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Heavy traffic is seen on a bridge in Ikoyi neighbourhood in Lagos March 27, 2012. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)
Heavy traffic is seen on a bridge in Ikoyi neighbourhood in Lagos March 27, 2012. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

Boko Haram insurgency exposes Nigeria's extreme economic inequality Add to ...

When the first bomb exploded at dawn, it shook the ceiling and floor and the shabby furniture in Alice Mayaki’s small cluttered house. Crying and trembling, she rushed outside and saw dozens of dead bodies.

Two weeks later, another bomb exploded in almost exactly the same spot. More than 90 people were killed in the two blasts. “Everyone is afraid,” Ms. Mayaki says. “I don’t go into town. Should I go, or should I not go? Life is very dangerous now.”

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Abuja, the Nigerian capital, is the city of the big men: the politicians who control the enormous oil wealth and state resources of Africa’s biggest economy. But when the Boko Haram rebellion came to the capital this year, the big men were safely protected by guards and checkpoints. The explosions hit the migrant workers in the slums as they queued for their morning buses.

“It was the poor people who were going to work early,” said Ms. Mayaki, a nurse who migrated here from southwestern Nigeria. “It was the people who clean and sweep the offices for the big men. They were the ones who were killed.”

Nigeria’s rich and powerful, its politicians and military leaders from Lagos to Abuja, have been comfortably immune to the brutal northern insurgency – which may help to explain why it continues to escalate. The rebellion has exposed the extreme gulf between rich and poor in one of Africa’s most unequal countries. And this widening gap has fuelled the anger and alienation that makes it easy for Boko Haram to find recruits for its murderous militia.

As the insurgency spreads across northern Nigeria and into its “Middle Belt” in the centre, its guns and bombs are targeting Nigeria’s most vulnerable groups: rural villagers, migrants, street vendors, small market traders, the unemployed – and, most notoriously, the schoolgirls of Chibok, more than 200 of whom were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April.

This was supposed to be Nigeria’s year to celebrate its brand-new status as Africa’s biggest economy. By the end of the century, the former “sleeping giant” of Africa will overtake the United States as the third-biggest country in the world by population. Its fate could be crucial to the future of the African economy. Yet the rapidly escalating Boko Haram rebellion is exposing the deep dysfunction in Nigeria, putting Nigeria on the path to potential “failed state” status, and contributing to the spread of Islamist extremism across West Africa.

Nigeria’s futile search for the kidnapped schoolgirls is now entering its third month, despite military support from the United States, Britain, Canada and others, while the expanding Boko Haram insurgency is killing hundreds of people in cities and villages across the north and centre of the country. An estimated 12,000 people have died in the five-year insurgency so far.

Nigeria has the resources to beat Boko Haram if it was determined to do so. But most of its staggering oil wealth – up to $70-billion (U.S.) annually – is held by a small politically connected elite, who remain insulated from Boko Haram’s terror tactics and seem almost indifferent to the war.

Nigeria has lost about $400-billion in oil revenue as a result of corruption since 1960, according to former World Bank vice-president Obiageli Ezekwesili, a leader of the protest campaign to bring back the kidnapped schoolgirls. A further $20-billion in oil money has disappeared from Nigeria’s treasury in the past two years, former central bank governor Lamido Sanusi has charged.

Porsches and bubbly

The economic inequality in Nigeria is among the most extreme in the world – and growing worse. Despite its rising oil wealth, the percentage of Nigerians living in absolute poverty (earning less than a dollar a day) has increased to 61 per cent over the past decade, compared with 55 per cent in 2004. Yet at the same time, Nigeria has nearly 16,000 millionaires, and that number has jumped by 44 per cent over the past six years.

Much of the wealth is concentrated in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, where the northern rebellion feels like a remote rumour. At the upscale Palms shopping mall in a Lagos suburb, security is lax. The Boko Haram insurgency is far from people’s minds. “We’re not feeling the impact,” says Edewor Alexander Iniovosa, a 25-year-old employee at the mall. “We believe we are safe here.”

Lagos is a microcosm of the social dysfunction that plagues Nigeria and feeds the insurgency. It is one of Africa’s biggest and most overcrowded cities, with vast slums, bad traffic jams, daily electricity shortages and eroding infrastructure. To escape those pressures, the richest residents are moving into their own privatized suburbs, where they need never leave.

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