Home The Washington Diplomat February 2019 Ethnic Violence, Graft Among Issues as Nigeria Heads to the Polls

Ethnic Violence, Graft Among Issues as Nigeria Heads to the Polls

Ethnic Violence, Graft Among Issues as Nigeria Heads to the Polls


UPDATE: After this story went to press, Obiageli Ezekwesili, the only female candidate in Nigeria’s presidential election, announced that she was withdrawing her candidacy to build a coalition that can serve as an alternative to the ruling Allied Congress Party, one of the country’s two main political parties (and the party of current President Muhammadu Buhari).

In addition, on Jan. 26, Buhari suspended the country’s chief justice — who plays a key role in settling election-related disputes — just three weeks before the country’s election. Buhari said he suspended Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen due to corruption allegations, but the move drew widespread condemnation from other presidential candidates as well as the international community.


Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest economy, will hold a general election on Feb. 16. It’s another critical step in Nigeria’s long, hard slog toward democracy in spite of a litany of persistent problems, from ethnic violence to endemic graft.

John Campbell, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, says that Nigeria has its own historical trajectory — one shaped by British colonialism, military coups and civil strife — and that despite the headlines, the overall trajectory has been positive. At the same time, he cautions that it is hard to predict who will win the presidency and whether the vote will trigger bloodshed in the oil-rich but ethnically divided nation.

Violence continues to be rampant in Nigeria. Attacks by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram gained international prominence after the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014, which sparked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign supported by then-first lady Michelle Obama.

Despite the global outcry and pledges by the government that the terrorist group has been stamped out, Boko Haram continues to terrorize parts of the northeast, resulting in over 27,000 documented deaths and roughly 2 million displaced.

But Boko Haram is not the only threat in this ethnic tinderbox of nearly 200 million people, split roughly between Christians and Muslims. Societal infighting is common. This includes bloody land disputes between farmers and cattle herders; secessionists fighting for independence in the south; and opportunistic kidnappings for ransom. Nigeria’s overstretched and underpaid security forces also have been accused of widespread abuses and extrajudicial killings. (President Obama suspended the sale of warplanes and other equipment to the Nigerian military over human rights concerns, but President Trump lifted those restrictions.)

Corruption is another major concern. Nigeria ranks 148th on Transparency International’s list of the 180 most corrupt countries in the world. By one estimate, Nigeria has lost $400 billion to corruption since its independence in 1960. And despite its vast energy wealth, Nigeria recently overtook India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty, according to the World Poverty Clock.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military strongman, came to office in 2015 on a pledge to eradicate Boko Haram, improve security and root out corruption. But critics say he has failed to deliver. Hundreds of people have been killed in violent clashes just in the last several months. A drop in oil prices has caused unemployment and inflation to soar. Meanwhile, the 76-year-old president had to leave the country for several weeks because of an undisclosed illness, sparking rumors of his demise.

Despite the upheaval, Buhari, a Muslim (who is still very much alive), remains relatively popular and is running for re-election. His victory in 2015 marked the first-ever peaceful transition of power to an opposition candidate after decades of military rule and coups.

But regardless of who wins the February election, elites will continue to rule the government. For decades, the Muslim-dominated north and Christian-dominated south generally adhered to an informal agreement whereby the presidency rotated between candidates from the two regions every eight years to prevent ethnic strife, although this unwritten rule has occasionally been broken.

For the February election, the All Progressives Congress (APC) chose Buhari as its presidential candidate, while the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chose former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Because it is the north’s “turn” to hold the presidency, both Buhari and Abubakar are Muslims. Their running mates are both southern Christians.

Nigerians vote according to a patronage system, meaning they cast their vote in line with their patrons. This cements the hold of elites on the government.

“Clients usually vote as their patrons wish, and nearly everybody is both a patron and a client, from the business and political elites to rag pickers at the Lagos dump,” Campbell, who is now a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an Oct. 12 CFR brief. “Nigerian governance is determined by bargains between the country’s competing but cooperating elites.”

