By Robert Kaplan & Mark Schroeder
Individuals are more concrete than the national or ethnic group of which they form a part. To talk about an individual's personality and tendencies is easy for those who know the person well; to talk about the personality and tendencies of millions of people who form a nation is much trickier and fraught with moral risk. For the result is often simplistic stereotyping of what are often very complex identities. Nevertheless, to assume Danes harbor the same national characteristics as, say, Chinese, is absurd. The fact is, national traits are the product of a people's experience of living on a singular terrain for centuries and longer, leading to an identifiable national or ethnic culture and thus to specific characteristics. To deny this altogether is to immobilize observation, which, in turn, leads to analysis that is both unrealistic and naive.
Thus, we come to Nigeria, a country of over 166 million people with severe overcrowding due to the fact that much of the country is desert and swamps where few people can live. Historic, once exotic trading posts like Lagos and Kano, as well as the capital, Abuja, are now grim megacities distinguished by high crime rates, including scams, armed robbery and kidnapping. For too many Nigerians, life is a Hobbesian, zero-sum game that adds up to an aggressive, predatory system of survival of the fittest. Nigeria is a place where life is too often a matter of who can intimidate whom. Indeed, war, crime and thuggery are the province of young males, and Nigeria's population is composed of many of them.
This predatory national character plays out politically in a country that is not wholly a country -- Nigeria is an assemblage of several British-ruled territories: specifically a Muslim north that the British governed indirectly through traditional rulers and a non-Muslim south that the British ruled directly. The tension between the different parts of Nigeria has dominated political life for decades, leading to coups and counter-coups and significant periods of democracy characterized by exceedingly high levels of corruption, which is, in turn, part of the spoils system that staves off civil war. For Nigerian politics at the highest levels is as predatory as life on the street.
There are essentially three geographical parts to Nigeria: a Muslim-dominated north of desert and semi-desert, which produces the Hausa officers' corps that for decades has dominated the military and, by association, politics for significant periods; a southwestern region dominated by the Yoruba people, which contains the commercial capital of Lagos; and the southeast where much of the oil is located, dominated by the Igbo tribe. The Igbo tried to separate from the country in 1967, sparking the three-year-long Biafran separatist war. But the Igbo miscalculated the intentions of the Yoruba. The outnumbered Igbo had hoped for an alliance against the Hausa, and what they got was a Yoruba-Hausa alliance. The Igbo were defeated and the country held together. Abuja, to no one's surprise, is less the capital city than the point of arbitration for a weak and sprawling empire otherwise known as the state of Nigeria. Abuja is where the economic spoils are distributed -- the benefit of upwards of 2.5 million barrels of oil pumped daily.
Between the Igbo southeast and the Yoruba southwest is the Niger Delta region dominated by the Ijaw tribe. The oil pipelines run through this region, even as the Ijaw have not shared sufficiently in the spoils dealt out in Abuja. Ignored for decades and violently intimidated during the 1990s, the Ijaw in the 2000s waged an increasingly militant campaign to assert their presence. Pipeline sabotage and bombings of oil facilities effectively held the country's economy for ransom. The Ijaw were accommodated in 2007 and were rewarded with the vice presidency, in exchange for curtailing the sponsorship of militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. In 2010, because of the death of Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, a northern Muslim, then-Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian Ijaw from the south, became head of state. This was an unforeseen development of crisis proportions to Yar'Adua's supporters in the otherwise economically impoverished north. The shift of political fortunes in Abuja led to a lot of money -- until that point captured by the north -- being released to members of the Ijaw elite and Niger Delta militants who ended the attacks on the pipelines. But now it is the Muslim north that is dissatisfied. The partial result: constant terror attacks from the northern Muslim militant group, Boko Haram. (The north-south rivalry is, of course, a simplification -- or rather a summation of many cross-cutting regional enmities.)
Witness how Islamist terrorism -- or Ijaw militants blowing up pipelines -- in a Nigerian political context is merely a tool for leverage in a predatory system. For Boko Haram grew in importance after Jonathan mismanaged the regional power-sharing deal that cut short the north's turn at the till. This isn't only terrorism but imperial politics, too.