By Alexis Amini and Lionel Fritz Adimi*
Following Muhammadu Buhari’s electoral victory in May 2015, expectations ran high regarding the president-elect’s ability to bring peace to the country. Indeed, as a former military ruler from the Muslim north, Mr. Buhari is seen as the most capable person who might quell the Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria. In this regard, the recent release of more than 300 women and girls, juxtaposed to Boko Haram’s reduced area of operations, tend to confirm the ongoing optimistic trend.
However, Nigeria might still be embroiled in a protracted counter-insurgency campaign with Boko Haram.
First of all, it’s imperative to keep in mind that Nigeria is an artificial multiethnic state created by British diplomats without any consideration for the historically fraught relations between its different ethnic groups. In the north, the country is populated by two main ethnicities of Muslim confession: the Hausa-Fulani (29 percent) in the northwest and the Kanuri (4 percent) in the northeast. One must bear in mind that those two northern ethnic groups have been historical rivals. In the generally Christian south, the southwest concentrates the Yoruba (21 percent) whereas the Niger Delta hosts the Ijaw (10 percent) and the Igbo (18 percent) located in the southeast. Therefore, in light of this human geographic configuration, Nigeria’s main geopolitical dynamic consists of the inter-ethnic struggle for control of the country’s oil reserves, which are located in the Ijaw-populated Niger Delta to a greater extent, and the Igbo-dominated southeast to a lesser degree.
This geopolitical dynamic has been persistent ever since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. Indeed, from 1967 to 1999, ethnic groups fought each other in order to monopolize political power in order to benefit from the oil revenues. For example, the Biafra secessionist war (1967-1970) pitted the Igbo of the oil-rich southeast region against a northern Hausa-Fulani military regime. This said, due to the sheer size of the country, it’s impossible for one ethnicity to control all the others through military means. This pushed the Hausa-Fulani junta to relinquish absolute power in favor of a democratic system where the ethnic groups will compete for political power and oil revenues in a more peaceful way. Nonetheless, armed violence remains an important aspect of ethnic competition for petrodollars. The existence of Boko Haram is proof of this political dynamic.
In line with this geopolitical trend, Boko Haram emerged as an ethnic Kanuri movement in the resource-poor northeast state of Borno, since this minority hasn’t historically benefitted from the oil revenues. In the course of his presidency, Goodluck Jonathan monopolized the oil revenues in favor of his ethnic group, the Ijaw from the Niger Delta. Therefore, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, took the group on a more violent jihadist path as of 2009, resulting in a widespread terror campaign across northeastern Nigeria. Moreover, given that the Hausa-Fulani were also deprived of oil revenues, some Hausa-Fulani officials tacitly supported the Kanuri’s insurrection in order to gain leverage over the Ijaw-dominated government of Goodluck Jonathan in revising the share of the oil revenues in favor of the Hausa-Fulani. Indeed, this can partly explain why Goodluck Jonathan, at the time, was more willing to rely on South African mercenaries and neighboring countries to tackle the insurgency since the Nigerian army is dominated by an essentially Hausa-Fulani officer corps. Nonetheless, despite those constraints, Goodluck Jonathan managed to put Boko Haram onto the defensive during military operations prior to the elections.
This said, Boko Haram’s recent military setbacks led to a series of desperate moves by Shekau, such as his recent allegiance to Islamic State leader Al-Baghdadi and the extension of the group’s operations into bordering Chad, Niger, and Cameroun. Indeed, the rally under Islamic State’s banner only has a symbolic value, aimed at maintaining Boko Haram’s relevance, since Daesh has its hands tied in Iraq and Syria. In addition, given that Kanuris are a marginalized people scattered between Niger, Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria, Boko Haram extends its operations in those borderlands as a safe haven since their main base in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno is besieged.
In other words, even the transnational character of Boko Haram’s operations obeys to some extent an ethnic logic.
Being perceived as responsible for the spread of Boko Haram in the first place as a result of monopolizing the oil revenues, Jonathan lost the 2015 election to the Hausa-Fulani Mohammadu Buhari. As a result, the Hausa-Fulani achieved their objective of seizing political power in order to increase their share of oil revenues, thus rendering their strategy of using the Kanuri insurgency as leverage against the previous government derelict. As a result, one negative and unintended consequence of such action is the intensification of Kanuri resentment against the Hausa-Fulani who are more busy negotiating oil revenue distribution in a more or less muscular way with the Ijaws of the oil-rich Niger Delta. Consequently, the Kanuri’s fight for a greater say in the sharing of petrodollars will continue, thus limiting Buhari’s counter-insurgency campaign’s effectiveness. Therefore, Nigeria’s new leader might inherit the previous government’s problems in dealing with Boko Haram unless he gives the Kanuri a greater share in the country’s oil wealth. Additionally, it’s a false assumption that a Muslim leader like Buhari will automatically solve the Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria just because he shares the same religion as Abubakar Shekau. In this regard, one must understand that the main driving force behind the constant political turmoil in Nigeria isn’t religion, but ethnicity.
This article was published by Geopolitical Monitor.com