ONE EVENING in March Emmanuel was in bed, about to doze off. The next moment, armed men burst into his college dormitory in north-west Nigeria and dragged him and 38 other panicked, half-dressed students outside and deep into a forest. “We were tortured,” says Emmanuel. One bandit would film as others beat the screaming students, who were forced to call their parents to demand a total ransom of 500m naira ($1.2m). Emmanuel’s father sold his car to find the cash.
“Security [in Nigeria] is at its worst since the civil war,” says Cheta Nwanze of SBM Intelligence, a consultancy in Lagos. This is a startling claim. The Biafran war of 1967-70, when the Igbos of the oil-rich south-east tried but failed to secede from Nigeria, claimed an estimated 1m lives. Since then, Nigeria has held together. The country of 200m people has had mountains of problems, from corruption and ethnic strife to a series of military dictators. But it has been democratic since 1999. And parts of it are thriving, especially in the south-west. Lagos, the commercial capital, is home to vigorous banks, a hip technology scene and a flourishing film industry, Nollywood.
Yet Mr Nwanze is right. Much of the country is sliding towards ungovernability. A jihadist insurgency in the north-east is spreading. Rebellion is brewing once more in the south-east. And across most of the country rich and poor alike live in fear of kidnappers, warlords or cattle rustlers. Even the sea provides no haven: the Gulf of Guinea is the world’s hotspot for piracy.
The country is growing ever harder to live or work in. The share of adults who tell Gallup that they want to emigrate permanently has risen from 41% in 2012 to 48% in 2018. Among the young, a clear majority wish to leave. Shell, an oil giant that was long Nigeria’s biggest foreign investor, and which stuck around during the grimmest years of military rule, recently said it would pull out, citing the threat of violence. The army has now been deployed to every one of Nigeria’s 36 states, says Mr Nwanze.
Nigeria is not yet a failed state, but large parts of it are failing. This matters not only because one sub-Saharan African in six is Nigerian. The country also has Africa’s largest economy, whose dire performance holds the continent back. And its conflicts are spilling across borders, destabilising fragile neighbours such as Niger and Chad and amplifying the jihadist threat across the Sahel.
Nigeria’s instability is largely born of poor governance. Britain, the colonial power, lumped together many groups in one country: Muslims in the north, Christians in the south, numerous and overlapping ethnic groups in different regions. Politics has long been a tussle to grab petrodollars, the source of nearly all government revenues. All groups gripe that they are short-changed. Most are right—a corrupt elite grabs a huge portion, leaving only scraps for ordinary Nigerians of any group. Since politics is the swiftest route to wealth, it is a violent business, cursed by candidates who drum up ethnic or religious strife to win support.
What has changed in recent years is that the government has grown so rotten that it struggles to control wide swathes of territory. To understand how, start in the north-east. In 2009 a jihadist insurgency erupted there. The jihadists called themselves Boko Haram (“western education is sinful”). They were fed up with predatory government, eager to establish a theocracy, and not averse to seizing loot and women. Their insurgency has directly cost some 35,000 lives, plus another 314,000 from war-induced disease and hunger, estimates the UNDP. In 2015 they nearly captured Maiduguri, the biggest city in the north-east. A force of mercenaries, reinforced by Nigeria’s army, pushed them back into isolated swamps and forests.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general and military ruler, was elected president that year after vowing to restore peace. Alas, he has failed. Over the past six years the jihadists have regrouped in the countryside, hoisting their black flags over village after village. Now they are once more threatening Maiduguri, this time under the banner of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), an offshoot of Boko Haram that now outguns it.
ISWAP is “much more dangerous” to the Nigerian state, says Vincent Foucher of International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank. The number of Nigerian soldiers being killed by jihadists is rising. Their morale is falling. The fight is not entirely one-sided. Nigeria claimed this week that one of ISWAP’s leaders, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, is dead. Officials gave no specifics, however, and have a habit of claiming to have killed jihadists who turn out still to be alive.
The Nigerian government also boasts that thousands of Boko Haram insurgents have recently surrendered. Yet this is the result of fighting between Boko Haram and ISWAP, rather than of successes by Nigeria’s army, says Mr Foucher. Despite having similar aims, the groups hate each other.
Nigeria’s unofficial strategy now seems to be to contain the jihadists, rather than to try to defeat them. The government has deployed enough force to control the biggest towns and to escort convoys along the main roads, but not enough to hold, much less govern, the smaller towns and villages. The army is thinly stretched. Trying to pacify the north-east is only one of its problems.
