Nigeria: Too Big to Fail

From corruption to sectarian division to terrorism, Africa's most populous country (and one of its most oil-rich) could find itself spiraling out of control

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Followers of the Muslim Brothers of Nigeria stage a peaceful rally to mark "Qudus Day" in Nigeria's northern city of Kano / Reuters

A remote country faces a home-grown Muslim terrorism threat. The terrorists appear linked to al-Qaeda. The victimized country, despite its hapless police force and porous borders, proposes cracking down on the terrorists. Will the strategy work? And what's America to do?

The scenario is familiar. What's new is the setting: Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and the largest African exporter of oil to the U.S. Seemingly worlds apart from the anti-American terrorist breeding grounds of Yemen and Pakistan, Nigeria counts among those countries who most admire the U.S. as well as among the top-ten oil exporters to America.

Last Friday, a homegrown fundamentalist group, devoted to violence, attacked the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital of Abuja. The car-bomb blast killed at least 19 people and internationalized a brewing conflict that until now was domestic in scope and limited to Nigeria's own peculiar tensions between Muslim and Christian, north and south.

The blast, the most serious act of terrorism against an international target in Nigeria's 50-year history, has been largely reduced to a cartoon narrative: Islamic terrorists were bent on destruction of secular society. A complex set of conflicts, with a long history, got simplified, even by Nigeria's own president, Goodluck Jonathan, who vowed to bring the terrorist group, Boko Haram, which took credit for the bombing, "under control."

The Nigerian government has brought Boko Haram under control before. In 2009, government forces raided the group's headquarters in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. In the raid, the government captured Boko Haram's charismatic leader, Mohammed Yusuf. It produced a photo of Yusuf, naked from the waist up, his arms bound behind his back, surrounded by soldiers. Perhaps only minutes later, Yusuf was dead, executed. Hundreds of his supporters were also killed.

The killing of Yusuf seemed unremarkable at the time, because extra-judicial executions by police and the army are routine in Nigeria. Locals call these killings "instant justice." Human rights groups have well-documented the practice, which is partly the result of poor police training and a lack of confidence in the capacity of the Nigerian legal system to deliver accurate and timely trial verdicts. Unquestionably, Nigerians from every part of the country complain often about police misbehavior. Boko Haram's violent attacks, until recently, have targeted police officers, even killing some in their homes.

Poor policing bedevils Nigerian civil society, and no accommodations between various religious, ethnic, or regional groups in the country can stand without some new approach by security forces. As far back as 2002, when I served as a member of an Amnesty International survey team in Nigeria, reports of unauthorized killings by police were widespread and convincing. While killings of police by Boko Haram represent an ugly turn to conflict in Nigeria, they also highlight long-simmering resentments that go well beyond any fundamentalist agenda.

If the Nigerian military and police forces believed they had crushed Boko Haram by killing its charismatic leader and destroying its offices, they were wrong. The group, which favors a government under Islamic law and perhaps even its own independent nation in the north, has mounted a series of serious attacks in recent months. These reportedly include a December bombing in the city of Jos, a New Year's eve attack on military barracks in Abuja, several explosions around the time of President Goodluck Jonathan's May inauguration, and the bombing of the police headquarters in Abuja in June. Boko Haram is so powerful on its home turf of Maidugira, provincial capital of one of Nigeria's most conservative Muslim sub-regions of Nigeria, the semi-arid northeast, that BBC's superb West Africa correspondent, Andrew Walker, once described Maidugira as a "city of fear."

The resurgence of Boko Haram coincides with disenchantment in the Muslim north with the election of a Jonathan, a southern Christian, who became president after illness killed his predecessor, a Muslim northerner. In the peculiar tradition of Nigerian presidential politics, in which the office traditionally alternates between the country's two religions, the election victory earlier this year should have gone to a Muslim. Instead of stepping aside, however, Jonathan chose to run for a full term of office, and his victory this spring fueled greater regional tensions of which the violence by Boko Haram is only a piece.

The government's militarized, violent reaction against Boko Haram might seem understandable. The group after all specializes in murdering Nigerian policemen stationed in the northeast of the country. Yet this hardliner reaction contrasts sharply with the government's more restrained response to a Christian-led insurgency in the Niger Delta, which targeted Western oil companies operating in southern Nigeria and the violence of which peaked a few years ago.

The oil rebellion was led by youths from Jonathan's own ethnic group, the Ija, whose grievances centered around the theft of oil revenues by the government and the failure to share oil wealth with the many different ethnic groups of the Delta, of which the Ijaw is the largest. Rather than use counter-insurgency tactics against the fighters, the Nigerian government, first under Jonathan's predecessor and then under him, promoted dialogue and amnesty to those who stopped attacking oil companies and laid down their arms.

The tactics worked. Unrest in the Niger Delta has retreated. Could the same formula be used to rob support in the north for Boko Haram?

