Small Wars Journal

Investing in Powerful Networks in Nigeria?

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 4:07pm

Investing in Powerful Networks in Nigeria?

Henri Boré


The influence of family, ethnic and religious-based networks is an important component of the Nigerian political and social landscape.  They should not be overlooked.  Empowered by the usage of modern technologies of communication and Internet, these networks have become more proactive and instrumental than the governmental institutions plagued by endless bureaucratic procedures.  Today, investing in these networks to restore political stability and security in the northeast region may be the best alternative left for the Nigerian government.  For the past three years indeed the security forces failed to secure a region still plagued by Boko Haram attacks after more than a year under a state of emergency and a full scale military operation.  Furthermore, these networks may be critical to mission success for the U.S. assistance to the Nigerian forces.

Investing in Powerful Networks in Nigeria?

Nigeria dominated international news in April 2014.  In the aftermath of the kidnapping of more than two hundreds school girls by the Islamist group Boko Haram in Chibok, in northeastern Nigeria, European and U.S. heads of state publicly offered a great deal of moral and political support to the Nigerian government coping with a major national security threat.

Nigeria however is neither Europe nor America.  Western solutions probably do not apply to a Nigerian problem.  Indeed, while the Nigerian political system is a constitutional democracy similar to the West, some of its political internal codes and norms are still very foreign to the concept of democracy as we, Westerners, understand it.  Herein lies one of the reasons why in 2013 Nigeria was still labelled as an “ambiguous political regime and governance” by Western analysts who tend to favor a typology based on data collected by Freedom House.[i]

This article will underscore one of the elements that are foreign to our Western concepts, namely the complex political and social influence of the familial, ethnic and religious-based networks.  Understanding their influence and working with them often helps leverage solutions to conflicts and tensions in the country and the region.  Moreover, the power of influence of many of these networks will most likely impact on any potential U.S. engagement in support to the Nigerian government.  Consequently, U.S. military missions in the area ranging from Security Forces Assistance (SFA) to Civil-Military Operations (CMO) and Information Operations (IO) are prone to confront or to partner with these powerful networks.

Three Cultural Characteristics of the Nigerian Social and Political Context

Among many others, three cultural elements must be understood in the Nigerian political and social context in order to explain the nature and the power of these family, ethnic and religious networks.

The first element relates to the political system. The Nigerian democracy is comfortable with a more traditional concept of centralized political power in the hands of very few.  For instance, the centralization of power in the hands of the executive branch is a common trend in the Nigerian democratic system.  The political responsibility of the governor of each state is paramount in the Nigerian federal architecture. As a result, the power and authority at the local level rests in the hands of these governors rather than the central state.  A culture of centralized governance is what is familiar to many politicians of the elite establishment.  As often pointed out by historians and political scientists, “Implementing the Western model of democracy has not served as a magic formula in Nigeria”.[ii]   Today’s Nigerian democracy is first and foremost the product of the marriage between Western democratic processes and core Nigerian traditional concepts of democracy that existed long before the establishment of the British protectorate in the 19th century.

The second characteristic is the culture of mediation and consensus that stems from traditional social norms and values common to many societies in West and Central Africa.  Indeed, parallel to a tendency to favor a centralization of power, the need for consensus is a major cultural principle in the democratic process and governance in Nigeria.  The process of reaching consensus often hinges on the intervention of a third party to mediate and negotiate. This principle applies to domestic as well as regional security matters.  The path followed by President Jonathan in June 2014 to address the problem of Boko Haram is a case in point.  It sought a general consensus within the Nigerian political establishment, which is directly linked to many powerful familial, ethnic and religious networks.

Last but not least, the third cultural element of the Nigerian political and social context is the history of political influence and involvement of the Nigerian military in matters that relate to domestic security and national unity.  The three decades of incursion of the military leadership into the government from the 1960s to the 1990s remain vividly in the Nigerian collective memory as a disastrous time.[iii]   After the country returned to civilian governance, the military senior leadership, both Muslim and Christian, has maintained solid connections with powerful political networks. The political journey of General Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria, is a perfect example.

These three cultural characteristics of the Nigerian context frame a political and social structure that favors the action of influential networks. They revolve around family lineage, ethnicity, religion and personal relationships.  These networks play a key role in the access to and the control of social and political power.

Powerful Family, Ethnic and Religious-Based Networks

Nigerian society has a fluid social and political structure based on the interconnection between family, ethnicity and religion.  As often seen in the Nigerian modern history, the elite political establishment leads these networks that control or influence the nation’s political, economic and social decision making processes.

Far from being designed as stovepipe structures, these family, ethnic and religious-based networks transverse across the board.  They communicate and rely on each other either to collaborate or compete.  They represent powerful instruments when major issues such as the State revenues, namely oil revenues, or land property are at stake.[iv]   The Amnesty Program set up in 2009 by President Yar’Adua, to offer an unconditional amnesty to the Ijaw-led Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is an example.  Experts acknowledge that the real political step that ended the impunity of MEND was the informal agreement set up between then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, an Ijaw, and the various Ijaw MEND leaders rather than the Amnesty Program.[v]

The fact of the matter is that these networks invest on the common identity of individuals from similar communities based either on family or ethnicity.   Built along a community line, these networks consequently operate as micro-nations within Nigeria.  The loyalty of Nigerian citizens to their networks often carries more weight than their loyalty to the nation-state itself. [vi]   Herein lies one of the root causes of the powerful influence of these diverse networks.  The paradox is that they both undermine and strengthen the building of national identity in Nigeria just as it does in many other African states.