This year more people were killed by criminal gangs in the north-west than by jihadists in the north-east. Bandits, as they are known, roar into villages on motorbikes to steal cattle and anything else of value. They threaten to torch houses unless villagers pay protection money. They murder anyone suspected of being a snitch. In Zamfara state in June bandits shot dead 41 farmers as they were planting crops. The governor of neighbouring Katsina state told voters not to rely on the police or army to protect them but to fight back “even with your teeth”.
Violence begets violence. One 42-year-old former bandit says he lived in an area where a long-running ethnic conflict pitted Hausa farmers against Fulani nomadic herders. After gunmen stole his cows, he became a bandit. “We were left with nothing, so we went and joined them, we kidnapped people.” He and some of his gang took up an amnesty offer from the state government, but some have already gone back to banditry, he says.
Kidnappers have made life perilous in much of Nigeria. In July gunmen shot up a hospital in Kaduna and kidnapped ten people, including two babies. In August, audacious bandits attacked the Nigerian Defence Academy, the equivalent of West Point, killing two soldiers and grabbing a major.
A startling 1,400 schoolchildren and students have been kidnapped this year. After one such incident in September, schools and markets were closed across Zamfara. The government also shut telephone networks and imposed a curfew. All told, about 1m Nigerian students are out of school because of insecurity. Most of the rest are nervous. A security guard at a university in south-west Nigeria checked the boot of your correspondent’s taxi. It is “in case we kidnapped students”, explained the driver.
The army is trying to fight back, especially in Zamfara. But it often does so indiscriminately; for example, by calling in air strikes. “One of our greatest fears,” says Emmanuel, the kidnap victim mentioned at the beginning of this article, was “being bombed by our own government”.
The war on banditry is not going well. Twice as many people were kidnapped in the first nine months of this year as in all of 2020, reckons Jose Luengo-Cabrera, a security analyst (see chart). Driving between cities is fraught. Abdulkareem Baba Aminu, a former newspaper editor, is still haunted by an evening three years ago when flashlights flagged him down and ill-dressed men in army uniforms suddenly blocked the road in front of him. He floored the accelerator and let the car take the bullets. Somehow, he escaped. Politicians are furiously lobbying airlines to add flights so they can fly to their home states from Abuja, the capital, rather than braving the bandit-infested roads.
Nigeria’s third big security threat is in the south-east, where separatists are trying to revive Biafra, a state inhabited largely by Igbos (who are about a sixth of Nigeria’s population). Many Igbos feel marginalised and ill-treated by the central government. (As do most people in Nigeria.) The main separatist group, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), is demanding a Biafra that includes all of Nigeria’s main oil-producing states, even the ones where Igbos are a minority.
The rest of Nigeria will not let one group walk off with all the oil, any more than it did half a century ago. Nonetheless, blood is being spilt in pursuit of this fantasy. Nnamdi Kanu, IPOB’s leader, grew popular with inflammatory radio broadcasts denouncing “all those who delight in shedding the blood of Biafrans”. In December he launched an armed wing. That was followed by attacks in the south-east on police stations, electoral commission offices and a prison, from which 1,800 inmates escaped. Mr Kanu claims his red-beret-wearing fighters are defending Igbo against Fulani herders, not attacking the state. Many analysts doubt that.
Security forces raided Mr Kanu’s house in 2017, leaving its walls riddled with bullet holes. (The army denies it was behind the raid.) In June the government arrested him abroad and flew him to Abuja. That is a blow to IPOB—few can match his charisma or fundraising prowess—yet his followers remain defiant. They have threatened to “handle” those they hold responsible for his arrest, naming a federal minister and a state governor. And his trial, especially if it is seen as unfair, may deepen a sense of grievance among Igbos, says Nnamdi Obasi, also of the ICG.
After Mr Kanu’s arrest IPOB told followers to stay at home in protest every Monday. Later, it told them to protest just on days when Mr Kanu was to appear in court. Even so, streets in the region have been eerily quiet on Mondays. Those who venture out have sometimes been killed. A survey by SBM Intelligence found that just 25% of people in the south-east opposed the stay-at-home protests.
IPOB supporters are easy to find in the south-east. They want to “wipe us out” but “we are not mosquitos” to be swatted, shouts Kelvin, a 36-year-old, gesturing angrily at nearby soldiers. “If Nigeria doesn’t want to leave, if they want violence, we will go for violence.” Ferocious crackdowns by the security forces drive young men to join the rebels. In May Usman Baba, now Nigeria’s inspector general of police, told officers going after IPOB that “If anyone accuses you of human-rights violation, the report will come to my table and you know what I will do. So…kill them all.”
