The Ties that Break: The Nigeria Question

657px-Nigeria_Benin_Cameroon_languagesYesterday, Boko Haram attacked the State College of Agriculture, leaving 50 dead. Boko Haram, a militant group whose name can be loosely translated, “Western education is sinful,” from the Hasau language, has been behind a major insurgent surge in the last few months. This strengthening insurgency has ranged from raids on villages to battles with the Nigerian military. As much of a threat as Boko Haram is to the Nigerian government, it is partially a symptom of even larger problems.

For years, Nigeria was plagued by military dictatorships that did little to foster any sort of democracy while simultaneously creating and entrenched patron-client networks and the corruption that came with these networks. This ineffectual governance was only compounded by the “national question,” or the question of how Nigerians wished to be governed and by whom, working in conjunction with the complete lack of Nigerian identity.

Nigeria is so divided by a plethora of cleavages, perhaps most notably ethnicity and religion (as Nigeria has over 300 ethnic groups with the largest group not even at a third of the population, while Nigeria is simultaneously split near evenly between Christianity and Islam) that for the longest time, the hope of a Nigeria national identity emerging has been shot.

The ineffective governance and distinct identities led many in the North to support Islamism (even violent strains), viewing it as a viable alternative to current governance. This seek for alternatives is the reason why a third of Nigeria’s states adopted a judiciary based on Sharia law in 2003, the first year the federal government allowed such a thing to occur. Many in the northeastern states that adopted Sharia saw Islam as an alternative to the corrupt, federal government (which had only just began to make the transition to democracy). Further displeasure and disapproval of governmental practices in Nigeria have only led to the further radicalization of some of its citizens into insurgent groups like Boko Haram.

Boko Haram exists because it seeks to fill a gap between Nigeria as it is, and Nigeria as it should be. While the Nigeria government fights Boko Haram, it should focus on more than just the military aspect of counter-insurgency; it should seek to eliminate the factors that help create this radicalization in the first place. Despite strides made in the last decade, the Nigeria government still has a long way to come in reigning in corruption, abuse, and misuse of power.

To properly fight Boko Haram is not just to deploy the military but to get one’s own house in order, for it is only when people trust the government that they will turn away from such violent alternatives.

Published by Alex Garland

Alex Garland is a staff writer for The Politic from Galivants Ferry, South Carolina. Contact him at

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  1. The “national question” is not how Nigerians wish to be governed but how Nigeria was formed in the first place. Two ethnically, culturally, ideologically and religiously different peoples slammed together not by their on volition but by the might of an external colonial force whose sole reason for forming Nigeria is economic exploitation. For 100 years these differences persist and are the root causes of Nigeria’s woes. Good governance can’t even emerge. If it does it is an aberration. Great edifices aren’t built on faulty foundations. Until Nigeria returns to 1914, undo the amalgamation, and then craft out and negotiate reasons to stay together Nigeria won’t overcome its problems.

    1. Dele, you are indeed right, in the sense that I did not do justice to the national question in Nigeria; I tried to convey the fact that the national question is far more multifaceted with the addition of “and by whom”, but I was limited by space from actually exploring the question that itself arises from the national question, namely the question, “Should Nigeria even exist?”’

      While that is hardly a question that I can hope to answer, it’s more multifaceted than your comment seems to make it out to be. It’s not that Nigeria was created from two ethnically, religiously, culturally, linguistically, and ideologically different people but rather that Nigeria was created from many ethnically, religiously, culturally, linguistically, and ideologically different peoples. And you’re also right in the fact that these differences have been at the root, either entirely or partially, of many problems within Nigeria (ranging from the Nigerian-Biafran War to MEND to Boko Haram) is certainly not something that I dispute, but agree with you on.

      With that said, I think there is still a hope for Nigeria to establish good governance. Despite the “faulty foundations” you mentioned, there have been truly national institutions that have developed (namely the military), and the development of a transparent and democratic government in conjunction with power sharing (primarily through federalism) could provide a way forward. Nigeria’s future is certainly not an easy one, and its past is one fraught with problems, and Boko Haram ultimately exists as a result of these problems.

  2. Mr. Garland,

    Thank you for choosing to write about Nigeria–a country whose current and dire problems have been overlooked by the United States national media in recent years in favor of coverage on the broiling Middle East.

    That you say Boko Haram has been behind a major insurgent surge in the last few months, however, is a gross understatement. Boko Haram has been terrorizing Nigerian citizens, from both the North and South of the country, for about two years now–one of the most significant blows came on Christmas Day 2011 when the Islamist militants targeted three churches and killed dozens of people.

    Nigerians feared even then that Boko Haram was attempting to incite civil war. We feared for our families and the stability of our country; the Nigeria you describe as “so divided by a plethora of cleavages…that for the longest time, the hope of a Nigeria national identity emerging has been shot” could not and does not compare to the idea of a Nigeria returning to the type of bloody Civil War many Nigerians still alive today endured and survived in the late 1960s.

    Nigeria as we know it is far from perfect. But for you to say “Boko Haram exists because it seeks to fill a gap between Nigeria as it is, and Nigeria as it should be” is to dignify the terrorist organization, their methods, and their mission. The group must be stopped, and while to do so effectively will require our admittedly broken government to undergo a much overdue overhaul, that doesn’t mean the Nigerian government isn’t justified to try and fight Boko Haram with all available resources right now.

    I can’t help but believe that you would never make this argument were the American government fractured and Al Qaeda attempting to establish their own rule through extreme violence. I was waiting for an appointment in late September when I was alerted that Boko Haram was responsible for the killing of forty agricultural college students, our peers. The militants opened fire randomly while the students slept.

    These militants have no excuse for their violence and you shouldn’t refer to the terror they have inflicted and continue to inflict as a “violent alternative.” No degree of federal corruption or even outright brokenness can justify Boko Haram.

    1. Mr. Okolo,

      First and foremost, I want to make it very clear that I do not support Boko Haram in any meaningful sense of the word, and I most certainly believe them to be a horrible group. Boko Haram should be fought, and I disagree with those that believe Boko Haram can be justified at any level.

      With that said, I’m not trying to justify Boko Haram’s existence, but rather noting Boko Haram’s existence is fundamentally tied to the problems of Nigeria and Nigerian identity.

      Boko Haram exists because they have a particular view of the world, and they want to impose that view upon reality, in much the same way that Al Qaeda exists because they also have a particular view of the world and also seek to see it implemented. Boko Haram is a violent alternative in much the same way that Al Qaeda is a violent alternative, indeed (and it is an apt comparison, Mr. Okolo). Boko Haram and Al Qaeda both draw some support from the societies in which they find themselves embedded, and to properly fight and/or destroy said groups, the support must be eroded.

      I do not think that any majority of Nigerians in the North or even any sizable majority support Boko Haram- it is an extreme minority. However, this extreme minority has had its existence fostered by the own fundamental cleavages within Nigerian society. To fight this problem is to fight that support. It’s a much broader solution, I suppose, in much the same way that the US has had to shift tactics in Afghanistan to a much more comprehensive method of targeting the Taliban’s support among local populations in the last decade.

      All said and done, Boko Haram is a horrible group, and if this blog post can be in any way construed as a justification (or even worse, a support) for Boko Haram, then I do want to apologize. My post was/is not meant for that- rather, it was only to note that Boko Haram’s support springs from and is empowered by splits within Nigerian society.

      Alex Garland

      1. *Ms. Okolo.

        Otherwise, thank you for your apology and timely, thorough reply. I think the article could have stated more clearly what you just explained in the second paragraph above, as that is a relevant and valid point.

        I look forward to reading your future work.

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