A Tale of Two Regions

How has Boko Haram been able to sustain its war against the Nigerian government? It has a lot to do with the country’s fundamental divide between North and South, says David Hornsby.

By: /
16 May, 2014
By: David Hornsby
Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

The news coming out of Nigeria of late is challenging the assertion that it is now the dominant state in Africa. The central line the government in Abuja appears to be pushing is of a state that is powerful, organized, and economically important to the region and continent. Instead of this taking root and the government being able to celebrate the country’s new-found status as the largest economy on the continent or its successful hosting of the African World Economic Forum meeting, however, it appears to be returning to a context of sustained instability. Persistent reports of massive corruption, recent bombings, and the kidnapping of close to 300 schoolgirls by the rebel group, Boko Haram, give the increasingly real impression that Nigeria is not on the right track.

This is only made worse with the lackluster and slow handling of the schoolgirls’ kidnapping by President Goodluck Jonathan and his officials. The sheer gruesomeness of the idea that many of the girls have been sold and forced into exploitative and abusive situations has captured many on the international stage and led to a powerful social media campaign to pressure the Nigerian government to take some sort of action, #BringBackOurGirls.  

But this event also symbolizes old tensions between the North and the South that have plagued Nigeria for decades. The divisions between these two regions has been the source of conflict and disruption following a civil war in 1967 and has been a key factor in why this former British colony has slipped between democracy and military dictatorship since independence. It can also be seen in how one part of the country is more economically successful than the other. The divide also cleaves along religious and ethnic lines, further exacerbating the situation.

Indeed, divisions between the largely Muslim North and primarily Christian South are so strong that there is an unwritten rule that the regions alternate every eight years between who gets to hold the Presidency. But this convention was challenged when the northern President Yar’Adua, died in 2010 before the end of his first term and southern Vice-President Jonathan assumed the presidency legitimately through a constitutional transfer of power and went on to win the next election. President Jonathan’s electoral success, however, has denied the Northern political elites their chance to govern. This has led to much resentment and accusations that Jonathan is ignoring the North in his efforts to develop Nigeria.


This political context has served to reinforce extremist groups like Boko Haram and its mission to overthrow the government of Nigeria and establish an Islamic state in the region. The organization has been successful at continuing to exist despite Nigerian military offensives as it slips back and forth across the border into Cameroon and Niger.  But it has also arguably been successful because the political focus has been directed more to the oil-rich South of the country and not to providing sufficient resources to counter the Boko Haram insurgency either via economic or military means in the North.

Boko Haram when translated into English means “western education is sinful” and maintains links to al-Qaeda. It is part of their modus operandi to attack shops and schools that oppose their fundamentalist message. As such, it comes as no surprise that they target girls seeking out an education. But what is surprising (if not shocking) is how little the government and military have invested in terms of preventing such attacks from taking place and in attempts to get the girls back. At one point, the military fabricated a story claiming that most of the girls had returned home and only retracted this once the families and school principal denied the reports.

No one can argue that with the reevaluation of its GDP, Nigeria has a sense of economic reinvigoration. But this means very little if the political leadership of the country does not address an insecure region within its borders. Indeed, not taking immediate and decisive action is part and parcel of a long and sad story of division in Nigeria.

For the Nigerian government to capitalize on the good economic news that presently exists, it will have to turn its attention to providing economic, social, and viable security assistance to the North. This will be no easy task and will require time, persistence, and, perhaps most of all, political will.

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