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Nigeria’s resource curse: Boko Haram and the poverty of plenty

The rise of Boko Haram is a symptom of Nigeria's 'resource curse'. After the discovery of oil in Nigeria, the government's failure to protect its citizens and develop its economy has exposed a hollowed-out state, where Boko Haram has thrived.

Joshua Goldfond
8 April 2015
Nigerian refugees after Boko Haram insurgents attacked their town, Damassak. Flickr/European Commission. Some rights reserved.

Nigerian refugees after Boko Haram insurgents attacked their town, Damassak. Flickr/European Commission. Some rights reserved.

The ‘resource curse’ is alive and well in contemporary Nigeria, where cultural and economic schizophrenia has created Africa’s largest economy, while also birthing the savage terrorist group Boko Haram.

The ‘resource curse’, also called ‘Dutch disease’, is a harmful imperial phenomenon that has followed the same, hackneyed script for generations: a valuable natural resource is discovered in a developing nation – like Nigerian oil – and the nation’s entire economy shifts to accommodate this exploding sector; government corruption festers with the help of foreign money; domestic inequality rises; infrastructure decays, and chaos ensues. Such is the case in Nigeria, where the government’s failure to protect its citizens and develop the whole of its economy has exposed a hollowed-out state whose shortsightedness endangers all that it has achieved. And while the glossy sheen of 21st century markets, modern banking and international treaties promise protections from economic exploitation and degradation, the rise of Boko Haram proves otherwise.

The Nigerian government’s failure to protect its citizens and develop its economy has exposed a hollowed-out state whose shortsightedness endangers all that it has achieved.

With a name translating roughly to ‘western education is forbidden’, Boko Haram seeks the expulsion of all western influence in Nigeria and the enactment of Sharia law for its 175 million citizens, half of whom are not Muslim. Although initially nonviolent in their tactics, a change in the group’s leadership in 2002 led to terroristic methods that would recur throughout the decade. Its current incarnation – by far its most brutal – began when the rogue imam Abubakar Shekau assumed leadership in 2010. They have since raped, kidnapped, and slaughtered their way through their homeland: barbaric killers lacking in discipline but flush with weaponry.

Boko Haram is a product of Nigeria’s northern region, where child vaccination rates hover around 3.6% and illiteracy rates are among the world's highest. The UN and World Bank estimate it to be one of the poorest places on Earth, but this was not always the case. Northern Nigeria was, comparatively speaking, stable and economically strong until the 1970s, when cheap foreign goods devastated its manufacturing base. Around the same time, vast sums of multinational capital flooded the south’s oil rich Niger Delta. Economic development followed the money, creating a socioeconomic chasm within the nation that has only grown with time.

Indeed, a recalculation of the nation's GDP in 2014 determined that Nigeria had surpassed South Africa as the continent's largest economy, yet the financial rewards continue to accumulate in the hands of a diminishing number of citizens. And while tax revenues on oil extracted by western companies have earned the Nigerian government roughly $1.6 trillion since 1956, little of this can be evidenced even in the more educated and developed south. In the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, the number of Nigerians living on less than $2 a day has risen from 17.1 million (27% of the population) to a staggering 112 million (69% of the population).

Nigerian refugees in Diffa region, Niger after Boko Haram attacked their town. Flickr/European Commission. Some rights reserved.

Nigerian refugees in Diffa region, Niger after Boko Haram attacked their town. Flickr/European Commission. Some rights reserved.

Boko Haram does its recruiting drive no favours with the mass terror it perpetrates, but the destabilising effects of its atrocities ripples beyond Nigeria’s borders. Nigeria’s already unsuccessful efforts to stop the group were recently hindered when government soldiers and state-sponsored militias sent north to fight Boko Haram began committing war crimes of their own. August 2014 brought fresh Amnesty International reports pointing to the widespread slaughter of young male villagers arbitrarily deemed terrorists by rampaging soldiers and commanders. Embarrassed by the international outrage and seemingly unable to defeat its foe, president Goodluck Jonathan’s government has since allowed neighbouring Chad to launch several devastating cross-border attacks into its territory to strike at Boko Haram. This campaign is no act of charity by Chad’s president Idriss Déby, whose failed state is widely regarded as even more corrupt than Nigeria, but rather Chad’s effort to prevent Boko Haram from seizing the resource-rich Lake Chad near their common border. The unraveling of social structures and the dissolution of national borders has rarely been anything but a recipe for disaster, particularly in a region as traditionally unstable as west Africa.

Nigeria’s ruling class dreams of international engagement, economic influence, and leveraging their natural resources for a seat at the table of world power. Boko Haram has a parallel vision no less grandiose, using its infamy to align itself with ISIS and the global Jihadi movement. Unfortunately, economic alienation and societal misery fuels terrorist movements just as oil does the automotive industry. Given the chance, men like Abubakar Shekau – Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader – will harvest the country’s squandered human capital with a seductive, supremacist ideology that promises power through violence and euphoria through madness. In this respect, Boko Haram represents the resource curse’s disastrous end game, a dire condition easily duplicated throughout a rapidly globalising developing world. 

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