Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

The ongoing struggle for greater influence, inclusion, accountability and representation in northern Nigeria is central to understanding transformations in the region’s politics, especially in the context of its security challenges and a looming general election in 2015.

Photo by Leena Koni Hoffmann.Photo by Leena Koni Hoffmann.

Summary points

  • Northern Nigeria is witnessing an upheaval in its political and social space. In 1999, important shifts in presidential politics led to the rebalancing of power relations between the north of Nigeria and the more economically productive south. This move triggered the unprecedented recalibration of influence held by northern leaders over the federal government. Goodluck Jonathan’s elevation to the presidency in 2010 upended the deal made by the political brokers of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to rotate power between the north and south, from which the party had derived much of its unity.
     
  • The decisive role played by the power shift issue in 15 years of democracy raises important questions about the long-term effectiveness of the elite pacts and regional rotation arrangements that have been used to manage the balance of power between the north and the south. It also highlights the fragility and uncertainties of Nigeria’s democratic transition, as well as the unresolved fault lines in national unity as the country commemorates the centenary of the unification of the north and south in 2014.
     
  • The significance and complexity of challenges in northern Nigeria make determining priorities for the region extremely difficult. Yet overcoming the north’s considerable problems relating to development and security are crucial to the realization of a shared and prosperous future for all of Nigeria. Strong economic growth in the past decade has provided the government with the opportunities and resources to pursue thoughtful strategies that can address the development deficit between the north and the more prosperous south as well as creating greater political inclusion.
     
  • When Sharia law was adopted in 12 northern Nigerian states many in the Muslim community envisioned this as a panacea for the complex and messy problems of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and political corruption. However, after the expansion of Sharia the unchanged circumstances of many who had celebrated its signing created even more anger and disaffection towards the state governments that had adopted the new laws. The disappointment with the implementation of Sharia opened up the north’s social space for extreme religious ideologies to be seeded and for older strands of radical Islamism to be revived.
     
  • Growing distrust in political leadership, a lack of government presence and chronic underdevelopment created the perfect context for radical groups to take root and flourish in northern Nigeria. Initially a fringe movement that believed in the strict observation of Sharia and providing social and financial help to poor Muslim families, Boko Haram was transformed into the most devastating threat to the northeast’s stability during the latter years of the last decade. The connectedness of today’s globalized world has allowed local extremists like Boko Haram to graft themselves into universalized debates on Muslim resistance to domination through Jihad in order to puff up their otherwise local profile.
     
  • Northern Nigeria’s political leaders, particularly the state governors, must move swiftly and strategically to deliver on repeated promises to invest in infrastructure, education and other social services, as well as encourage new sources of income for the region. Ultimately, the economy, security, stability and health of the north and south are intricately intertwined, and persistent violence and grinding poverty in any part of the country threaten the long-term progress of the whole.