamic behavior, especially bars and brothels, and rob banks to distribute the proceeds to the poor (doubtless keeping some for themselves).

Yusuf’s disciples have repudiated the sultan of Sokoto and the emirs of Kano and Zaria because of their support for Jonathan in the 2011 elections. They have also claimed responsibility for the murder of the brother of the Shehu of Borno, the second-ranking Islamic traditional ruler. In addition to the UN bombing, people claiming to be Boko Haram spokesmen also took credit for a June 2011 bomb attack on the Abuja headquarters of the national police. They have never attacked schools, despite their hostility toward Western education. In the past, they attacked churches and murdered clergy, but most of their violence has been perpetrated against other Muslims. However, attacks on Christian churches appear to be escalating; a few months ago a church in an Abuja suburb was bombed on Christmas Day and similar attacks occurred elsewhere during the Christmas New Year holiday.


Since Mohammed Yusuf’s death, his followers have had no charismatic leader. They appear to be part of a wider, highly diffuse structure composed of religious fanatics, criminals and political thugs with no politburo or other governing body. Their stated goals include punishment of Yusuf’s murderers, recompense for property destroyed by the security services and establishment of Islamic law throughout Nigeria. In the aftermath of the April 2011 elections, some may have links with parts of the traditional establishment and possibly some mid-level political figures that fear marginalization. The security services heavy handed response to unrest in Maiduguri and elsewhere, resulting as it did in many deaths, doubtless swelled the ranks of Boko Haram groups.

Indeed, violence and unrest have become widespread enough in the North to look like something of a popular insurrection, but it does not seem to be centrally organized or tied to international terrorism. Yusuf’s disciples and other radical millenarian Islamic groups in northern Nigeria are inward looking. Their concerns are local, and their hostility is toward state governments, Jonathan’s secular federal government and brutish police behaviour. They feed off bad government and the collapsing economy.

With its oil, ongoing peacekeeping efforts and robust population growth, Nigeria continues to be an important international player despite dangerous North-South polarization, sectarian conflict and simmering insurrections.

Given this reality, the Obama administration should continue, and perhaps even enhance, its normal diplomatic dialogue with Abuja. But the administration must recognize the reality that Nigeria is a weak state with a largely unresponsive government that faces significant domestic opposition. The result is that it has only a very limited ability to serve as a diplomatic partner.

That is why the United States must maintain good diplomatic relations with a predominately southern, Christian administration without appearing to favor one religious, regional or sectarian group over another. In Nigeria, there is the presumption that Jonathan was Washington’s candidate, which he fostered with his electoral base. He displayed a campaign billboard showing him standing next to President Obama with the slogan, “Yes We Can, Sir!” The United States should work to dispel this presumption and cease seeming to court Jonathan, who has been received twice by President Obama since becoming acting president. The White House should also drop its rhetoric about the virtues of the 2011 elections, which are often overstated. They grate on Nigerians who know better and alienate many in the North.

In addition, the Obama administration should engage in targeted outreach to Nigerian Muslims. To begin, it should treat Muhammadu Buhari, the most credible opposition leader in Nigeria, as it does the leaders of the opposition in other friendly states. He should be publicly received in Washington at an appropriately high level. Despite the costs and risks, the United States should proceed to establish a consulate in Kano, the metropolis and cultural center of the Islamic North, where it can build a stronger relationship with a region that has received too little Western attention in the past.

Affiliation with Nigerian security agencies should be treated extremely carefully. Just as al-Qaeda has fed off the resentment of many Saudis over the U.S military presence in their country, Nigerian radicals in the North likely would do the same. The administration also should be outspoken about security service abuses against civilians and publicly raise questions about official investigations of post electoral violence especially if there are signs of a cover up. Nevertheless, support for training of the army and the police, especially improving their ability to conduct investigations and interact with the communities in which they work, could, over the long term, reduce animosity between security services and Nigerian civilians.

Nigerians often identify corruption as their nation’s greatest challenge. Many of the most notorious corruption have residences and other assets in the United States, and they value their ability to visit, often for long periods. The Obama administration should make greater use of the visa-sanction tool against those who use their official position for personal gain. Such an approach would be highly popular with Nigerians, most of whom are struggling to feed their families rather than shopping on Rodeo Drive.

For the first time since the 1967-70 civil war, Nigerians in all parts of the country not only in the North are questioning whether their country can hold together. It is very much in the U.S. interest that it does. A fragmentation of Nigeria would likely lead to ethnic and religious clashes and shifts in population that would constitute a humanitarian disaster, perhaps recalling the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan or the more recent breakup of Yugoslavia. It would be inherently destabilizing for Nigeria’s small and weak neighbors. It would certainly provide a new scope for the operations of international terrorism. In the words of the supporters of the federal government during the Nigerian civil war: “It is a task that needs to be done, to keep Nigeria one”. True, given commitments elsewhere, a weak economy and a divided government, the United States faces limits in its ability to influence events in Nigeria. But U.S. policy makers should look at the long term and cultivate close relations with those working to keep Nigeria together and on a path to democracy.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as U.S ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007

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