The Toxic Politics of Nigeria: As Africa’s biggest country awaits news of its absent president, corruption and terrorism take their toll

Rebecca Tinsley

“Congratulations to our governor on his first year in office,” reads the vast hording by the main Abuja-Jos road. A chubby-cheeked man with perfect teeth beams down on passing motorists. You don’t need to read the small print to know the poster was paid for by the businessmen who bankrolled the successful candidate.
Fifty miles later another benevolent ruler favors travellers with his cherubic grim. “My heart goes out to all the people of south Kadema,” reads the inscription. Meanwhile, his grateful voters carefully negotiate the atrocious highway between Nigeria’s capital and Jos, a city of nearly a million.

Every few miles a barricade, manned by police or soldiers, stops motorists. They are not looking for members of Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has killed more people than Al Qaeda and ISIS. Instead, these servants of the Nigerian state are extorting bribes.

Abuja is buzzing with gossip about the health of President Buhari, who, it is reported, has been in a London hospital for more than 60 days. Diplomats from the wealthy, white world fell over themselves praising Nigeria for its peaceful transfer of power when Buhari was electing in 2015. Yet they are silent on the persistent polling irregularities fuelling cynicism among Nigerian voters (1), and the eye-watering corruption that originally led to the puritanical Boko Haram’s rise. It is surely a form of racism to expect so little of a bloated ruling elite that has so much power and wealth.

Terrorism is a by-product of Nigeria’s corroded politics and legacy of military rule. The Nigerian government’s own report concluded that politicians in the north-east created private militias to fight their struggles in the streets, intimidating voters and election officials. Then, after each poll, the politicians stopped paying the militias, leaving violent, unskilled, unemployed young men ripe for recruitment by religious extremists (2). According to Boko Haram expert Hilary Matfess, the insurgents have harnessed widespread frustration at the decadence and corruption of the political classes, harking back to a purer, although possibly mythical, past (3).

A priest in Jos offered this analysis: “Ever since independence in 1960 we have had no instruments of accountability. The rot set in when the military took over, in 1967. Then, we had decades of their incompetence and thieving. People became conditioned not to challenge authority. They were afraid to ask where the oil revenues had gone, or why leaders took such high salaries. Now, the military has gone but the culture of entitlement continues. People haven’t got used to casting aside their fear and self-censorship.” (4)

According to local journalist, Hassan John, “We ignore the government because it does nothing for us. There hasn’t been running water in Jos for thirty years, and we have power cuts all the time. The schools and hospitals are in poor shape, and bureaucrats take the salary of goodness knows how many ghost employees.” (5)

John says that an educated middleclass native of Jos can expect to make about $1200 a year; his or her state assembly member will be paid $1 million, including salary, car and allowances. Even if Nigerians weren’t coping with terrorism, they would have good reason to complain. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), one local government area spent 2.4% of its revenues on maintaining its crumbling primary school infrastructure while 30% went on salaries and expenses for the offices of its chairman and legislators. (6) Another local government chairman spent huge sums on a series of non-existent projects, including a “demonstration fish pond” with neither water nor fish, and a “football academy” that was never built. Yet another budgeted for 100 “functional committees/ protocol officers” whose responsibilities were unclear; their salaries exceeded those of all the local government’s health sector employees (7).

In addition, an estimated $6 billion of oil revenues disappear each year (8). In 2006 Nuhu Ribadu, Nigeria’s former anti-graft chief, estimated that $380 billion has been stolen or wasted by the elite since independence (9). The rate of poverty in rural areas was 28% in 1980, but by 2010 it was 73% (10). According to the Nobel laureate Chinua Achebe, “The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character.” (11)

Such is the West’s lack of interest in Africa, Boko Haram is usually mentioned only when one of the 273 Chibok girls, kidnapped in 2014, reappears. This chilling, but not unusual, escapade was made famous when Western politicians and celebrities tweeted about it (#bringbackourgirls) (12). Sadly, the hash-taggers ignored the previous and subsequent massacres of schoolchildren, teachers, polio vaccination workers, clerics, Christian congregations, and security forces. Human Rights Watch estimates 2,000 women and girls have been abducted since 2009 (13). There is also scant attention paid to the slaughter of brave Muslims who disagree with Boko Haram’s methods (14).

If the West’s fitful concern is regrettable, what about the Nigerian authorities’ behavior? In Mike Smith’s study of Boko Haram he accuses former President Goodluck Jonathan and his cronies of leveraging the suffering caused by terrorism to their own partisan ends (15). Officially, the nationwide death toll is 20,000 (16), but when I visited the so-called Middle Belt of Nigeria in November 2016, I was told 20,000 had been killed in Jos alone (17).

