Wake up Nigeria: lessons from Sierra Leone

While researching my upcoming book on the world’s poorest countries last week, I came across David Keen’s ‘Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone,’ an analysis of the causes of the world’s poorest country’s vicious 1990s civil war. What struck me most was the similarity between what I read of the conditions in Sierra Leone before war erupted and what I heard on a recent trip to Nigeria of the conditions prevailing there.

The parallels are remarkable. Burgeoning youth population? Check. Intense competition for services and economic opportunities? Check. Collapsed education system that fails the young? Check. Dependence on a single valuable natural resource? Check (diamonds in Sierra Leone, oil in Nigeria). Neglect of other economic activities like agriculture? Check. Catastrophic lack of jobs? Check.

The result of all these fundamental problems in Nigeria, as in Sierra Leone, is a youth population that cannot establish itself. Denied employment, young people cannot leave their parents’ homes, marry, or start families. Their reliance on the older generation deprives them of the latter’s respect. Their resentment of their elders, who benefited from a better education, faced weaker competition for jobs, and have control over the country’s economy, is acute. The corruption and decadence of those in power and their lack of interest in young people’s demands further fan the flames (both David Keen writing on Sierra Leone and several Nigerians I spoke to said that wealth, no matter how dishonestly acquired, had become society’s’ overriding goal – as a young woman in Lagos lamented, “nobody asks how you got rich”).

In Sierra Leone, young people eventually took out their frustrations with extreme violence. Among their main targets were village chiefs and other figures of authority. When the Revolutionary United Front invaded Freetown in January 1999, its young rebel soldiers sought out and dealt out horrific punishments to journalists and writers who had criticised them and shown them disrespect. Many young Nigerians also bemoan the lack of respect they receive from the older generation, who dominate the country’s institutions.

Of course, there are differences between Sierra Leone and Nigeria which might make the devastation wreaked on the former less likely in West Africa’s most populous nation. Nigeria doesn’t have a Liberia next door with a leader like Charles Taylor who is determined to spread his domestic campaign of terror to his diamond-rich neighbour. Its army is stronger than Sierra Leone’s was, although as Pakistan has shown, a large army is no guarantee against a mass insurgency. And its very size makes a coordinated rebellion more difficult – rebels in the Niger Delta currently have little in common with northern Islamists like the Boko Haram group that caused serious unrest in Kano and Bauchi this summer.

But the longer Nigeria’s leaders remain complacent, the more the risk of revolution grows. University students around the country are frustrated and increasingly restive.  Primary and secondary school teachers are full of pessimism. I didn’t visit the Delta, but many young people in the north seemed on the point of  snapping, clinging to sharia law to save them from the venality of their secular leaders. One northern university professor I met said “you can see and feel the anger of youth,” while one of his peers in Lagos warned that “what is happening in the Niger  Delta could happen all over – it’s already happening in the east, where there are regular kidnappings, while in the west and north there are some signs of increasing unrest.”

History in West Africa tends to repeat itself – for Sierra Leone, you could probably substitute Liberia, the Ivory Coast and now Guinea and find many of the same roots behind their conflicts. If Nigeria plunged into war, the whole region could implode. Any friends of President Yar Adua who are looking for a Christmas present for him could do worse than a copy of David Keen’s book.