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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Looking to Mali may not solve Nigeria's Problems

This is an article I wrote for the Student Center for African Research and Resolutions, a student think tank in Washington, D.C. Check them out at for more student-produced news regarding African affairs. It can also be accessed at SCARR's blog section.Originally published on May 25, 2014.

Internal instability has rocked the two West African nations of Mali and Nigeria in recent years. Mali seems to be finding its way out of the tempest, while Nigeria still struggles to contain an insurgency. Are Mali’s solutions applicable to Nigeria? 

Mali: Dictatorship, democracy, and a questionable future
In March of 1991, Malian students gathered in the streets to demonstrate against their autocratic government. They were brutally massacred by Malian military forces loyal to President Moussa Traoré. This enraged Malians nationwide, and demonstrations only grew. As the demonstrations grew, military units deployed refused to fire on the protesters, effectively shifting a large amount of influence to the pro-democracy movement.  The uprising hit its climax on March 26, 1991. Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Toure addressed the people of Mali, announcing his capture of the dictator Traore and the end of the one-party state. Free, fair elections were held the next year, and between 1992 and 2012, Mali was a stable and democratic country. While Mali is still a poor and underdeveloped state, their government stood out as a model for a continent ravaged by corruption, violence, and instability for those twenty years of stable government.

Unfortunately, the stability was short-lived. In January of 2012, ethnic Tuaregs rebelled against the government. The Malian government was unable to effectively contain the armed rebellion and a military coup d’etat followed two months after the conflict began.  The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately isolated Mali, and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared independence, creating the state of Azawad, drastically reducing Mali’s size.  Independence quickly gave way to infighting between Islamists who wanted an Islamic Republic and ethnic Tuaregs in this new state. 

The military government in Bamako quickly appealed to France for military assistance, to which Paris obliged. French soldiers rolled in, joined up with forces loyal to Bamako, and the coalition of forces quickly defeated the northern insurgency. An interim government was set up in an attempt to bring stability, and despite its abrupt resignation after only six months in power, Mali seems to be moving back towards democracy.

Mali was part of French West Africa until 1960, when it gained independence. The two countries have a tenseness to their relationship as the CIA has reported in the past, but it’s clear France played an indispensable role in ending the recent conflict. Mali’s transitional government seems to be slowly but surely returning to the roots of the democracy that preceded it, despite the abrupt resignation of MPs in April. If Mali succeeds in re-establishing a stable government, the country will likely see a strengthening of relations with France and a growth in their economy. However, problems still loom for Mali’s internal stability. 

Tuaregs in Mali are the people who live in the northern part of the country who led the initial uprising against Mali’s government in 2012 to establish their own homeland of Azawad. This is not the first Tuareg rebellion against the Malian government, and it may not be the last. They are a nomadic Berber people, and they live in the neighboring countries of Algeria and Libya as well as in Mali. Mali’s new government must find a way to reconcile with these people while respecting the sovereignty of the country after it re-establishes democratic rule. They have had fleeting support from Islamist groups in the past, but it pales in comparison to the French support of Bamako. They are not unlike the Kurds in the Middle East in that they are a separate people who have no formally defined homeland. The French involvement may have provided a temporary fix, but in order to keep Northern Mali from falling into anarchy again, the Malian government must work to incorporate Tuaregs into government on a greater level. Tuaregs are poor and nomadic, so they do not have the same resources as Nigeria’s internal factions. 

Nigeria: Insurgency and Uncertainty

In 1999, the Nigerian government established a new constitution, calling for secular law. This did not sit well with many of Nigeria’s northern provinces, which are dominated by Muslims. In response, many of Nigeria’s northern states decided to govern themselves via sharia law. Islamic fundamentalism has been a violent thorn in Nigeria’s side for years. Boko Haram’s atrocities have become internationally criticized. The Nigerian Army has been ineffective in dealing with this insurgency and has even been accused of abuses of its own. 

