Geopolitics is the social science theory that analyzes the relationships between politics and geographical territories. It provides an understanding of the links between political power and economic, demographic and geographical factors. When predictions are made about what might happen in foreign affairs, or in the political dynamics of nations at a future time, geopolitics is the primary tool used for such analyses. The suggestion by foreign security agencies that Nigeria could disintegrate by 2015 is based on geopolitical analyses.
Politics in Nigeria is an ethnic and regional affair. In other words, Nigerian politics fits neatly into the geopolitical model. This has always been the case since the first Republic when three regional parties dominated Nigerian politics. Since 1999, a de facto six (6) regional geopolitical structure has defined the political space in Nigeria. Currently, all the major political parties use geopolitical zoning principles to select candidates for elections, and to allocate offices and positions.
In Nigeria’s zero sum political system in which winners-take-all, and patronage flows from the top downwards, the top geopolitical prize is the Presidency.
Geopolitical considerations require that the political actors who represent the political interests of the cleavage centers (the six geopolitical zones) will actively cultivate strategies that assure that they have dominance over the structures of power. The most successful of these strategies - dominant strategies as they are called – will become the major plays that will be used by political cleavage centers as they struggle for power.
The dominant geopolitical strategy of the 4th republic has been the use of ethnic militias to capture power centrally. That strategy has been remarkably successful. It ensured that a Yoruba President emerged in 1999, and led directly to the emergence of a minority Vice President from the South-South region in 2007.
The June 12 struggle was partly a philosophical debate about the role and nature of democracy in Nigeria, and partly a geopolitical struggle for relevance by the Yoruba.
The response of the Babangida and Abacha juntas to the crisis that followed the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections underscored the recognition of the geopolitical implications of that conflict. Abiola’s certain victory would have certainly advanced Nigerian democracy, and it would have been a clear geopolitical boon for the Yoruba. To douse the geopolitical urgency of the June 12 crisis for the Yoruba, Babangida installed Ernest Shonekan, a Yoruba of the same Egba extraction as Abiola, as head of the Interim Transition Government. When Abacha eased out Shonekan’s transition government a few months later, it was Oladipo Diya, another Yoruba man from Abiola’s Ogun State, that he selected as his deputy.
In time, the philosophical debate about democracy and its place in Nigeria, which was initiated by the June 12 crisis, fizzled out but its geopolitical essence was retained. The June 12 movement soon came to be seen increasingly as a Yoruba Struggle. The OPC was formed in 1997, as the June 12 struggle progressively devolved to its geopolitical essence. The emergence of groups like Afenifere and the OPC represented the crystallization of the most extreme geopolitical aspects of the June 12 struggle. It was clear that the Yoruba geopolitical struggle would not cease until the egregious wrongs done to the Yoruba by the annulment of June 12, 1993 were righted by the emergence of a Yoruba man as the legitimate President of Nigeria. As the 1999 transition to democracy dawned, the threat of secession by the Yoruba, and the emergence of the O’dua People’s Congress (OPC) militia as a paramilitary outfit that could give muscle to those separatist aspirations compelled the Northern elite and the major political parties to unanimously agree on the exclusive adoption of Yoruba candidates for the Presidency.
It can be argued that without the OPC and the threat that it posed to the unity of the Nigerian nation, Olusegun Obasanjo could never have become President in 1999.
The North’s attempt at taming the geopolitical implications of a Yoruba Presidency was to opt for a “balanced” South Westerner, who could be used to rule by proxy and relied upon to facilitate the transfer of power to the north. Obasanjo, a Yoruba man whose handling of the 1979 elections had demonstrated his capacity for acting beyond the confines of tribal and regional geopolitics, was a reasonable choice for the North to settle upon.
Within a few months of Obasanjo’s swearing in, it had become crystal clear that the expectation of the Northern elite that they would rule by proxy through Obasanjo had been a huge miscalculation. Obasanjo’s immediate actions in office emasculated the North politically. The sweep of all military officers that had held political office between 1985 and 1999 disproportionally affected the North since that region had held a dominance of power and privilege in the Nigerian military. Obasanjo’s increasing appointment of Northern minorities and Christians to positions typically reserved for “core Northerners” caused the reemergence of rifts between the so called “core North”, minority Northerners, Christian Northerners and the Middle Belt zone. The notion of a monolithic North was increasingly being exposed as a fallacy.
