Jul 31, 2009 | 02:57 GMT

3 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The Killing of a Sect Leader and Nigerian Central Control

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The death of the leader of Nigerian’s Islamist Boko Haram sect, while in police custody on Thursday, may bring an end to intercommunal violence that has rocked several northern and northeastern states in Nigeria for nearly a week. The killing of Mohammed Yusuf, his deputy and likely hundreds of his followers highlights one threat — now degraded — to the internal stability of Nigeria. The violence could be compared to the last true geopolitical conflict in Nigeria, the Biafran war of 1967-1970. With 150 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country and one of the continent’s dominant powers — only South Africa rivals its influence in sub-Saharan Africa. Though Nigeria is home to 250 ethnic groups, three dominate it: The mainly Muslim Hausa-Fulani in northern Nigeria; the predominantly Christian Yoruba in the southwest; and the Igbo, also predominantly Christian, in southeastern Nigeria. A fourth, smaller tribe, the Ijaw, are the main group in the Niger Delta region, an area that produces about 90 percent of the country's oil and natural gas ouput. Nigeria's large and diverse population, combined with the fact that its base for significant economic resources (it is Africa's leading crude oil producer) is located in a relatively small geographic area, has led to intense internal competition for control over the Nigerian state and its assets. When the southeastern population attempted to secede in 1967 and take exclusive control of the energy deposits, the Hausa and Yoruba tribes mobilized to defeat the independence bid. The three-year civil war that ensued led to millions of deaths, but kept the Nigerian federal structure — along with central control over the country's resources — intact. States in northern and middle regions of Nigeria are not necessarily aiming to secede, but the rebellion of the Boko Haram sect has posed a distinct challenge to Nigeria's federal structure and the government’s ability to ensure territorial integrity. Since its founding in 2002, the group has had running battles with Nigerian security forces, and it has called for Shariah to be implemented in all of Nigeria's 36 states (it is already implemented in 12). Agriculture, rather than energy, is the chief economic activity in the northern and northeastern states in which Boko Haram has a presence. Nevertheless, it appears that the government is following the Biafran example of either making deals with a rebellious ethnic group, or using several ethnic groups under the control of the state to quash the threat posed by a rebellious ethnic group to central control over the political and economic framework. The Nigerian government in recent years has fought tribes in the restive Niger Delta, but a working agreement with the Ijaw elite — giving them a prominent stake in the central government and a say in how revenues are divided — has kept hostilities there (and attacks by the Ijaw's militant wing, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, against the energy infrastructure) at bay, however tenuously. Faced with the Boko Haram sect, whose leaders might have been harbored by opposition politicians from the All Nigerian People's Party (ANPP), the government turned to proven tactics this week to end a threat to Abuja's internal hegemony.

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