In Nigeria, Militancy Raises Specter of Civil War

Fellows Fall 2011

By David Francis

October 12, 2011

Also published in World Politics Review

On Oct. 2, Nigeria celebrated the 51st anniversary of its freedom from British rule. A large gala was planned in Abuja, the fast-growing Nigerian capital located in the center of the country.

But, days before the celebrations, Boko Haram, a Muslim extremist group based in the country's north, and the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta (MEND), based in the country's oil-rich south, both threatened to disrupt the festivities with violence. Boko Haram had already made it clear that it was capable of attacking Abuja on Aug. 26, when it exploded a bomb at the United Nations building there, killing 23. And just a week before the scheduled gala event, a bomb scare at the country's National Assembly sent lawmakers scrambling for safety.

MEND had long ago showed itself capable of such an attack. It is responsible for a string of bombings, kidnappings and killings against the Nigerian government as well as against oil companies in the south over the past decade. And as Boko Haram has emerged, MEND has become even more active in an effort to reinsert itself into Nigeria's national conversation.

President Goodluck Jonathan, whose re-election earlier this year was followed by violent protests in the north, was faced with a choice. He could stand up to both MEND and Boko Haram by continuing with the festivities as planned. Or he could move the celebration to a more secure location, an indication that he did not believe Nigerian security forces could adequately deal with the threat.

Jonathan chose the latter, presiding over a small ceremony at his secure presidential villa.

His decision is a reflection of the state of fear and tension that currently hangs over Nigeria. Over the past three weeks, what emerges from travels around the country -- first to Abuja, then to Lagos and now to Port Harcourt -- is the image of a country at odds with itself. The divide between the Muslim north and the Christian south grows larger and more volatile by the day. Faith in the political process to right the wrongs that have blighted this country for decades is nonexistent. The only certainty people express is that the ending to the current phase in Nigerian history is going to be unpleasant and most likely violent.

Unlike southern Nigeria, which is rich with oil resources, the country's north is a vast desert wasteland where poverty is common, jobs are rare and hope for the future has largely evaporated. This sense of despair has helped to fuel a growing Muslim militancy, especially in Muslim schools where young boys are indoctrinated with radical Islam. Boko Haram started in one such school in the northeast state of Borno: The group's name roughly translates to "Western education is a sin."

It is unclear whether the group has ties to al-Qaida, as Jonathan has maintained. Though tenuous at best, the connection between the two groups has gained the attention of the United States, which is now helping Nigeria to track Boko Haram's finances. What is clearer is that Boko Haram members have many of the same grievances as militants in the delta: lack of jobs, poor access to education and lack of medical care. Boko Haram is now asking for an amnesty similar to the kind offered to delta militants in 2009, which consisted of a payout by the government in exchange for a promise by the militants not to return to violence.

Meanwhile, the past decade was a volatile time in the Niger Delta, as militants kidnapped foreign oil workers, sabotaged oil company operations and fought with each other and the military. The 2009 amnesty quieted things down briefly, as many of the older leaders of groups such as MEND accepted the government's offer, with most of them since retiring to Lagos.

However, in interviews in and around Port Harcourt, militants still active here expressed a growing dissatisfaction with the outcome of the amnesty, which they claim was a failure: Few actually benefitted from the pardon; there are still few jobs available; the delta remains horribly polluted; and oil companies continue to act with impunity. The government, needing oil profits to survive, turns a blind eye to the persistent problems, which has led to an uptick in militant activities, including kidnapping and sabotage.

Adding to the dissatisfaction is a growing impatience with the government's focus on Boko Haram. Militants here believe the northern group is unorganized, unprofessional and betraying Nigeria by killing civilians. They agree with the group's grievances but condemn its methods. More than one militant said that Boko Haram would meet a quick end if it entered the country's south, as the Muslim group has threatened.

As a Christian from the Niger Delta, Jonathan inspired hope among many here when he assumed the presidency in 2009 following the death of President Umaru Yar'Adua. Many assumed he would be the one to finally address the issues that have plagued this area. But according to interviews throughout Nigeria, Jonathan's time in office is viewed as largely ineffectual. Problems with the delta amnesty program are starting to emerge. Neither he nor his military appear capable of dealing with militants in the north and south. Corruption is still rampant. Oil wealth still has not reached the Nigerian people.

Jonathan's impotence in the face of these problems could have significant implications, as Nigerians have a long history of taking matters into their own hands and attempting to implement change with violent means when they feel that politicians have failed. Militants in the delta have done so for two decades. Now, militants in the north are learning that violence draws attention. If Jonathan does not act soon to address these groups' grievances, more violence is inevitable. And if the violence leads to a civil war between the north and south, the future of a united Nigeria is at stake.

David Francis reported from Nigeria as a fellow at the International Reporting Project.