Hundreds of people have been killed in riots in the Northern parts of Nigeria since the results of the weekend election were announced: Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the South, won. Forty thousand people (mostly southerners) have been displaced in the midst of those riots. What is going on?
In one sense this is nothing new, since rivalry between the South (mostly Christians and animists) and the North (mostly Muslims) has occurred ever since Nigeria’s independence in 1960. The country was cobbled together by the British, arbitrarily combining over two hundred different ethnic groups. The Northerners were poorly educated; by contrast, the Southerners (particularly the Igbos and the Yorubas) were mostly educated. The South was densely populated. In the North, you could drive for miles and never see a human being.
The consequences of these divisions? The tallies of the country’s first post-independence census in 1962 were never released. The results of the second census, in 1963, were questioned. The North claimed a larger population than the South, thereby controlling the country’s federal budget, and that dominance has largely continued. The first of numerous military coups occurred in 1966. The discovery of oil (initially in 1953, then offshore in 1963, followed by Nigeria joining OPEC in 1971) didn’t help, because suddenly that money was siphoned off to the North with little of it going to the Delta area, where the oil was pumped. Billions of other dollars from the oil simply disappeared.
There was the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, from 1967-1970, when Igbos in the Eastern region (in the south) seceded after numerous pogroms against them in Northern cities (often followed by the slaughter of Muslims in the South.) The Igbos were more highly educated than any of the other peoples of Nigeria’s many ethnic groups. After independence, people of other ethnicities feared the Igboization of the government. If you talk to Igbos today, many say there will be secession but, frankly, I doubt that.
What is more likely is a break between the South and the North on the basis of religious differences. The North has tried to implement Sharia law in the South. The South is still wall-to-wall people, the North lightly populated. The South is poorly developed, polluted, with unreliable access to electricity and clean water. Yet, Nigeria sells electricity to neighboring countries and everyone in both the North and the South appears to be involved in the country’s rampant corruption. The cause of that corruption? I’d point my finger at the country’s ethnic rivalries and geographical and economic disparities.
That’s an over-simplification, I know. But in 1962, when I began teaching in Nigeria, in a village in South (in the Igbo area), the infrastructure worked; there was only minor corruption; my students were the most enthusiastic and diligent that I have taught in my entire career. There was an incredible atmosphere of expectation that individuals had for themselves and for their country.
And then it all began to fall apart: that troubled census, the military coups, the Civil War, the oil money and the enormous misappropriation of oil profits (300 billion dollars) down through the years. Finally, the man on the street took things into his own hands and began emulating the corruption of the country’s leaders (both military and civilian). It hasn’t helped that the military was often dominated by Muslims, the bureaucracy by Christians.
Now Nigeria has reached a kind of stalemate. The just-completed election was carefully controlled and monitored so that voter fraud could be minimized—no longer were Northerners able to “vote” in the huge numbers as in the past, because the population figures no longer hold up. Soon Northerners are going to have to face the fact that they can no longer control the rest of the country. It won’t be easy to fix Nigeria’s corruption, but it may finally be possible for Southerners to benefit more equitably from the oil revenues. I am cautiously optimistic that Nigeria can have a decent future if the current spasm of violence can be stopped—unless the country breaks into two.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.