How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Over the last few months, Nigeria has experienced a worrying spate of kidnappings and violent attacks. Boko Haram insurgents have long terrorized the north of the country and are responsible for some of the violence, but so are organized crime syndicates, which have come to adopt kidnap-and-ransom as a business model. So-called bandits have abducted more than 600 schoolchildren since December, including in two mass kidnappings reminiscent of the Chibok schoolgirls incident that captivated the world in 2014. Armed marauders have killed scores of civilians and security forces in recent months and kidnapped hundreds of Nigerians from villages, schools, and motorways across the country.
Nigeria’s swerve toward insecurity has prompted even sober and well-respected analysts to press the panic button. “The definition of a failed state is one where the government is no longer in control. By this yardstick, Africa’s most populous country is teetering on the brink,” the Financial Times warned late last year. John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, raises similar concerns in his recent book, Nigeria and the Nation-State, in which he describes the country as “not quite a nation” and “not quite a state.” Not only is Nigeria failing to protect its citizens from rampant crime and corruption, according to Campbell, but its people lack a shared sense of what it means to be “Nigerian.” Future-oriented studies such as “Failed State 2030,” a case study of Nigeria published by the Center for Strategy and Technology of Air University, go even further, imagining Nigeria as a state that only exists on paper, sustained by the recognition of the international community.
Such dire prognoses have profound implications not just for Nigeria but for all of West Africa and the Sahel. With more than 200 million people and the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria has enormous influence over economic and political developments in West Africa. When Nigeria slips into recession, the rest of the region’s economies typically stop growing. And if Nigeria were to collapse, the security of neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon would deteriorate as well.
Fortunately, it is far too early to declare that either the nation or the state of Nigeria has failed. On the contrary, many indicators of interethnic tolerance have actually improved in recent years, and distinctive innovations—such as an informal agreement to rotate control of the presidency between different groups—have made Nigeria’s political system far more inclusive and sustainable than it was in the past. There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has devastated Nigeria’s economy and contributed to a breakdown of law and order, which in turn has fueled the rise in banditry. But in some ways, Nigeria is actually a stronger and more resilient state today than it was 20 years ago.
Nigeria is often said to have an “identity problem.” Home to more than 250 ethnic groups and three distinct religious affiliations, it is one of the most diverse countries in the world. It faces an Islamic extremist insurgency in the north in the form of Boko Haram and is still haunted by the legacy of the Biafran war, which pitted the government against Igbo separatists between 1967 and 1970 and resulted in more than a million deaths. Given these facts, it is easy to see why some analysts conclude that Nigerians lack a shared aspiration or even common understanding of what it means to be Nigerian.
By some measures, the country’s national identity is indeed very weak, in line with Campbell’s argument. Many Nigerians identify more closely with their ethnic and religious group than with the nation as a whole, and according to surveys conducted by Afrobarometer, Nigerians are among the least nationalist people in Africa. Nigerians from ethnic groups, such as the Igbo, that have taken part in past or present separatist movements are particularly unlikely to embrace a broad Nigerian identity.
But while strong communal identities have often been associated with episodes of political violence, especially around elections, they have not caused relations between groups to deteriorate as a whole, as many analysts feared might happen after Nigeria transitioned to democracy in 1999. Rather, Nigerians from different ethnic groups have grown gradually more tolerant of one another, suggesting that the prospects for the evolution of a unifying national identity are getting better, not worse. For the last three decades, the World Values Survey has been asking a nationally representative sample of Nigerians whether they would object to having a neighbor of a “different race or ethnicity.” When the WVS first asked this question in 1990, 32 percent of Nigerians said that they would object—a worryingly high figure. By 2020, however, the proportion of Nigerians who objected to a neighbor from a different group had fallen by half to just 16 percent. In a 2018 Afrobarometer poll, only 13 percent of Nigerian respondents said they would mind if someone of a different ethnicity were to live next to them, while 42 percent said they would “strongly like” it.
Nigerians from different ethnic groups have grown gradually more tolerant of one another.
Both surveys found that such attitudes have improved over time. Part of the reason for this improvement is greater political inclusion. Nigeria’s federal system devolves considerable resources and authority to elected state governors, helping to lower the stakes of national political competition. Since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1999, Nigeria has also practiced a form of temporal power sharing that has helped to prevent a return to civil conflict. Through an informal but widely accepted system known as “zoning,” control of the presidency alternates between the north and the south of the country every eight years, and northern presidents select southern vice presidents and vice versa. While this system does not ensure adequate representation for the country’s 36 states and numerous ethnicities (and can cause controversies if a leader dies in office), it does mean that no one region—and no one religion—can hold power indefinitely.
This system for temporal power sharing helps to explain why the proportion of Nigerians who feel that their ethnic group is discriminated against has fallen markedly in recent years. In 2005, for example, 37 percent of Nigerians said that their ethnic group was “often” or “always” treated unfairly by the government, according to Afrobarometer. By 2018, the proportion had declined to just 21 percent—with 48 percent saying that their ethnic group is “never” treated unfairly.
Greater political inclusion and falling perceptions of discrimination have allowed for a stronger national spirit to emerge, one that can be observed in the fervent popular support for the national football team and the shared pride that Nigerians of all religions and ethnicities take in the international success of many Nigerian artists and musicians. There are of course those who reject these national symbols, most notably Boko Haram. But the group and its supporters represent a very small proportion of the population, and according to Afrobarometer, Muslims are actually more likely than Christians to prioritize their national identity over subnational ones. Nigeria’s strengthened national spirit is also evident in various popular movements that have mobilized citizens from a broad range of ethnic and religious backgrounds in recent years, from the Occupy Nigeria protests against the reduction of fuel subsidies in 2012 to the demonstrations against police brutality in 2017 and 2020. Far from a failed nation, then, Nigeria has in some ways become a stronger and more cohesive one.
