Nigeria is the real giant of Africa. With 160 million inhabitants, plenty of natural resources, a good school system, Nigeria has the potential to become the new powerhouse of the continent, overcoming South Africa in a short while. Yet, it is profoundly divided by violence. In the past months, some compared it to Sudan, which recently split into two independent nations. In reality, unlike Sudan, Nigeria – with its 400 ethnic groups and very diverse regions – has remained united and very few are wishing for the secession of one region or the other. The dangers come from other conflicts, and can be identified in three major ones: the Niger Delta, politics in Plateau State, and Boko Haram.
The Niger Delta is the region with the longest history of violence. It is a region rich in resources. The diplomacy of the federal government paid off. After years of neglect, misunderstanding and civilian casualties, the government scored a success when it granted the amnesty to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) and other armed groups, coupled with the enactment of a long term reconstruction of the region. Notwithstanding some set back, the amnesty stands and the program of rebuilding is under way. Oil extraction is now back to normal and the cost of restoring a depleted infrastructure is high but perceived as well spent.
The other area with a history of violence is the Plateau, with the city of Jos as its epicentre. The conflict is between the local Berom and the Haussa, who originated in the north of the country but established themselves in the area a few generations ago. Most Berom are Christians and belong to the Church of Christ in Nigeria, an evangelical denomination founded in 1904. The Haussa are instead Muslim. Yet, the problem is not religious. Religion plays a part in the conflict, but the real reason is the control over political and economic powers. The first violence was recorded in early 1990s, but the tension became strong in the past decade and led to the death of 10,000 people. Today Jos remains a divided city, peaceful only on the surface and when a joined police-army force patrols the streets. The local government has tried to solve the problem, with no success.
The third area of conflict is the whole north-east of Nigeria and it is spreading to all the major urban centres of the country. The violence there is linked to the activities of the Islamic extremists of the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lida’awati wal-Jihad (people committed to the propagation of the teachings of the Prophet and in the jihad), popularly known as Boko Haram. The movement started in Maiduguri, capital of Borno and seat of the shenu. The shenu is the chief of the Kanuri people and the second most important political figure, after the Sultan of Sokoto, in the north. Differently from other Islamic group in the north, the Kanuri have always been opened to foreigners and are now appalled by the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram. The latter is the offshoot of a fundamentalist sect, the Yan Tatsine, founded in the 1980s and which caused various violent attacks in Bulunkuti, near Maiduguri, before being violently repressed by the government.
The movement re-emerged in 2003 thanks to the support of some intellectuals and have become known locally as the Talebans. They opened a series of closed communities from where they attacked police outposts and government buildings. They were once again dispersed by the army. Boko Haram adopted their ideology and tactics, and rejected the Islamic establishment judged as corrupt. After a series of terror attacks, the army captured their founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and killed about 1,000 members. Yusuf himself was killed by police officers. Boko Haram reorganized and is now attacking people and buildings representing the government and the Churches perceived as enemies of the north. Weapons are smuggled in from Darfur through Chad, something pointing to the international ramifications of this fundamentalist sect.