Pulling Nigeria Back from the Brink

Once again, Nigeria seems at the brink of disintegration, this time with the threat by parliament to impeach President Olesegun Obasanjo. But Nigeria has always been remarkable for producing surprising outcomes. Time and again, Africa "experts" issue dire warnings about the country's impending implosion, and time and again, Nigeria holds together, however precariously.

The forces working to undermine Nigeria's unity and stability are as varied as they are powerful. But the factors that hold together this huge, socially diverse country of over 120 million people are equally potent and tenacious, constantly pulling the country back from the brink--even as the most sanguine foreign observers brace themselves for the worst.

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This time, ethnic and religious tensions are rising with the approach of next year's presidential elections, the second since military rule ended in 1999. Unemployed urban youth and ethnic militias are driving an upsurge of armed robbery and political violence in such cities as Lagos and Warri in the south, and Kaduna and Kano in the north. The political/ecological crisis in the oil-producing communities of the Niger River delta threatens to spin out of control as irate youth and impoverished women accuse the oil companies and state officials of despoiling their habitat and taking their oil without giving back much in return.

But most outsiders fail to grasp the maze of living threads that bind Nigerians to one another. Fulani cattle herdsmen and butchers, originally from the country's north, are a familiar scene in eastern cities and towns. Igbo merchants and artisans crowd the famous market of Kano and other northern cities. Lagos, the nation's commercial capital, is a city of mongrels and hybrids, with no ethnic group in command.

The corporate boardrooms exert an even stronger influence in preventing Nigeria from falling apart. A mesh of interlocking share-holdings in the finance and banking sector, upstream petroleum refining, and the booming telecoms industry draws business barons, retired generals, and powerful traditional rulers into a rancorous but surprisingly stable family.

While the majority of the business elite is from one of the three main ethnic groups--Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba--its members recognize that oil drives the economy, and that the bulk of it comes from the Niger delta, inhabited by minority groups such as the Ogoni and the Ijo. This recognition of mutual dependence on a valuable resource outside their territory aligns the interests of the three main ethnic groups. Each group's self-interest in sustaining the flow of petrodollars serves to unite much of Nigeria's patchwork of emirates, kingdoms, village republics, and autonomous clans.

A single Nigerian nation is slowly but surely emerging from this cacophony of dissonant voices. Realizing that no single group is powerful enough to impose its habits on others, Nigeria's peoples are working out ingenious ways to accommodate one another's differences. Increasingly, Nigerians are assuming multiple identities, drawing on their ethnic or religious origins or both, and using these as a basis for their "Nigerian-ness."

More and more Nigerians do not find balancing their different identities irksome because they recognize that there are advantages--economic, cultural, and political--to be derived from straddling them. A typical restaurant menu in any Nigerian city reads like a symptom of such fluid identities. It might include "Suya," (barbecued meat), originally of Hausa origin, but now a national favorite. And upper and middle class Nigerians everywhere might well choose "Gulder" and "Star" lagers, which are brewed in Lagos.

Similarly, support for the "Super Eagles," the country's soccer team, cuts across all ethnic groups. while a thriving local video film industry, akin to India's "Bollywood," is drawing actors, producers, directors and marketers to Lagos, where the majority of these films are made. In short, a distinctly "Nigerian" culture is being created.

This is not to say that the forces of disintegration have been defeated. A clear reminder that the fault lines of disunity still run deep is the recent sentence of death by stoning issued to a woman by a Muslim Sharia court in Nigeria's northern region.

The upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism in northern Nigeria is partly driven by the deep insecurity of the region's political elite over a possible loss of power and influence. But crude Sharia punishments, while condemned by foreigners, could well represent an opportunity for advocates of Nigerian unity. Reducing destructive ethnic tensions and competition between the country's diverse regions requires transferring real power to local governments, giving them the sort of authority over taxes, schools, police, and land-use controls that American states, counties, and cities typically enjoy.

Of course, there is a danger that building up local and regional governments will encourage secessionist movements. After all, memories of the bloody civil war over "Biafra" 30 years ago still run deep. Nevertheless, the risk is worth taking. Loosening the ties that bind Nigeria's peoples in an overly centralized, authoritarian state would allow them to assert themselves more freely and recognize on their own the benefits of maintaining and deepening their growing sense of unity.