The situation on the ground in Nigeria is impossible to gauge accurately from the distance and even the well-equipped news organizations such as the AP, AFP, Reuters, or the big Nigerian dailies published in Lagos, such as the Vanguard or the Guardian, are finding it difficult to keep up with the fighting, looting, murdering that has turned the northeast state of Borno into another man-made desert, whose soil is fertilized with the blood of innocents and harvested by psychopaths from the inner circles of Hell.
But hark, in the middle of the jihadist onslaught that threatens to bury all under it like an indomitable sandstorm tearing out of the Sahara, the handsome John “François-le-Sage” Kerry, the American minister of foreign affairs, courageously stopped in Lagos for a few hours on the weekend to announce that America would never abandon its gallant Nigerian ally, on condition, of course, that the presidential election scheduled for February 14 be free-fair-transparent. Could more generous words be asked of the man who, under the leadership of the youthful and athletic president whom he so closely resembles in manner and conviction, is leading our great Republic through the treacherous waters of the last years of the American Century?
Thus, in the best purple prose of the old Africa hand, might one lead off another breathtaking report on Nigeria. But what if we eschewed such melodrama and tried to sum up what we know? With a warning to the reader that reporting on Nigeria involves risks of gaps and inaccuracies, we might write as follows, not that anyone in Messrs. Kerry and Obama’s circles will care — any more than they evidently do about Nigeria.
Why Nigeria matters: We happen to think Nigeria matters. It matters to Africa and it matters to the United States. It is the most populous African nation, expected to reach the 200 million mark at a census within a few years, should such a census be taken.
Nigeria-U.S. trade exceeds $18 billion, according to State Department numbers, due, on the export side (them to us), in large measure to petrochemicals and cocoa beans. That means fuel — for vehicles and humans. It also means Nigeria is, with South Africa whose numbers are in the same range, at the top of Africa-America trade.
On the military side, Nigeria’s armed forces, some quarter million strong (large by African standards, if under-trained and poorly equipped by ours), represents an indispensable asset for regional security. It has sent brigades to other countries on the Continent to help maintain the peace, usually under the authority of ECOWAS (the West African trade and security organization), as well as to hot spots such as the Indo-Pak border where deadly dust-ups are regular occurrences.
Succeed, succumb, or survive: If we are going to get sanctimonious, as Mr. Kerry was over the weekend, about the quid pro quos of supporting one’s friends in a fight for survival — vote clean (by our standards), or we let the savages kill you and your children and burn your villages, it scarcely matters what economic and security weight Nigeria has, because clearly we do not think Nigerian lives matter.
Nonetheless, while in point of fact the argument for the economic and security weight of Nigeria is persuasive, it may be asked whether the Nigerian question has received a satisfactory answer more than half a century into independence. Can a country that never existed be said to have achieved independence? Nigeria came into being as a federal state because it was an administrative entity in the British Empire’s African domains. But as the last colonial administrators acknowledged when they lowered the Union Jack and set sail for home, the country they had actively and even enthusiastically encouraged toward independence for some ten years after World War II was anything but united in a political project or a national idea. Nigeria was founded as a federation in order to leave the elites of its component regions in charge and in power where it mattered to them, namely on their native ground.
In truth, this was a thoughtful plan given the obstinate provincialism of Nigeria’s elites, so frustrating to the British. It might even be said to have been a plan that could have been emulated elsewhere on the Continent, had it worked. The boundaries of the new nations were somewhat arbitrary, and it made sense to use federal structures to reduce the feeling that the old colonial power was being replaced by a new one.
Instead, Nigeria almost from the start found itself with a central government unable to command respect and unify the regions. Regional political leaders viewed the center as a place to gain benefits for themselves and their family, clan, tribal, or institutional clienteles. The army represented a clientele both institutional and tribal, inasmuch as it was dominated in the early years by Hausa officers from the north, including current presidential candidate Muhammadu Bihari.
The system did not prevent Nigerians from muddling through the decades. Muddling through is putting it awfully mildly. They endured the catastrophe of one of independent Africa’s first and most devastating civil wars, the Biafra war; decades of sometimes brutal and always repressive and usually kleptocratic military dictatorship; fabulous economic injustice based not on a freewheeling, raucous, dynamic market economy but on a share-the-spoils system.
