What are the problems Nigeria is facing

Domestic conflicts

Heinrich Bergstresser

Born in 1949, is a freelance journalist, trainer at the AIZ within the GIZ in Bonn-Röttgen and freelance research assistant at the GIGA in Hamburg, has been writing the article on Nigeria in the Africa Yearbook for years. For more than 20 years he was an editor at Deutsche Welle in Cologne and Bonn, where he devoted himself particularly to issues relating to Africa and North-South relations. In the 1990s he spent several years in Nigeria and Ghana as a representative of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

The most populous country in Africa is facing numerous violent conflicts as well as deep political, socio-economic and cultural divisions. President Buhari, the former putschist, junta leader and promoter of the Islamization of northern Nigeria, remains merely administrator of the crisis-ridden country in his second and last term in office.

Boko Haram terrorists on a poster in Maiduguri, Nigeria. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Current situation

More than a year after the controversial re-election of Muhammadu Buhari in February 2019, the country is still in crisis mode. Hundreds of people were killed in the course of the elections, particularly in central and southern Nigeria. The turnout was only 35%. The low turnout, even for Nigeria, is mainly due to the illegal postponement of the elections by the election commission, which was supposed to prevent Buhari from being voted out of office. This decision and the intimidating military and police presence on election day prevented several million voters, especially in the southern part of the country, from casting their votes.

Never before have there been so many legal proceedings for irregularities and allegations of fraud in connection with the nomination of candidates and the counting of votes. More than 1,500 trials reveal the weakness of the election commission in the face of manipulation and pressure from major parties and the government. Without prejudice to this, the Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of Buhari's re-election and most of the results in the major gubernatorial elections.

The promise of Buhari and the new government to "noticeably improve the security situation, restructure the economy and noticeably curb corruption" largely fizzled out a few months after the elections. Nigeria is once again experiencing a serious political and economic crisis, which is exacerbated by the collapse in world market prices for oil and gas and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, the political and economic framework conditions for containing and dealing with the numerous violent conflicts in the various parts of the country have deteriorated significantly:
  • The northeast is still suffering from the organized raids of the Islamist militia Boko Haram and their cross-border splits, including the IS offshoot Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). More than 2 million internally displaced people are vegetating in camps; several hundred thousand have fled to the neighboring countries.
  • In central Nigeria in particular, ethnic disputes between sedentary farmers and shepherds about the use of land are smoldering. The increasingly violent conflicts are spreading southwards.
  • In central Nigeria, too, ethnic and religious struggles for distribution and violent crime (e.g. cattle theft, robbery and looting) are intensifying. The north-west is also increasingly being affected by this. As a result, a refugee drama has developed that has now also reached the neighboring Republic of Niger.
  • In the Niger Delta, with its oil and gas reserves, the country's central economic lifeline, a well-organized piracy is keeping security forces and commercial shipping in suspense. The implementation of the costly amnesty and reintegration program for thousands of former members of the militia and the rehabilitation of the oil-contaminated areas are making slow progress.
  • Organized crime (e.g. kidnapping, bank robberies and robbery on highways) remains at a high level across the country. A relatively new phenomenon is the transformation of mostly ethnically defined secret societies at higher educational institutions - so-called secret cults - into criminal networks. Their activities range from prostitution and drug trafficking to fraud, extortion and murder. Many groups have meanwhile infiltrated irregular migration and are also active in the numerous Nigerian diaspora in Europe.
The manifold conflicts are an expression of distrust of the political elite and the weakness of state institutions. More and more social groups see violence and crime as a feasible way of asserting their political and profit interests and thereby gaining a share in social wealth.

The result is an increasing militarization of society and the establishment of a prosperous "violent conflict industry". Examples of this are the expansion of the highly profitable sector of private security services and the establishment of the so-called state police in some southern states. This is an autonomous police force in relation to the National Police of the central government. In Buhari's tenure alone, at least USD 17 billion has flowed into security without improving the security situation. At the same time, civil rights are falling by the wayside.

