Nigeria’s colonial heritage, religious divide and the 2020 US presidential elections

This blog post has been written by Prof. Chibuike Uche, chairholder of the Stephen Ellis Chair for the Governance of Finance and Integrity in Africa at Leiden University.


Although the mainly Christian Nigerian diaspora in the US have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, Christian groups in Nigeria are now lobbying them to support President Donald Trump in the November 2020 US elections. This is because they believe that it is only Trump that can halt what is widely suspected to be a well-orchestrated attempt by the President Muhamadu Buhari administration to Islamise entire Nigeria.
Britain and the failure of the Nigerian state
It is instructive that Trump refers to Nigeria, a state tottering on the brink of collapse and the present poverty capital of the world, as a ‘shithole’ country and president Buhari as ‘lifeless’. What is however less understood is that the failure of the Nigerian state has been orchestrated to a large extent by the way allied western nations have in the past administered the protection of their interests in the country. This has to do with the way Britain, which is the de facto proxy state for the determination and management of such interests in Nigeria, has carried out this function.
Specifically, British interests have ensured that the mostly Muslim North, which is the poorest and most backward region, has been firmly established at the top of the political pecking order in Nigeria. This is because Britain sees such northern dominance as the most effective way of protecting its economic and political interests in Nigeria. This led to the jettisoning of merit and the enthronement of nepotism as the cornerstone of governance in the country.

The supremacy of Britain in shaping the direction of the position of western countries on Nigerian conflicts and issues dates back to the 1884 Berlin Conference, where Africa was partitioned among European countries. Beneficiary western states became proxies for the determination and control of the interest of the allies in their allocated territories.

It was as a consequence of the above partitioning that what later became known as the Christian dominated Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and the Muslim dominated Protectorate of Northern Nigeria came under British control. As will be seen later, it was this merger of these culturally and sociologically different territories, which was incentivized by British interests that laid the foundation for the failure of the Nigerian state.

Britain and the political economy of Nigeria
Before the colonial rule was established in the North, most of the territories were governed by the Fulani, who were in the minority. They were essentially jihadists who advanced Islam through conquest. They then established a feudal system that gave them a monopoly over the governance of the conquered territories through Islamic laws. The feudal northern system also made it easier for the British to govern the territories once an agreement was reached with their Emirs. Governing the south, which had no such feudal system in place, however, proved more difficult.

Despite the clear difference between the two territories, the pursuit of British interest led to their amalgamation in 1914. This was because Britain wanted to curtail the use of its taxpayers' money in the administration of the less endowed Northern Nigeria. Arguably because of the economic viability of the south, the region was later divided into two, East and West, by the British.

As the country moved towards political independence, British preference to ensure the domination of the country by the North began to crystallize. This was based on the belief that the economically and educationally backward North was better positioned to protect its interests in an independent Nigeria.

In 1958, for instance, the British colonial administration substantially reduced the derivation conceptualisation of the revenue allocation system in Nigeria. This was after the discovery of oil in the East. Increasing the amount of revenue that was centrally shared was bound to protect the North.

Mr. Harold Smith, who at the time was a British Colonial Officer in Nigeria, has also alleged that the British further advantaged the North by rigging the 1953 Census and the 1959 federal elections in its favour. This laid the foundation for the North to dominate and control political power in the country.

Northern dominance of political power
Since the attainment of political independence in Nigeria, the North has dominated the governance of the country even though they contribute the least to the national purse. Such political control has ensured that the majority of revenue generated in the south are spent in the North. Despite this, the Northern region government adopted the northernisation policy, which prioritised the employment of foreigners over southerners in the region (see this interview with Ahmadu Bello on Igbos). Based on the above, it is not surprising that the dominant control of political power by the North has become a very contentious issue in Nigeria.

From independence in 1960 to 1992, only 2 southerners had ruled Nigeria: General Aguiyi Ironsi (January to July 1966) and General Olusegun Obasanjo (February 1976 to September 1979). The murder of General Ironsi in 1966 culminated in the mass killing of easterners in the North. The attempt by the oil-rich East to secede and establish the state of Biafra was crushed mainly because the northern leadership had the full support of the British Government which prioritised its oil interests in Nigeria.[1]  

In 1992, Moshood Abiola, a millionaire Muslim from the West, won the presidential elections. This was annulled by the then military President, General Babangida, who was from the North. Widespread riots in the West however forced Babangida to step aside and cede power to an interim president from the West that he selected: Ernest Shonekan. He lasted only three months in office before he was overthrown by a northern military officer, General Sani Abacha.

