Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation is on the cusp of imploding under multiple security threats. If it does, the shrapnel will be felt around the world.
It’s the most fundamental contract between civilians and their rulers, one that predates the modern nation-state: security. From ancient kings to 21st-century democrats, every regime has known it must at the very least guarantee safety from external threats and domestic attacks to its citizens to enjoy any legitimacy. And if its credibility is weak, a state uses its monopoly over large-scale violence to maintain control using fear.
Most large and complex nations — including the U.S., Britain, India and China — have seen that contract fray to varied extents and at different points in their recent journey. But midway through 2021, it appears to have broken down in one of the world’s most important nations, with few easy answers on how it can be restored or repaired. And the nightmare unfolding in Nigeria could soon shake the rest of the world.
With 200 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and its largest economy. Nigeria’s military budget — $1.9 billion — is greater than the combined armed forces spending of the rest of West Africa.
Yet six years after former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari was elected democratically as president on the promise of defeating Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, the country is comprehensively failing against not one, but at least six distinct challenges with security implications for Africa and beyond.
Boko Haram had, until now, largely been restricted in Nigeria to the country’s northeast. Not anymore. In April, it raided and occupied parts of the country’s Niger state, which borders Abuja, leaving the militants closer than ever to the nation’s capital.
Then earlier this month, a stunning claim gained ground in Nigeria: Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, had died. But it wasn’t Nigeria’s military that had hunted him down, nor a sophisticated drone strike that killed him. In fact, the Islamic State West Africa Province, a rival terrorist group that swears allegiance to ISIS, asserted that Shekau had killed himself after ISWAP fighters had cornered him. Neither Nigeria nor Boko Haram has formally confirmed or denied the claim, but one thing’s clear: instead of defanging one deadly terror group, Abuja now has two to deal with.
In the country’s southeast, the long dormant — but always simmering — Biafra separatist movement has raised its head again. Nigeria had crushed the short-lived, independent nation of Biafra in the 1960s. Because the leader of the modern Biafra movement is Jewish, anti-Semitic violence too has been on the rise in Nigeria in recent years. And Buhari made sure a world that otherwise ignores Africa came to know of the fresh Biafra crisis by getting into a tit-for-tat with Twitter after the social media platform suspended his account over a tweet threatening an armed pro-independence group. Buhari has banned Twitter in Nigeria.
All of this, even as gangs appear to be able to abduct schoolchildren as they please, almost every other week. The latest instance involves the kidnapping of 150 children about two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, a quiet but brutal ethnic conflict between two of Nigeria’s most prominent ethnic groups, the Fulani and the Hausa, has gone almost unnoticed globally. The Fulani are traditionally herders while the Hausa are mostly farmers. As OZY reported in 2019, their increasingly bloody battles rooted in growing pressures over limited land resources are now claiming more lives than even Boko Haram. Earlier this month, cattle thieves on motorbikes killed 66 villagers during a raid.
Then there’s the ongoing militancy in the Niger Delta, home to most of Nigeria’s massive oil reserves, where local communities have long complained that they aren’t receiving the economic benefits of the natural resources in their area. Although life expectancy across Nigeria is rising, it is declining in the Niger Delta.
Finally, the Gulf of Guinea off the cost of Nigeria is emerging as the spot where the world’s seafaring pirates all want to do business. Of the 135 piracy incidents in 2020, 130 were in the Gulf of Guinea.
The consequences of Buhari’s failures could extend well beyond Nigeria’s borders. A scenario in which Boko Haram enters Abuja, or Nigeria becomes fractured into multiple fiefdoms of warring militias — like Central African Republic or Libya — is no longer beyond the realm of possibility. And a collapse of the Nigerian state could turn West Africa and the Sahel into a safe haven and global launchpad for the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups and criminal enterprises.
It’s tempting for world powers to strengthen Buhari’s hand by arming his military further or funding his regime in the hope that he can maintain some semblance of a functional Nigerian state. But that search for “stability” is precisely the approach that has led the West to support autocrat after autocrat, never mind the fact that unpopular regimes eventually breed violent resistance because democratic means of opposition simply aren’t meaningfully available.
Instead, the world needs to listen to Nigeria’s democratic voices, its youth and its ethnic and regional minorities, and amplify their concerns. They need to know they haven’t been forgotten and that their voices count. That’s the only way to defuse the ticking time bomb that is Nigeria before it explodes on all of us.