It took 19 days for then-President Goodluck Jonathan to even acknowledge the Chibok girls had been abducted. Having ignored the rebel insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria for years, Jonathan then announced the Chibok abductions were a hoax. He blamed his opponents for Boko Haram’s activities, suggesting political enemies were engaged in a conspiracy against him. His wife allegedly had protesting Chibok mothers arrested, accusing them of trying to sabotage her husband’s re-election campaign (18). It is also said that the Nigerian security services have never bothered to interview those who witnessed the Chibok abductions or the girls’ parents. Moreover, in 2014 Britain’s RAF told Nigeria it had located the girls, but Jonathan turned down the UK’s offer to help rescue them. (19)

In 2015 President Buhari claimed Boko Haram has been “technically defeated” (20), a claim repeated in June this year by his army chief. It would be more accurate to say that Boko Haram’s tactics have changed. Guerrilla attacks by militia have been replaced by suicide bombers (123 of whom have been coerced young girls) (21). An estimated 2.6 million Nigerians have fled Borno state, the terrorists’ hub (22). The region is on the point of famine because the constant threat of attack, and landmines, prevent farmers getting to their fields (23).

Village leaders told me they phoned for help constantly while their communities were under siege, only to be ignored by the security services. “Boko Haram were here all night, killing our people,” one leader named Daniel said. Finally, when the jihadists withdrew, the security services arrived. “They brought us a mechanical digger so we could excavate a pit for the bodies of the 500 who were killed, and then they went away.” (24)

Human Rights Watch has alleged that soldiers harass and kill Muslim citizens randomly, thereby stirring up anti-government feeling, reinforcing Boko Haram’s recruitment message: Christians are evil, only we are good and pure, education is a Western abomination, as is democracy. (25)

A more profound cynicism lies behind the rise of Boko Haram; disgust at the corruption of Nigeria’s elite, and the marginalization of the country’s poor north-eastern states. The Nigerian Government’s own report concluded that Boko Haram “draws the bulk of its membership from…the vast army of unemployed youths, school drop-outs and drug addicts that abound in the affected areas.” (26)

Boko Haram’s victims are also poor, mainly from the north, and therefore unseen by the super-wealthy class running Nigeria. In sophisticated Lagos, the commercial capital in the south, 92% are literate, compared with 14.5% in the north-east (27). Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria scores abysmally on the UN human development index, coming 152 out of 188 countries (28). And while fewer than 50% of people have access to electricity, power cuts are so frequent they jeopardize anyone trying to run a business involving machinery (29). In Nigeria, 68% of people live on less than $1.25 a day (30), yet almost everyone can watch Nigerian soap operas at their neighborhood bar, witnessing the wealth of the big city elite. No wonder there is resentment, coupled with a sense that the political class is beyond redemption.

There used to be manufacturing in the north, but jobs vanished when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund demanded an end to subsidies and tariffs, according to aid worker Mike Samson. China promptly dumped its subsidised products on Nigeria, thereby destroying local firms which couldn’t compete with the artificially low prices of Chinese goods, he says. Once the local textile, flip flop or bike factory was out of business, the Chinese then raised their prices. The West also dumped its agricultural produce on Nigeria, often in the name of “aid,” bankrupting local farmers (31). Add to this the intolerant Muslim clerics preaching Wahhabi-Salafi ideology, funded by individuals in the Arabian Gulf, and the conditions were ideal for insurgency.

However, the same spirit that launched a million internet scams also serves Nigeria well in times of crisis. A Muslim woman who founded a charity opened her home to refugees from the north. “At one point I had 38 people sleeping in my courtyard. But each day they went out, looking for work. They’d sell matches or clean bathrooms. And within a couple of months they’d all saved enough money to rent places of their own and start small businesses,” she told me (32).

The Anglican priest in Jos recalls one Sunday morning when a suicide bomber came to the ten o’clock service. He detonated his device, killing a quarter of the congregation. “That evening, those who could walk were back, worshipping together among the ruins.” (33)

Despite the stoicism of northern Nigerians, thousands of traumatized civilians continue to flee the violence. Network for Africa (34), the charity I founded, is hoping to train local people in counselling, helping survivors manage their post-traumatic stress. Raising the necessary funds will not be easy; all donations are gratefully received.


  1. Africa Confidential, Things fall apart in Rivers vote, December 18 2016


  3. & lecture at the African Research Institute, October 5 2016.

  4. interview with Anglican canon requesting anonymity, Jos, November 16 2016

  5. Interview with Hassan John, Jos, November 15 2016


  7. ibid








  15. Mike Smith, “Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War,” 2015, I.B. Taurus


  17. interview with Hassan John, Jos, November 15 2016

  18. Mike Smith, “Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War,” 2015, I.B. Taurus






  24. interview with village elders, near Jos, November 15 2016







  31. interview with Mike Samson, African Initiatives, London, August 2015


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