But they did muddle through, and with the return of democratic government, faults and all, in the 1990s, there was every reason to see proof that in the lives of nations, if not of American writers, there are indeed second acts. Which did not mean it would immediately function like a New England town council, with all the ladies joining the League of Women Voters and a man’s word as good as any contract.
Take everyday issues of how the country functions. Nigeria’s public services, including the maintenance of demographic records (no one knows for sure if there are 4 or 15 million residents of Lagos, the commercial capital), are inadequate, but not untypical of a great country with one foot in the first world and another in the third.
First world Nigeria has a top-notch civil service tradition, a ramrod straight military institution (both legacies of the British Empire), literate elites (in several languages including English, which can be heard spoken as elegantly as at Oxbridge).
Third world Nigeria’s civil service and military are riddled with incompetence and corruption or, probably more to the point, the old problem of dual-loyalty.
“Incompetence and corruption” is an old bugbear of old Africa hands (and official spokesmen in Washington and London and the think tank busybodies who depend on them like welfare queens). The idiom acknowledges they really do not know what they are talking about, but who “heard” from a colleague that someone they know got the arm put on him at a military roadblock or in a government ministry or even at the airport while trying to retrieve luggage. This is little more than pish-posh, as Mr. Tyrrell might say, annoying in the short run but recognizable to travelers world-wide, not just Nigeria.
The more serious matter concerns the confidence that people place in the state’s institutions and the loyalty to them that accumulates from such confidence. The simple and normal and intelligent reaction to doubts about whether the state is reliable is to cover one’s loyalty to the state, or nation, with attachment to a smaller, closer, more observable unit of social organization, namely the family, with its clan and tribal networks.
Our foreign policy leaders’ blindness to this elementary and universal fact of social organization is one of the reasons a man like Kerry can speak with accents that can only strike an ordinary Nigerian as either the height of arrogance or the depth of cretinism.
There are in Nigeria three or four large tribal groups, as defined by social scientists but also recognized by Nigerians themselves. These are, in turn, divided into sub-groups and clans too numerous to count, with languages to match.
The president, for example, Mr. Goodluck Jonathan, belongs to the Ijaw tribe, a fairly small but influential population concentrated in the Niger Delta (where the great river flows into the Gulf of Guinea, an annex of the Atlantic Ocean.) This is a region rich in energy-producing minerals, lush vegetation and rice paddies (badly polluted by the petrochemical extraction industry). It is marred by conflicts. Like most Ijaw and indeed like most Nigerians in this region, President Jonathan is Christian.
Initially popular as the vice president in the designated successor administration to Olusegon Obasanjo, who gained widespread respect as the general who put an end to military rule, Jonathan has been criticized for not breaking the spoils-system economy, for letting the northern terror persist (it is now entering its sixth year), and for being president in the first place. He finished the term of the president who followed President Obasanjo on the tacit understanding that he would not run for re-election in 2011, which he did anyway, and now he is running again. The idea was that northerners and southerners should take turns in the presidency, as a way to build confidence between the regions.
His principal challenger in the scheduled for February 14 poll is General (ret.) Mohammadu Bihari, a man of stern good looks by all reports, sort of an African Clint Eastwood, tall and straight-standing and tight lipped, taciturn (Calvin Coolidge, who also had a security background, merits comparison), and wildly popular in the north. The general reached the top of the heap for about a year and a half during the 1980s, when generals took turns running the country, sometimes using more than a polite “if you please” to encourage the incumbent to move aside. He was a severe, no-excuses-no-backtalk type of ruler who also, unlike his colleagues (except for Obasanjo, who was deposed and jailed and very nearly murdered in prison), is said to have been incorruptible.
There is a necessary caveat about incorruptibility, which is that it does not necessarily translate into better governance or respect for liberty. The point here, however, is that the memory of Gen. Bihari’s military reputation, more than his conduct as governor of Northeast State (from which the now-beleaguered Borno State was drawn), his somewhat puritanical preference for sharia (within the limits of Nigeria’s federal structure and constitution), and the figure he cuts as an austere, no-nonsense 72-year-old elder statesman, appear to be the foundations of his surge in popularity as the election date approaches and the violence in Borno, not by coincidence, increases.
After massacring villagers in a hamlet just a few miles from the important northern hub of Maidugiri, Borno’s capital, the Boko Haram insurgents were stopped by Nigerian forces. The B.H. men by all accounts are brothers under the skin to the caliphocrats of the Iraq-Syria Islamic State, the Yemeni Qaedists, and the faith-based highwaymen who took over half of Mali before being routed by a French-led counter-attack in which Chadian troops played a prominent role. Not surprisingly, all these movements have their regional and local characteristics, including the degree to which they welcome the internationalistas of the Islamic holy war.