The question should sit at the center of any international response to Nigeria's crisis. Muslim-Christian relations are not rosy anywhere, but in Nigeria the barometer of ecumenical health is critical to the fate of the nation. Nigeria is the only sizeable nation in the world -- with a population estimated at roughly 150 million, or one in every six sub-Saharan Africans -- where Christians and Muslims are about evenly split.

Muslim grievances, while often exaggerated here, are not imagined. Nigeria's oil sits entirely in the Christian-dominated south. Southerners also dominate the civil service, partly because of their relatively higher levels of education. Even the Nigerian Diaspora -- at least one million Nigerian-born people, including many of the country's best trained doctors, scientists, accountants, and teachers live in the U.S., Britain and Canada -- is largely Christian. The best-known Nigerian writers tend to be Christian: Chimamanda Adiche, Chinua Achebe, the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Nobel laureate Wole Soynika. Nigeria's burgeoning "Nollywood" movie industry is also dominated by Southerners, notably the traditionally Catholic Igbo ethnic group.

In short, the Nigerian voices heard most loudly around the world, and in Nigeria itself, are Christian and secular, reinforcing the sense among Nigeria's Muslims that they are invisible, and all the fear and anxiety that produces. Through resistance to Western education, mores, and even medicine, northerners in Nigeria try to make their voices heard. Through the practice of polygamy and girl mutilation, northerners also show their resistance to what they view as the hegemony of Christian values. And in their fidelity to regional power-sharing, northern Muslims continue to imagine a Nigerian nation in which there's space enough for two capacious religious traditions that often seem at odds.

In 2000, at the start of new century, a respected observer of African affairs, Karl Maier, published a exhaustive account of Nigeria, "This House Has Fallen: Nigeria at Midnight." At the time, Nigeria had emerged from a long period of dictatorship. Civilian rule had brought fresh optimism and the return home of many talented Nigerians. Maier's grim portrait of nation teetering on collapse, however accurate, drew a resentful response from Nigerians, who among themselves display a super-natural optimism and mythical capacity for coping with adversity. The BBC heightened the controversy by reporting that Maier saw Nigeria as a "land of no tomorrow."

And yet tomorrow still comes for Africa's most populous nation. Since 2000, seemingly against reason, Nigeria has clocked more than 3,000 thousand tomorrows, and even celebrated its 50th anniversary as a nation in 2010. Yet what my wife, a Nigerian herself, calls "Nigerian time" remains firmly stuck at midnight. To be sure, the country can thank petro-dollars for providing prosperity to an elite and the illusion of future prosperity to its masses. Because of oil money, and the sheer size and dynamism of its population, this "giant of Africa" seems like a place of limitless opportunities, no matter how many are squandered. It is in this sense that Chinua Achebe's most recent assessment of Nigeria, provided in his 2009 collection of essays, "The Education of a British-protected child," should be understood. "Nigeria is neither my mother nor my father," Achebe wrote. "Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed, and incredibly wayward."

Friday's bombing of a United Nations building in Nigeria's capital of Abuja will neither shatter the country's sense of complacency nor catapult it into adulthood. Kidnappings of the wealthy -- and their children and their parents -- have not done so. Daily electricity outages have not either. Nor have steadily rising food prices or noisy elections that return to office the same tired crowd of corrupt politicians. Nor has what Hillary Clinton has called the "unbelievable" corruption of Nigerian bureaucrats and politicians.

These dismal indicators prompted Clinton two years ago to blame Nigeria's government for rising social distress. In January 2010, after a Nigerian tried to blow up an airline with a shoe bomb, Clinton again decried the lack of good governance in the country. The situation is no better today, and probably worse. On Friday, Clinton made a cautious statement about the need to aid Nigeria in this difficult time, reflecting the recognition that international observers such as the U.S. Secretary of State would be wise to refrain from making apocalyptic predictions about a country which even now records, in opinion surveys, some of the highest levels optimism among any people on the planet.

With so many urgent problems in the world, from the wars in Libya and Afghanistan to the persistent economic and fiscal problems in the U.S., the case for bringing Nigeria to center stage seems poor. And yet giving Nigeria sustained attention might be worth the effort, especially if Nigerian problems of tomorrow are viewed in the light of the costs of Somalia today. The U.S. is spending dearly to stamp out violent Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia, relying on costly mercenaries and expensive arrangements with the governments of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. And yet this policy, which began with the Bush administration and continued under President Obama, has led the U.S. and its proxy African forces to become ensnared in a confusing quagmire in Somalia, with the latest outcome being an embarrassing, and totally preventable, famine among Somali refugees.

A cascade of wrong decisions could send Nigeria spiraling into a Somali-style implosion. For the world community, the opportunity to prevent widening conflict in Nigeria would thus seem wise. The question is how to help. In all things Nigerian, we know for certain only this: there will be no rush to judgment, no quick fix.