Why a Domestic Debate in Nigeria Matters Internationally

In the space of only two days, two events have occurred in Nigeria which highlight an issue that is both a symptom of its past and fundamental to its future. On Thursday, political leaders belonging to the Yoruba ethnic group held a summit in which they endorsed “restructuring,” a term that refers to an initiative to decentralize power away from the federal government. On Friday, Nigeria’s army announced that it would launch an operation called “Python Dance II” in the country’s southeast. Both of these events are concerned with tensions between Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups—tensions that will begin to matter internationally as Nigeria leverages its massive population to achieve regional dominance.

Nigeria, located in West Africa, is by far Africa’s largest country in terms of population. With 192 million inhabitants, it is much larger than Ethiopia, which comes in second with 104 million. Furthermore, Nigeria is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s third most populous country by 2050. This massive population, coupled with its position as sub-saharan Africa’s largest oil producer, makes Nigeria the continent’s largest economy. Thus the country is already very influential, and it has the potential to become a regional hegemon. To reach that potential, however, it will have to reckon with a wide range of social issues.

The location of Nigeria in Africa

The Yoruba summit and the launch of operation Python Dance II attempt to address one of these social issues: how to govern 192 million people divided into 389 ethnic groups, three of which dominate different parts of the country. Restructuring is one strategy. It seeks to empower Nigeria’s states or regions to the point that they are responsible for the majority of decision-making. Although Nigeria is currently a federal state by name, the central government remains the locus of power in practice. Restructuring would change that, stripping the federal government of most of its powers beyond foreign policy, defense, and macroeconomic objectives.

If restructuring is seen as representing one possible path for Nigeria’s future, operation Python Dance II can be seen as representing the opposite. The operation—led by the army, an institution of the central government—is meant to repress “criminals and agitators” and promote rule of law in the southeastern part of Nigeria, which attempted to secede from the federation in the late 1960s. Thus the operation can be seen as an attempt to preserve Nigeria’s unity by forcefully imposing the authority of an institution of the federal government. Restructuring, on the other hand, attempts to preserve the country’s unity by accommodating the demands of its various groups. 

Although the rationales behind both calls for restructuring and centralized military operations are focused on the path of Nigeria’s future, the fundamental debate behind the degree of centralization is largely a relic of its past. During the pre-colonial period, Nigeria was the site of numerous centralized kingdoms, but none of these covered the entirety of the country. The Oyo Empire was a powerful, highly urbanized state in the southwestern part of modern Nigeria, and it was dominated by the Yoruba people. The Sokoto caliphate dominated the northern part of the country, and it was populated mostly by the Muslim Hausa people. The southeastern part of the country, centered on the delta of the Niger river, was governed by the Igbo-dominated Nri Kingdom.

Linguistic groups in Nigeria

Thus the three dominant ethnic groups of Nigeria have a long history of political independence, largely due to the viable states they were able to form as a result of their high population densities. When Nigeria became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960, its political system reflected its multipolar makeup: it was governed by a federation that decentralized power to the different regions. From the outset, however, divisions between the country’s three primary regions caused conflict. The north and southwest entered into a coalition government in 1965, isolating the Igbo southeast. As a result, a group of Igbo military leaders overthrew the government in 1966.

Later that year, a group of northern military leaders led counter-coup, which resulted in a government dominated by the north. Igbos living in the north were massacred and persecuted. In 1967, Igbo leaders declared independence from Nigeria, establishing the Republic of Biafra. This led to the Nigerian civil war, which resulted in famine and humanitarian catastrophe. Ultimately, the secessionists were defeated. After the war, Nigeria was ruled by a series of military dictatorships that preferred a centralized political system to the federation that had existed before the war. Although the country has been ruled by a civilian government since 1999, the centralized political system has remained.

The location of the breakaway Republic of Biafra in Nigeria

This context is crucial in understanding the current debate within Nigeria. When Nigerian politicians talk of restructuring, they mean a return to the pre-1966 system—a true federation. When the military is deployed to control “agitators” in the southeast, it undoubtedly conjures images of the suppression of Biafra. In fact, partly because most of the country’s oil wealth comes from the southeast, Igbo nationalism is still very much alive. Furthermore, traditional leaders of pre-colonial states still wield symbolic powers, and religious tension between the Muslim north and Christian south is evident. Thus the divisions that plagued Nigeria after its independence remain influential today, informing modern political discussions. 

Although such divisions and the political question of how to administer them may seem irrelevant outside of domestic Nigerian politics, domestic Nigerian politics will undoubtedly become more and more important in international affairs. Lagos is Africa’s largest city and a business hub. Nigerian businesses have a massive potential domestic market and are aggressively expanding overseas. The Nigerian military is the most powerful in West Africa. As Africa continues to grow economically and in population, it will rise in influence on the world stage. And Nigeria, with the largest population and economy of all, will lead this rise. How the country manages to maintain unity among its massive populace will therefore have implications far beyond its borders.

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