Because of an American pre-occupation with the threat of jihadist Islam in the Sahel, much U.S. attention is directed toward “Boko Haram” in northern Nigeria and whatever links it might have with other groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As I blogged on February 6, there has in recent weeks been a dramatic upsurge in violence related to Boko Haram. However, there are also other nodes of violence that friends of Nigeria, and Nigerians, should watch.
The two most important areas outside the North are ethnic and religious conflicts in the Middle Belt and the threat of renewed insurrection in Nigeria’s oil patch. Nigeria is in a pre-election season–national elections will take place in February 2015. Nigerian elections involve elite politics, with little reference to the vast majority of the population. Even in non-election times, some politicians exploit societal cleavages to advance their own agendas. In a winner-take-all political environment where holding an elected office almost guarantees personal enrichment, motivation can be especially strong for a no-holds-barred election strategy involving violence between now and February 2015.
Some of the violence in Nigeria is also at the grass-roots level, where the enemy can be the elite. This is a dimension of Boko Haram, for example. Sometimes elite and grass-roots violence intersect. In the North and Middle Belt politicians have been accused of trying to manipulate the grass roots–then losing control of the process: if you try to ride the tiger, you may find yourself in its stomach rather than on its back.
Politics, conflicts, rivalries, and ambitions in many African countries are intensely local; much (if not most) of the time, they are based on much more than just ethnic, religious, or political identities or on economic issues such as land use, access to water, or to markets. And, in many places, family politics are the basic lens through which everything else is viewed. Friends of Africa should be cautious about over-valuing ethnic or religious issues and under-valuing individual ambition.
These realities should make us wary about fitting the current high levels of violence into a single framework. Violence in the North, the Middle Belt, or the Delta may be largely unconnected, driven instead by more local realities. However, it does take place in the context of weak government and the heightened political tension of a pre-election period. This can make it explosive.