Saturday, February 25, 2006

Nigeria Riots

Nigeria, a federation of 130 million people, has been wrecked by religious riots once again. More than 10,000 people had died in religious violence since 1999 when the predominantly Muslim northern states began to enforce Shari'ah law. Nigeria is evenly divided between Muslims in the north, and a mix of Christians and animist in the south. Both Islam and Christianity as practiced in Nigeria include a fair dose of traditional African tribal religious beliefs. The last major riots occurred two years ago when more than 700 persons, largely Christian, died in Muslim mob attacks. The religious unrest this year started last week when Muslim crowds, angered by the controversial Mohammed cartoons, demolished 30 Christian churches and killed 30 Christians in the north. Revenge attacks in predominantly Christian Ibo territory in south quickly ensued with many more Muslims murdered. This led to counter-attacks in the north with the death toll rising further and 15 more churches set on fire. At least 140 people had died in 7 days of religious violence. Perhaps 10,000 have been left homeless.

The religious violence masks deeper tensions. Much of Nigeria's oil wealth is in the south. Should the south opt to secede, the predominantly Muslim north would be stripped of rich hydrocarbon revenue and access to the sea. Much of the country's commercial infrastructure and educated manpower is in the south. The northern Hausa states, heirs to the medieval Islamic principalities of Kano, Maiduguri, Sokoto and Zaria, would then be landlocked and transformed into an impoverished region much like Chad and Niger. With the growing desertification of the Sahel, the prospects look bleak. However, the Nigerian military is largely Hausa in composition and is likely to prevent any such secession. The predominantly Christian Ibos had attempted to secede between 1967 and 1970 which the northern military had crushed with unparalleled ferocity. The Biafran famine was a man made one where the Ibos died in the tens of thousands.

Nigeria is but a geographic expression. It lacks a cultural underpinning for broader unity. British rule united 356,700 square miles in territory only in 1914. Nigeria became an independent state in 1960. The process of nation building has proved to be difficult. Political uncertainty is aggravating religious and tribal rivalries. Rebels in the oil producing south have waged a three month campaign of attacks and kidnappings against the oil industry. This has reduced exports and driven up oil prices. Meanwhile, President Olesegun Obasanjo, a Born Again Christian, is seeking to amend the constitution to enable him to run for an unprecedented third term. The future is uncertain for Nigeria.


froginthewell said...

Jaffna a doubt - how significant is income from oil? I hear that some european companies buy their oil at a very cheap rate and sells back refined oil for a huge price? Thanks.

Jaffna said...


I am not the best person to respond to your question. Yes, you are correct. There is a price differential in price of crude oil vs refined oil where the multinationals take the profit. But an economist would provide a more erudite response to you.

The issue is however a much broader one. Nigeria minus its hydrocarbon revenue is a poor unstable country. If parts of the south manage to secede through armed revolt, the north would be without significant revenue. It would become a volatile basket case susceptible to famine and a sharp increase in poverty. Just look at Libera, Ivory Cost and Sierra Leone.

Much of the current unrest has been portrayed as Muslim vs Christian. The international media has omitted reference to the fact that the "Christian" backlash exclusively took place in Ibo territory. This would mean that the retaliation was for largely Christian Ibos killed in the Hausa regions of the north but more importantly that the secessionist sentiment of the late 1960s in Biafra might not have entirely died down. It is interesting how the Mohammed cartoons have sparked riots that can be attributed to other underlying tensions be it in Nigeria, Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Best regards

Kathiawadi said...

Indeed, Nigerian situation is a bit more dangerous than other African countries because it involves not just ethnic but religious conflict.

Government(politicians) will have to work very hard to encourge nationalism rather than regionalism to keep this comparatively more promising African country united. I have a few Nigerian friends, mostly Hausa. I found them very patriotic and peace loving.

Btw, not all the territory controlled by the British became Nigeria. A few people of south eastern part chose to join French speaking majority people of neighbouring country Cameroon (I also heard from a friend about existence of a small separatist movement in this English speaking part of Cameroon).

More conflicts in African states will only allow the other nations to exploit the situation for their benefit.

Jaffna said...


Well put. I think Nigeria can argue the case for a common inheritance in shared British traditions of jurisprudence, parliamentary democracy and common law. It is the largest African state in terms of population. But it will need to contain the attempts of certain states to impose the Shari'ah on non-Muslims.

There is also the rich pre-colonial tradition of statecraft, not just in the Hausa north but also in Yoruba territory in the South West. The history is amazing.

Quick correction, the northern half of the British administered territory of Cameroon had opted to join Nigeria, not the reverse as you allude.

Best regards


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