Nigeria: An African Giant Divided

Southern regions along with Abuja (FCT) have long been the economic hub while the north is generally viewed as being backward. (Credit GeoCurrents / CGIDD)
Southern regions along with Abuja (FCT) have long been the economic hub of the country. (Credit GeoCurrents / CGIDD)

By Aalok Joshi

On January 17th the Nigerian air force moved forward with operations in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, bombing what they thought was a Boko Haram hideout. However, this supposed hideout turned out to be a refugee camp hosting families who have been displaced by the radical Islamist group, Boko Haram, ravaging their country. Additionally, the refugee camp was also the temporary base of operations for members of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders working in the area. Borno state officials have put the death toll from this horrible miscue by the Nigerian armed forces at 100. Meanwhile the Red Cross has reported that 6 of their personnel were killed in the bombing.

This most recent blunder by the Nigerian armed forces has come at a time in which Boko Haram continues to be a festering sore for the African giant. Nigeria is the wealthiest African nation by GDP and has been blessed by ample natural resources in the oil rich southern region of the Niger delta. This combined with the fact that Nigeria has an expanding middle class gives  Nigeria the potential to be one of the world’s leading economies. Additionally, Nigeria has the largest population of any African nation. This puts Nigeria in the unique position of being the largest market on the continent and thus being able to dictate African demand for a variety of products. However, because of its exploitive colonial legacy and the influx of large multinational oil conglomerates into the southern half of Nigeria, the northern section of the country is relatively underdeveloped. Most of the wealth in the nation is centered around the capital of Abuja, the commercial hub of Lagos, and the petrodollar region of the Niger delta. All of these regions, relatively speaking, are in the southern half of the nation. This leaves much of the north poor, underdeveloped, and cut off from the center. The north has less educational facilities and almost completely lacks any foreign investment. While much of the north relies on subsistence farming and other agricultural pursuits, the south has a long history of foreign trade and bustling economic activity.

Along with this economic divide, Nigeria faces a cultural and religious divide within the nation. The north is largely Muslim while the south is mostly Christian. However, the Christian and Muslim populations are relatively equal, and there are enclaves of both Christians and Muslims in the north and south. This means that though the regions are culturally different Muslims and Christians generally get along with each other. The northern states practice sharia law while the southern states do not. This north-south tension has also taken on political undertones. Many national elections, issues, and geopolitical stances in Nigeria pit north against south because the two regions have completely different priorities and interests. While the North wants more economic investment and integration with the booming South, the South insists that it must pay attention to its own expanding economic aspirations before focusing on the North. Additionally, the rise of radical Islamic terror groups, specifically Boko Haram, in the North, has made Southern businesses and firms even more hesitant to invest in the area.

Boko Haram was founded in 2010 in the city of Maiduguri in the state of Borno. Borno, in the northeastern corner of the country, is bordered by the Sambisa forest near the country of Chad. This thick forest cover provides a base from which Boko Haram conducts its attacks on the surrounding towns, cities, and states. In the past seven years of the insurgency, Boko Haram has conducted attacks not only throughout the northern periphery, around Yobe, Kano, and Borno, but also as far south as the Niger state and the federal capital territory of Abuja. In fact, the capital of Abuja has been terrorized by multiple bombings and shootings throughout the city. Boko Haram’s attacks have killed and wounded both Muslims and Christians, and though Boko Haram claims an Islamic affiliation they seem to have no mercy toward any religion. Some of Boko Haram’s most infamous attacks include the 2011 attack on the U.N. building in Abuja, the Bauchi Prison break, and the abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls from the northeastern town of Chibok.

The Nigerian government, however, has been severely criticized for not taking the Boko Haram threat seriously enough. Most infamously, Nigerian president Buhari claimed that Boko Haram was “technically defeated” in late 2015 when in fact Boko Haram still regularly carries out attacks. Because of increasing international pressure, especially following the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, and current Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, have ordered an offensive deep into Boko Haram controlled territory. In the past two years the Nigerian military has stepped up their military operations and have managed to contain Boko Haram within its northeastern core. However, this means that cities like Maiduguri still face attacks on a weekly basis. Many of these attacks are concentrated on public squares and markets where people – including women and children, gather daily. Such attacks have meant that businesses don’t feel safe and accessing basic commodities has become hard for many residents of Boko Haram’s northeastern core. The World Food Programme feeds around 4.4 million people in and around Boko Haram’s home state of Borno, and WFP estimates suggest as many as 1.8 million people are at risk of starvation because of food aid being disrupted by Boko Haram attacks.

Looking at Nigeria from the outside it seems odd for an insurgency like Boko Haram to exist in this burgeoning African power. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) predicts that Nigeria is on pace to grow at a rate of 6% annually until 2030 and have a GDP of $1.6 trillion, putting it in the top twenty economies worldwide. Moreover, MGI estimates suggest that by 2030 Nigerian consumption could rise from $388 billion annually to $1.4 trillion. However, a cultural and socioeconomic divide between the increasingly unequal northern and southern regions of Nigeria has created a rift in this nation. The future of Nigeria will be decided by whether Abuja and the coastal economic hub will be able to address the lack of economic opportunity and upward mobility for the northern half of the country. Simultaneously, Nigeria will succeed if Muhammadu Buhari’s government can firmly stamp out Boko Haram and make northeast Nigeria suitable for business and development projects. It is very much within reach for Nigeria to have economic success relatively soon, however, if the festering sore that is Boko Haram is not handled soon it is unlikely that the economic wealth will be shared by all of Nigeria.

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