Nigeria’s Faltering Federal Experiment
Nigeria’s Faltering Federal Experiment
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Beyond Vigilantism: Towards Lasting Security Solutions
Beyond Vigilantism: Towards Lasting Security Solutions
Report 119 / Africa

Nigeria’s Faltering Federal Experiment

Nigeria’s federal system and politics are deeply flawed, contributing to rising violence that threatens to destabilise one of Africa’s leading countries.

Executive Summary

Nigeria’s federal system and politics are deeply flawed, contributing to rising violence that threatens to destabilise one of Africa’s leading countries. Failing to encourage genuine power sharing, they have sparked dangerous rivalries between the centre and the 36 states over revenue from the country’s oil and other natural resources; promoted no-holds-barred struggles between interests groups to capture the state and its attendant wealth; and facilitated the emergence of violent ethnic militias, while politicians play on and exacerbate inter-communal tensions to cover up their corruption. The government has been quick to brand many of the symptoms, especially the rise of militancy, as simple criminality to be dealt with by more police and more troops. But unless it engages with the underlying issues of resource control, equal rights, power sharing and accountability, Nigeria will face an internal crisis of increasing proportions.

The resource problem is at its most acute in the oil rich but desperately poor Niger Delta, where since January 2006, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and other armed groups have waged an increasingly violent campaign against the federal government and foreign oil companies. It demands local resource control of the Delta’s oil wealth and rejects the “Marshall Plan” President Olusegun Obasanjo has proposed for the region. It recently shifted from high-profile kidnappings of foreign oil workers to more deadly activities, including car bombings. MEND says it wants to cripple the oil industry, whose output it has already reduced this year by 25 per cent.

The constitution enshrines a “federal character” principle, a type of quota which seeks to balance the apportionment of political positions, jobs and other government benefits evenly among Nigeria’s many peoples but is distorted by a second principle, that of indigeneity, which makes the right to such benefits dependent upon where an individual’s parents and grandparents were born. The result is widespread discrimination against non-indigenes in the 36 states and sharp inter-communal conflict. In Plateau State, for example, recurrent clashes since 2001 between “indigene” and “settler” communities competing over political appointments and government services have left thousands dead and many more thousands displaced.

The deep sense of alienation felt by diverse groups throughout the country has fuelled the rise in ethnic identity politics, ethnic militias and, in twelve northern states, disputes over the application of Islamic law (Sharia). The militias demand ethnic rather than national loyalty. Some, such as the Movement for Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), seek secession from Nigeria. Others, like the O’odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC) and the Bakassi Boys, operate as security outfits, including for state governments, and are responsible for human rights abuses that have left hundreds dead.

The federal government has characterised many of these developments as no more than a law and order problem and has responded accordingly with force. It has dismissed the demands of Niger Delta militants, for example, as simple thuggery and assumed that federal security forces can always quell the violence there and in Plateau State, while decreeing sweeping bans on the ethnic militias and putting a number of their leaders on trial for treason.

The federal government has an obligation, of course, to deal with violence by the full rigour of the law but it also needs to look deeper into the circumstances that give rise to so much trouble. It should grant a significant level of resource control to local communities and replace the anachronistic concept of indigeneity with a residence test when applying the federal character principle. Perhaps most fundamentally, it should create a democratic constitutional reform process that would allow Nigerians, so often since independence under military governments, to engage for the first time in a free and wide-ranging debate over restructuring the country’s power-sharing arrangements.

Dakar/Brussels, 25 October 2006

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.