John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Nigeria Reads on Boko Haram and the Fuel Subsidy

by John Campbell
January 25, 2012

A protester holds a placard on the fourth day of a nationwide strike against the removal of the petrol subsidy in Lagos January 12, 2012. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters)


There have been a few of reads on Nigeria that I wanted to call your attention to. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch, in a report, attributed 935 deaths to alleged attacks by Boko Haram since July 2009. (We have recorded 855 deaths since May 29, 2011 in our Nigeria Security Tracker but that includes deaths caused by security services in pursuit of Boko Haram.) Read it here.

I also published an oped in the International Herald Tribune today that explores the similarities and differences between Boko Haram and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and implications for possible Nigerian government responses. Read it here.

Finally, Nic Cheeseman, university lecturer in African politics and Hugh Price fellow of Jesus College at University of Oxford, on his blog “Democracy in Africa,” has published one of the most thought-provoking, convincing analysis I have seen of the Jonathan administration’s attempts to end the fuel subsidy by an anonymous author. Read it here.

In “Adding Fuel to the Fire in Nigeria,” the author makes the fundamental point that ending the fuel subsidy is not about economics – it is about the patronage politics that govern Nigeria—a point with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Fundamental to his argument is the observation that Goodluck Jonathan has two weaknesses: “legitimacy and cash.” Bluntly, he shows that by ending power alternation between Northern and Southern political elites, Jonathan must establish his legitimacy by providing them with kickbacks from government contracts. And that is expensive.

But, there is no money for big projects in the medium term that would generate the necessary contracts. So, Jonathan tried to eliminate the fuel subsidy, now almost a quarter of the federal budget. (He succeeded in getting rid of about half of it.) In a sense, he has thereby transferred his shortage of funds to the backs of the Nigerian people.

At the end of the day, he notes that it “does not matter” whether Jonathan is able to exercise meaningful presidential power. The central government has been in retreat. In the last months of the Yar’Adua administration, there was no government at all, and that hardly mattered. So, the Nigerian elites with their increasingly impotent government can hunker down in Abuja (which he brilliantly characterizes as a “national scale version” of the old Government Reserve Areas of colonial times) and continue indefinitely to live off the profits of oil and gas.

Anonymous concludes his insightful essay by raising the question of whether as the central government retreats, “which devolved, democratized or fissiparous forces are coming in to fill the vacuum that has been created by the retreat of the center.” The author seems to recall the success of protests across the country and raises the possibility of a shift in power towards the public.

While I agree that something new happened during these fuel subsidy protests, I also have two thoughts about the possibility of more radical change.

The military, especially the army, still has guns. While the upper reaches are co-opted by the administration, and are probably doing very well out of the ‘system,’ that is much less true of the rank and file and of junior and mid-level officers, whose families and friends feel the effects of the fuel subsidy cut as well as the country’s general decline.

Nigerian elites are terrified of the possibility of a junior officer coup. They ought to be. If one happens, it is likely to be bloody, because it might take the form of a mutiny against senior officers.

Another possibility is the much feared “Road to Kinshasa,” in which, according to John Paden, “societies were based on strife, with beleaguered dictatorships, minimum social control, the economics of isolation, and the tearing of the social fabric.” In conjunction with Boko Haram in the North, an ethnically divided and “ghettoized” Middle Belt, and a revival of the MEND insurrection in the Delta, the pressures might be too great for Nigeria’s current political economy to sustain, leading to an implosion in unpredictable ways.

Either of these possibilities would likely be a disaster for the Nigerian people. But, the strike and the demonstrations associated with ‘Occupy Nigeria’ did bring together Nigerians across religious and ethnic lines. That could happen again. Their solidarity – if only for a week – provides hope for the future.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Maduka

    I am surprised you failed to cite Wole Soyinka’s article in Newsweek about Boko Haram.

    I think you really need to consider the motivations of the writers of these articles before you make any judgement on them. If you don’t, you stand the risk of taking a side in Nigeria’s extremely complicated politics.

    I don’t know why a “respected Nigerian” watcher should descend to the level of complaining that Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff comes from the South-East. If I am correct General Ihejirika is the first Chief of Army Staff from that region since 1966 – when Major-General Ironsi was murdered by Northern Nigerian soldiers.

    This blog and the “legions of respected analysts” saw nothing wrong with Northerners like Generals Luka Yusuf, Danbazau, Jaji Kazir, Sani Abacha, Mohammadu Ali etc, being appointed as Chief of Army Staff.

    In addition this blog tends to implicitly suggest that power should return to the North. If you believe in the principle of rotation, why do you see anything wrong with the Chief of Army Staff being a South-Easterner? After all, this blog and Ambassador Campbell had no problems when Yar’adua appointed Danbazau (a fellow Northerner) as Chief of Army Staff.

    At some point we have to abandon the politics and consider the economics. Is there a sound reason to remove subsidy on petroleum products? Yes. Was the government’s timing and phasing of the removal appropriate? No. The politics is open to speculation and amounts to mere gossip, it cannot be substantiated.

    Secondly, the fuel subsidy riots have led to increased calls for transparency in government and are already yielding results. Nigerians have a better appreciation of how the government conducts its business and heads are likely to roll. The fuel subsidy regime was a scheme which corruptly enriched a few and that is not to be disputed. It should discontinued.

    Thirdly, Nigerians are more concerned about their security than they are about the cost of a litre of petrol. Boko Haram and violence in Northern Nigeria are seen as greater threats. True, Jonathan’s seeming inability to face up to the crises de-legitimizes him, but the apparent cowardice or collusion of certain elements of the Northern elite does even more damage to Northern Nigeria.

    Nigerians may not be comfortable with Jonathan, but they may want to live under the leadership of the Northern Nigerian elite even less.

