The Path Not Taken: Conflict and Identity in Nigeria

The Path Not Taken: Conflict and Identity in Nigeria

In the decades after its independence in October 1960, Nigeria periodically found itself at a series of crossroads. The 1960s were characterized by a devastating civil war and internal tensions that nearly drove the country apart; the 1970s saw a burgeoning oil and gas industry as well as governance achievements—notably efforts to develop a national identity and the adoption of a new constitutional framework that ushered in a government with an executive president at its center and, ultimately, a handover to civilian rule, albeit a short-lived one, in 1979. Indeed, in a large and complex country with a population consisting of more than 250 different ethnic groups, evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, finding common ground and allaying the fears of majority and minority groups was paramount.

At a regional level, the 1970 doctrine of a “Pax Nigeriana” provided the vision of Nigerian leadership throughout Africa and was followed by the 1975 Adedeji Report, which made the security of fellow African states a Nigerian foreign policy objective. For analysts at that time, examining Nigeria and assessing its trajectory yielded a mixed picture—largely hopeful, though tempered with considerable skepticism. Nigeria’s clear geostrategic advantages and natural resource endowments positioned it as a natural leader in Africa, particularly in the subregion of West Africa, but they were mitigated by the sheer volume and complexity of the country’s internal challenges. Over time, however, Nigeria’s postcolonial experience played out along the lines envisioned by the critics and skeptics, and it soon came to be characterized by corruption and poor governance, competition and conflict, rising inequality and an economy far too concentrated and dependent on oil and gas revenues.

Today, Nigeria seems to be at another key moment in its history. Internal divisions and tensions over ethnicity, regional power balances and more recently religion have been building over the past decade, creating outbursts of instability in various parts of the country. In some regions, violence has become chronic in the sense that it is a near-constant part of daily life and consciousness—expressed in the form of inter- or intracommunal disputes over resources and power; vigilantism; religiously and politically motivated violence; clashes between nonstate and government actors; and various acts of violent criminality such as oil theft, kidnapping and robbery. The rise of Boko Haram and the Islamist insurgency in the north have even led some to speculate that Nigeria is en route to a civil war reminiscent of the Biafran war of the 1960s, which sparked 2 1/2 years of violence and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1 million civilians.

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