Just as it is easy to see why some commentators have concluded that Nigeria has a national “identity problem,” it is easy to see why others have branded Nigeria a failed, failing, or chronically weak state. At present, the Nigerian government simply cannot guarantee the basic security of lives and property across much of its territory. In the troubled northeastern region, the Boko Haram insurgency continues to rage. Over the last ten years, the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people and displaced close to three million. Meanwhile, clashes between farmers and pastoralists—estimated to be six times deadlier than Boko Haram’s insurgency in 2018—have spiraled out of control in Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Nasarawa, and Taraba States. Intercommunal clashes and organized crime operations have surged in Nigeria’s northwest and north-central regions and are now spreading to parts of the southwest. In the country’s historically marginalized Niger Delta region, many fear a militant resurgence, as they do in the predominantly Igbo southeast, where secessionist militants are suspected to have played a role in a recent attack on a jail that enabled 1,800 prisoners to escape.
Nigeria’s government has not only failed to deliver law and order but in some cases contributed to the violence and lawlessness. The police and military have struggled to win hearts and minds, and both stand accused of human rights violations and incompetence. Nothing illustrates popular frustration with the security forces better than the protests against police brutality that erupted in cities across the country last year.
Like claims that Nigeria is not a true nation, however, claims that its state has completely failed go too far. Whereas nearby countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone have suffered repeated and prolonged civil wars, Nigeria has successfully avoided a return to widespread violence, despite a recent increase in agitation from Biafran separatists. The absence of renewed conflict along this dangerous cleavages is not an accident but rather the product of careful statecraft. Both the successful creation of a federal system, which spread political control of the eastern region over nine separate states, and the system of zoning the presidency described above have reduced tensions and made secession a much less viable option.
Nigeria has also strengthened its democracy over the last three decades. For the first 16 years after it transitioned to multiparty politics in 1999, Nigeria was dominated by one political party, the People’s Democratic Party. But in 2015, PDP candidate and incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan lost to Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, resulting in the country’s first democratic transfer of power and demonstrating that poorly performing governments could be punished at the ballot box.
Whereas Liberia and Sierra Leone have suffered repeated and prolonged civil wars, Nigeria has successfully avoided a return to widespread violence.
Taken together, these achievements exceed what many thought possible in the early 1970s: they have held Nigeria together and strengthened its national identity. They have also facilitated innovation at the state level, such as improvements in governance and tax collection in Lagos State under Governors Bola Tinubu and Babatunde Fashola that states such as Kaduna in the north are now trying to replicate. State governors have also undertaken new regional security initiatives, including Amotekun in the southwest and Ebube Agu in the southeast—well-funded regional security networks that aim to support official state forces through better intelligence gathering and local knowledge. These decentralized security responses have the potential to generate new problems, especially if struggling states are left to implement them with little regulation and support from the central government, and some forces have already been accused of extra-judicial killings. But they also have the potential to generate more flexible and nuanced responses to local security challenges, especially if the federal government can start to address some of the economic drivers of instability.
These modest achievements do not come close to fulfilling all of Nigeria’s enormous security and governance needs. Nor do they make up for the failure of political leaders to come to grips with some of the country’s most pressing problems—not least the recent spate of killings and kidnappings that have so unnerved Nigerians and Nigeria watchers alike. The rising instability of recent months has been driven in part by the severe economic challenges of the pandemic and in part by longer-standing environmental pressures such as drought and diversification that have exacerbated competition over land in the central and northern regions. Over repeated cycles of violence, loss of cattle and economic security has created a growing pool of armed and frustrated individuals who can be recruited into militias, bands of bandits, and terrorist organizations—creating new conflicts and exacerbating existing ones.
Left unchecked, these overlapping security crises certainly have the potential to push Nigeria in the direction of state failure. But the saving grace is that the vast majority of these groups—with the obvious exception of Boko Haram—are not antistate or anti-Nigerian. Rather, they are opportunistic criminal networks fueled by insecurity and economic and environmental instability. Their aim is to amass wealth and status, not to topple the national government. As such, they can likely be addressed through effective policy solutions, such as the National Livestock Transformation Plan, which has been hampered by staff and funding shortages but has the potential to substantially reduce herder-farmer conflict.
Warnings of impending state or nation failure don’t just create the false impression of a country in which nothing at all works. They can be used to justify the imposition of external solutions—for example, foreign state-building efforts that emphasize militarized solutions at the expense of socioeconomic and environmental ones. A more nuanced look at what the Nigerian state and political elite have actually achieved over the last 30 years suggests a need for something else: continued progress toward political inclusion, including by strengthening the federal system, focusing on homegrown strategies that resonate with political elites, and developing regional solutions to regional problems.
Nigeria must also continue to invest in the common symbols of national identity— leadership in regional organizations, pride in its world-leading sportspeople and artists—and work to sustain popular confidence in its democracy. It is vitally important that Buhari stand down at the end of his second and final term in 2023 and that the resulting election is seen as an improvement over the 2019 election. Anything short of this would undermine the hard-won progress toward political inclusion over the last 30 years and increase the risk of civil conflict. Nigeria’s doomsayers have often overstated their argument, but failure to heed this lesson at a time of political peril would be the surest way to make them right.
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