Nigeria achieved independence from the UK in October, 1960. It has seen little but strife ever since. This is in large part due to the fact that the British laid out the boundaries of the most populous country in Africa without regard to anything but geography. Nigeria might be a country, but it is not a nation. There are over two hundred fifty different ethnic groups in Nigeria, and hundreds of languages, encompassing multiple “families” of African languages. Even more divisive, over the last fifty-four years of the country’s independence, are the religious divides between North and South.
The north of the country is dominated by the Muslim Hausa and Fulani peoples. The south is largely dominated by the Yoruba in the west, and the Ibo, Ibibio, and Ijaw tribal grouping around the Niger Delta. The southern tribes are largely Christian, providing a pretty sharp dividing line between north and south, that has shaped the politics of the country, and its wars, since independence.
As expected, when the British left in 1960, they left their chosen officials in charge. That administration rapidly fell into corruption and nepotism, leading to the first military coup d’etat, in 1966. The younger Nigerian officer corps, mostly European-educated, and largely leftist by ideology, conducted the coup to force out the “old guard” and try to get rid of some of the corruption. However, the coup raised hackles in the north, because most of the officers who took part were Christian, and worse, Ibo. The Ibo have a reputation for being ambitious and arrogant among the Muslims in the north; Al Venter describes this as largely due to the Ibo’s willingness to work for what they want.
While the officers who had taken over professed their desire for an equitable, if somewhat Marxist, government, the northern Muslims weren’t buying it. Many of the precepts the new military government was ascribing to were contrary to Islam, and, worse, General Aguiyi Ironsi, the army chief who had taken over, was an Ibo.
In July, 1966, the Muslim counter-coup happened. They struck first in Lagos, dragging every Ibo officer out of Ikeja Barracks and slaughtering them on the parade ground. General Ironsi was murdered as well. In the north, at the same time, over 30,000 easterners were dragged out of their homes and hacked or clubbed to death. The massacres were so bad that over 2 million Ibos became refugees.
The Ibo refugees fled back to their tribal homeland, then under the governorship of a Colonel Ojukwu. Faced with the bloody hatred coming from the north, Ojukwu declared the independent state of Biafra. Biafra consisted of about the eastern half of Nigeria, and was declared independent in large part because of the utter lack of aid coming from Lagos. Initially, the reaction from the rest of Nigeria was “good riddance,” until it became obvious that Biafra was sitting on all of the country’s oil reserves. Suddenly, the secession had to be stopped, lest Nigeria just be Africa’s largest, poorest country. At the same time, the US and UK, fearing the consequences of instability in Africa in light of the Cold War, and fearing the disruption of British crude oil supplies, declared that, “We must again reunite Nigeria!”
Frederick Forsyth has said, “There never was any unity in Nigeria. It was a most divided country. Under Britain’s colonial rule, the country was deliberately divvied up into what was essentially the north and the south (with the Yoruba nation being the other half of the south). In a makeshift effort, the country was cobbled together, literally five years before independence, and we were all told that it was one country. But in the hearts and minds of the people, it never was the “One Nigeria” that its politicians said it was, because tribal groupings predominated. And it still isn’t to this day.”
The Nigerian Army invaded Biafra on July 7, 1967. It didn’t accomplish much, and Ojukwu’s forces counter-invaded shortly thereafter, but became bogged down as they neared Lagos. Few of the Biafran Army were actually trained soldiers, and they couldn’t believe they’d made it that far. Their nerve gave out. In September, 1968, the Nigerian Army began the “Final Offensive,” which was stopped by Biafran troops.
In the end, it was economics and starvation that led to the end of Biafra and the “reunion” of Nigeria in 1970. Over a million people had been killed or starved to death.
Nigeria then saw another 29 years of successive military juntas. Most brutally repressed any civilian dissent, even while promising a return to democratic rule. In 1999, Nigeria became democratic again, but conflict didn’t end there. The Niger Delta region has seen a continual insurgency against the government and the oil companies, as the Ogoni, Ijaw, and other tribal groups believe they are being exploited by the companies and the government. Interestingly, the Niger Delta violence was reduced when present-day President Goodluck Jonathan arranged an amnesty, and also became president by way of contesting the results of the 2011 presidential election. The fact that Jonathan is a southern Christian likely has a great deal to do with that.
Under the previous People’s Democratic Party ruling, effectively there was supposed to be a “sharing” arrangement between north and south; each would take turns producing a president. Jonathan’s contesting the election results changed that. Muslim unrest began to rise again.
Boko Haram was already in existence by the time Jonathan became president. Founded in 2002, it reflects the recent ultra-radicalization of Muslim groups. There has long been resistance among the Muslims of the north to Western ways; ever since the Sokoto Caliphate was effectively overthrown by the British, the Muslims of northern Nigeria have resisted sending their children to Western schools. That resistance was the beginning of Boko Haram, which means in Hausa, “Western Education is Forbidden.” It expanded its military campaign to attempting to gain an Islamic State in 2009.
While Boko Haram has followed the recent Al Qaeda model of treating all other Muslims who don’t follow their specific rules as apostates and targets, their violence is in no way new to Nigeria. The most populous country in Africa, with now the largest economy, is a fragmented, artificial lumping together of tribal and sectarian groups, most of whom hate each other, held together by oil, force, and not much else.