Oil Militancy, Islamist Insurgency, and Nigeria’s Crisis of State Legitimacy

As Nigeria grapples with the terrorist campaign of Boko Haram, perennial political crisis rooted in a fragile consensus among the political elite, and escalating corruption, it is easy to miss the ways in which these conjoined crises map onto older fissures and problems that continue to manifest in present dysfunction. The narrative of this deepening dysfunction now explicitly invokes the possibility of Nigeria’s disintegration.


Today, two insurgencies, one seemingly in remission in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, the other an Islamist terrorist campaign in the Northeast, represent the face of this existential threat to Nigeria. This essay is an attempt to enunciate the threat posed by these two centrifugal forces and to situate them in an older theme: the legitimacy deficit of the Nigerian state.

Deformed From Birth?

Modern Nigeria emerged through the merging of two British colonial territories in 1914. The amalgamation was an act of colonial fiscal and cartographic convenience. It occurred mainly because British colonizers desired a contiguous colonial territory stretching from the arid Sahel to the Atlantic Coast, and because Northern Nigeria, one of the merging units, was not paying its way while Southern Nigeria, the other British colony, generated revenue in excess of its administrative expenses. Having one big colony instead of two smaller ones would enable the buoyant section to subsidize the fiscally challenged one.

The amalgamation made little sense otherwise and has often been invoked by Nigerians as the foundation of the rancorous relationship between the two regions of Nigeria. A prominent Southwestern Nigerian leader, Obafemi Awolowo, had set the tone of questioning the existential legitimacy of the Nigerian state when he declared in 1947 that Nigeria “is a mere geographical expression.”[1] Six years later, his rival in the tumultuous politics of pre-independence Nigeria and leader of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), Ahmadu Bello, enunciated this theme of the Nigerian state as a colonial fiction. In a fit of frustration at burgeoning inter-regional and interethnic bickering during one of several pre-independence constitutional conferences in 1953, he declared that the “mistake of 1914 has come to light,” that the arbitrary colonial business of Nigeria’s founding had returned to haunt the effort to transition colonial Nigeria into a postcolonial nation-state.[2]

The Nation and its Fragments

This subtitle is taken from Partha Chatterjee’s book of the same title.[3] I have invoked it here to give graphic textual expression to the fragmentation of Nigeria along multiple fault lines. These fissures divide Nigerians across and within constitutionally recognized zones. They constitute the foundations upon which political rivalries are fought out, the platforms on which claims and counterclaims on the nation and its destiny are articulated. It is important to outline these foundational complications.

Northern Nigeria, now broken into several states and three geopolitical blocs, is a Muslim-majority region. The northwestern and much of the northeastern zones were the center of a precolonial Islamic empire called the Sokoto Caliphate, and its Muslim populations, especially those whose ancestors had been part of the caliphate, generally look to the Middle East and the wider Muslim world for solidarity and sociopolitical example. Governed in colonial times as part of the British Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, central Nigeria or the Middle Belt, which now comprises of several states, has at least three states in which Christians are in the majority and three others in which Muslims are either the majority or the population is split evenly between Muslims on one hand and Christians and traditionalists on the other.

To compound these fissures, there is a bewildering plurality of ethnicity, language, and culture, making mutual political intelligibility difficult. The role of the Hausa language as a regional lingua franca is not as paradigmatic as uninformed observers have asserted given that in at least three states in the North-central constitutional geopolitical zone Hausa is spoken and understood only by a tiny minority of citizens. Divergences in these identity markers beget differences in political, economic, and symbolic aspirations, making the concept of a northern Nigerian political imagination so fetishized in Southern Nigerian political narratives untenable or difficult to sustain.

The South, an ethnically diverse region now containing many states and three constitutional geopolitical units, is largely Christian. However, its Southwestern zone is almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians, a factor that, although not as politically consequential as the religious divide in the North, disturbs the popular, regularly recycled bromide of a Muslim North and a Christian South. The major sociopolitical influences in the South are Western and traditional African, and a clear orientation towards Atlantic cultural connections of both the precolonial and colonial genres persists.