Campbell added that when “there is a broad elite consensus, the run-up to elections and their aftermath are less the occasion for violence than when the elites are fractured.”

Meanwhile, the typical Nigerian feels far removed from the echelons of power. Nigerians are often disillusioned because of the lack of services the government provides, Campbell told us.

a1.powi.nigeria.farmers.storyNigeria may have profound problems of violence and inequality, but as the dominant politicians such as Buhari age, there is an opening for younger, progressive politicians to shake up the system. These younger candidates, including the organizer of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Obiageli Ezekwesili, seek an issues-based political system, instead of the current elite, personality-driven system. It will take a long time for norms to change, Campbell said, but the possibility exists.

He spoke with The Diplomat about Nigerian history, society and the upcoming election.

The Washington Diplomat: You wrote a book called “Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know” with Matthew Page. Can you summarize the main points for our readers?

John Campbell: The intended audience for the book is the educated but non-specialist, a person who has a general interest in Africa, and Nigeria as well.

Matthew and I sat down and tried to think through what people needed to know about Nigeria, not necessarily what is interesting to know about Nigeria.

The book is written in a question-and-answer format — 72 questions and 72 answers. Questions such as: What was the impact of the slave trade on Nigeria? How did the British colonial administration actually work? What is a day like in the life of a Nigerian politician?

The takeaway is that despite all the Sturm und Drang and headlines about Boko Haram and so forth, the basic trajectory [of Nigeria] is positive.

TWD: Nigeria is plagued with violence — ethnic, religious, property/land-use related, military-on-civilian, extrajudicial police killings, gender-based, etc. What are some theories on why violence is so rampant throughout the country?

JC: We deal with that in numerous places in the book. If you’re looking for a general typology of violence, there tends to be violence where ethnic, religious and land-use violence overlap or coincide. If you take the Middle Belt, for example, you have Muslims, Hausa-Fulani [people] and herdsmen in conflict with Christian Borno farmers. Is the conflict caused by religion, ethnicity or land use? Well, it depends on the particular circumstance.

The second type of violence is the ongoing insurgency in the northeast associated with Boko Haram in which there is a war between security services and insurgents.

There is also a low-level insurgency in the oil patch. That is being dealt with by the government essentially buying off the militants through an amnesty program.

In terms of what concerns Nigerians the most with respect to security, it is a wave of kidnapping all over the country. It used to be victims of kidnapping were people with money. This was prominent in the south. Now, it’s all over the country. Even relatively poor people are being kidnapped for ransom. It’s a kind of business. It’s different from the Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping or periodic kidnapping of oil workers in the Delta, where there is a political agenda. The kidnapping wave is a moneymaking operation.

TWD: How do you think violence should be addressed in terms of cause, effect and effective punishment and deterrence?


JC: The first thing to be said about violence in Nigeria is that many Nigerians historically have been alienated from their government. Critics of the government will often say that Nigeria is still a colonial state. The British have been replaced with a more rapacious domestic elite that exploits the population. The dysfunctionalities related to violence are symptoms of a deeper malaise. If you ask, how do you address the more deep-seated causes, the answers include a government more responsive to the needs of the population.

Polling data indicates that even in the countryside, people are aware of the government. They have certain expectations of the government, and they are not met. The result is disillusionment — hence, things like failure to cooperate with police, viewing police and security services as part of the problem.

What your question implies is essentially a remaking of the Nigerian state. There are plenty of people in Nigeria who talk in those terms. They talk about convening a sovereign national convention that would rebuild the state from the ground up. It’s been a recurring theme in the past 15 years. There is no firm consensus as to what a rebuilt Nigeria would look like.

TWD: What is the role of Nigeria’s government in the country’s inner turmoil?