The North was losing out politically and it needed to stem the tide. The response of the Northern political elite was swift. Sectarian separatism via the adoption of political sharia, a limited form of secession, was their tool of choice. In January 2000, Zamfara made the first move towards political Sharia, and by 2002, the twelve (12) Northernmost States in Nigeria had instituted Sharia law in varying degrees. Thousands were killed in the ethnic and sectarian conflicts that ensued. As a geopolitical tool, political sharia worked wonders. Obasanjo’s government took less drastic actions that threatened the North, and the region was ‘carried along’ more by the OBJ regime.
The geopolitical stakes were further raised when the Naaba led, Northern dominated, National Assembly attempted to impeach Obasanjo in 2002/2003 on the pretext of his government’s handling of the onshore-offshore dichotomy issue. What many do not realize was the role that geopolitics also played in preventing Obasanjo’s impeachment. The National Assembly only dropped its plans to impeach Obasanjo and pave the way for Atiku’s takeover of the Presidency when Afenifere under Pa Abraham Adesanya’s leadership threatened to precipitate a constitutional crisis if Obasanjo was removed from office. The behind the scenes maneuverings that took place during this period are worth recounting.
The geopolitical arrangements that followed the 1999 elections allocated the Presidency to the South West, the Vice Presidency to the North East, the Senate Presidency to the South East and the Speakership of the House of Representatives to the North West. When the first speaker of the House, Salisu Buhari was impeached, his deputy, Chibudom Nwuche was passed over for Ghali Naaba, another Northerner, in accordance with the extant geopolitical compromise. A similar scenario played out in the Senate. When Evans Enwerem was impeached, his deputy Haruna Abubakar was passed over, and the South Eastern Senator Chuba Okadigbo became Senate President. Following Okadigbo’s impeachment, another South Eastern Senator Pius Anyim became Senate President. All of these arrangements were extra-constitutional.
Afenifere’s geopolitical threat was simple: if Obasanjo was impeached, the Yoruba would request a special election, limited only to candidates from the Southwest region, to produce Obasanjo’s replacement – in accordance with the geopolitical compromise of 1999, and in line with the precedents that had been set in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The impeachment plot quickly unraveled when it became clear that it could not possibly yield the desired outcome.
By the time of Obasanjo’s departure in 2007, the pendulum of power had swung back to the North. The Traditional geopolitical considerations in Nigeria would have ensured that Yaradua’s deputy would be a person of Igbo extraction. However, between 1999 and 2007, the geopolitical dynamics of Southern Nigeria had been radically altered by the emergence of MEND and other allied South-South militant groups.
The Egbesu emerged as one of several militant youth groups that played key roles during the Ijaw-Itshekiri-Urhobo crisis. The major political actors in the South South region saw the potential that some of these groups offered not just for the harassment and intimidation of opponents, but for enhancing the geopolitical relevance of the South South. Governors like Peter Odili, James Ibori and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha courted, financed and aided these groups. In time, the militancy of the Egbesu and other South South militant groups began to stray beyond the local politics of the South-South States and were more strategically directed towards geopolitical questions of resource control. The end result was that within the eight years from 1999 to 2007, the disparate groups had fused into MEND, and their activities had resulted in the ascendancy of the South South, and in particular the Ijaw nation, as a major center in Nigerian geopolitics. The Niger Delta crisis was essentially a geopolitically induced conflict, and its resolution required the inclusion of the South South in the center stage of Nigerian politics. Without MEND, Goodluck Jonathan would not have been Yaradua’s Vice President. Without Jonathan’s stint as Yaradua’s deputy and his eventual elevation to the Presidency following Yaradua’s death, he would not be President of Nigeria today.
Boko Haram began life in Borno State in 2002 as a religious group that enjoyed the patronage of Governor Ali Modu Sheriff until their parting of ways in 2009. It is on record that Modu Sheriff appointed Alhaji Buju Foi, an influential Boko Haram member and financier as the Borno State Commissioner for Religious Affairs in 2007.
Despite the increasing militancy of the sect in Borno and Yobe States from its establishment in 2002, most Nigerians had never heard of Boko Haram until the events of July 2009 when the Nigerian Security Agencies engaged Boko Haram in a full blown assault in Maiduguri. In that tragic incident the Nigerian State facilitated the extra Judicial killing of hundreds of Boko Haram members. The dead included Muhammad Yusuf, the sect’s leader. The events of July 2009, led to the nationalization of the Boko Haram conflict.