These differences have been a source of political disagreements and suspicions between and within the two sections of Nigeria since colonial times. More importantly, they have resulted in a bifurcated national project in which two broad aspirations animated by Eastern and Western modernist solidarities and inclinations contend for political ascendance — and in which multiple minority political and religious imaginations contest perceived regional hegemonies. This fractious political picture is a source of tension, suspicion, and zero-sum conceptions of political negotiations. The two existential challenges analyzed below feed into and off of these preexisting fragmented visions.

Oil in Remission

In the Boko Haram era, the contention that there is another equally potent threat to Nigeria appears misplaced. But in chronological terms, Boko Haram followed the convulsions of a restive Southern Nigerian oil-producing region with the capacity and determination to undermine the oil economy, the lubricating mainstay of Nigerian nationhood. Beginning in the early 1990s, militancy in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta has festered and expanded over the last two decades, gradually eroding Nigeria’s revenue earning capacity.[4]

This militancy is now in remission but only because of massive payouts to former militant leaders, patronage gestures such as allowances and scholarship awards to former oil insurgents, and because a Goodluck Jonathan, a member of one of the Niger Delta’s ethnic groups, is the incumbent president. Former militants have temporarily relocated from their bases in creeks to urban centers and have made a public show of giving up their weapons.

In spite of this seemingly successful effort to rehabilitate the militants of the Niger Delta, it is not difficult to see that the threat of a new oil revolt lurks, that the fundamental problems and contradictions of an extractive economy remains, and that the threat posed by the nexus of rapid oil exploration and poverty is merely in remission, waiting for an opportune moment of triggering events.

The metaphor of remission also applies to the finitude of Nigeria’s onshore and offshore crude oil reserves. The possibility of Nigeria’s reserves running out is estimated to become an actuality as early as 2051.[5] A temporary boom in oil production, aided by both intensifying exploration and the suspension of production-crippling militancy, has put the narrative of a Nigeria without oil in remission for now. But this narrative will return if militancy resumes and if reserves begin to show signs of depletion. In the short term, before the arrival of the predicted oil doomsday, crude oil prices have fallen under the weight of overproduction, reduced consumption, and the development of alternatives to fossil fuels. The interplay between these intersecting realities portend more intense contestation over the terms of revenue distribution, over the compensatory and developmental trajectories of oil revenue allocation to the Niger Delta, and over the control of national political power and with it the allocative prerogative of governance.

In the long term, there are fundamental issues that need to be grappled with, for oil and its politics map delicately onto broader issues of national cohesion, fairness, equity, and the growing economic and social asymmetry between North and South. Previous interventions in the long running discontent and dissidence among the communities of the Niger Delta have been desperate, one-off, politically motivated acts of elite appeasement. The system of militant payoffs that exists today under the moniker of Amnesty is the latest of these ad hoc solutions. These solutions are only able to put a lid on the underlying grievances of the Niger Delta people — environmental degradation from oil spillage and oil exploration, destruction of fishing and farming, developmental neglect of the region, and an acute sense of marginality. As long as these original grievances remain and the heavy toll of oil production grows, the national fabric stands threatened.

Boko Haram and State Mortality

In 2009, the low-level, sporadically violent activities of the Boko Haram Islamist extremist group erupted into a full-blown militancy committed at different times to a nationwide implementation of Sharia law, the destruction of the secular Nigerian state, and its replacement with a state whose politics and economy are theocratically ordered.[6] Lately, this commitment has morphed; Boko Haram is now committed, if its recent campaigns are a guide, to the creation and governing of a caliphate in Nigeria’s Northeast.[7] While the earlier phases of the Boko Haram insurgency posed no direct territorial and juridical challenge to Nigeria’s sovereignty, the current, territorialized ambition of the group adds a deadly companion to its usual menu of terror tactics — suicide bombings, raids, shootings, massacres, and arson.

