Nigeria is a colonial era creation in West Africa of a mishmash of different tribal identities as well an even deeper divide between the mostly Muslim northern Sahel region and the mostly Christian and animist society (with Muslim minorities) in the subtropical and tropical south that it itself deeply split by tribal divisions that are somewhat, but not entirely along contiguous geographic lines. Overall, Nigeria about 150 million people, making it a third world superpower and the largest nation by population in all of Africa. The number of Muslims and the number of Christians and animists in Nigeria are roughly equal in number. It also had the wealth that comes with significant oil and mineral resources, and thriving megacities. It is home to more than 250 ethnic groups, with the Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo (aka Ibo), Ijaw, Kanuri, and Ibibio and Tiv collectively making up just under 90% of the population. English is the official language of country and its national elites, as a legacy of English colonial rule, but Hasua, Yoruba, Igbo and Fulani are its priniciple indigeneous languages. It is organized as a federal republic with 36 states and a capital territory, and has a surprisingly modest 80,000 active duty military members for a nation so long dominated by the military and known as a regional military powerhouse.
A Brief History Of The Nigerian State
The history of the Nigerian state, it has never been a nation-state, starts in the period from 1861-1900 when the British established control over it as a colony, and then to the point at which is secured its independence, in 1960, severing ties to the British monarch entirely in 1963.
By 1967, it has been engulfed in a civil war, with Eastern Nigeria establishing a short lived Republic of Biafra, comprised most of the Ibo ethnic group, that was crushed by 1970, a million people dead in its wake.
The usual third world succession of coups, transitional governments, and short lived elected civilian regimes followed. The first round of civilian rule after independence was secured lasted just six years. The military ruled for thirteen years from 1966 to 1979. Civilians ruled for the next four years from 1979 to 1983. This brief interim of elected civilian government was followed promptly by a coup that established a military regime. In 1985, after two years this military regime was replaced in a coup by another military regime, which eventually held elections in 1993 for a civilian regime, that were annulled when the regime favored candidate lost, leading to riots that produced little less than three months of appointed civilian transitional government, followed by another coup imposing a new military regime in 1994 and the incarceration of the putative 1993 election winner who had declared himself to be the President. The leaders of that regime and the putative democratically elected President both died in 1998, and the successor held election the next year.
Since at least 2000, there have been on going clashes between Muslims and Christians leading to ongoing genocidal waves of tit for tat violence and the formation of an organized violent and radical Islamic political movement called Boko Haram. In 2011, continuing a string of elected civilian leaders in office since 1999, Goodluck Jonathan was elected President in the national election. The elections in 1999 and 2003 were won by Olugegun Obasanjo (a former military ruler), the election in 2007 was won by Umaru musa Yar'Adua, his chosen successor, in the face of serious electoral violence and irregularities in the conduct of the election. Thus, Goodluck Jonathan is the first Nigerian leader in decades to lack any ties to Nigeria's long history of military rule. His election led to bombings and an orgy of Boko Haram orchestrated violence in the North. Nigeria's current string of elected leaders has been the longest in its history of a nation, and its current President has fewer ties to the military and non-democratic forces than any leader Nigeria has seen since at least 1983.
Should This Multinational State Continue?
The fundamental political question facing Nigeria is the "Nigeria question": Does a multinational Nigerian state makes sense as a political construct at all?
The answer is not an easy one.
In practice, while the Nigerian state is a federal one, it does not practice the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. delegating governmental powers to the lowest possible level of government). Its state bureaucracy and federal division of power looks more like Spain or France ca. 1960, than it does like an American or German or Canadian style federal system. Moreover, the move by a regional block of Northern Nigerian states to adopt Islamic law in the year 2000 has set in motion a powerful schizmatic tendency on North-South lines and the end of military rule released long simmering pressures for wildly different regimes at the state level much as the end of the political power monopoly of the Communist power did in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Choices include the status quo of a highly centralized state that is only federal in theory, a profoundly more decentralized federal state, or the actual dismemberment of the Nigerian state, probably along existing state boundaries into two or more constituent Republics. Also complicating any division of the country is the fact that regionally localized oil wealth is critical to the functioning of the state.
As a Nigerian blogger explained in May of this year:
Nigeria’s problem is not so much that Nigeria is not homogeneous. Nigeria’s problem stems from the fact that Nigeria is artificial, a colonial creation. And our people being indigenes at heart, cannot relate to it viscerally. There is no gut-wrenching reaction to anything Nigerian, in the same way we react when our tribes are taunted by outsiders or racist remarks are directed at us. That sense of belonging or ownership that we have with regard to our tribes, is not felt for Nigeria. We are still basically tribesmen: Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas, Ijaws, etc. living in a space called Nigeria.
But we were not the only people colonized. Much of the Middle-east and Asia suffered colonization too,in one shape or another. The difference is that most of those countries are historic: they were already existing in a state similar to their present form. This difference is of crucial importance.
In much of the Middle-east and Asia,the template for citizenship did not change with colonialism. The people lived within the same borders and related to each other, as well as the state, much as they had done for thousands of years before colonization. The only difference was that the king or emperor was subject to the influence of the colonial master. After colonization, they did not need any re-indoctrination to become citizens of their country, because nothing had changed. Their kings or emperor simply went back to ruling their “nations”, as they had done for millennia. The people and their kings did not have to get used to a new geographic contraption, no. It was still the same country to which they had paid allegiance for antiquity. Unlike Africa. Where colonialism meant lumping together mutually distrustful and independent tribes into new, and arbitrary unions, dictated only by imperial politico-economic rivalry.