Much like Egbesu and MEND before it, Boko Haram has evolved to become a major geopolitical tool. The Northern political elite have come to see the value of Boko Haram for driving forward their geopolitical strategies for political relevance. In the same way that the OPC and MEND paved the way for Obasanjo and Jonathan to win the Presidency, those who seek to make geopolitical hay out of the Boko Haram crisis except that it will lead to significant political benefits for the North. The not too subtle message is that Nigeria will be made ungovernable if power and privilege does not devolve back to the North.
The silence of Northern political leaders in condemning the actions of Boko Haram is a clear signal of their tacit endorsement of the sect and its destabilizing actions. Again, this is not surprising. For geopolitical reasons, mainstream Yoruba and Ijaw political leaders did not openly condemn the OPC or MEND either. There are however some significant issues with the use of Boko Haram as a geopolitical tool. Unlike MEND and OPC, Boko Haram’s message is not purely geopolitical. The sect is first and foremost a religious fundamentalist organization and that fact makes it ineffective as an effective geopolitical tool.
The North has never lacked the ability to present Presidential candidates on the platform of major parties. It has failed to find a way to guarantee that a Northern Presidential candidate emerges on the platform of the PDP, the only party which despite its many faults can make any claims to being a truly national party, and therefore most likely to produce Nigeria’s President. The Boko Haram crisis is in effect an attempt to influence the politics of the PDP, and through that the political dynamics of the Nigerian nation.
The risk for the North is that the sectarian colorations of Boko Haram will come to frame that region’s geopolitical aspirations. The association of Northern geopolitical aspirations with the random maiming and killing of civilians, the calls for the expulsion of Southerners and Northern Christians is damaging the North politically. Soon, it might make the Presidency of Nigeria all but impossible for a Northerner to attain.
Forcing a Northerner to the Presidential ticket of the PDP is one thing, getting votes from across Nigeria to guarantee that candidate’s electoral victory is another.
Buhari was forced to adopt a Southern Christian running mate to allay concerns that he was a religious fundamentalist. Without the Southern vote, and devoid of Northern Christian support, no candidate can win the Nigerian Presidency. As the Boko Haram crisis spirals forward, Northern Christians and the Middle Belt will be firmly pushed towards a geopolitical reality that will increasingly favor collaboration with the South.
The prognosis for Nigeria is grim. Geopolitical considerations suggest that the Boko Haram crisis will continue until at least 2015. Its effective resolution will not occur until a Northern Presidential candidate emerges on the platform of the PDP and goes on to win the Nigerian Presidency. The prospect that a Northern President will emerge on the platform of the PDP is slim because Goodluck Jonathan wants a second term, and the odds are skewed in favor of the incumbent. The likelihood that a Northern Presidential candidate will receive Southern and Northern Christian support is fading.
Any path to the Presidency that harms Goodluck Jonathan while elevating his Northern deputy to the Presidency has the potential to lead to the immediate disintegration of Nigeria, or at the least the secession of the Niger Delta region. Without the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s political center is unattractive and the status quo will fight another Civil War if necessary to prevent the possibility of the Niger Delta’s exit from Nigeria.
In the meantime, the rapidly evolving nature of the Boko Haram conflict is alarming. Christian Youth in Jos and Kaduna have begun reprisal attacks in response to the actions of Boko Haram. This suggests that the ordinary folks in these communities have come to believe that Boko Haram is indeed a geopolitical tool of the Northern agenda. It also implies that they believe that agenda excludes Northern Christians and Southerners. As the conflict persists through 2015, and the government continues to fail to contain the crisis, the random reprisal attacks will become more organized. Geopolitics will require that the sectarian nature of the Boko Haram crisis will birth a Northern Christian alternative to Boko Haram. This will be driven not so much by the desire for national relevance by Christian Northerners, but as a means for addressing what they will increasingly perceive as an existential threat.
Unless urgent actions are taken by the Government to tackle the Boko Haram crisis, the path to 2015 will be a dangerous one for the Nigerian nation and its people. The stakes for Nigeria are too high. The geopolitical angle to Boko Haram must be immediately defused. The prosecution of Senator Ali Ndume and other political actors so far implicated in the crisis should be swift, public and comprehensive. Vice President Sambo should also publicly address Ndume’s allegation that he (Sambo) was aware of Ndume’s engagements with Boko Haram. The stakes should also be raised for the sponsors of the violence. It takes millions of Naira to source rifles and explosives, support tens of thousands of followers and to coordinate attacks across cities and states. Boko Haram is a city dwelling sect. The Nigerian security agencies must do more to find Boko Haram’s financiers, and to penetrate and neutralize the network. To save Nigeria, Jonathan must remember that his oath is not to the PDP but to the Nigerian people.