Seun Bakare of Amnesty International, a watchdog, estimates that the police and army have killed hundreds of young Igbo. The senate minority leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe, an Igbo, says “elements of the federal government” want to commit genocide. This is surely hyperbole, but President Buhari does little to dispel it. Earlier this year he alluded to the civil war and threatened that Igbo rebels would be treated in “language they understand”. The danger is that young men will hear such fighting talk and conclude that fighting is their only option. “Nobody sits down and says I want war,” says Osita Chidoka, a south-easterner who was aviation minister in the previous administration. “But sometimes just playing with fire can lead to an explosion.”
Even in the south-west, the most prosperous part of Nigeria (bar the capital), separatist feelings are starting to spread. At a rally a few months ago, Sunday Igboho, a Yoruba separatist, clambered onto the roof a truck, surrounded by thousands of raucous supporters, and repeated his demand for independence. The next step, he said, is “entering the bush to chase away these Fulani herders”, perhaps in a veiled reference to Mr Buhari, whose father was Fulani. In July security forces swooped on Mr Igboho’s house at night, killing two of his guards. Mr Igboho escaped. The security forces reportedly took away his cats, in case he had turned into a tabby. It seems not; weeks later he was seized in neighbouring Benin. As his lawyers fought extradition, protesters marched in Ibadan, a big city in the south-west.
These disparate crises are in some ways connected. Climate change has pushed Muslim Fulani herders farther south, where they clash with settled farmers of other faiths and ethnic groups. Such clashes have claimed thousands of lives since 2018, and feed other tensions. Some herders have turned to kidnapping. Igbo and Yoruba separatists justify taking up arms by playing up the dangers posed by some Fulani herders.
A mixture of neglect and sporadic brutality by the government makes matters worse. Boko Haram became more extreme after its original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was shot dead in police custody. The arrest in 2015 of Mr Kanu raised his profile. After a raid on his house in 2017, IPOB grew more violent. With each tit for tat, “Pandora’s box creaks open a little wider,” says Matthew Page of Chatham House, a think-tank in London.
A dire economy makes taking up arms more tempting. In 2019 some 80m Nigerians lived on less than $2 a day. More than half of Nigerians are unemployed or underemployed. Food inflation is 21%. Bad policies, such as closing land borders to goods entirely in 2019 in the hope of spurring local production, have deepened the pain. The government has made little effort to wean itself off oil, or to prepare for a future when cleaner forms of energy ultimately replace it.
The violence, in turn, deepens the economic crisis. Mallam Dauda sells bags of grain from his perch on a plastic chair at a market in Zamfara. These days some farmers have nothing to sell, he frets. “Some were chased away from their villages and others have been denied access to their farms,” he explains. Now the government has closed markets across Zamfara, too.
With so many forces pulling Nigeria apart, some might wonder how it has held together. One reason is that most Nigerians feel a strong sense of nationalism. “We are stronger together,” says Chukwuemeka, a south-easterner, though he also says that “Buhari has put a knife in what unites us.” In some ways, tolerance has improved, polls suggest. In 1990 almost a third of Nigerians said they would object to having a neighbour of a different race or ethnicity. By 2020 that had fallen to 16%.
Oil-fuelled corruption can foster division, since different groups fight for a slice of unearned wealth. But it also gives elites from all groups a stake in preserving the system. There is “too much corruption among the elites holding Nigeria together” for it to fall apart, says Mr Obasi of the ICG. Non-oil-producing states cannot easily secede because they would lose their share of the petro-pie. Oil-producing states will not be allowed to secede, for the same reason.
Another cause for optimism is that millions of Nigerians still manage to thrive, despite the chaos. Some start businesses to get around government failures. Security firms are booming, unsurprisingly. So are start-ups. Lagos boasts three fintech firms worth over $1bn each. Most Nigerians would rather earn a living peacefully than fight.
Yet even countries that seem permanent can fall apart, if the bonds between citizen and state disintegrate. It happened to Yugoslavia. It seems to be happening in Ethiopia, which was long seen as a model for development in Africa, and perhaps in Cameroon, which had been peaceful for decades before a separatist war forced more than 1m people to flee their homes. It would be complacent to assume that Nigeria is uniquely immune to the poison being injected daily into it by jihadism, separatism and warlordism. “Violence is a slippery slope,” warns Bulama Bukarti of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. “Once one starts getting into it, then nobody knows where it will end.”