federal politicians in Nigeria are bothered by the entrenchment
of fundamentalist Sharia in the criminal codes of the country’s
northern states. What annoys them even more is yet another prediction
that the country is about to slip into the abyss…unless it
is thoroughly reorganized.
recent signs of the imminent and bloody collapse of this state of
120 million people included fierce fighting between Ogoni communities
in the southern oil region in May. Deaths were considerably higher
in a series of disturbances in the Middle Zone in late 2001 when
Tiv militia clashed with members of other ethnic groups. Subsequently,
in retaliation for the killing of 19 soldiers, the army slaughtered
hundreds in a rampage against the Tiv in Benue State. Meanwhile,
bloody battles between Muslims and Christians in Lagos have become
December, Attorney General and Minister of Justice Bola Ige, a prominent
Yoruba, was assassinated. It was suggested that rival elements from
the same ethnic group were the most likely authors of the crime.
Muslims from the North with army connections were inevitably blamed
in other quarters.
it stands, Nigeria, OPEC’s seventh most prolific exporter,
has constitutionally been a federation since prior to the country’s
independence in 1960. In practice, it has long been a highly centralized
state. Since the 1970s, crude oil sales have supplied the bulk of
government revenue and oil resources are owned and controlled by
the central administration. The myriad small states (36 at last
count) that make up the federation, along with local government
areas, thus depend for the most part on federal transfers. In fact,
in the 1990s only Lagos state was able to meet the bulk of its expenditures
through internally raised revenue. Oil comes from the Delta area,
but money flows via Abuja, the shiny new capital.
those Nigerians who call themselves “federalists” includes,
and is even dominated by, powerful interests favorable to today’s
centralized arrangement. One influential member of this group is
current President Olusegun Obasanjo. A convinced “anti-tribalist,”
Obasanjo believes in a country whose citizens are loyal to a constitution
rather than to an ethnic group. Regional nationalism, in his view,
is a witch’s brew cooked up by Igbo, Yoruba, and Ijaw, intellectuals
(“the worst peddlers of tribalism”) who use this ideology
as a ticket to personal prominence. To counter “tribalism,”
the federal authority, representing all citizens of the country,
must be pre-eminent and financially endowed.
Abacha salted away billions of dollars of government money during
his reign (1993-1998). Under his predecessor, Ibrahim Babangida
(1985-93), a 12-billion dollar windfall in earnings from high Gulf
War petroleum prices mysteriously vanished from government accounts.
These sorts of practices apparently disgusted Obasanjo and motivated
his return to politics. But he has always shared an important assumption
with these more personally corrupt military dictators. When General
Obasanjo was chief executive in the latter half of the 1970s, federal
government ownership of the oil (and other industries) was regarded
as the necessary means through which regionally balanced development
was to be achieved.
it is old news that this system did not serve most Nigerian citizens
well. No welfare state was built during the boom years of the 1970s
and the education system was soon in tatters. As endless newspaper
reports have testified, and residents of the Delta states know too
well, oil extraction brought little development to “South-South”
towns and villages even as spills and gas flaring poisoned their
water and air.
Obasanjo and other leading lights in his Peoples Democratic Party
are no longer interested in state management of most strategic sectors.
Privatization and greater openings for foreign capital is the approach.
But central government title to oil and gas is convenient for multinational
exploitation, through joint ventures or fully privatized operations.
alternatives presented by Delta activists, which would see local
communities own and control energy wealth through publicly accountable
bodies, is opposed by all elements that currently benefit from Nigerian
oil. Multinationals could still make a profit under this scheme,
and thus might be convinced to accept it under particular circumstances.
But corrupt Nigerian elites who live far from the oil areas, while
growing rich from their links to the bureaucracy, will certainly
resist such a change with all the force at their disposal.
years of civilian rule in Nigeria have demonstrated that terror
is far from being a governing tool particular to military administration.
In the fall of 1999, armed youths operating near the Bayelsa village
of Odi killed several police officers, representatives, in their
eyes, of the state that had despoiled their region. The army’s
response was to level the town and slaughter the population. Mass
intimidation, not apprehension of suspects, was the method adopted
by an ostensibly liberal democratic state.
federal government also pursues legal channels to keep oil resources
and earnings in central hands. It resists proposals for a “sovereign
national conference” that might redefine the polity and strip
the center of many of its powers. Minister Ige sought shortly before
his death to have the Supreme Court pronounce in favor of the federal
government’s exclusive claim to offshore oil. (The significance
of this is that, according to the current constitution, no less
than 13 percent of revenue derived from natural resources must be
returned to their states of origin. But if offshore fields aren’t
part of states, then the federal government doesn’t have to
include earnings from those sites in its transfer calculations.)
