What’s the Deal With Boko Haram and a Divided Nigeria?

Hello all!

Sorry for the delay in posting, but we had to prepare to come to you live this week from our new offices in Washington, D.C.!  The relocation may be temporary, but thanks to Regus, our offices can be anywhere we want!

your tax payer dollars pay for "What's the Deal?"'s offices

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that recognizes the irony of Nigeria’s President’s name and situation.

Obama has hope, but Jonathan needs Goodluck

In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the recent violence in Nigeria and the social and political unrest stemming from higher oil prices.  We’ll take a look at how Nigeria’s current crises are the reverberations from the British colonial era and the deep seeded ethnic divide that had existed for centuries.

In August 26th, 2011 the terror group Boko Haram drove a car bomb into the U.N. building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.  Since 2009, Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language spoken in the North of the country, has attacked police, military, and government that has resulted in over 1,000 deaths.  Boko Haram has also targeted Christians as evidenced by the bombing of churches over the Christmas holiday.  Increasingly, this has caused an exodus of minority Christians from the Muslim North.   The group has done nearly all its damage in the mostly Islamic Northern half of Nigeria where poverty is more widespread and government institutions have failed to provide for their people.  Boko Haram has goals of imposing widespread sharia law and blames the more wealthy, Christian, Southern government and law enforcement for the social problems of the North.  They have ties to Al Qaeda, and are increasingly using tactics reminiscent of the Al Shabbab terrorist group in Somalia.

the work of "Four" Boko Haram. Good thing this was banned in the U.S.

The status of the people in the North has given impetus for Boko Haram to fight against the government and Western elements in general, with good reason:  A corrupt central government has for years taken in huge oil profits with hardly any benefits for the citizens of the 2nd largest oil producer in Africa.  In fact, the Nigerian government has failed to produce the oil refining infrastructure to actually refine its own oil, and so Nigeria actually imports more oil than it uses from domestic production (a confounding realization since they are the 7th largest oil producer in the world).

The Nigerian government has created subsidies to keep prices reasonably low for its people, but over the years it has created a nasty cycle.  Politicians and oil industrialists mostly from the Southern region have pocketed huge profits without pumping the oil profits into improving the country overall.  Nowhere is this felt more than the more rural, arid, Muslim North.  In an attempt to stifle corruption, President Goodluck Jonathan eliminated the existing subsidies this year, but was only met with protest and extreme opposition as the populace responded to rising oil prices.

To explain how the regional, cultural, and economic disparity in present day Nigeria, we need to look at pre-1500 history and especially colonial history.  Yes, that’s right, history.

Native Nigerian History

Within the recognizable modern border of today’s Nigeria, there once resided 12 kingdoms and empires of distinct peoples organized into states, including the Kingdoms of Benin, Hausa, Ibibio, and Songhai Empires.  Many peoples and cultures resided within each of these 12 kingdoms, usually under the more powerful groups.  This explains the nearly 250 different ethnicities and over 500 different languages spoken within present day Nigeria. The Kingdoms of the North mainly flourished as prosperous trading states.  Major ancient trade routes from North Africa and the Middle East came to the edge of the Sahara to the Northern city of Kano and had heavy influence on the culture of these Northern Nigerian peoples as Islam spread through the trade route and the Islamic empire spread from West Africa to Central Asia between the 7th Century and 15th Century.

The trade route brought silk, spices, and artisanry from the far east in exchange for ivory, brass, pottery, leather goods, and slaves.  Trade between the regions had occurred for centuries prior to European interaction and during the Islamic empire, Caliphates under the Islamic empire were set up around the Songhai and Bornu empires that would encompass latter day Nigeria.

Wiz Calipha-tes

The Yoruba people along the Niger River along with the Kingdom of Benin, established important agricultural communities that were administered by a central council.  Millet, sorghum, sugarcane, and cotton were the main crops grown in these communities.  The Oyo and Benin Kingdoms also became the first groups to come in contact with the Portuguese in the 16th Century along the Southern coast, thereby beginning a trading partnership with the Europeans that would come to define the whole of the country.

