Nigeria’s Inevitable Mess

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Nigeria is divided into three parts, Gary Brecher (The War Nerd) explains:

The North is a Muslim theocracy dominated by the Hausa and Fulani; the West, where the Yoruba kings (Oba) ruled city-states; and the East, where the Igbo operated on something a lot like ancient Greek assemblies, with every freeborn man entitled to a voice.

There are about 240 other ethnic groups, like the Niger Delta people, the Ijaw. Jonathan Goodluck, the current president—dude with the cool black hat?—he’s an Ijaw. But for most of Nigeria’s history, it’s been a three-sided fight: Yoruba vs. Igbo vs. Hausa-Fulani.

The Yoruba were the first to meet the whites and take up Western education. They dealt with the British town by town; to the Yoruba, your town was more important than the broader ethnic identity. The Igbo came late to British rule but took to education very quickly. The Igbo get called “the Jews of Africa” because they’re good at book-learning and business.

And then there were the Northerners, the Hausa-dominated Muslims of the dry inland territory. In a way, you wouldn’t be far off thinking of the great Nigerian divide in California terms: the coasts vs. the hot inland redneck zone. The North, in Nigerian terms, is usually called “Hausa,” or “Hausa-Fulani,” but it includes the Kanuri of the Northeast, who are the most remote from the coast and the fiercest opponents of anything coastal, Christian, or modern. These were all war-forged Sahel caliphates, with no tradition of local loyalties like the Yoruba, or egalitarianism like the Igbo. They had the traditional Sahel-Muslim organization, top-down all the way: Sultan gives orders to Omda, Omda gives orders to Sheikh, Sheikh gives orders to commoners. And commoners obey.

That style can be adapted to warmer, more moderate people like the Zaghawa, but among the Hausa and Kanuri it was Sultan and Jihad all the way. Even between Muslims, Jihad was the norm, with the Hausa northwest and Kanuri/Fulani Northeast fighting for the caliphate right through the Fulani War in the early 1800s. The wars often started with disgruntled Islamic scholars being kicked out of one sultanate, then declaring jihad against the ruler who booted them. The jihad would usually feed into an ethnic grudge, usually Hausa farmers vs. Fulani herders—the old Cain ’n’ Abel war. But all the jihads and dynastic struggles had one feature in common: It was always total war for control of the whole Western Sahel, with one man on top. That made for a huge cultural gap between the north and the coastal people, the localist Yoruba and the populist Igbo.

The British crushed the Northern caliphates early in the 20th Century, but found that they liked the North best of the three heads this Nigerian monster had. The second sons who were booted out of England to run the colonies always got on best with aristocratic, warlike desert people. They took to the Hausa-Fulani, with their cataphracts and caste system, like they were an unguarded tray of cucumber sandwiches. Most of all, the Empire appreciated the ease with which all of Northern Nigeria could be bought. Thanks to the strict, militarized hierarchy of the North, all the local British agent had to do was buy the Sultan and the whole people would fall into line.

It was a very different matter when they tried to tell the argumentative Igbo and localist Yoruba what to do. If you remember Chinua Achebe’s great novel “Things Fall Apart,” you’ll get an idea of what it was like when the Brits met the Igbo. And in a way, you can get a sense of what the Brit-Yoruba encounter was like from Amos Tutuola’s amazingly weird, cool books: “The Palm Wine Drunkard” and “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” There weren’t any novels like that from the north, because the North didn’t take to Western education and books. The Hausa had walled off their world from the corrupt coasts. Come to think of it, the Saudis felt the same way; Riyadh was their place, right in the middle of the ugliest desert you ever saw. They called Jeddah, the port city, “decadent”—I swear to God, when I was out there a Saudi cop once said that to me, “Jeddah is decadent.” At the time, I was mainly awed that he knew the English word “decadent” when I was still figuring out whether “Yameen” meant “Go left” or “Go right.” But actually, if you’re a Saudi cop, “decadent” is probably one of the commonest words in your English kit—and it always seemed to be applied to coastal areas. Take Dammam —another coastal region, on the Persian (or Arab) Gulf. To the Wahhabi, Dammam is “decadent” too, full of Shi’ite traitors in the pay of Iran. I wonder if you could argue that extremely conservative theocracies do better in isolated inland areas. It works for the Pashtun, the Saudis’ only rivals. No Pashtun saw the sea til they started moving to Karachi a couple generations ago.

You might think that when the British grabbed Nigeria, they’d force the North to deal with a scary new world, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the British agents, always understaffed and eager to use local proxies, took a look at the Hausa system and, with their usual flexibility, decided they’d rule the North indirectly, through the Sultans. And if those Sultans wanted their realms insulated from outside influences, the British were happy to agree. So while Christian missionaries were embedded in every Yoruba and Igbo town, no Christian missionaries were permitted to operate in the North. No visitors of any kind were encouraged. In return for allegiance to the Crown, the Sultans’ hierarchy was untouched.

That’s why the North was the only part of Nigeria that wanted to stay British. The demand for independence was confined to “the coastal elites,” as they say in Bakersfield. When Nigeria got its independence in 1960, the Igbo and Yoruba were excited and eager. From the North there was only wary silence.

The Igbo and Yoruba started moving out of their traditional areas. Soon there were thousands of Igbo in the Northern cities like Kano and Maiguduri, buy and selling, making the locals feel that they were being played for suckers by these infidels.

The Muslim proletariat dealt with their resentment the way the Russians used to, before the Revolution: pogroms. Every few weeks Hausa mobs would get stirred up by the usual mix of envy and religious paranoia and chop up a few Igbo.