Nigeria, unlike Mali, is not a religiously homogeneous society. A slight Muslim majority populates most of the northern provinces and it’s been at odds with the mostly Christian south for years. As of 2008, Islamic Sharia law had at least some legal weight in around half of the country, and violence has been a recurring problem between Christians and Muslims for years. The Yelwa Massacre killed hundreds in 2004, followed by similarly bloody riots in 2008 and again in 2010 in Jos. In recent years, Boko Haram, the fundamentalist and terrorist group responsible for the kidnapping of dozens of young girls recently has been responsible for widespread violence in northern Nigeria. The Nigerian Army has not been able to contain them. 

Nigeria has more than ten times Mali’s population and a much larger economy due to vast oil reserves-even larger than that of South Africa. The substantially larger population makes Nigeria’s problems much more difficult to solve. Nigeria, also unlike Mali, has been unable to establish peace or successfully appeal to the international community for help. While Nigeria enjoys fairly strong ties with the United States and United Kingdom because of oil, the assistance coming from the US to combat Boko Haram is limited, despite Nigerians being considerably pro-American

Nigeria’s problems are based on religion rather than ethnicity. As mentioned before, religious rivalries are not a problem in Mali as almost 90 percent of the country is Muslim. Islamism and sharia law are not practical in a country where nearly 40 percent of the population is Christian. In order to combat Islamists, Nigeria’s government has to closely examine what enables groups like Boko Haram to incite the violence they do. The country has enormous potential as an oil-rich nation, but the government’s corruption and ineffective work towards moving Nigeria forward, coupled with religious rivalries, likely contributes to Nigerians being drawn to groups like Boko Haram. The people of Mali, by contrast, enjoyed 20 years of stable, democratic government and little religious tension before 2012, and it looks like the French intervention has contributed substantially to the restoration of stability. Nigeria has made some strides, but does not have any type of stability like Mali did to look back on. Nigeria must first isolate the violent groups from their resources, and then seek to drive ordinary people towards a productive alternative. The Nigerian government needs serious reform as well. Its inefficacy is a large contributor to the insurgency. Governmental stability is the first step: confidence in national infrastructure will work to drive people into contributing for their country, not a violent group that stirs up religious tension and violence. Nigeria has got a long road ahead, and it’s not an easy transition. 

A few steps can be taken to solve these problems: first, establishing formal, extensive dialogue between Christian and Muslim Nigerians. If the two different groups are able to speak to each other in an effort to greater understand each others’ concerns, it increases the chances that the two groups will be more united as Nigerians, rather than Christians and Muslims, and if the people are willing to fight back, Boko Haram will be weakened. Christians and Muslims must think in terms of nationality to bring their country forward.  Unity is extremely important in this country with deep divisions present. If the Nigerian government can mobilize ordinary citizens to work to defend their fatherland from the strife of armed conflict, they stand a better chance of putting out the fire. This can be done through public diplomacy and government-sponsored dialogues and debates in the media. 

As Boko Haram is a terrorist group rather than a foreign army looking to create a separate, sovereign state as in Mali, it can’t be combated directly in conventional warfare. Instead, the Nigerian government must figure out who finances them, and how they are able to influence Nigerians and incite them to violence. Through combat, negotiations, or both, Nigerians must press hard for a complete end to their funding and an effort to drive impressionable citizens away from violence and terrorism. If Nigeria can direct Boko Haram’s funding towards the people in regions affected by violence and invest in infrastructure, as with public diplomacy, Nigeria’s government can mount a campaign to potentially drive those Nigerians drawn to Boko Haram and those who may still be able to escape their ranks. 

Naturally, Nigerians want stability, peace, and prosperity. And with Nigeria’s vast oil reserves, the government of Nigeria has the potential to do extremely good things for ordinary Nigerian people. Many Nigerians are impoverished, and without Boko Haram causing trouble, the Nigerian government can focus on bettering the lives of their people. The economy must be diversified, but in the short term, oil money can finance investment in other sectors of employment and make the Nigerian economy built for long-term If the government focuses on improving regions stricken by violence, it could give stability to these regions and cool animosity. There is a lot of corruption in the government, however, which will have to be addressed before a serious final campaign against the insurgency can be mounted. 

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