From this precolonial period, we can gain a good perspective on what the region now known as Nigeria looked like and important themes to remember going forward:

  • A very diverse makeup of peoples administered under many powerful and advanced kingdoms/citystates.
  • An established trading and manufacturing center in Kano and along the Niger with high literacy and architecture
  • A large influence from trade with N. African and Middle Eastern Islamic culture.

Colonial Nigeria

Colonial Nigeria had its roots in the Southern coastal region where the first contacts with Europeans were made in the 16th Century.  Contact with Europeans looking to trade was minimal, limited to small outposts near the coast.  The agricultural labor needs of the Americas created an economic opportunity for some West African kingdoms as they created economic societies based on corralling individuals from wherever they could get them (from far into the interior regardless of tribe, religion, etc.) and selling humans into bondage to the Europeans in exchange for manufactured items (read: weapons).

This trade based on small numbers of Africans controlling their “products” kept Europeans from gaining an interior presence or power within the continent.  The British became the premier European power to dominate the slave trade from Nigeria’s coast in the 18th Century, following the Portuguese and the Dutch.  Nigeria’s coast along with present day Benin (not to be confused with the Kingdom of Benin) became the famous “slave coast” in the 18th and 19th Century, as Nigeria became a very important source for slaves, exporting almost 30% of all slaves to the America’s.  The confederation kingdom states of the Oyo, Ijaw, and Aro were the main slave exporting states working with Europeans near the coast.

Southern Nigeria's Economy had it's "Roots" in the slave trade

A history of Jihad within Muslim Nigeria in the Northern Hausa and Songhai states in the late 18th and early 19th Century provides an interesting analogy to today’s Boko Haram.  Many Muslim scholars and clerics became dissatisfied with the insecurity of the crumbling Hausa and Songhai states and advocated a revolution to a more rigid Islamic law, led by Usman dan Fodio.  In many of the Northern and central Nigerian states, the ruling Islamic authorities were overthrown and Fodio’s jihad campaign had captured a 1,500 mile long region.  The actions taken by Usman dan Fodio could be an impetus for today’s Boko Haram to overthrow authority and institute sharia law.

So we can see by the middle of the 19th Century, a vast difference between North and South clearly existed.  The Hausa and Songhai states had developed a long-standing Islamic culture based on trade, but had slowed somewhat with the Usman de Fodio revolutionary period. The Southern kingdom states meanwhile experienced a wealth of European culture exchange with European traders, along with a commodities exchange of manufactured goods that eventually led to a colonial relationship.

Would Usman like what Boko is doing? Or would he admonish the killing of his own people

The British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 increased the British naval presence into the Eastern Atlantic and eventually led the British to take over significant West African ports in order to establish commodities trade and end the continuing slave trade (which was still active into the 1860s; Brazil did not end their trade until the 1880s).  Closing down all slave trading activity, and more importantly for the British exploiting the vast resources the Niger River region had to offer (especially palm oil and kernals) led the British to take nominal control and establish official British protectorates over the various kingdoms in the region. This was made easier by the economic collapse of the Aro and Oyo states; a direct result of the abolition of the slave trade.

Interior African exploration during the 19th century by the British was restricted mainly by 1.  disease (malaria/yellow fever), 2.  Igbo/Yoruba resistance, and 3.  resources coming from other colonies for the British + the risks of establishing new colonies.

As stated earlier, a larger British naval influence and lower economic revenue from the restriction of the slave trade weakened native resistance.  The “rush for Africa” to prevent Germany from gaining colonial supremacy in Africa influenced the British to invest more in colonial expansion in Africa.  Most importantly, the development of quinine (that i am now enjoying in my Gin & tonics) allowed explorers and colonists to actually stay permanently in the interior of Nigeria to develop industries on the Niger River.

the reason for developing colonial Nigeria: the French + German's encroaching around the British interests

A royal charter for the Royal Niger Company (ie. British crown backed company), was created in 1886.  A free trade clause within the charter was systematically violated by the British as they restricted trade with France and Germany and made treaties with the Sokoto Caliphate in the North, and other states along the Niger river establishing depots along the river to protect and enhance trade for its new commodities exchange.  Lagos, the original British colonial outpost, became a cosmopolitan port with Africans and Brits employed in city positions, and English being established as the local tongue.

