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Jul 17, 2014 | Commentary

Balkanize: (transitive verb) to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units.

As the moniker suggests, the process of Balkanization originates from the geopolitical fragmentation of the Balkan Peninsula. The term was originally coined in the 19th century to describe the processes of state formation following the decline of the colonial Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. It became further popularized in the wake of Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the 1990s, as the former socialist federation violently Balkanized into largely ethnically homogeneous states.

Balkanization has since been frequently invoked to describe or predict the fragmentation of geopolitical regions beyond the scope of the Balkans. Most recently, there have been forecasts of the impending Balkanization of Nigeria. Throughout last year, the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram successfully carried out a slew of bombings and mass murders throughout Nigeria, inciting fear amongst the population and exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions.

Boko Haram, a combination of Arabic and the regional Hausa language, loosely translates to “Western (un-Islamic) education is forbidden.” Officially declared a terrorist group by the Nigerian government, the Boko Haram insurgency has existed since the early 2000s, operating out of the predominantly Muslim northern parts of the country. Responsible for consistent violent attacks since its inception, Boko Haram intensified its violence following the death of the group’s leader Mohammed Yusuf by Nigerian security forces in 2009.

From 2009 to the end of 2013, Boko Haram had been officially connected with more than 4,700 deaths, the majority of whom were civilians. In the first six months of 2014, Amnesty International estimated that 1,500 people in northeastern Nigeria were killed by Boko Haram militants. Despite this high level of violence, there was very little international media coverage of Boko Haram until April 14, when the group kidnapped 260 girls from their school in Chibok in northeast Nigeria. Concern for their welfare occupied Western media briefly, but has since slipped out of the headlines while the fate of the girls remains unknown.

Given that Boko Haram began as a northern separatist movement, citing the country’s misrule, corruption, and disregard for the impoverished region, Balkanization is a foundational goal of the organization. Analyses of the escalating conflict in Nigeria have increasingly invoked Balkanization as a potential trajectory of the future of the Nigerian state. It remains to be seen, of course, if the formal fragmentation of the Nigerian territory is feasible.

With a population of 170 million, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous state. The population is incredibly diverse as well, comprised of over 250 ethnic groups – the three most populous being the Hausa and Fulani (29 percent, predominantly Muslim), Yoruba (21 percent, half Muslim, half Christian), and Igbo (18 percent, predominantly Christian). There are clear geographic divisions between the three groups; the Hausa and Fulani overwhelming live in the North, the Yoruba in the southwest, and the Igbo in the southeast.

This relatively homogenous territorial ethnic distribution certainly paves the way for claims of self-determination and secession. Indeed, the Igbo people unilaterally declared independence from Nigeria in May of 1967, founding the state of Biafra. The existence of Biafra was short-lived, however, and ceased to exist in January 1970 when it succumbed to the Nigerian national military forces.

It is questionable whether the current Nigerian security forces would be able to stifle a secessionist declaration from the north as it did in Biafra. The Nigerian government spends upwards of 5.2 billion USD a year on security, yet much of this amount never makes it to the military due to the rampant and pervasive political corruption in the country. Thus far, the Nigerian security forces have been incapable of containing the violence perpetrated by Boko Haram; attacks have expanded beyond their original territory and have become more commonplace in the southern areas and the capital, Abuja.

Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF) units – paramilitary units composed of military personnel and police – are the most visible presence of government authority on the ground. JTFs have become known for their brutality and cruelty, inciting fear among the population on par with the insurgents they are supposed to be combating. Human Rights Watch estimates that nearly half of the casualties attributed to Boko Haram were actually caused by the Nigerian security forces. This presents a troubling scenario; as Boko Haram amplifies their attacks in size and frequency, so do the Nigerian security forces. While Nigeria must arguably strengthen its security to combat Boko Haram, their efforts thus far have done little to protect the civilians who bear the brunt of the violence.

A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report criticizes the Nigerian government’s heavy handed military approach to combat the insurgency. Recognizing the inextricably link between security and development, the ICG lays out several recommendations for Nigeria’s Federal Government which emphasize the importance of combating corruption, bad governance, and rising income inequality.

Most notably, the ICG recommends establishing a Far North Development Commission, which would have “a mandate that includes coordinating anti-desertification campaigns, developing large scale irrigation, agriculture, power and road projects and promoting small businesses that could create jobs for youth.” By shifting the government’s overwhelmingly military response to a more comprehensive development-centered approach, the root causes of the insurgency may finally be addressed.

While Nigerians are generally poorer today than they were at independence, the poverty, economic hardship, and income inequality in the far north are particularly acute. The government’s inability to provide security, infrastructure and social services has only driven northern residents to join (un)civil society organizations based on ethnic or religious affiliations. Boko Haram is one such organization, which found its membership among those feeling alienated and neglected. As the Nigerian government continues to ignore the hardships faced by those living in the north, Boko Haram will continue to garner more support for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by Sharia law.

The biggest obstacle in assessing the future of Nigeria and the potential for Balkanization is the fact that Boko Haram is an organization shrouded in secrecy. While typical terrorist groups quickly claim responsibility for their attacks, Boko Haram’s leadership is elusive and rarely claims ownership of its attacks. This lack of information has fostered suspicion and uncertainty in northern Nigeria; although Boko Haram is the suspected perpetrator of violence, citizens remain wary and untrusting of one another.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, an advisor to President Goodluck Jonathan, ominously sums up the difficulties of assessing the future of Boko Haram in an interview with National Geographic: “[Boko Haram] is typically Nigerian, in that it started as an ideological movement. Then it was co-opted by political opportunists. Then it was mixed with economic issues. And now it’s muddled, so that you can’t tell what it’s about.”

The future of the Boko Haram insurgency will depend largely on the Nigerian Federal Government’s response. If it continues its reactionary, military-centered approach, the state will only further alienate its northern populace, thereby helping Boko Haram broaden its membership among hostile and disenfranchised youth. By implementing a more comprehensive approach, inclusive of anti-corruption, good governance, and economic/social development, the government may be able to address the root causes of the movement.

Thus far, the government has not exhibited the political will for a holistic approach. Without a change of counterinsurgency tactics, the trajectory of Boko Haram stands to continue growing, and the Balkanization of the country remains a distinct possibility.


Chelsea Winn is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.