Should the World Help Break Up Nigeria in Order to Save it?

Since its unification by the British, the oil-rich African country has endured one crisis after another.

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Troops stand guard as Lagos protesters mass in opposition to a recent cut in gas subsidies / AP

This month, the BBC asked in a trenchant report, "Is Nigeria on the brink?" It's a question that, in my 12 years of Nigeria-watching, I've heard international observers ask about Nigeria many times. Is this latest episode the end-game, the opening act of the collapse of Africa's most populous nation-state -- and the largest supplier of African oil to the United States? It may be, but it's not too late for Nigerians and world leaders to bring about an overdue solution for this long-troubled country. Originally three separate regions that British colonialists united into one untenable country, Nigeria's best solution for its past and present crises might be to split back up.

The bombings and killings this weekend in Kano, a city that for centuries has anchored the Islamic commercial community in northern Nigerian, are only latest sign of severe crisis. Nearly every week brings fresh instances of the failure of Nigeria as a nation-state. The deadly Christmas Day bombing in a Catholic church in Abuja, which killed at least 37 people, was again in the news this past week because the government admitted that the alleged mastermind of the attack had escaped from custody. The escape ignited new complaints about the incompetence of Nigeria's police -- as well as fears that Boko Haram or other opponents of the government had infiltrated the police leadership.

The escape forced President Gooluck Jonathan to threaten to fire his national police chief -- and brought renewed attention to his failing presidency. Jonathan was re-elected last year over the opposition of much of the country's Muslim community, which comprises an estimated half of Nigeria's population and felt it was the "turn" of a Muslim to hold the presidency. It is possible that some of Nigeria's deterioration reflects defiance by Muslims who do not favor extremism but feel the grand bargain of Nigerian history -- the trading back and forth between Muslim and Christian presidents -- has been broken.

Jonathan has also hurt himself, especially by agreeing to raise prices on gasoline, which ignited nationwide protests. Only days after the government reversed its decision came the violence in Kano, and another crisis. That the Muslim extremist group, Boko Haram immediately claimed responsibility for the Kano carnage heightened the sense of impending doom in Nigeria.

The current U.S. policy posture of non-involvement seems less and less credible. Nigeria is too large, and too economically important to the U.S., for the Obama administration to essentially play the innocent bystander. The U.S. must act.

The question is how? The Obama administration's repeated insistence -- made rhetorically by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and U.S. ambassador Terence P. McCulley - is that Nigerian government must address socio-economic deprivation and the severe wealth inequality among its people. This is surely fair advice but ignores the urgent need for an international plan to hold Nigeria together against the forces of disorder. The question of Nigeria's future is no academic parlor game. The potential violence to the people of Nigeria is now unacceptably high. Worse, the entire West African sub-region, the most densely populated area south of the Sahara, could be dragged down by any implosion of Nigeria.

The need for a new approach to Nigeria is long in coming. As long ago as July 2000, when I met the astute Nigeria-watcher, Karl Maier, in London, I was struck by the imagery of Nigeria on the brink, poised to collapse into unimaginable disorder. In July, Maier published his consequential snapshot of Nigeria, This House Has Fallen, which chronicled the disorder, the corruption, the rising religious and ethnic tensions and the squandered wealthy that continues to bedeveil this country of 160 million people. Without intervention -- without sanity -- Maier foresaw a doomed Nigeria, a wounded giant in inexorable collapse.

No, 12 years later, Nigeria's condition looks unchanged or worse. Outside observers, even of Nigerian descent, will tell you from the safety of London or Toronto or San Francisco that their country of origin has been on the brink before. Perhaps as a result, there's a distinct sense of complacency among them. My wife, who hails from the oil-center of Port Harcourt, has seen Nigeria muddle through before. She and others say that Nigeria is forever on the brink; it's a kind of regular, normal reality. To these diaspora Nigerians, the country is perpetually running out of time, but the country's elite seem to do little beyond planning for the short term when the long term could bring disaster.

And because morning still comes, some of the most respected Nigerians in the diaspora counsel patience. Possibly the greatest living Nigerian artist, the eminent Chinua Achebe, author of the best-selling novel of all time by an African, Things Fall Apart, is so imbued with a sense of Nigeria's manifest destiny that, writing one year ago in The New York Times, he envisioned a "Nigerian solution" emerging over decades through a slow fitful movement towards stronger democratic institutions. In the end of this lengthy process, he predicts, corruption will retreat and a new kind of African democrat, "humbled by the trust placed on him by the people, will emerge, wiling to use the power given to him for the good of the people."

Achebe is a great story-teller; his predictions from January 2011 amount to a fairytale, sadly. Nigeria, as we now know it, is nearly out of time. The scenario Achebe so eloquently presents was the same scenario presented 50 years ago by the Nigerian independence leaders and British bureaucrats who created the country. All agreed to what seemed like a convenient fiction -- that Nigerians needed to nurture and strengthen democratic processes. Now a half-century cannot be replayed and, besides, the game was a con. The deep underlying differences between different ethnic groups, religious groups, and geographic groups within the country are not subject to being "democratized" away by formal processes conceived by the British and delivered by a Nigerian elite that was birthed, bought, and sold by the colonial process.

Today, the two-minute football drill is the only way of playing game that Nigeria's elite has ever known. The U.S. must call time-out and bring a diverse array of Nigeria's leaders -- including the marginalized Muslim northerners and the militant evangelical Christians of the oil-rich south -- to a meeting room. Bring them to an international conference, chaired by the U.S., and ask them to think in a new way. Not to settle differences in a hurry, but to explore, document, and address underlying divisions that cannot be argued away by soaring rhetoric but instead reflect enduring, undeniable, and legitimate conflicts of interest among parties to Nigeria's many conflicts.

While Achebe insists that 160 million Nigerians only need more time to embrace "a new patriotic consciousness," the international conference to take Nigeria's future must entertain a more credible scenario: that the British engineering of the Nigerian state - stitching the country together 50 years ago out of three distinct regions, never administered collectively even by the British, was a failure. Rather than try to renovate the broken vessel of Nigeria, the friends of the people of Nigeria must ask whether the very structure and organization of Nigeria must be re-conceived and, in the process, serious consideration should be given to breaking Nigeria into three or more "organic" territories.

The task of re-designing Nigeria, however necessary, is no substitute for halting the country's slide into a condition of daily disorder. The fiction that is called the Nigerian government needs assistance, even if the ultimate price for this assistance is the dissolution of the state as the world currently knows it.

There is room for optimism. The real question is not how many Nigerians are dying each week from political violence, but rather why more Nigerians are not dying? There is ample headroom for a constructive creative outcome for a people who, if nothing else, know how to endure hardship and remain hopeful. All of the most troubling aspects of African contemporary life come crashing together in the case of Nigeria: overpopulation, idle youth, religious intolerance, raw sexism, squandered wealth, lethally dysfunctional political arrangements, and the ignorance of the misguided do-gooders from around the world.

And yet, despite these structural handicaps, Nigerian society, deformed as it is, remains in some rough kind of workable condition. But for how much longer?