Awave of bombings in Nigeria has highlighted the fissures that threaten to fracture Africa’s most populous nation. The violence has been launched by an Islamic militia, but it has inflamed already widespread economic and political discontent. President Goodluck Jonathan has called for a security crackdown, but it will take far more than officers on the street and enhanced authority to dampen the grievances that could tear his country apart.
On Jan. 20, a string of bombings across the country claimed more than 150 lives. Most took place in Kano, the economic capital of Nigeria’s north, a region that is poor and dominated by Muslims. Another explosion in another state killed at least 11 people. These are the latest in a series of terrorist attacks ranging back at least 18 months.
Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamic militia, took responsibility for the attacks in Kano, which were intended, among other things, to free some group members taken prisoner by the government. The group has called for the “cleansing” of Nigeria’s northeast of Christians, who are the majority in the south.
The group has claimed almost an attack a day; it is estimated to have killed at least 219 people this year and as many as 500 over the last 12 months. A prominent Christian leader has called upon his worshippers to begin defending themselves, a potentially worrisome escalation.
In Benin in the southwest, a mob killed five people and wounded at least six others on Jan. 10 when they attacked the city’s central mosque and a Quranic school. The day before, a mob tried and failed to set a mosque ablaze
This polarization is already reflected in Nigerian politics. The country’s politicians had informally agreed to alternate presidents between candidates from the Muslim north and from the Christian south. Mr. Jonathan, a Christian, ended that agreement when he ran for office last year. Muslims now feel disenfranchised at both the popular and elite levels.
Religious divisions are amplified by more widespread anger created by the government’s decision on Jan. 1 to lift fuel subsidies that had largely benefitted the poor. While that decision made economic sense — the subsidies are estimated to cost about $600 million a day — it triggered a wave of strikes and protests that paralyzed the commercial capital of Lagos.
Tens of thousands of Nigerians took to the streets to demonstrate against a doubling in fuel prices. Food prices have also skyrocketed, a fatal combination in a country where most citizens make less than $2 a day.
Mr. Jonathan reversed course and restored part of the subsidy, but the damage had been done. Despite projections of 6.6 percent growth in 2012 — almost a full percentage point higher than the average growth rate for sub-Saharan Africa — most Nigerians feel that they have not enjoyed the country’s success. In particular, they are deeply angered by the country’s widespread corruption.
This general sense of grievance is inflated by expectations raised by the Arab Spring. The changes in government in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have shaped the thinking of many Nigerians as well. Watching other Africans overthrow ossified and corrupt power structures has encouraged Nigerians to do the same.
And the rise of Islamic parties in Egypt, Sudan and the Persian Gulf has fueled hopes — and fears — that Islamic groups can make similar gains in Nigeria.
The Jonathan administration has responded tactically — rolling back the subsidy cuts and beefing up security forces so that it can conduct searches without warrants and detain suspects indefinitely. As soldiers are deployed throughout the restive north, the police and security budgets have been stretched to record high levels.
But ultimately, such an approach will fail. A similar insurgency in the north was bought off a few years ago. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) was given a larger share of the region’s oil revenues — “amnesty” of group leaders was reportedly matched by payouts under the table.
But larger issues were not addressed and Nigeria’s real problems reflect deep-rooted political problems — the capture of power by an oligarchy that puts its interests above those of the people. This political issue creates economic problems as the elite rakes in the bulk of the country’s economic output.
The government’s failure to address these structural problems in the Nigerian economy dooms responses that many view as only piecemeal at this point.
Moreover, the Islamic dimension of Boko Haram’s call for “justice” escalates and transforms its complaints. While the movement was indigenous in origin, there are concerns that it will link up with international terrorist groups, especially if the Nigerian government turns to the West for assistance in putting down the militancy. This is increasingly likely given the government’s inability to stop the escalation of violence.
And it is Western oil companies that are pumping the 2.4 million barrels of oil that go primarily to the United States.
Mr. Jonathan needs to reach out to the Islamists in his country and provide a political environment in which Northern politicians will feel ready to negotiate.
Unfortunately, the president is not considered a strong leader and is unlikely to be able to counter the entrenched interests that maintain a stranglehold on Nigeria’s politics and economy. That grip must be weakened.