What makes Boko Haram a lethal challenge to the Nigerian State is its mysterious, seemingly irrational and indiscriminate violence. And although a fairly coherent and discernible religious ideology underpins the group’s activities and pronouncements, its Islamism appears hijacked by and beholden to an ambiguous, incoherent, and shifting set of objectives. Moreover, the group’s authentic wing appears implacable, making unrealistic demands and shunning offers of amnesty and negotiation.[8]

How can we understand this obdurate rejection of Nigeria’s secular state? Boko Haram is connected to a long history of Islamist insurgencies dating back to the era of the Sokoto Caliphate and the Islamic kingdom of Kanem Bornu.[9] It is also connected to a tradition of Islamic dissidence that manifested in postcolonial Nigeria most prominently in the form of the Luddite sect, Maitatsine.[10] But Boko Haram is also radically disconnected from this history because it extends, confounds, and negates it. Boko Haram maintains a fairly familiar tradition of homegrown Islamist extremism but also draws from more recent global wellsprings of violent jihad and Salafi awakening.[11] It is this duality, this connection to and violent departure from existing, more familiar traditions of fringy Islam that makes Boko Haram such a mortal danger to the Nigerian body politic.

Although widespread poverty and a paucity of Western education in Northern Nigeria has made available a large population of youths with little or no functional Western education for recruitment, poverty per se is hardly at the root of the insurgency. Rather the militancy is a strange concoction brewed by a colonial and postcolonial neglect of Western education, a preexisting tradition of Islamist dissidence, and the entry, funded by middle eastern financial and ideational patronage and inspiration, of virulent foreign strains of extremist theology into Northern Nigeria over the last two and half decades.[12] The implication of this causal genealogy is that, unlike in the government’s dealings with Niger Delta militants, paying off Boko Haram insurgents, or buying peace with patronage, is irrelevant and impossible. The ideological component of the militancy overrides its imbrication in the structural poverty of Northeastern Nigeria.

It is not just Nigeria’s secular state and its institutions such as schools, offices, and personnel that have become fair game for Boko Haram attacks; it is the very idea of a nation-state ruled by the secular tenet of democracy, enlightened bureaucratic governance, and an educated, free thinking, and participatory citizenry that stands in danger of being destroyed by a stubbornly contrarian vision of society. Everything we take for granted about the Nigerian state has been attacked, and the sociopolitical fabric has been strained and re-strained by Boko Haram’s attacks. In coping with these dangers, Nigerians have reactivated old political narratives and fictions bordering on ethnic and religious differences and separatism, further exacerbating the negative fallouts of the ongoing insurgency.

The Challenge of State Legitimacy

The twin threats posed to Nigeria’s long term stability by Boko Haram and a hibernating Niger Delta militancy are accentuated by a long standing problem of statecraft in Nigeria: a deficit of state legitimacy. There are two layers to this problem, one historical, the other instrumental. Nigeria has been plagued by a chronic absence of organic binding ties and functional idioms of national solidarity since its colonial creation in 1914. This foundational crisis of legitimacy has over the years alienated the state from citizens and constituencies — and vice versa.

This historical challenge of nation building foregrounds a more serious contemporary malaise: postcolonial dysfunction. The Nigerian state consistently erodes its own legitimacy by failing to fulfill the most rudimentary obligations of a modern government. This failure opens the door for malcontents across the political and primordial spectrums to challenge the state’s juridical, territorial, and constitutional authority, hence the tendency by groups in both North and South to portray the state as illegitimate in order to justify their efforts to undermine it.

When militants in the oil producing Niger Delta launched an insurgency to fight for resource rights — a rebellion sporadically infested with criminality and carnage — they justified their struggle with the claim that the state was an illegitimate imposition and was therefore fair game for attacks and pillage. This narrative of state illegitimacy percolated in the general atmosphere of a politicized oil insurgency, which occasionally harkened back to familiar historical critiques of Nigeria’s emergence in the orbit of convenient colonial cartography.