Just as important as the expansion of the British commercial interest was the spread of European culture and Christianity.  The Portuguese initially introduced Catholicism to the region, but the real first large scale missionary efforts occurred after the 1840’s when the Church of England’s Missionary Society established spheres of influence on the ground by allowing African clergy into the missions.  This helped to establish a wider influence in recruiting converts, but the churches established in Nigeria were largely controlled by the British missionaries, reinforcing the colonial policy: Christianity = colonialism/spread of euro-culture.

The charter for RNC ended in 1899 as the British military was sent in to form a British protectorate of Northern Nigeria, which was being encroached upon by the French (and was fundamentally non-European and non-Christian).  Frederik Lugard was appointed to lead the army in crushing resistance in the North and in forming a British protectorate in N. Nigeria before the French or Germans could.  Lugard’s success in creating the protectorate was based on the establishment of indirect rule – allowing local emirs to retain their caliphate titles as long as they submitted to British rule and outlawed the slave trade.  this ensured 2 things: that Muslim culture within the Fulani-Hausa kingdom stats was retained, and that the British had ultimate economic and geopolitical control over the whole Nigerian colony.

Lugard established indirect rule... most likely through his mustache

In 1914, Nigeria was officially unified, but in reality, the regional separation still existed, as the British took care to abide by indirect rule, and took into account the cultures of the North and South in their administration.  It was obvious that the British did not want to upset local culture that would interrupt their commercial interests.  Bottom line was though was that the British still created an artificial border around many ethnic groups to combat their European rivals.

We can sum up by concluding that the British colonial period had its effect on the modern Nigerian state by:

  • Ending the slave trade over time
  • the heavy influence of Christianity over the South and maintenance of Islam in the North.
  • extending economic control from the Royal Niger Company over commodities.
  • Most importantly, by creating an artificial border around multiple ethnic groups and kingdoms.

Independent Nigeria

Reforms in 1922 by the colonial administrator Hugh Clifford allowed direct elections of legislative councils in the Lagos and southern regions for the first time.  Though the North remained under the indirect administrative control, the hints of democracy and ideas of nationalism started from these reforms in the South.  Nigerians recognized the failings of the British colonial state, that its administrative control was really only there for economic interests.  Ethnic consciousness more than Nigerian nationalism was more prevalent meaning that the artificial political boundary of the Nigerian state created by British nationalism was exposing future ethnic tensions over land, political rights, and trade.

Realization of self-government was slow and the hand over of Nigeria to the various regional groups took a long and divisive road from the British perspective.  Little by little from the 1st legislative councils with Government representation in 1922 to 1956, more and more seats on the federal council were native Nigerian (from one of many ethnic groups).  In 1960, the British finally voted to declare their former colony independent.

As the native Nigerians took over their own country, they realized that they had very little interests in common, as those in power represented such a widely varied population. Disputes over ethnic representation, conspiracy trials of dynamic politicians, and regional preferences led to the disputed election of 1965-66, and finally a military coup that embroiled the country  in Civil War (Nigerian-Biafran War).  A 30 month civil war ended with 1 – 3 million people dead, an inconsistent international response, and a completely fractured central government that had to be taken over by the FMG, or Federal Military Government.

The Biafran cause was an international showdown

Importantly, oil became the primary export in the early independence years of Nigeria. By 1971, Nigeria became the 7th largest oil producer and a member of OPEC.  The oil crisis of 1973 was an important marker for Nigeria, because not only was it a huge money maker for oil owners and their political allies (from higher prices) but it was a huge reminder that oil revenue was not invested in Nigeria’s infrastructure.  70 % of the commercial oil firms were foreign owned and in 1972 the FMG bought a great deal of shares in the oil companies essentially nationalizing them.  Large-scale corruption and inefficient government programs prompted public outrage at the Military council selectman in charge, Yakubu Gowan was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1975, perpetrated by the same officers that put Gowan in charge.