When Abacha mysteriously died in 1998, another northern officer, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, became Head of State. Shortly after that, international pressure led by the West was mounted on Abiola to renounce his mandate. When he failed to do this, he mysteriously died in detention in the presence of a high level US delegation. The riots generated by Abiola's death, however, forced the northern military leaders to agree to hand over power to a democratically elected president from the West. Their choice was Olusegun Obasanjo, with whom they had worked well in the past.

The push for a Sharia State
While the South was busy celebrating the concession of the presidency to it, northern military leaders were secretly drafting a new constitution that would advance the course of sharia and Islam in the entire country. The new constitution arguably watered the ground for the emergence of Boko Haram, whose objective is to create an Islamic state. Several northern states also adopted sharia law under the new political dispensation. This means that Christians living, working in, or visiting such states are forced to live and operate under such laws.

The new constitution also divided Nigeria into six geopolitical zones. Three of the zones were located in the south (South-East, South-West, and South-South) while the other three are located in the North (North-East, North-West, and North-Central). Long term political domination by the North however ensured that the region had by far more states and legislative seats than the South. The fact that most of the northern states depend on revenues generated from the South did not change this fact.

Obasanjo completed his tenure in 2008 and handed over to Umaru YarAdua from the North. Halfway through his presidency, he died and was succeeded by his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan from the South-South. In 2011, Jonathan defeated the northern candidate, Muhamadu Buhari to win his first full term in office. Jonathan's victory was followed by widespread rioting in the North during which hundreds of Christians from the South were killed. Buhari, who had earlier ruled the country as a military dictator, did not condemn the killings.

As Jonathan and Buhari prepared to contest for the 2015 Presidential election, the later threatened violence should he lose the election. He also expressed sympathy for Boko Haram when the Nigerian army mounted an all-out offensive against the group.

 Despite the above, the  West decided that power had to return to the North. The then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, visited Nigeria severally during the period. President Obama also made known his preference in a public address where he stated that the unity of Nigeria was not negotiable. A company owned by Obama’s adviser David Axelrod also directly worked for the Buhari campaign.

Buhari and Christian-Muslim divide
Shortly after Buhari became president, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury who before his present appointment was exposed to the Nigerian oil industry, described him as incorruptible. This view has however been discredited by Transparency International and the recurrent mind-blowing corruption scandals that have bedevilled the Buhari administration since inception.

Buhari also wasted no time in showing his contempt for Christians all over the country. Miyetti Allah, an armed group of Fulani cattle breeders with strong links to the leadership of Islam in Nigeria, became the arrowhead for the killing and displacement of Christians all over the country.

Although the murderous activities of the group check all the boxes of a terrorist organisation, the Buhari administration openly courts the group. In fact, Buhari is the grand patron of the organisation. Despite the widespread killing of Christians in Nigeria under the Buhari administration, there has been a deafening silence on the subject matter in the UK and allied countries. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has been criticised for his high profile exchange of visits with Buhari, which has allegedly greatly helped launder his image.

Ironically, it was another clergyman, Cardinal Heenan, the Catholic Archbishop of  Westminster who in 1969 warned UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson about the religious foundations of the Nigerian crisis and the potential consequences of the UK support for a one-Nigeria-solution to it. According to him: 

The problem is quite simply how to integrate the ancient emirates of the North into the rest of the country to form a unitary state. It is a simple matter of fact that nowhere in the world has it been possible to combine satisfactorily under a single central government, except in the cases of imperial domination, Mohammedan, and non-Mohammedan states. It would be otiose to draw up the list. An integral Mohammedan society forms a closed society; and as such cannot be asked to accept a central government over which it has no guaranteed control. Its cultural affinity is with the rest of the Islamic world and those who do not belong to this world form a foreign element that can never be truly accepted into the society. These incontrovertible sociological factors must be respected and any attempt to ignore them can only lead to failure. The founders of the federation did not respect these factors[2].

Buhari’s preference for northern Muslims was made clear from the beginning of his administration. By far the majority of the military commanders he has appointed are northern Muslims. His hatred for the South-East, which opposed his election, is however legendary. In some cases, the group was denied political appointments that were even guaranteed to them by law (see South East Senators protest as Senate confirms Buhari’s nominee as NCC Commissioner.