It is this difference between African and Asian colonial experience, that explains the contrast in the quality of leadership between the two regions. Asian leaderships have a legacy of Nationalism: they can draw from a tradition of leadership, which viewed the entire country as the primary constituency of the king or emperor. You might have noticed that Middle-eastern or Asian dictators generally tend to be benevolent. While they may not have had perfect human rights records, they still developed their countries, unlike African dictators. This is because there existed a tradition of “national-scale” leadership. This contrasts with our experience, where leaderships, lacking such a legacy of “national-scale” vision, fall back on “tribal-scale” myopia. Our leaders are mere clan-patriarchs at heart, unable to provide the necessary leadership on a national-scale, because their vision cannot seemingly transcend tribe.
It is because the irredentist understands this leadership-limitation, that he advocates balkanization, believing that leadership within tribal enclaves would be fairer and more accountable. Not because of hatred of other tribes. The irredentist’s sovereignist enthusiasm is therefore functional, not necessarily sentimental. It is about living in a space where one feels comfortable not only physically, but developmentally; It is about not being afraid that one would be stabbed in the back: literally through sectarian violence or metaphorically in the shape of discriminatory government policies. It is about responsive governance, and an engaged citizenry. Understanding that the irredentist’s true craving is for good governance, should give hope to both nationalists and irredentists, that balkanization of Nigeria need not be inevitable. The question to be asked is this, ”can we secure the same governance and security that the irredentist craves, while retaining the advantages of scale and diversity that come with a united Nigeria?”
We definitely can, like the United States. But to do this would require, like the United States, faithful adherence to the principle of federalism. Although the United States is geographically, numerically and economically several times the size of Nigeria, it is much smaller administratively than Nigeria. This is because the Americans apply the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that things are better done at the lowest competent level of government. Most of the things that matter to Americans are handled locally. In contrast, in Nigeria, you cannot change your electricity meter, without reference to some bureaucrat in Abuja. There is too much power and money concentrated in Abuja. This is what frustrates, and alienates the citizenry. If we want to see a Nigerian citizenry animated by the passion that characterized the typical African village square, we need to bring back the village square. To do this would entail extensive decentralization, true federalism and resource control.
How Viable Is A Federal Solution?
I don't share Henryik2009's optimism that American style federalism could work in Nigeria. There are certainly benefits to decentralizing government to local levels, even in ethnically homogeneous nation-states. But, the first order ethnic and regional divide in American politics, the split between the North and the South that produced the Confederate States of America, the American Civil War, and the Civil War's reunion of the American nation whose scars still show, is not nearly so deep as the tribal and religious divisions that face Nigeria.
India, one of the earliest and most successful decolonizalizations involving a multiethnic state had the advantage of encompassing almost an entire continental political system that was already in place upon which its federal system was built, but even it soon fractures of Muslim-Hindu lines, and even after that schizm, which still festers in places like Kashmir, Pakistan and Bangladesh could not manage to hold together as a single South Asian Muslim state, and none of the three successor states to India as it was at the end of British rule have the unquestioned legitimacy, or staid and orderly democratic process that characterize American politics even at its worst.
On balance, I think most observations of international political affairs see the dismantling of the Soviet Union into constituent republics, the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the severance of Kosovo from Serbia, the Velvet Divorce of Czechoslovakia, and the severance of South Sudan from Sudan, as success stories. Dividing multinational federal states into their constituent parts is particularly helpful in periods of dramatic political change, allowing each component to reach its own separate aspirations in its own way with less need for large scale bureaucratic coordination.
Indeed, it isn't entirely obvious that it has made sense for Ukraine, which is deeply divided on a quite clear East-West line politically and came to the brink of schizm, or for Russia, whose restive Caucasian Republics have mounted a long and so far unsuccessful insurgency seeking independence since the Soviet Union broke up, to stay whole. Likewise, calls for the division of Belgium which has already taken federalism to a maximum level of decentralization are increasingly seen as sensible, and calls for even further decentralization for Spain's already somewhat autonomous ethnically regions are receiving have gained credibility. Schizmatic solutions to Iraq's future, de facto realized in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan already, are also being taken seriously as an option, if not necessarily a preferred option. Even the possibility of a Scotland that is independent of the United Kingdom is starting to look like a less radical proposal than it once did.
Recent historical experience has cast serious doubt on the benefits of scale for states that are not nations, at least when a relatively clean and uncontroversial way to draw the lines is visible. Less than sovereign international alliances, like the various European international arrangements, suggest alternatives to a federal regime. The economic strides of the Asian Tiger economies have dispelled any credible argument that a state needs to be large to be economically prosperous as a general rule, but in oil dependent states, the economic issues can be acute.
Concerns about schizms are now more focused on issues like the human rights implications of a split, and the economic viability of resulting states particularly in cases where mineral resources are key to the national economy.
The basic human rights issue is whether any of the resulting states are likely to show more disregard for human rights outside a federal structure, and whether the dismantling of a federal structure may protect the human rights of the populations of any of the component regions that are not a political minority in the existing larger federal state.
For example, the split of Sudan greatly advanced the human rights of the South Sudanese who were an oppressed minority in the united country, but at the expense of leaving the people of South Kordofan that remained in rump Sudan with even less political power than they had before the breakup. The departure of Kosovo from Serbia made sense because it weakened the power of Serbia, a state with a poor human rights record, while freeing a minority oppressed people within that state from Serbia's rule.
In Nigeria, the biggest human rights question is whether the departure of Northern States that have adopted Islamic law from greater Nigeria would compromise human rights for the people in those states.