Gowan’s replacement Gen. Murtalla Muhammad set in motion the wheels for the return to civilian rule, but he was assassinated 5 months into his regime in a failed coup attempt.  The perpetrators were organized by stronger leaders of the FMG who felt Nigeria was not ready for civilian rule (ie. they did not want to give up power).  A return to civilian rule under a new constitution (based on the U.S. constitution) occurred in 1979 as the constitution was adopted and local and later national elections took place.  Corruption, sagging oil prices, and unrest from failed government projects signaled the republic’s weakness.  The rigged elections of 1983 sparked protest and the military once again took over the government as public confidence was lost.  The retake of the government was not a surprise as the military was well connected with the 2nd Republic regime.  Corrupt use of revenue (mostly from oil) resulted in an weak economy weighed down by enormous foreign debt and crippled Nigeria’s development in many areas.

A return to civilian rule put Nigeria on the right "track"

The military regime continued until 1999, surviving multiple coups, creating a heavy handed ruling class, and creating a corrupt elite while much of the country mired in poverty.  Elections in 1999 and 2003 were deemed unfair, but they were improvements from the 1983 debacle.  Nigeria’s fairest election was this past April in 2011, when Goodluck Jonathan retained the Presidency he had inherited from the death of Umara Yar’dua.  Jonathan inherited a country that since its independence has:

  • Had Several coups and rigged elections
  • Been Stretched by corruption and a lack of investment in county infrastructure, especially from oil revenues.
  • Endured a crippling Civil War
  • Been ruled by 2 military Juntas for 14 and 16 years respectively

So how do we wrap up this super-long history lesson?  We connect this history to today’s violence from the Boko Haram.


Many factors have contributed to the current violence in Nigeria.  We know that the principle reason behind Boko Haram’s acts is the impoverished condition of the people in the Northern region.  But the question is why?  How did political division and cultural division arise between North and South?  Why has political instability and corruption persisted in Nigeria since its independence?

We looked at history to answer these questions and found that the overwhelmingly most important factors were the

*unique ethnic diversity within Nigeria’s geography

*the Northern people’s longstanding Islamic culture and divide w/ the South

*the British creation of an artificial boundary encompassing the 250 distinct ethnicities and their 500 languages

*Independent Nigeria’s history of corruption and lack of infrastructure development

As explained earlier, many sub-factors were important as well, but these give us a concrete preliminary understanding of present day Nigeria.

Well, this was my first blog from Washington, D.C., where appropriately, the Nigerian embassy is only a few blocks away, so in a way, I did some “in-country reporting” (but not really).  This situation will be fascinating to watch this spring as Goodluck Jonathan struggles to keep his people happy and fight corruption and maintain security.

Until next time,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson








the Economist, the terror they dare not name, 1/28/2012

Library of Congress Country Studies: Nigeria http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/ngtoc.html

Ira Berlin, history of slavery in N. America and Africa


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in Africa, colonialism, energy, Politics, Radical Movements and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What’s the Deal With Boko Haram and a Divided Nigeria?

  1. Brandy Clinton says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful facts and giving us additional information as to why, this problem still exists till now.

  2. nom de guerre says:

    hello eric,
    thanks for taking the time to research and comment on things concerning this part of the world. however i’ll love to lend a perspective being a southern christian, born , brought up and now living in the muslim north, with only a brief university career in the south..while the historical context creates a theoretically plausible background for these mindless killings, we know that history doesnt kill people; people kill people.in my view the accidents of human character have more to do with our situation than your essay depicts. certain highly motivated individuals have developed murderous interpretations of religion that have driven them to the extremes of behaviour we have seen.your essay should have mentioned names like sheikh elzakzakky who masterminded the maitatsine riots of the 80’s, mohammed yusuf who started this boko haram thing in the first place etc these men alongside usman dan fodio whose legacy of hegemony still prevails in the minds of northern muslims today, have one thing in common: they all came under the influence of the grand jihadist himself mohammed founder of islam. ISLAM . in one word islam is the root cause of nigeria’s perennial violence. given any significant demographic advantage, the muslims inbred tendency is to expand and obliterate any perceived competition. this is not unique to nigeria. we see it in sudan, in the caucassus, the philippines etc. the way different individuals have responded to islam’s call for world domination has created a large portion of the history you accurately narrated. i am no historian but i live and work in a muslim majority part of my country, and this is my take.once again thanks buddy for calling attention to our plight.

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