Nigeria’s ex-soldier president will learn that peace comes from full bellies not the barrel of a gun

Muhammadu Buhari and his with vice president, Yemi Osibajo, must fix the economy if they want security. EPA/STR

Muhammadu Buhari, the winner of the presidential elections in Nigeria, will inherit a country in turmoil. The recent fall in oil prices is a major concern for a country that depends on oil for 80% of its national income – but nothing seems to irk the astute president-elect like the endemic corruption blighting Africa’s largest economy.

However, more pressing than corruption for Nigerians residing in volatile parts of the country is insecurity and the fear of violence. A bloody insurgency by extremist group Boko Haram in the north-east and deadly clashes between ethnic militias in the country’s central region caused 6,000 deaths in 2014 alone, accounting for half of conflict-related civilian deaths in Africa for that year. Apart from deaths, the insurrection has devastated the physical environment and displaced more than 250,000 civilians in the past ten months.

Many Nigerians hope the former military leader will finally bring the bloodthirsty insurgents to their knees and find permanent solutions to the violent activities of ethnic militias especially in rural parts of Plateau, Southern Kaduna and Benue states. But is the 72-year-old ready to start the healing process for a country long bedridden by the deep wounds of a civil war, regional antagonism and abjection?

Ethno-religious antagonism

The recent history of Nigeria’s security turmoil started with a return to civilian rule in 1999 after three decades of military rule. Democracy presented an outlet for self-expression denied by military regimes.

With this new liberty came the adoption of Sharia law in the heavily Muslim-dominated states in the north. This was mostly against the will of the minority non-Muslim populations and violent riots followed in Kaduna, Bauchi and Kano. It was against this background of heightened inter-religious tensions that Mohammed Yusuf, an Islamic cleric in Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state in north-east Nigeria, founded Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād otherwise known as Boko Haram.

Boko Haram gained national attention in 2009 after Yusuf was killed in police custody. Under the leadership of a more radical Abubakar Shekau the group started a series of revenge attacks on security agents.

One year on, a vigil for the kidnapped schoolgirls is a reminder of the threat posed by Boko Haram. EPA/Tife Owalabi

Over a span of six years, the group advanced from a collection of radical Islamic pupils that used cutlasses, bows-and-arrows and a few locally made firearms in isolated attacks to an organised force with armoured personnel carrier vehicles, rocket propelled grenades and other sophisticated military hardware.

Poverty, illiteracy and unemployment

Nigeria’s unemployment stands at 23.9%. This translates into more than 11m youth without jobs. Conflict research suggests youth unemployment is a notorious driver of social unrest. Desperate young men can hire themselves out as mercenaries to survive economic pressures.

Poverty and illiteracy are also very important causal factors with one reinforcing the other. With a GDP of US$510 billion, an annual economic growth averaging 7%, Nigeria is the 26th largest economy in the world.

But this national wealth is enjoyed by only a handful of corrupt officials as more than 60% of Nigerians live in excruciating poverty. Apart from living below the poverty line, many have no access to basic social amenities such as healthcare, portable water and electricity.

Hand-in-hand with poverty is illiteracy. With an adult literacy rate of only 51.1%, about 40m adults are illiterate. Because most parents that are illiterate are ignorant of the value of education, they also deny their children the opportunity. More than 10m Nigerian children don’t go to school.

Most violent riots in Nigeria erupt in areas where poverty and illiteracy are concentrated. In Jos, southern Kaduna and Maiduguri – all regions that have witnessed frequent violence – the slums are the sites of recurrent violence.

Colonialism, civil War and old hatreds

The regional disharmony in Nigeria is traceable to its colonial past. Britain administrated the country through indirect rule – a system that favoured group autonomy over cross-ethnic co-operation. At independence in 1960, the country was a collection of semi-independent groups that valued ethnic loyalties over national identity.

Six years after independence, regional tensions culminated in the Biafran War- that caused about 2m deaths. Military coups and wartime atrocities serve to reinforce narratives of victimhood on both sides. Nearly five decades on, the scars of the Biafran war are yet to heal.

Biafran War scars have yet to heal. Dr Lyle Conrad – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CC BY

Nigerian security circles seem to equate “order” with “peace”. The use of these terms interchangeably betrays not only conceptual confusion but explains why security measures have stopped at military actions. Unfortunately calm enforced with military might or “peace of the graveyard”, as peace and conflict expert Johan Galtung termed it, is only an intermission before another round of violence resumes.

No military solution

Along with military action, the new government can take a number of steps to start the process of engendering sustainable peace. First, a state of emergency must be declared on poverty, unemployment and illiteracy. The government must engineer an economic revolution that sees economic progress not only in terms of GDP growth but also access to basic amenities for Nigerians and employment opportunity for the youth.

A multidimensional security strategy will also address old hatreds along regional divides. A national dialogue to discuss the very terms of Nigeria’s statehood and enlist the voluntary and undivided allegiance of groups is not only pertinent but an urgent need. Enough of talk shops, forging a national identity that will take priority over regional loyalties means concrete concessions, sincere apologies, reparations and retributions.

Underneath the veneer of calm enforced with rifles is the sweltering magma of ethno-religious animosity. For how long will the disingenuous obsession with military-only solutions delay the eruption of this volcano?