Conflict And Insurgency In Nigeria: Impact On Dev. Prospects And Nationhood


By Obadiah Mailafia 

With a population of 165 million, Nigeria is Africa’s largest country in terms of demographic size. With a GDP of US$415 billion, it is the second largest economy after South Africa. Nigeria holds the record for being the largest oil producer on the continent and the sixth in OPEC. The country is well endowed with petroleum, gas and yet-untapped mineral resources.  Its agricultural potentials are considerable, although the country remains a net importer of food.  Over the last decade growth has averaged 7.4% and is projected to be 6.9% by year’s end 2012.

Nigeria remains a paradox, if not an enigma, to many observers. A country of energetic and highly entrepreneurial peoples and with an embarrassment of natural riches, the bulk of the population remain impoverished. Although per capita income has improved in recent years to about US$2,500 (in PPP terms), more than 60% of the people live below the poverty line while income inequalities are also widening, with an estimated gini coefficient of 43.7 percent. Unemployment stands at a national average of 24%, with an estimated 54% of the youth population without jobs. A recent World Bank study depicts the country’s development trajectory in terms of ‘jobless growth’.

Massive revenues from oil earnings have gone into consumption and recurrent expenditure, with little left to finance the yawning gaps in physical infrastructures. Corruption is widespread in public life while capital flight is an endemic feature of the political economy. As a result, the vast majority have no access to electricity, water and basic social services. Life-expectancy stands at 51 years, which is well below the average for sub-Saharan Africa.

After decades of military rule, the country returned to democratic rule in 1999.  The writer Fareed Zakaria’s concept of ‘illiberal democracy’ perhaps best describes Nigeria’s current governance situation, where the culture of impunity reigns supreme and the rule of law and constitutionalism remain very much work in progress. Nigeria is an ethnically diverse country, with some of the most ancient civilisations known to man.  In the context of widening inequalities, joblessness and poverty, it is inevitable to that social tensions — most of which are exploited by politicians — will tend to find expression in ethno-religious conflict.

This paper discusses the nature, origins and impact of terrorist insurgency in Nigeria. We situate this phenomenon not only in the context of globalisation but also in poor governance and the failure to devise effective policies to meet the country’s daunting challenges.

The presentation is in four main parts. Part one addresses the issue of definition and conceptualisation of terrorism as a social phenomenon. The second discusses the global context for the proliferation of terrorist violence. In the third section we analyse the incidence of ethno-sectarian conflict in Nigeria which provides the context for the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency. The fourth part discusses the economic and social consequences of terrorism. We then provide a general summary and conclusion.

1.Theoretical and Conceptual Considerations

The analytical approach of this paper is premised on the theory of social constructivism. According to this approach, it is not only empirical reality that determines social outcomes; differences arising from conflicting construction of world views, ideas, identities and historical experiences are influential in shaping the structure of politics and public policy. Constructivist epistemology goes as far back as the renaissance scholar Giambattista Vico, Immanuel Kant, Max Weber and the philosopher John Dewey.  According to this approach, human consciousness is shaped by the shared meanings that shape the world views of a people and the meanings they give to events and symbols. Reality is thus shaped less by truth than by conditioned learning and received tradition. In the field of International Relations, one of the eminent theorists in this tradition is Alexander Wendt. Socially constructed interpretations of national challenges shape how different segments of society perceive issues and what solutions they proffer. In the words of Kalu and Oguntoyinbo, “perceptual differences in terms of relative political and socio-economic issues generate disparate and competing templates for finding solutions to national problems. When one premises these differences on fundamental ideological and cultural foundations, they oftentimes become irreconcilable and hence less amenable to long lasting and durable solutions”.

From the viewpoint of social constructivism, the idea of a universal Muslim Ummah, the political categories known as ‘The North’ or ‘The Middle Belt’, to give a few examples, are socially constructed concepts. While remaining conceptual myths, their potency as idea and rallying banner cannot be under-estimated. The contestations shaping the structure of politics in contemporary Nigeria have to do in part with the constructed concepts and symbols of ethnicity, religion and community. Addressing them will require returning to the fundamentals of nationhood and reinventing the grammar and syntax of political discourse.

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Defining Terrorism

Terrorism is a rather emotional topic. Not only do people differ on questions of conceptual definition, they also disagree on interpretation of facts in specific cases of terrorist activity. The American leftist intellectual, Noam Chomsky, points out two different and conflicting approaches to the study of terrorism. One is the literal approach and the other is the propagandistic approach. While the one seeks a rational-scientific understanding of terrorism as a social phenomenon with specific empirical causal factors which lead to particular societal impact, the latter prefers to view terrorism as “a weapon to be exploited in the service of some system of power”. While the scientific approach is interested in finding lasting remedies, the propagandistic is more interested in labelling and demonising for the sole purpose of deploying hegemonic military power to score strategic advantage over perceived enemies.

We have to take on board the caution by the late Charles Tilly, a social scientist of the highest integrity, who pointed out that terrorism as a social phenomenon surfaces in a wide variety of cultures, institutions and political forces; and that it is certainly not a preserve of Muslims as the American neo-conservatives would have us believe. Indeed, the governments of world powers and developing countries have also practised some form of terrorism or other, not to talk of a whole brigade of environmentalists, liberation fighters and anarchists. According to Tilly, “Terrorists range across a wide spectrum of organisations, circumstances and beliefs. Terrorism is not a single coherent phenomenon. No social scientist can speak responsibly as though it were.”

Terrorism is not just a Nigerian problem; it is a global problem. Nor is it an exclusively Islamic problem. Extremists are to be found in all religions. Our central thesis is that the increasing salience of Islamist terror may be explained by the unique experiences of Arab-Muslim societies and how religion has often been deployed as a weapon of political struggle. Globalisation and the technologies associated with the increasing internationalisation of production, capital and markets has facilitated the capacity of terror groups to mobilise, network and implement their violent projects across nations and communities.

Curiously enough, nobody has ever been known to describe himself or herself as a terrorist. Terrorism is a rather value-loaded term that people often use to describe those who are pursuing goals or deploying methods that they do not agree with. It can even be a term of abuse. Equally problematic is the fact that it is often deployed as a political term to categorise people or countries that have been already identified to be enemies. A major challenge in seeking to understand terrorism is the fact that perspectives differ, depending on where we stand on a particular issue. The well-worn cliché that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” rings as true today as when it was first used in terrorism discourse.  For example, both Ronald Reagan in America and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain dismissed the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and his colleagues as “terrorists”. To their own people and to most Africans, however, they were ‘freedom fighters’; heroes of a historic struggle for liberation against Apartheid and racial humiliation.

Given these complexities, it is not surprising that there are probably as many definitions of terrorism as there are organisations and governments working to counter the menace. Several definitions have been on offer, most of them expressing nuances and perspectives deriving from the type of agency in question or the historical experiences of the government proffering the definition.

According to the United States Department of Defence, terrorism is “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological”. Inherent in this definition are the three key elements of violence, fear, and intimidation. All three elements coalesce in instigating terror in the victims or those at the receiving end. The American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), on its part, defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”. The U.S. State Department, on the other hand, understands it as the deployment of “premeditated politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience”.

The British Government, as far back as 1974, officially defined terrorism as “the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public, or any section of the public, in fear”.

•Dr. Mailafia wrote this paper for the Governor of  Central Bank of Nigeria. Source: Time, Washington DC, 12 September, 2011.

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