Causes and Background

With more than 190 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, has the greatest ethnic diversity on the continent with around 400 ethnic groups and is its largest oil and gas producer. Two thirds of the income comes from this sector. Even if the country nominally represents the largest economy in Africa, it ranks well behind South Africa in terms of economic output. The population is extremely young and has more than doubled over the past three decades without the expansion of the infrastructure even beginning to keep pace with it. The economic development also lagged significantly behind the demographic development, so that a massive youth unemployment and generational problem could develop.

The dominance of the three majority peoples Haussa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba over the numerous minority peoples also shapes the central and federal power structures. Nigerian federalism, conceived as a balance of interests between regions and peoples, quickly developed into a synonym for legalized enrichment. In doing so, he cemented the stark structural differences in development between the underdeveloped north and the relatively prosperous south that had arisen during colonialism. In addition, modernization efforts fizzled out, especially in the Muslim north. This opened up space for radical groups to implement their politically and religiously tinged societal ideas. The result of these processes are boko haram, institutionalized violence, criminality and the arbitrariness of the state.

Despite constant assurances that the crushing of the Islamist uprising in the northeast is imminent, the conflict continues to smolder at a high level with many victims on both sides. Split-offs from Boko Haram, such as the ISWAP, have turned into criminal organizations and in some cases created totalitarian local rulership structures in order to eliminate competing groups. They carry violence and terror to the countries bordering Lake Chad. The Nigerian side is using regionalization as a pretext to deny its share of responsibility for the uprising as well as for incompetence and corruption within the political and military leadership and to declare the conflict as an international challenge. At the same time, their willingness to cooperate with the countries also affected, such as Chad, Cameroon and Niger, has noticeably decreased.

In the rest of the north, too, including central Nigeria, there is no longer any question of an effective state monopoly on the use of force. Numerous well-organized, armed criminal syndicates use the free space to conduct their profitable business: cattle theft, pillage, kidnapping, robbery and contract and robbery killings. They now have considerable power to act against the regional governments, which engage in dubious barter deals - imprisoned gang members for the release of kidnappers and payment of protection money.

In the Niger Delta, pacification, which has been bought at great expense through various amnesty, reintegration and training programs, is only moderately successful. A considerable number of the former militia officers have organized themselves into criminal syndicates. These terrorize the highways in the south, carry out robberies on travelers and banks and carry out kidnapping, with an increasing number of abductees being murdered despite the payment of ransom. Professional piracy off the coast has also increased; Despite numerous missions by the Nigerian Navy, the Gulf of Biafra is now one of the world's most endangered maritime zones.

The number of secret societies, such as "Black Ax", has risen to over 40 with several thousand cells. Once founded at the higher education institutions as a political spearhead against colonial tutelage, the student groups turned into seriously criminal organizations. The networks intimidate fellow students and exploit them. They do not shy away from extortion, robbery and murder. Since the beginning of the 4th Republic (1999) at least 10,000 victims of this form of organized crime have been complained of. In the meantime, the secret societies have further professionalized their networks, expanded their domestic activities and, taking advantage of the Nigerian diaspora, relocated more and more activities abroad.

Processing and solution approaches

In Nigeria there is a lack of institutionalized mechanisms for conflict early warning and conflict management. Ignorance, arrogance, incompetence, corruption, indifference and strong regional veto powers impede viable institutional solutions for the numerous ethnic, religious and criminal conflicts. The state, which itself arbitrarily uses violence against its citizens without having to answer for it, remains in the role of the ruling manager of the numerously large and affluent elite and the political class.

But the state is not in a position to reliably safeguard the property rights of the elites, let alone create a socially acceptable, integrative state framework for political pacification and economic development in the country. The serious deficits in the provision of state services for the broader population (e.g. public safety, social security, health system, independent media) also exacerbate the conflict. In addition, overlapping state double and multiple structures as well as contradicting mandates impair the state's ability to act.