Buhari’s open discrimination against the East only rekindled the agitation by the region to secede from the country and establish an independent state of Biafra. The foremost political movement in this direction is the Indigenous People of Biafra, which is led by Nnamdi Kanu. A similar body has also emerged in the West.

Under the government of Buhari, it is not only in the South that residents are being killed and displaced. Christians in the North have also been complaining about the incessant attacks on their people by Miyetti Allah and allied armed groups. The Nigerian government insists that these are simply clashes between farmers and herdsmen. Those being attacked however insist that the main goal of the attackers is to Islamise their territories. General Danjuma, a Northern Christian who once headed the Nigerian army, has further claimed that the army and the Nigerian government are also colluding with the Fulani invaders. It has also been alleged that Miyetti Allah and Boko Haram have now united their command structure.

Buhari’s government has also tried to promote various covert and overt schemes aimed at securing land for Fulani to settle in the Christian dominated territories in Nigeria. These include grazing reserve schemes and the planned Federal Government takeover of all the waterways in the country. All these have been vehemently opposed by most of the Christian dominated states concerned.   

Despite the widespread killing and displacing of Christians in Nigeria, few of the culprits of these heinous crimes have been brought to justice. Two governors from the North, including the one from Buhari’s home state, have also publicly admitted that they paid and or made deals with the killer bandits in order to get them to stop the killings. Repentant Boko Haram terrorists are also routinely being admitted into the Nigerian army.

Christian protests and the (re)election of Trump
In the absence of any remedy at home, the plethora of local socio-cultural and Christian organisations looking for justice and help have turned on the international community. Unfortunately, their cries and petitions have been met with stone silence in the West. This only changed after Trump became US President in 2017. His unconventional style immediately strained the normally cosy relationship that existed between the US and its traditional European allies.

It was arguably in this context that President Trump publicly told Buhari in the Oval Office that his government must do more to stop the killing of Christians in Nigeria.

In addition, President Trump has also signed an Executive Order, mandating US departments to do more to protect religious freedom in the world. Some groups in Nigeria are now lobbying the Trump administration to appoint a special envoy to investigate the killing of Christians in the country. These dynamics, coupled with the fact that few expect Joe Biden’s policies to be radically different from those of his former boss Obama, explain the widespread support for Trump among Christians in Nigeria. They see a Trump victory in the November polls as the best chance of ending the stranglehold of the Muslim North over the rest of Nigeria and the prevention of the Islamisation of the entire country.

It is however naïve to believe that Trump's strong position on the mass killing of Christians in Nigeria is based only on ethics and respect for the freedom of religion. The position of Trump may at least in part be simply an extension of the ‘America First’ policy of his government. This may be because President Trump realises that the present submissiveness of the North to the whims and caprices of Britain and their western allies may be strategic, simply because it needs such countries to be able to suppress and dominate the south. This need will disappear once the North is allowed to successfully Islamise entire Nigeria. The rules of engagement of Nigeria with the West may radically change at that point.

An Islamised Nigerian state will also be a formidable arrowhead for the advancement of Islam across the entire African continent. If history can serve as a guide, this will further complicate the security concerns of western nations at home and their economic interests in Africa. Unfortunately, Britain may still be sentimentally attached to its past relationship with the Fulani rather than critically analysing the long term objectives of the Fulani and the extent they are willing to go to achieve such objectives.  

US elections
The November 2020 Presidential election promises to be one of the most bitterly fought elections in US political history. In Nigeria, however, its outcome could determine both the future of Christianity and the shape of Nigeria’s contribution to peace and security in Africa. This will also have consequences for the West and its interests in the continent.

Read more about Nigeria in the past 60 years in ASCL Infosheet ‘Nigeria at 60’.

[1] C Uche, ‘Oil, British interests and the Nigerian civil war’, Journal of African History, Vol. 49, 2008, pp. 111–135

[2] See ‘A memorandum on Nigeria’, forwarded to Prime Minister Wilson by the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Heenan (British National Archives, BNA/FCO 65/458, 6 Dec. 1969).

Photo credit: Still from a video of a meeting between US President Trump and President Buhari of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 30 April 2018 (YouTube Channel The White House).

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Muhamadu Buhari
Donald Trump
US elections
British colonial rule
Boko Haram
religious divide

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