Corruption is one of Nigeria’s main challenges and has in fact hampered the military effort to combat Boko Haram as defense budgets are creamed off, leaving ill-equipped and ill-compensated soldiers to face a deadly, well-armed group of extremists. This corruption thrives partly because many citizens and groups understand the state to be illegitimate, undeserving of loyalty, an entity whose resources can be appropriated for personal gratification. The preeminent casualty of this ubiquitous narrative of state illegitimacy is loyalty or patriotism, however defined.

This belief that an illegitimate state deserves neither loyalty nor protection finds expression in various acts of malfeasance across the country and in multiple religious settings and texts. There is, however, a distinctly Islamist variant of it that is prevalent in Northern Nigeria. In an essay published in 2009, Aliyu Tilde, a prominent Northern Nigerian Muslim pundit, tried to situate Boko Haram in an evolving ideological corpus in Northern Nigerian Islamic theology, which authorized engagement with the state on the premise that secular state institutions do no command loyalty or commitment. Tilde argues that, in this realm of narrative and praxis, the notion of official corruption has no semiotic or moral resonance since the state is constructed and construed as an un-Islamic zone of illegitimacy whose possessions can be legitimately appropriated without offending Islamic canons. Tilde writes:

The notion among some learned Islamic scholars [is]that “government” is haram and public property and finances belong to nobody, so they can be appropriated whenever possible. I came across this idea in Sokoto in the aftermath of 1983 coup. The mighty who lived fat on public funds were arrested. It was then I heard someone justifying stealing public funds in a private discussion: to, malammai sun ce halal ne cin dukiyar gwamnati tunda bata kowa ba ce [Islamic clerics say it is permitted under Islamic law to appropriate Government resources since such resources belong to no one]. My effort to present the contrary was futile.[13]

Many Nigerian Muslims, like many of their Christian compatriots, see the state and the patrimony it superintends as zones of easy largesse — perhaps even a site of divine favor where God authorizes his worshippers to profit at the expense of the government. In predominantly Christian Southern Nigeria and in the Middle Belt of Nigeria (predominantly Christian areas of the North-central zone), where Pentecostal Christianity has grown exponentially in the last three decades, some preachers provide moral legitimacy for the mechanics of corruption in ways that are analogous to the Northern, Muslim example discussed above.[14] There is thus a broad, unspoken consensus about the state’s illegitimacy and how this purportedly authorizes destructive, cynical engagements with state institutions.

People who try to stand in the way of this systematic undermining of the state through theft and sabotage are taunted with the pidgin English words, na ya papa money?/is government money your father’s property? It is a not so subtle threat to back off. It is also a profound elaboration of the notion that the state is an illegitimate orphan, belonging to no one, to be used when needed and destroyed when it stands in the way of one’s parochial agenda. This view of the state removes any moral constraints on individuals and groups determined to attack or plunder it.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Niger Delta militants and a host of other ethno-nationalist groups like the O’dua Peoples Congress (OPC), the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and the Arewa Youth Congress (AYC) — all of them representing Nigeria’s tripod of the biggest ethnic groups, Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo — partook to varying degrees in the narrative of calling into question the authority and legitimacy of the state.[15] They also attacked the symbols, institutions, and personnel of the state.

Boko Haram militants are the latest in a long line of militants, insurgents, and malcontents to treat the state as a site of illegitimacy to be attacked and undermined. Boko Haram advances, through its theology and atrocities, a profound rejection of the sovereignty of the Nigerian state. The state itself is considered a form of sacrilege, an embodiment of all that is haram. If government is haram and its assets, including military resources, can be legitimately stolen to promote personal and religious interests, undermining that government through violence and sabotage is halal, not only permitted but a legitimate religious obligation.