    Finally, you can barely mask your glee that the Jonathan regime is faltering. That is understandable. But as a scholar, try to be more balanced and less partisan in your analysis.

  • Posted by Maduka

    One more point, about the prospect of a “Junior Officers Coup”.

    We tend to forget that there was a junior officers coup on the 22nd of April, 1990 – it was led by junior and middle-level officers from the Niger Delta and the Middle-Belt.

    It was also overwhelmingly Christian.

    One the first pronouncements of the coup leader, Major Orkar was the excising of several states in Northern Nigeria from the rest of the federation. That statement spelled the end of the coup.

    My point is even though middle-level and junior officers have guns it is more difficult for them to form a consensus and the possibility of a successful coup is very slim.

    Secondly, the stress of dealing with several inter-ethnic and inter-religious crises is already telling on the Nigerian Military, with Military officers being accused of taking sides in these conflicts.

  • Posted by Maduka

    There is barely a mention in this blog about the growing number of internally displaced people (both Christian and Muslim) – one of the results of the “poverty and alienation” driven Boko Haram campaign of violence.

    I am also waiting for you to make a distinction between “the aggrieved North” and the “the aggrieved Hausa-Fulani elite”. You still create the impression that “the North” consists only of the Hausa-Fulani and possibly, the Kanuri and that the views of these three groups represent the views of the entire North.

    You take pains to present the “North’s point of view”, but I haven’t seen much enthusiasm from you to explain the Middle-Belt’s point of view or the view of Southern Nigeria.

    You also haven’t explained how you can be “anti-corruption”, yet be so closely associated with Atiku Abubakar (who is yet to fully explain the source of his immense wealth and was implicated in both the William Jefferson scandal, the Halliburton scandal and was widely accused of manipulating the privatisation process to his benefit).

    Instead you relish in pointing out corruption elsewhere, but are strangely silent on Atiku Abubakar.

    Reading your blog, one might assume that Nigeria’s history began in 1999 and that what happened prior to 1999 is irrelevant.

    I am not saying that there isn’t an element of truth in what you say, but there is a lot that you suspiciously leave unsaid. You represented a nation that preaches freedom of speech, so it is well within my rights to challenge your motives on your blog.

    Are you really the unbiased commentator you claim to be?

    You also have the right not to publish my comments, I can voice my concerns elsewhere – the Internet is massive.

  • Posted by John Ojeah

    I think the Ambassador is a late observer of Nigeria. He probably doesn’t appreciate that the competition is actually between the three major ethnic groups (Hausa/Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba). The aim of each group is to win the alliance of the two minority groups (Northern minorities or Middle Belt and the Niger Delta). In the 1960s up till Babangida regime the Hausa/Fulani was able to win the support of these two groups. Hence, they were able to dominate the country with the support of these two allies.

    Unfortunately, beginning from the IBB regime they begin to lose the traditional support from these two groups. IBB started a systematic retirement of Middle-Belt officers and Abacha started the military crackdown on the Niger Delta, even killing one of his best friends from the region, Ken Saro Wiwa. The Southeast and Southwest will welcome the distrust brewing between the minorities and the Hausa-Fulani and I trust them to look for opportunities to exploit it to the fullest.

    Carrying out a successful coup in this era of ethnic and regional militia is wishful thinking. People are not scared of the military any more. As Maduka mentioned, the last coup by junior officers was planned and financed by the minorities (Middle Belt and Niger Delta) who are overwhelmingly Christian. That coup forced IBB to flee to Abuja. Since then there have been armed militias in almost every region. These militias will immediately seek autonomy if such a coup is not perceived as national. You must have a CONSIDERABLE consensus before a coup can succeed, otherwise welcome to the USSR in 1989, Nigerian style if there is any attempt.

  • Posted by femi

    I appreciate the effort of Maduka to set things straight here as your analysis is precise and reflects the dynamics of power in Nigeria
    The far North remains the way it is because it has jettisoned education for its teeming population and replaced it with political Islam and the promise of Dar al Salaam
    The misery and penury that follows cannot be the fault of the south
    The ambassador should be able to challenge his friends in the North to serve their people and show them a vision for prosperity side by side with Islam just as Kamal Ataturk did to the present day Turkey.

  • Posted by Maduka


    Reading through John Campbell’s blog and hearing him talk on TV, one gets the impression that Goodluck Jonathan and “Southern domination of the central government at Abuja” are solely responsible for situation in Northern Nigeria and when he talks about government paying more attention to the needs of Northern youth, he is painfully short on details.

    I’m not going to go into the details of poor stewardship by local administrators in Northern Nigeria, but all of us are aware of the story of the one-year old with a college degree on the payroll of a Northern state. We also know that the budgets of most states in Northern Nigeria equal or exceed total US aid to Nigeria ($500 million).

    On a more serious note, one cannot deal with the problems of Northern Nigeria without looking at the link between polygamy and poverty. Polygamy is on the decline in the Middle East, but is still prevalent in Northern Nigeria. We need to look for ways to co-opt religious and political leaders in the campaign against the practice of poor men marrying several wives.

    We also need to look at the practice of child beggars (or Almajiris). The North cannot make progress if its children spend their formative years begging and learning the Quran by rote. The products of such a system are unemployable.

    We also need to check/counter the influence of radical preachers because contrary to the usual excuses given by Western liberal apologists, Islamic terrorism has theological roots.

    Finally, we must draw clear boundaries between Mosque and State in Northern Nigeria in order to create a space in which both Christian and Muslim communities can thrive. If we fail to do so, we are just setting ourselves up for many more years of bloodshed. What these boundaries will be, we don’t know, but it is unlikely that Christian communities in Northern Nigeria are going to accept the status of Copts in Egypt.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required