It can handle Liberia, but can it peacekeep itself?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Asking Nigeria to bring stability to Liberia is a bit like asking Germany to bring some inefficiency, or Canada some excitement, or France some moral authority. Nigeria is an African Yugoslavia, an impenetrable stew of simmering ethnic divisions that many believe is heading toward an inevitable breakup. Writers sometimes try to convey Nigeria’s national character by comparing it to the country’s dazzling but inconsistent soccer team, tagged by one observer as boasting “gifted indiscipline and perpetual squandering of resources.” In This House Has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis, journalist Karl Maier made a similar point, explaining that Nigeria (the team and the country) “plays too often not as a cohesive unit but as a collection of individuals pursuing their own paths, constantly bickering over who is to run the show and how much the players, many of whom are Europe-based millionaires, will be paid.”

The good news is that despite this justly deserved reputation, Nigeria will probably succeed in its effort to bring a short-term solution to the crisis in Liberia. Their 500 soldiers have already arrived, after all, while the United States and the United Nations dither about what exactly to do. The problem isn’t whether Nigeria will be able to stabilize Liberia—the problem is that Nigeria may not be able to stabilize itself. And in the long run, that’s a much bigger problem for Africa and the United States than Charles Taylor is.

Nigeria isn’t a country like Liberia or Rwanda that can be ignored until it reaches the point of catastrophe. (Which isn’t to say that the world hasn’t tried that approach. “What’s the difference between Nigeria and a disaster area?” goes one joke. “In a disaster area, the Red Cross will come to help you.”) For one thing, its sheer size makes it important: With 130 million citizens, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, and roughly one out of every six Africans is Nigerian. For another, after 9/11 the Bush administration began trying to increase the amount of oil the United States imports from West Africa, and some think Nigeria has the potential to produce more oil than any country except Saudi Arabia. It’s already the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the United States, ahead of the No. 6 country, Iraq.

Under current President Olusegun Obasanjo, who won flawed elections in 1999 and again this past spring, the country has improved its reputation in the international community and recovered from its 1990s status as a longtime military dictatorship and pariah state. But domestically, democratic rule hasn’t done much to improve Nigerians’ lot. Nigerians continue to be poorer than they were when they achieved independence from Britain in 1960, * and the colonial lumping of several hundred ethnic groups that speak 500 languages into a single nation hasn’t helped matters. As might be expected, ethnic and religious violence increased with the arrival of democracy. Since Obasanjo took power, as many as 10,000 Nigerians have died in such violence, of which last year’s Miss World riots were only a well-publicized taste.

Nigeria also remains one of the two or three most corrupt countries in the world: A few years ago, Obasanjo’s aides used sacks of cash to secure votes for leadership positions in the legislature. (Though that’s an improvement over his predecessor, the military dictator Sani Abacha, who embezzled $4 billion from the state during his half-decade in power.) Just as important, Nigeria’s culture of corruption “seems to affect every transaction in life” in Nigeria, says Princeton professor Jeffrey Herbst. “It’s not just the big guys ripping off the state.” The proliferation of e-mailed Nigerian 419 scams is the latest manifestation of the country’s many cons. Nigeria’s reputation in such matters wasn’t helped by its last peacekeeping outing in Liberia, during which some Nigerian officers acted in the manner of warlords by trading diamonds and looting. The peacekeeping group, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, earned itself the nickname ECOMOG: Every Car or Moving Object Gone. (These acronym jokes seem to be popular: Nigeria’s electric utility, the National Power Authority, is dubbed “Never Expect Power Anytime.”)

Perhaps most worrisome, Nigeria combines several aspects that are familiar from countries in the Middle East: an abundance of oil, a young population, economic stagnation, a corrupt elite, a legacy of colonialism, a vision of itself as a superpower that is in decline, and a rise in Islamic radicalism. Although Nigeria is only half Muslim (and President Obasanjo is a born-again Christian), 12 states in Nigeria’s north have instituted the Islamic law of Shariah, and former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Princeton N. Lyman wrote in the Wall Street Journal last November, “No doubt terrorists want to fish in these troubled waters.” The month before, the Washington Post ran an op-ed about Nigeria headlined, “The Next Hotbed of Islamic Radicalism,” which noted that Nigeria’s “sharia is more typical of extreme Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran” than of other Muslim countries in West Africa. Part of that is history: Nigeria had a 19th-century caliphate, another characteristic it shares with Middle Eastern countries.

There’s hope, of course, that the country won’t fall apart. In Herbst’s scenario, “What you have is not a dramatic breakup like Yugoslavia. You have this place that is slowly atrophying.” And for now, the world is grateful that Nigeria is embracing its self-proclaimed role as West Africa’s peacekeeper, however mixed the results may be. Its offer of asylum for Taylor has the feel of unfinished business from Nigeria’s failed efforts in the 1990s to keep Taylor from power, for example. But Nigeria has shown more willingness to take care of its backyard than the Europeans have demonstrated in their part of the world, with Kosovo being the latest case in point. Still, the extent to which West Africa relies on Nigeria to intervene in its crises is also one more reason for concern: If Nigeria were to collapse, Nigeria wouldn’t be around to clean up the mess.

Correction Aug. 15, 2003:This article originally stated, incorrectly, that Nigeria achieved independence in 1961. The correct year is 1960. (Return to corrected sentence.)