Boko Haram’s anti-government insurgency is partly driven by this belief that the secular Nigerian government is, by virtue of its illegitimacy, a legitimate target of violence — a sacrilegious entity destined to give way to a state governed by Sharia.

Although also contemptuous of the state’s legitimacy, many Nigerians do not necessarily wish to have it replaced because that perceived illegitimacy helps to justify their appropriation of state resources for themselves, a kind of self-interested but cynical preservation of an illegitimate, perpetually weakened state. Boko Haram on the other hand considers it a religious duty to remove and replace the illegitimate state.

Restoring Legitimacy

Insurgencies and other types of challenges to the authority and sovereignty of the state fester in the context of perceived and actual crisis of state legitimacy. It is not enough to approach this problem with atmospheric, cosmetic solutions designed to preserve a brittle elite consensus and a façade of stability. A frontal engagement with the foundational questions of Nigerian nationhood is the only approach capable of restoring legitimacy to the state — whatever shape it takes in the aftermath of such an engagement.

The tide seems to have turned against Boko Haram militarily and, although, like all insurgencies driven by extremist fervor, it may continue to launch terrorist attacks on soft targets, its immediate threat to Nigeria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity will dissipate over time. But this short-term stability, shaky and fraught with sporadic violence, would conceal the deeper fissures of the Nigerian nation. A diminished Boko Haram will join the Niger Delta oil insurgency and the MASSOB-led pro-Biafra movement in the list of suppressed but simmering threats to the state, with the last two being more potent because of the organic sympathy they enjoy and their connections to histories of marginalization and historical injuries. The fundamental questions that animate these movements or provide them with rhetorical fodder need to be addressed, and this is the supreme challenge before stakeholders in the Nigerian state project.

First, there needs to be a serious, unfettered discussion around the question of whether Nigerian groups and ethnic nationalities want to remain together as one country and if so under what type of structural arrangement this coexistence should be constructed. The legitimacy burden of the colonial origin of the Nigerian state is both real and rhetorical — real because Nigeria was crafted without the consultative input of the groups that would constitute it; rhetorical because that foundational verity has become an overarching alibi for different projects seeking to undermine the state in favor of alternative parochial political imaginations. Evidence from Nigeria’s vibrant online and physical discursive spaces suggest that the overwhelming sentiment across the political and ethno-religious divides favor an arrangement that grants considerable economic and political autonomy to regions and states and preserves only a weakened common center charged with national defense, foreign policy, and international trade. Still, other sentiments and preferences cannot be ruled out without an honest, vigorous, and unrestricted deliberation on the possible trajectories of national coexistence. Only a resolution of this foundational question can arrest the crisis of illegitimacy analyzed above.

Second, once the terms and articles of continued national coexistence have been worked out, a massive program of national reorientation and expansion of Western education will have to be undertaken. One of the problems dividing the North and the South of the country is that of diverging orientations and aspirations. This problem turns on differential levels of Western education and the resultant uneven distribution of modernist, secular institutions. The outcome of this asymmetry is a bifurcated political, cultural, and aspirational modernity that destroys national solidarity. Symbolic and educational investments in bridging this divide has to be part of a long term strategy for saving the Nigerian state and building it up as a legitimate entity in the eyes of citizens and constituents.


[1] Obafemi Awolowo, Path to Nigerian Freedom (London: Faber and Faber, 1947), 47-48.

[2] House of Representatives: Official Reports of Debates, March 31, Second Session March 3-April 1, 1953 (Lagos: Government Printer, 1953), p. 1053.

[3] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[4] For an analysis of the domestic and trans-national factors that birthed militancy in the Niger Delta, see Ike Okonta and Oronto Dauglas, Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil (London: Verso, 3003); For a more focused study of youth militancy in the Niger Delta, see Oluwatoyin O. Oluwaniyi, “Oil and Youth Militancy in Nigeria’s Niger Delta Region,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, 45: 3 (2010), 309-325.