This spring, that august body pronounced in favor of the feds.
activists in the oil areas aren’t only demanding more cash
from the center, although they want that too. The Niger Delta Youth
Movement has described the 13 percent, along with the federal government’s
much touted Niger Delta Development Commission, as “crumbs
dropping from our stolen property.” They want to decide and
control, even decide to produce less oil if that’s what polluted
communities want. That calls into question the purpose of Nigeria,
as understood by those who rule it.
like people everywhere, have complex identities. Individuals regard
themselves as women or men, Christians or Muslims, as workers or
farmers or traders, and as citizens of the federal state. Obasanjo
and others are quite correct that a “national” consciousness
exists. Young Ijaw women from the Delta city of Port Harcourt working
in bars in the capital cite their right to move freely around their
country. “We’re Nigerians, aren’t we?” they
ask, if queried about being so far from home. Muslim business- people
with northern origins proudly declare “Christian” Lagos
to be their city.
most members of the population also strongly identify with the ethnicity
from which they spring. What exacerbates social tensions and resentments
is the way in which state and economic organization constantly reinforces
the notion that some ethnic groups live at the expense of others.
On a small scale, this might involve a decision to set up the headquarters
of a local government area in a town inhabited primarily by one
ethnicity. The result: more scarce jobs and money for the lucky
a Nigeria-wide level, this phenomenon is illustrated by the Hausa
Fulani elite’s well-known success in occupying top jobs in
the cabinet, bureaucracy, and armed forces, permitting numerous
northern families to grow fabulously rich through graft. The bustling,
more commercial South then makes the charge that the lazy Muslims
from Sokoto and Kano—the ignorant Hausa Fulani—live off
approach obscures the fact that the overwhelming bulk of northerners
are the poorest people in the country and that the elites of all
the leading ethnic groups (Yoruba, Hausa Fulani, and even Igbo,
losers of the Biafran War) have participated in the personal enrichment
bonanza. Sani Abacha’s dictatorship might have been described
as the reign of the North, but a great many southerners helped rule
and loot the country in the 1990s and then backed Abacha’s
plan to remain in power as an elected, civilian head of state—a
scheme aborted when he suddenly expired.
of course it suits southern elites to talk in terms of ethnic oppressors
rather than rich exploiters. Herein lies a crucial problem in the
Nigerian battle of ideas. There is not enough discussion of class,
either as a means of seeking solutions (albeit partial) to economic
problems or to moderate and balance the ethnic discourse in the
interest of civil peace. To an extent, the Nigeria Labor Congress
addresses this matter. Drawing members from every group in the country,
the congress stresses the poverty issues that Nigerian workers have
in common. In January 2002, for example, it called its members into
the streets for a general strike to protest higher fuel prices,
as it had in a substantially more successful action in the summer
of 2001. The NLC has fought hard for minimum wage hikes.
class perspectives are increasingly drowned out. Bola Ige, a fighter
against military rule, a former political prisoner, and a “progressive”
individual in the eyes of many, described the Fulani as the “Tutsi
of Nigeria,” meaning they were a minority that had taken over
dominant positions in the state and economy. Knowing what happened
to the Tutsi in Rwanda when National Socialist Hutus got their opportunity,
it is little wonder that some took umbrage at Ige’s “analysis.”
the wake of the minister’s death, members of the Yoruba Leaders
Forum began talking about secret plans afoot in the country to eliminate
prominent members of their ethnic group. By alluding to unidentified
forces and recalling the death of MKO Abiola (winner of the annulled
1993 elections), the message was clear: northerners, the criminals
of always, are on the offensive. Be ready to fight, Yoruba men.
This despite the fact that evidence pointed to internal Yoruba feuding
as the cause for the killing.
fact, local, democratic control of resources in Nigeria does not
have to be confused with ethnic nationalism. Oil and gas would not
be Ijaw or Ogoni or Igbo or Christian property under a system of
radical de-centralization and self-management; gold and copper mined
in Jigawa State would not belong to Hausa Fulani or Kanuri people
as such. Resources would be controlled by those whose land and lives
exploitation directly affects, which is a different assertion. Residents
of a municipal area or region in this country of internal immigration
and ethnic mix would be “owners” with corresponding rights,
regardless of their background.
ultimately, is the only way to combine local, democratic power with
cosmopolitan, universal values. In Nigeria and elsewhere. Z
Young is a freelance writer living in Spain.