President Jonathan and General Bihari are of one voice on the importance of defending Maidugiri. Somehow, it strikes one that to an American secretary of state, this should be a point of greater importance just now than whether they are in agreement that the ballot boxes will conform to Democracy International specs. If they do not, there is a vigorous and lively Nigerian press that will say so.
However, the ball — the security ball, that is — is in the president’s court, since he is in charge, and it may not be too much to say that his re-election depends on the outcome of the looming battle. But this can be overstated: voters in the south, where the preponderantly Christian Yoruba group forms the largest single bloc, do not have fond memories of northern* military men (Obasanjo is Yoruba and Christian) and they may consider a strategic retreat in the north — if there is one — a price worth paying for keeping their man in Abuja, Nigeria’s Washington, D.C.
It is certainly true that the psychological blow of losing Maidugiri would represent a rude blow. It would be as bad as was to Mali’s central government the fall of Timbuktu and Kidal in 2012.
It would not necessarily be the end. Timbuktu and Kidal were re-conquered the following year. Borno can be re-claimed, particularly with help from the battle hardened Chadian troops who appear eager for a regional security system. What does seem certain, however, is this: Nigeria is facing a moment of truth. As Gen. Bihari reportedly has stated, the whole horror would have been avoided if. But if did not happen. Now, as he reiterates and as President Jonathan himself emphasized during a weekend trip to the northern front, including Maidugiri, what happened is over and the war must be prosecuted vigorously.
It is embarrassing to write this, for politics ends at the water’s edge and this is bound to sound politically inspired, but the secretary of state’s eloquence could not have come at a worse time.Stopping on the eve of what could be a major battle to announce to the world that the United States will help in the fight so long as an election takes place under good conditions assures that it will not. It invites every excess and blame-everyone-but me, from all sides. If the U.S. wanted to set up an excuse to abandon Nigeria, it would not have done otherwise.
There are quite different American policies for which cases can be made: we can, for example, decide that we cannot be useful in Nigeria and, hoping the damage and suffering will not be too great, study where else we should draw a line against Islamic terrorism. We can, alternately, determine that the strategic importance of Nigeria is such that we must defend it without regard for who has power in Abuja. In such a case, while surely the country’s political evolution matters, it cannot be of immediate importance. There are other policies as well; for example, we could look into whether some of our Arab allies have a hand in supplying the Boko Haram with arms and ideas, and lean on them a little, or even a lot.
What Mr. Kerry’s fly-by clean-government posturing suggests, however, is that we have no idea of the strategic importance of Nigeria (one way or another), and most certainly have no strategy. This is quite in keeping with the way the Obama administration conceives the American role in the world.
Boko Haram will do everything in its power to disrupt the election. The United States Army’s Africa Command has worked with Nigerian troops and is prepared to help with materiel, intelligence, training, and ultimately backup for the battlefield advisors from U.S. Army Africa, who have proved their effectiveness in a variety of terrains. Political considerations — on the Nigerian as well as the American side — are likely to delay any aggressive U.S. entry into this conflict at least until after the dust from the election campaign settles. The very least we can do is save the sanctimony for then; and in the meantime we might find a way to broadcast to the Nigerian people that soon, very soon, we will offer more to rescue them from mass killers than vapid civics lessons.
*Amplification and Correction.
Fighting is reported around Maidugiri, the capital of Nigeria’s northern state of Borno. Reviewing Secretary of State John Kerry’s brief stop in Lagos, when he took just enough time to lecture the candidates in the February 14 presidential election on the importance of clean government, we erred in noting that southern Nigerians do not have fond memories of Yoruba military men. The sentence (now corrected) should have read northern military men, including the principal challenger to incumbent president and candidate of the People’s Democratic Party Goodluck Jonathan, Gen. (ret.) Muhammadu Bihari, candidate of the All Progressive Congress, the head of a military government in the early 1980s. Southerners, including the large Yoruba population, welcomed the assent in the 1990s of Gen. Olusegon Obasanjo, a Yoruba, who restored civilian government. Our apologies to readers and our best wishes to John Kerry, whose preference for clean government over dead governed expresses the sterling moral values of American foreign policy.