John Campbell

Africa in Transition

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

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Nigeria: Election Season and the Multiple Conflict Arenas

by John Campbell
February 7, 2014

Lieutenant-General Azubike Ihejirika (L) presents a flag to the new chief of army staff, Major-General Kenneth Tobiah Jacob Minimah, during a handing over ceremony at the Defence Ministry headquarters in Abuja, January 20, 2014. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters) Lieutenant-General Azubike Ihejirika (L) presents a flag to the new chief of army staff, Major-General Kenneth Tobiah Jacob Minimah, during a handing over ceremony at the Defence Ministry headquarters in Abuja, January 20, 2014. (Afolabi Sotunde/Courtesy Reuters)

Because of an American pre-occupation with the threat of jihadist Islam in the Sahel, much U.S. attention is directed toward “Boko Haram” in northern Nigeria and whatever links it might have with other groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As I blogged on February 6, there has in recent weeks been a dramatic upsurge in violence related to Boko Haram. However, there are also other nodes of violence that friends of Nigeria, and Nigerians, should watch.

The two most important areas outside the North are ethnic and religious conflicts in the Middle Belt and the threat of renewed insurrection in Nigeria’s oil patch. Nigeria is in a pre-election season–national elections will take place in February 2015. Nigerian elections involve elite politics, with little reference to the vast majority of the population. Even in non-election times, some politicians exploit societal cleavages to advance their own agendas. In a winner-take-all political environment where holding an elected office almost guarantees personal enrichment, motivation can be especially strong for a no-holds-barred election strategy involving violence between now and February 2015.

Some of the violence in Nigeria is also at the grass-roots level, where the enemy can be the elite. This is a dimension of Boko Haram, for example. Sometimes elite and grass-roots violence intersect. In the North and Middle Belt politicians have been accused of trying to manipulate the grass roots–then losing control of the process: if you try to ride the tiger, you may find yourself in its stomach rather than on its back.

Politics, conflicts, rivalries, and ambitions in many African countries are intensely local; much (if not most) of the time, they are based on much more than just ethnic, religious, or political identities or on economic issues such as land use, access to water, or to markets. And, in many places, family politics are the basic lens through which everything else is viewed. Friends of Africa should be cautious about over-valuing ethnic or religious issues and under-valuing individual ambition.

These realities should make us wary about fitting the current high levels of violence into a single framework. Violence in the North, the Middle Belt, or the Delta may be largely unconnected, driven instead by more local realities. However, it does take place in the context of weak government and the heightened political tension of a pre-election period. This can make it explosive.

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  • Posted by peccavi

    Fairly accurate analysis. Although politics and politicians will exploit and heighten whatever naturally occurring fault lines they can find. The issue is less the immediate effect which will be unfortunately bloody and destructive to the people at the bottom but the legacy effects. If Jonathan runs/ wins there will be not just the insurgency in the Northeast but the deeply disgruntled and desperate politicians from the North looking for another avenue to hit back at him. recent events in Rivers and Maiduguri show that politicians even in these crisis ridden places have completely failed to learn the lessons of past politically inspired insurgencies. Thus we will most likely see alot of sectarian attacks mainly seking to ethnically cleanse areas in order to get voters of one stripe or the other out of the picture. If Jonathan loses, the Delta will rise again, simply because the enriched militant leaders will access to the trough and will be taking what they see to be justified revenge for this and for Boko Haram during ‘their mans’ time (although the Niger Delta is still a polluted, undeveloped wasteland.
    Short of some seriously imaginative and intelligent leadership Nigeria is in trouble

  • Posted by Constance J. Freeman

    I found this blog most thoughtful and the concepts can be applied to other countries such a Sudan/South Sudan where the multiplicity of conflicts and the element of “personal ambition” belie the more simplistic analysis often applied to the situation. I look forward to more exploration of these other conflicts in Nigeria and how they will all affect the elections.

  • Posted by sadiq Adebisi

    i agree with the write up,for a very long time many Nigeria conflicts are hiding group or individual interest generated.why the uneducated fellowers foolishly support and fight on their behalf.thats why such conflict are rear in the southern part of the country.

  • Posted by Morgan Barnes

    No doubt that Nigeria has stability issues plaguing the country, but so does most other African countries, as well as the rest of the developing world. I think it’s time to give these countries a chance and give them the benefit of the doubt to build their own economies and come into their own identity as an influencer in the global economy and policy arena. Their road to independence, stability, growth, and good governance has absolutely been bumpy, but at least it’s progressing and not falling backward. Very interested to see what comes out of Nigeria in the coming years, as well as the other emerging MINT economies including Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey too.

  • Posted by Chike

    Peccavi,

    Not sure about your analysis, Jonathan (and the rest of Nigeria) have probably seen the worst from Boko Haram – and Nigerians (both from the North & South) have no great desire to see the events of 2011/12/13 repeated.

    Secondly, “Northern politicians” (by that you mean Muslim politicians from the North) aren’t the only power brokers in Nigeria – any escalation of violence during the build up to the elections – or shortly after, will merely convince the rest of the nation (which is the majority), that Jonathan is the safer, less radical choice for president.

    Right now, two options exist for power brokers in Northern Nigeria – either try to wrestle power away from Jonathan via APC (a very tricky proposition) or simply wait until 2019 for an orderly transfer of power from Jonathan to a Northern candidate – increasingly, many power brokers in the North see the latter as the safer option.

    You leave Nigeria with binary options – violence in the North or violence in the Niger Delta. I think the situation is a lot more complex than that & Nigeria has a habit of confounding even its best analysts.

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