A System of Fluid Networks

The northern Muslim Hausa elite establishment of the Sokoto and Borno states has always maintained personal connections with the southern Christian Yoruba and Igbo establishments in Abuja and Lagos.  The leadership of these networks often either collaborate or compete in order to secure financial revenues and political power.  During the 2012 presidential election, for instance, many experts admitted that President Jonathan, a Christian southern Ijaw, “bought” the support from the Muslim Hausa establishment of the northern Sokoto state.  After more than 40 years of independence, Nigerians are familiar with the practice.[vii]   

The networks work together across Nigeria.  President Jonathan’s whole government approach to the national security threat posed by Boko Haram in April 2014 shows that investing on these networks to put an end to the free run of Boko Haram may be the remaining effective political alternative for the Nigerian government after the failure of the security forces to restore stability in the northeast region.

Moreover these networks also reach out to other familial and ethnic networks outside Nigeria such as the Hausa in Niger, the Fulani in Chad and the Fang in Cameroon.  They serve as a conduit to initiate regional alliances of convenience designed to meet political agendas.  Restoring cross-border security and stability for instance drives the current counter terrorism agreement adopted in June 2014 by Nigeria and Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Shifting Loyalties Inside the Networks

The power of the familial, religious and ethnic-based networks in Nigeria stems from the ability to “link the lowest of the low with the highest of the high” within the Nigerian social and political fabric.[viii]  However, shifting relationships between the network’s elite ruler and its grassroots are not uncommon.  While working to meet a political and a social agenda, the leadership obviously relies on its constituents to strengthen the network’s power.  Similarly, when one network leadership embarks on a competing path with other networks in order to control resources, land, revenues and political power, it turns to their grassroots to strengthen their power.

Redistributing to grassroots the benefits from land property, financial investments and business marketing, to name a few, is a traditional way to secure the support and the loyalty of members of the networks.  In Nigeria as in many societies in West and Central Africa, “a man who manages to make good without ensuring that his network shares in his prosperity brings shame upon himself. Social disapproval and ostracism, and, in extreme cases, a death sentence may in time be his reward”. [ix]  Some call this a traditional code of reciprocity whereas others denounce patronage, clientelism and corruption practices.[x]  Nevertheless, when the redistribution of the benefits does not meet grassroots expectations, the individual’s loyalty to the network can fade quickly as seen in northern Nigeria in 2012 with the split between the Muslim establishment and part of its grassroots in Jos and Maiduguri.  This in turn paved the way to growing sympathy for Boko Haram’s anti-governmental narrative among many Nigerians in the northern states.  

Odd Alliances

Through their grassroots groups, the family, ethnic and religious-based networks easily associate themselves with wealthy albeit criminal segments of the society that are connected to drug trafficking and money laundering.  After the election of President Jonathan in 2010 for instance several Ijaw leaders from MEND stated  they were slowing down the use of violence in the Niger delta in order not to bother “The Don”, namely President Jonathan, also an Ijaw, as he was busy leading the country. [xi]   This Soprano-like comment did not mean that the President was acting like a Sicilian “godfather”.  Nevertheless, many Nigerian officers saw a confirmation of the existence of connections between the Ijaw networks in Niger Delta and diverse criminal groups operating in the port of Lagos in association with Latin American drug cartels. [xii]

To conclude, the influence of the ethnic and religious-based networks is an important component of the Nigerian political, economic and social landscape.  This should never be overlooked.  Empowered by usage of the technologies of communication and Internet, these fluid networks have become more proactive than many of the governmental institutions plagued by endless bureaucratic procedures.   Working with them helps leverage conflicts and tensions in the country and the region.  Furthermore, partnering with these networks may be critical to mission success for Marines who plan and conduct engagement missions ranging from SFA to CMO and IO in Nigeria.

End Notes

[i] Gordon & Gordon, Understanding Contemporary Africa, (Lynne Rienner, 2013), 101.

[ii] Bernard Lugan, Histoire de l’Afrique, Des origines à nos jours, (Ellipses, 2009), 998.

[iii] Herbert M. Howe, Ambiguous Order: Military Forces in African States, (Lynne Rienner, 2001), 54.

[iv] Jeffrey Herbst, States and Power in Africa, (Princeton, 2000), 174.

[v] Jennifer A. Giroux, Naval War College lecture,  Newport, RI, November 8, 2012

[vi] Wangari Maathai, The Challenge for Africa, (Pantheon Books, 2009), 184.

[vii] Daniel Jordan Smith, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria, (Princeton, 2008), 126.

[viii] Jean Francois Bayart, The State in Africa, the Politics of the Belly, (Polity Press, 2010), 219.

[ix] Bayart, 2010, 233

[x] Daniel Jordan Smith, 2007, 12

[xi] Interviews with Nigerian senior officers, Dakar, October 20, 2011.

[xii] Ibid


About the Author(s)

Henri Boré is a retired French Marine Colonel and currently works as a Africa Desk Officer at Marine Corps University’s  Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL).



Sun, 07/27/2014 - 12:00am

1. While Niger Delta militants had reasonable demands, Boko Haram does not.
2. Boko Haram is part of a wider revolt against the elite establishment in Northern Nigeria - many foreign analysts are yet grasp this. That was not the case in the Niger Delta.
3. There is a breakdown of elite consensus, the Nigerian elite is dominated by the young officers who came to power via coups in the 60s, they are now in their 70s & 80s & they have no real successors. President Jonathan doesn't belong to this group & there's no group of "old boys" who will put things back together again.