The re-election of President Buhari has further solidified the fragile situation. And there is no evidence that the government will take substantial administrative, economic and financial measures capable of reducing the fragility of the political and socio-economic system. After all, the government was able to record minor successes in repatriating stolen funds from western countries. This also included court-proof confiscations of illegally acquired luxury properties and misappropriated funds from former high-ranking government officials.

One way to break this vicious circle would be to rebuild the local government system, paired with the transparent use of the legally documented transfers of resources to the local institutions. As an integral part of Nigerian federalism, the state and statehood should also be tangible at the grassroots level. Instead, however, the district councils and their chairmen privatized the transfer payments from the financial equalization scheme. As a result, the local level increasingly lost its power to shape the state and left behind a political vacuum that promoted the development of violence.

History of the conflict

Since its independence (1960), Nigeria has still not overcome the stage of the unfinished state and, even under the democratic auspices of the 4th Republic (since 1999), has only rudimentary functioning statehood. From the post-colonial phase to the present day, conflicting ethnic and religious identities and narratives about origins, interests and claims to power were able to flourish.

The deepest gap runs between the Islamic north and the predominantly Christian south of the country. Nigeria's history is a process of growing alienation between Muslims and Christians. The background to this is the growing fundamentalism in both religions as well as increasing ethnic polarization and bitter struggles over the allocation of the central government. As a result, the Middle Belt was no longer able to fulfill its role as a transition and buffer zone between the less developed north and the prosperous south and, for its part, was increasingly drawn into the pull of destabilization.

The oil- and gas-rich Niger Delta creates the greatest wealth in Nigeria, which is appropriated by an elite that is relatively large in numbers by African standards. Ethnically defined, violent and well-organized groups have repeatedly challenged this elite rule since the beginning of democratization in 1998/99. Some militias were partially successful with the use of force and were able to redistribute at least part of this wealth in their favor.

The bloody civil war for Biafra (1967–1970), the causes and consequences of which were never dealt with so that none of the main actors had to face responsibility, marks the only "industrial accident" for the Nigerian elite to date. Since then, the unwritten state doctrine has been in place, according to which such an event must not be repeated. This should guarantee an elite consensus, which consists in dividing the benefices as smoothly as possible and not endangering the cohesion of the central state. But this consensus has already come under threat several times - for example under military dictator Sani Abacha and President Goodluck Jonathan. In view of President Buhari's meager record so far, which has been confirmed in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the termination of the consensus threatens again with unforeseeable consequences.


Bergstresser, Heinrich (2018): Nigeria - The IV Republic between Democratization, Terror and State Failure (1999-2017), Frankfurt am Main: Brandes & Apsel.

Bönner, Arno (2020): Nigeria. An Archeology of Political Corruption. A political science excavation locating the roots of Nigeria’s corruption problem in the Victorian era of Great Britain, 2020 BMV / Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag.

Loimeier, Roman (2016): Islamic Reform in 20th Century Africa, Edinburgh: Edingburgh University Press.

Aweboda, Albert K. / Kamski, Benedikt / Mehler, Andreas / Sebudubudu, David (Eds.) (2020): Africa Yearbook, Vol. 16, Politics, Economy and Society South of the Sahara in 2019, Leiden, Boston.

Mustapha, Abdul Raufu (Ed.) (2014): Sects & Social Disorder: Muslim Identities and Conflict in Northern Nigeria, Martlesham: James Currey.

Olaniyan, Azeez / Yahaya, Aliyu (2016): Cows, Bandits, and Violent Conflict: Understanding Cattle Rustling in Northern Nigeria, in: Africa Spectrum 3/2016, pp. 93-105.

Scholz, Jan-Philipp (2019): Human trafficking, migration business and modern slavery, Frankfurt / Main: Brandes & Apsel.

Thurston, Alexander (2017): Boko Haram. The history of an African jihadist movement, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


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Boko Haram after the "Islamic State" - With open cards, ARTE 2017.

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