JC: Many Nigerians regard the government as essentially unresponsive to their needs and that it has been captured by elites who go after the oil revenue. All the oil and the gas is the property of the state. It’s exploited through joint ventures with Nigerian and foreign companies. Ownership and profits from oil and gas go overwhelmingly to the state. So, critics of the government say the government has been captured by elites who thereby get access to the oil revenue.

TWD: The U.S. is trying to combat extremist Islamist violence in key areas around the world. What is the U.S. doing in Nigeria, for example, with Boko Haram and is it working?

JC: There is an extremely limited degree of security cooperation between the U.S. and Nigeria. Nigerians periodically seek to purchase U.S. military equipment. The Nigerian government wanted to purchase American aircraft recently, Super Tucanos. The sale was authorized first under the Obama administration and consummated under the Trump administration. It will be two or three years before the aircraft are delivered and the pilots are trained.

I personally opposed the sale of the Super Tucanos because, based on our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, I thought they were the wrong aircraft for use in northeast Nigeria.

The security relationship is limited. It is not transformative. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not very important.

TWD: Nigeria will hold general elections in February. Can you give us a brief history of democracy in Nigeria in terms of stability and free and fair elections?

JC: You have to be careful. Let’s take the principal trajectory. In 1960, the country becomes independent with essentially a Westminster government. In 1965 to ’66, a series of coups replace the government with a military government. From 1967 to ’70, a civil war broke out in which 2 million died, mostly from starvation. The civil war was caused by the southeast Biafra wanting to secede from Nigeria.

Military government continues until 1976 to ’77, when a transition to a civilian government is inaugurated. There was a civilian government from 1979 to ’83. Then there was another military coup and thereafter a series of military governments until 1998.

a1.powi.nigeria.family.storyIn 1998, the military, in conjunction with big businessmen and other Nigerian leaders of society, determined to restore democratic government. The ’99 election put a former army general [Olusegun Obasanjo] as the civilian president. In 2007, Obasanjo’s handpicked successor was elected, and he died about a year and a half later. His vice president [Goodluck Jonathan] became president in a thoroughly constitutional way. In 2015, for the first time, the opposition won the presidency.

The elections generally were rigged, but they have tended to get better over time. The election in 2015 was better than its predecessors. The hope is the 2019 elections will build on 2015, but that remains to be seen.

TWD: How does the patronage system affect elections?

JC: It’s very much an integral part of the election. It’s a mistake to think of the voter in Nigeria as similar to a voter in Vermont — someone free and independent to vote as he likes. Nigerians tend to vote for the candidate their patron supports. Returns are lopsided in a particular constituency — 80 or 90 percent will vote for one candidate; 10 or 20 percent will vote for the other. That reflects allegiances of the patrons involved.

One reason why in 2015 the opposition won the elections was a kind of consensus emerged in political circles that President Goodluck Jonathan had to go, and with that consensus, the opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, won — the first time an opposition presidential candidate won against an incumbent.

TWD: What do you predict will be the outcome of the election, and what will it mean for the country?

JC: It’s very hard to know. I can’t tell yet whether there is a consensus forming around the candidacy of the two leading candidates, Buhari and Abubakar, the flag bearers of the two big parties. If the elites are divided, that’s when there’s potential for violence. It’s unpredictable whether the elections will go well.

TWD: What are your predictions about the future of Nigerian politics as U.S.-university-educated, younger candidates look to enter the arena? Can these younger candidates break through?

JC: There’s absolutely the potential for that to happen. There are three younger candidates who are running for the presidency, including Ezekwesili, the woman who organized the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Others are Kingsley Moghalu and Donald Duke. All three are extremely impressive. All three focus on issues rather than personalities.

The issue becomes the extent to which they will resonate with a Nigerian electorate. For a country to change its political culture, it takes time. Change is normally slow. Nigeria is an intensely patriarchal society. It’s difficult to imagine a female candidate winning the presidency.

About the Author

Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.