[5] In 2008, a report issued by Nigeria’s Petroleum Product Pricing and Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) in 2008 provided this estimated expiration date, which has remained largely unchanged given current production levels. See Carmen Gentile, “Nigeria’s Oil Industry Good for 40 More Years,” Energy-daily.com, March 7, 2008, Online: https://www.energy-daily.com/reports/Nigerian_Oil_Industry_Good_For_40_More_Years_999.html. Retrieved on March 2, 2015.

[6] For a detailed discussion of the theological and programmatic aspects of Boko Haram, see Moses E. Ochonu, Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (New York: Diasporic Africa Press, 2014), chapter 18.

[7] Boko Haram declared a caliphate in Northeastern Nigeria in August 2014, with a capital in Gwoza, a strategic town it had just captured. Subsequently, videos and reports emerged of the group’s attempt to institute Sharia law, consolidate its hold on territories it held, expand, and establish institutions it claimed would foster Islamic governance.

[8] In April 2013, Boko Haram rejected and ridiculed an offer of amnesty presented by the Nigerian Government. See “Nigeria’s Boko Haram Rejects Jonathan’s Amnesty Idea,” BBC.com. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-22105476. Retrieved on March 2, 2015. In November 2014, an effort to negotiate a ceasefire with Boko Haram foundered when the group publicly disowned the team claiming to represent it at the talks in Chad.

[9] For a history of the Sokoto Caliphate, see Murray Last, The Sokoto Caliphate (London” Longman, 1967); for a comprehensive discussion of the history of Islamic rebellion and insurgencies in Muslim Northern Nigeria, see Murray Last, “From Dissent to Dissidence: The Genesis and Development of Reformist Islamic Groups in Northern Nigeria,” paper presented at the African History Seminar, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, March 6, 2013. Online.

[10] Several studies of Maitatsine have been published but a good introduction, which also covers the group’s theological beliefs is Niels Kastfelt, “Rumours of Maitatsine: A Note on Political Culture in Northern Nigeria,” African Affairs 88:350 (1989), 83-90.

[11] Boko Haram’s theological mainstay is Salafism. The founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, idolized Ibn Taimiyya, a thirteenth century Sunni scholar known for advocating a return to, and total imitation of, the ways of al-Salaf, the original Meccan seventh century Muslim congregation. As a testament to this Salafist foreign influence, Yusuf named the sect’s founding mosque in the city of Miduguri Ibn Taimiyya Masjid. Yusuf was known for quoting copiously from the works of Ibn Taimiyya in his preaching and in his debates with theological opponents.

[12] For a recent history of the theological ferment that produced Salafist groups like Boko Haram, see Moses E. Ochonu, Africa in Fragments, 154-170. For comparison to a recent postcolonial Islamist insurgency See Moses Ochonu, “Boko Haram is Hardly a New Phenomenon,” TIME magazine February 17, 2015: https://time.com/3712517/boko-haram-history/. Retrieved on March 2, 2015.

[13] Aliyu Tilde, We are Boko Haram https://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/articles/aliyu-u-tilde/we-are-boko-haram.html (Retrieved on August 18, 2010). The Hausa portion of the quote was translated by me.

[14] See Ruth Marshall, Political Spiritualities: the Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009) for a discussion of how Pentecostalism is both a response to rising political corruption and, at times, a paradoxical enabler of such corruption.

[15] For a comparative study on Nigeria’s ethnic militias, see Moses Metumara Duruji, Ethnic Militias and Sub-Nationalism in Nigeria: A Comparative Study of MASSOB and OPC (PhD Thesis, Sociology, Covenant University, Nigeria, 2013).


Moses E. Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History, Vanderbilt University. He is the author, most recently, of Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria(Indiana University Press, 2014), and Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (New York: Diasporic Africa Press, 2014). His scholarly articles have appeared in numerous academic journals and his essays, commentaries, and op-eds have been published in TIME Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, GlobalPost, History New Network, Tennessean.comPambazuka.com, and several other outlets.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1