A former ambassador says the US needs to reimagine its engagement with a modern Nigeria

Nigeria’s history is characterized by colonialism, military rule, and incomplete modernization, which in turn leads to unresolved tensions among the nations, tribes, clans, and communities that make it up. …

These are excerpts from “Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking diplomacy with the postcolonial world“, by John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007).

A purpose of this book is to warn Americans and their partners against making the same conceptual mistakes in Africa that they did during wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. Africa is complex and its politics are highly local. It does not lend itself to the good-versus-evil analysis that distorted policy in those three wars.

A close study of Nigeria reveals profound tensions between the Nigerian state and its people—the “nation”—as well as tensions among its people. Nigeria’s experience is not necessarily predictive of other states, but its example can provide important lessons for understanding how other postcolonial, multiethnic, developing countries function, and how outsiders—corporations, NGOs, and other governments—can interact with them.

Nigeria is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Its population of two hundred million comprises hundreds of ethnic groups, most with their own language and culture. Nigerians have moved across Africa and the world, with large and influential diaspora communities in South Africa, the UK, the US, and China. Nigeria is where Christianity and Islam meet, divided more or less equally between the two world religions, neither of which can claim to hold a decisive majority. While the Nigerian state is nominally secular, traditional rulers and institutions incorporate both secular and religious authority, a reason why they remain so powerful.

Nigeria deserves a rethink. So, too, do other postcolonial countries. They all deserve more than the application of a European framework that is likely to encourage a misunderstanding of how they work.

Further, Nigerians are intensely religious, more so than Americans, themselves considered the most devout in the developed world. Magic, mystery, the ancestors, and the spirit world are influential in daily life. In such a spirit- and faith-infused country, a fundamental cleavage exists between the predominately Muslim north, which is poor, and a mostly Christian south, which is also poor, if less so.

Rethinking Nigeria

Nigeria deserves a rethink. So, too, do other postcolonial countries. They all deserve more than the application of a European framework that is likely to encourage a misunderstanding of how they work. Nigeria is a prebendal archipelago. It lacks a unifying historical narrative, has an artificial identity imposed by the British Empire, and copes with a weak and corrupt government while its elites are fundamentally satisfied with the status quo.

Its citizens are largely alienated from these elites and a formal state that provides few services and little security, but they are astonishingly resilient, solving seemingly intractable problems by ingenious workarounds. The same should be said of Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a host of other postcolonial states.

Religion gives Nigerians hope and purpose, and accounts for their celebrated cheerfulness. Nevertheless, they are at present too divided by ethnicity and religion to bring about transformational change. Fraught relationships between government and society and the inability of government to project power are at the root of the violence and insurrection that now dog Abuja and the capitals of other postcolonial states.

Four lessons

Nigeria teaches four lessons about sovereign states and subnational polities that diverge from the more-conventional models. The first is that history matters, especially as remembered by religions and ethnic groups. Nigeria’s history severely limits how and how fast it might evolve. Like that of much of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, Nigeria’s history is characterized by colonialism, military rule, and incomplete modernization, which in turn leads to unresolved tensions among the nations, tribes, clans, and communities that make it up. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s current challenges were not inevitable, and more recently they have been exacerbated by poor political leadership.

To engage effectively with Nigeria—and with any state—requires a grasp of its past. Nigeria’s history has produced not a nation-state, but something different, what this book calls a prebendal archipelago.

For outsiders engaged with Nigeria, a bit of humility and self-reflection is in order.

Indeed, Nigeria’s second lesson is that the application of the conventional thinking that all states are effectively nation-states will not do. The Western idea of a nation-state presupposes a kind of relationship between the government and the governed that is often absent in postcolonial, multiethnic countries dominated by rapacious elites.

These largely unconsidered assumptions, uncritically applied by American political leaders to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam, have contributed to America’s foreign-policy failures. In all three countries, there was neither an unquenched thirst for Western-style democracy and capitalism, nor, contrary to expectations, were US soldiers universally welcomed as liberators. More important were the lingering historical grievances based on ethnicity and religion that American leaders failed to understand. Better engagement beyond the capital might have exposed such fallacious assumptions.

Third, Western governments should engage differently with postcolonial, multiethnic states such as Nigeria. The international environment created by climate change, a population explosion, and rapid urbanization will require increased engagement with weak states. Nigeria shows that a diplomatic focus on capitals is no longer good enough. Instead, a more decentralized approach that reaches subnational political, religious, and ethnic leaders is increasingly necessary to build a productive partnership. In many countries, security-service human rights abuses are widespread and underlying drivers of conflict are left unresolved by the self-serving elites that have captured the government. In these countries, the traditional emphasis on military relationships is increasingly counterproductive.

Finally, for outsiders engaged with Nigeria and countries like it, a bit of humility and self-reflection is in order. Too much criticism is based on the expectation that Nigeria and other developing countries ought to act more like conventional, modern nation-states. The limitations imposed by history are ignored.

In this regard, American officials, policy makers, and politicians should watch their rhetoric. “Tone certainly matters,” wrote former deputy secretary of State William Burns. “I have yet to meet the foreign leadership or society that responds well to being lectured to or patronized by Americans.” Americans often forget how long it took the US to achieve its present, still imperfect form, enduring a civil war and the chronic mistreatment of racial and ethnic minorities.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox

Live Updates for COVID-19 CASES