Independent, three-headed Nigeria only lasted seven years before exploding. In 1967, after coup and counter-coup, the Hausa decided, as they always do, that it was all the Igbos’ fault, and launched a huge pogrom, like the ones the Russians launched in 1905, targeting Igbo living in the Northern cities. In a few days, 30,000 Igbo trying to make a living in the North had been panga’d — or beaten or burned to death — and the Igbo had had enough. The survivors fled home, making sure everybody heard their horror stories. On May 30, 1967, Igbo officers declared the Southeast region an independent country to be called Biafra.

Most people don’t remember Biafra now, except as the second name of that spoken-word asshole Jello Biafra. It’s a shame; the Igbo deserve to have their heroic war remembered and honored. But like I said, nobody much cares about African casualties, and when they do, it’s always Africans as helpless victims—never, ever Africans as brave and well-organized armies. I’ve noticed that, over years of doing this column. When Africans are threatening to form a strong, united country, like the Igbo, the Tutsi or the Eritreans, they come in for some weirdly intense hate, and a lot of times it comes from the bloodiest bleeding hearts around. Creeps me out, actually, and I’m not easily crept.

The Igbo had the morale and the technical know-how; the Nigerian Army had the numbers and the weapons and a whole lot of ethnic hate going for them, along with consistent support from Britain and the USSR. The small, badly-supplied Biafran Army smashed the Nigerian Army in most stand-up fights, but thanks to numbers, foreign support and logistics, the Nigerian Army was able to isolate the Igbo in a little enclave of southeastern forest. Then they proceeded to starve the Igbo to death. Not by accident, not as an unfortunate consequence, but as military policy: avoid battle, starve the Igbo civilians to death.

And of course, you know who dies first in a siege: children. By 1970 two million Igbo were dead, nearly all of starvation, and the Southeast was part of Nigeria again.

Two million people. Don’t hear much about them, do you? Nobody minded much.


The Hausa have ruled Nigeria since 1970. When oil was found in the Niger Delta, far away on the coast, it was Hausa governors and generals who took more than 80% of the profits. Just think Oklahoma: When you’ve got enough religious hysteria going, the locals will reelect you as long as you say the right prayers, loud enough and public enough and often enough, no matter how much you steal and no matter how many people you kill. The Northern Islamists have had things their way, in legal terms; 12 Northern provinces now use Sharia law, which ensures nobody shoplifts more than twice unless they’ve got prehensile toes.

But the North isn’t happy. Boko Haram wants the people of the North to withdraw completely from the tech world. They say it’s all haram: getting the vaccination, studying computers, learning English, working in an office. It’s all part of a big corrosive scheme.

And in a way they’re right. When women start learning to read and write, like they’re doing now in parts of Northern Nigeria, they have a different value in the local economy: higher as potential office workers, lower as docile baby-makers. There’s an excellent survey from back in 1989 showing that parents from the countryside don’t want their daughters getting an education, but city parents are for it.


In a strange way, Boko Haram’s take on the place of religion in a culture is closer to the truth than the moderate view you get from progressive, urban Islamic intellectuals. There’s something very rigorous about Boko’s view: This is all of a piece, this world of ours, and any change to any part of it will bring the whole thing down. That’s the way it actually does work, and that’s something that’s understood by a lot of sullen, inarticulate conservatives all over the world, from Bakersfield to Kano. That’s what’s behind the rage of the silent majority in every country, the knowledge that new money will reverberate in unexpected directions, and is almost guaranteed to destroy the world you feel comfortable with, even if the changes seem innocent and totally devoid of religious significance. So any change is evil. Not just unveiled women or booze or churches, but all books, all education, and even those women going around vaccinating kids. Strange to think that, in understanding that much at least, the dumb thugs in Boko Haram understand social change better than the professors…or at least better than the professors are willing to say, in public.

And that’s the hope for Achebe’s people, the Igbo, the ones who get burned and chopped and shot to death in the Boko Haram attacks: They win, long-term, as the faster people, the corrosive element. One Igbo politician, Orji Uzor Kalu, said “The Igbo are the salt of Nigeria.” He’s echoing the Bible there, but I’d put it a little differently: The Igbo are the solvent. Boko Haram is a defensive movement, and the Igbo, forced to push out of their half-ruined home territory, have no choice but to move north and squirm their way into the rigid old Sultanates. These small merchants and schoolteachers who migrate north won’t see themselves as agents of change; they’ll have their own agendas. But they’ll bring it down anyway.

The funny thing is, if Biafra hadn’t been crushed, it would be rich now, and would draw migrants. By crushing the Igbo’s country, the Hausa made it inevitable that desperate Igbo would migrate north and start chewing away at the walls of their mud castles.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    “I wonder if you could argue that extremely conservative theocracies do better in isolated inland areas”

    Well, it seems to be working for the Mormons.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    Mormonism is one of the most rapidly spreading forms of Christianity. In fact, all liberal religious traditions are dying out, and conservative, reactionary forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are on the rise. Secular humanism is a lost cause. The humanist don’t even reproduce and go to extremes to prevent reproduction.

    Who do you think will inherit the Earth?

  3. Barnabas says:

    Great post but offhandedly harsh on Oklahomans.

    Humanists may not reproduce but they are quite successful at recruitment.

  4. Windy Wilson says:

    Barnabas, that makes me think of “The Name of the Rose.” Just because one is neither born nor adopted doesn’t mean one can’t be someone’s child (ideologically speaking).

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