By Fola Aina and Nic Cheeseman
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.”
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.
THE STATE OF THE STATE
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.
DON’T MAKE THE DOOMSAYERS RIGHT
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.