Inequality heightens violence in Nigeria

Extreme inequality, corruption and a dysfunctional state have raised the temperature in Nigeria to boiling point. Religious differences, however, are not the main reason for the ascent of the extremist group Boko Haram. Rather, the issue is one of citizenship, NAI researcher Henrik Angerbrandt argues.

The widely reported kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria was just the start of six months of suicide attacks and acts of cruelty and terror by Boko Haram. The group is spreading and taking control of new areas, media reports suggest.

"There is not much reliable information. One can't trust Boko Haram, and the Nigerian state is also not trustworthy. As a researcher, one can only point out the ambiguities and be careful about drawing conclusions," Henrik Angerbrandt says.

Poverty and counterattacks worsen situation

Angerbrandt's research focuses on the conflicts in Kaduna state in northern Nigeria. He has interviewed ethnic organisations, religious leaders, politicians and civil servants for his doctoral thesis. His interviews highlight the main problem in Nigeria – the question of citizenship. This is often expressed as: Who is allowed to sit at the dinner table, and how is the dinner to be apportioned?

"Eighty per cent of resources go to 1 per cent of the population. That tells us something about inequalities. In northern Nigeria, the infrastructure is underdeveloped, people are poor and few can support themselves. They feel neglected and discontentment with the state," Angerbrandt continues.

According to him, Boko Haram has developed in a symbiotic relationship with the Nigerian state. The group's main aim is to distance itself from the state and establish its own systems, its own security.

"Instead of addressing the underlying problems, the state has tried to crush the revolt. Its violent attacks have in many ways further radicalised Boko Haram over the years. This is important to recognise," Angerbrandt stresses.

More focused on politics than religion

The media usually portray Boko Haram as an Islamic extremist group that specifically targets Christians. Angerbrandt sees this as a oversimplification. Boko Haram tries to escalate the conflict by using religious differences in Nigeria as a pretext. In reality, the group has killed more Muslims – those they dub “false Muslims” – than Christians during its attacks.

"It is not a religious conflict per se. However, religion and ethnicity are used as a basis for political mobilisation. People feel that other groups are trying to dominate and gain benefits for themselves."

Angerbrandt calls for the focus to shift from religious questions to the underlying issues: inequality, poverty and the dysfunctional state. Although most Nigerians dread Boko Haram, many can sympathise with the group's dissatisfaction with the state. For this reason, the political dimensions of the conflict call for more attention.

"Otherwise, the conflict can never be resolved. It will explode again and again."

During a field trip in Nigeria in 2007, Angerbrandt's interviewees asserted that the violence and the conflict over resources would stop, and that people had gained respect for one another. Yet after the presidential elections of 2011, violence again erupted.

"People live side by side and interact in a surprisingly pragmatic manner. But the tensions are there, just below the surface, and they become clearly evident once one starts asking about underlying reasons for the violence," Henrik Angerbrandt affirms.

To the top