Human rights advocates, when looking at Nigeria’s north and central regions, fear an accelerating disintegration of Nigeria’s society and institutions. We all should be concerned that, if current trends are not arrested, Nigeria may implode, with global economic ramifications. A new wave of Nigerian displacement and emigration would rival those associated with Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

Nigeria matters for international security and prosperity. Nigeria should matter to us.

An unstable Nigeria is a boon to terrorists and outlaws. The country’s porous borders and the impunity of terrorist groups have contributed to instability in the greater Lake Chad region (in the northeast). Nigeria has never fully controlled its delta region (on the Gulf of Guinea), making the area ripe for petroleum theft (“bunkering”), piracy, vandalism, and arms trafficking. Periodic rebellions and ethnic violence break out in the Niger Delta. All of this severely stresses Nigeria’s military and law enforcement capacity, making it ever more likely for overwhelmed local police and soldiers to either look the other way or cash in on corruption.

Nigeria’s institutions look robust on paper. But corruption at all levels has undermined the integrity of government and other institutions, and has hollowed out the capacity of such institutions to do their jobs. 

Nigeria is the regional anchor of West Africa. The country is the world’s fifteenth-largest oil producer, and some years it has been a top-five oil exporter to the United States and other Western countries. With oil’s volatility, a Nigerian civil war or state failure would not only create greater local impoverishment, but would also shock world commodities prices.

Nigeria’s population of over 220 million people makes up more than half of the entire population of West Africa. It dwarfs its neighbors, and when Nigeria is unstable, the entire region is unstable. Other African countries that have fallen into conflict and genocide contain just a fraction of the population of Nigeria. When tiny Rwanda (9 million people) fell apart, nearly a million people died, and the shockwaves destabilized the Great Lakes neighborhood, resulting in at least another 2.5 million deaths (primarily in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo). If Nigeria fails, if parts of Nigeria fall fully into the hands of Boko Haram or Islamic State-West Africa Province (ISWAP), or if Nigerians fight a fratricidal civil war (as happened in Biafra a generation ago), we will see death and destruction on a scale that we have not seen in our lifetime. Imagine a Bosnian or Rwandan meltdown in a country with 10 times their populations. In other words, consider a genocidal civil war, fought in a population that is about two-thirds the US population, squeezed within the borders of Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

Consequently, it is imperative that those who want the best for Nigeria and the region to rightly diagnose key dynamics that undermine Nigeria. One major source of conflict in Nigeria is religion-inspired violence. More specifically:

In Nigeria’s north, illegal armed terrorist and criminal groups target moderates of their own faith and religious minorities. Boko Haram violently assaults individuals, clerics, houses of worship, schools, and businesses of Christians, Sunni Muslims who will not support them, and Shia Muslims. The local Islamic State affiliate is similarly violent, taking its cue from ISIS in Syria (e.g., sexual slavery, kidnapping, executions).

Nigeria’s sultan of Sokoto, a widely respected religious leader, said this earlier this year after yet another Boko Haram attack on school children:

Make no mistake, the abduction is a classic example of the philosophical foundation of Boko Haram—that western education is forbidden. That’s why their targets are always on boarding schools, especially science schools, considered atheistic in pedagogy… Government should begin outlining its priorities on the security challenges bedeviling the country and frontally rise against the surge of insecurity, through proactive measures and nipping in the bud before it degenerates further.

In central Nigeria (the “Middle Belt”), ethnic and economic rivalries, which often overlap with ethnoreligious differences (i.e., Muslim Hausa and Fulani vs. Christian Igbo), have taken a sinister, jihadist turn in recent years. Priests, pastors, churches, and the homes and businesses of Christians have been particularly targeted. The language of jihad is omnipresent, from “Allahu Akbar” spray-painted on buildings to religious justifications for the violence broadcast via radio.

In 2020, more Christians were killed in Nigeria due to their Christian identity than anywhere else in the world. This year, over 1,300 Christians have been killed, and over 2,200 kidnapped since January 1. Intersociety Rule of Law stated that the alarming number of Christian deaths in only four months “is the highest number recorded since 2014 and it specifically surpassed the total number of Christians killed in 2019.”

Unfortunately, the US ambassador on the ground in Abuja, Mary Beth Leonard, has given exactly the wrong diagnosis, arguing that “the conflict is ‘fundamentally a resource issue,’ and not about religion—an assertion they found ‘alarming’”. This is simply inane. Religiously motivated violence cannot be dismissed simply because a religious motivation seems “alarming.” One cannot imagine away the malignancy of a cancerous tumor. One must be honest about what is happening, why it is happening, and then seek a course of action to ameliorate the situation. As stated by the former US ambassador to Nigeria and Council on Foreign Relations expert John Campbell, ignoring the religious background and severity of this issue will lead to “a descent into widespread warlordism, intensified ethnic and religious strife, and the establishment of jihadi safe havens… As Nigeria’s security goes, so goes Africa’s.” 

It is in the interest of all Nigerians to stop this wanton violence. This conflict will utterly erode Nigerian institutions, decimate the security sector, and spill over across borders. Nigeria’s friends, of all faith traditions, want the people of Nigeria to live in peace and security. 

We do not want to see falling dominos of failing states, millions of destitute refugees, and a global petroleum shock. We, in the West, care about Nigeria both because it will affect us and because we want the very best for the citizens of Nigeria.

Nigeria matters, and it should be a top priority for Western governments. Concerted attention and action could forestall the dangerous ripples that we all have experienced from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

What is to be done?

Nigeria’s experiment with a dual legal system is clearly problematic. A dozen northern states formally have shariah codes alongside civil law, and shariah courts function elsewhere as well. Although customary law can be useful at the local level for institutions such as marriage, shariah courts are increasingly problematic in applying blasphemy and apostasy laws in direct violation of the Nigerian constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty. The most recent US Department of State International Religious Freedom Report documents the case of a Christian young woman who was kidnapped and then forcibly converted to Islam. If she were to escape back to her family and community, she would be considered apostate for leaving Islam for Christianity. Nigeria also had two blasphemy cases in 2020 that could have resulted in the death penalty. Even though a high-level federal court nullified these cases, the individuals in question spent long times in detention, and the recent implementation of blasphemy laws has a chilling effect across the country. Nigeria’s federal government must come to grips with these out-of-control, secondary legal systems.

Experts and friends of Nigeria have long called for Western governments to set up a contact group to assist Nigeria. Western governments, notably the US and UK, may have to appoint special envoys to pressure and assist Abuja. The Nigeria government needs to make an enduring commitment to receiving security sector assistance, from the professionalization of its security and law enforcement personnel, to operational assistance to root out and destroy terrorist networks.

Finally, people of all faiths have a stake in curbing Boko Haram, Islamic State-West Africa Province (ISWAP), and other violence in Nigeria. A contact group that includes Muslim-majority countries, focused on curbing both the ideology and on-the-ground power of these groups, must come together to assist and pressure Nigeria to take action. These terrorist groups are not just a threat to Christians—they are a threat to moderate Sunni and Shia citizens as well. There are religious and traditional leaders on the ground, such as the sultan of Sokoto and others, who could lend authority and credibility to an international effort.