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Upheaval in West Africa: Could Nigeria Be Next?

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The recent coups in Guinea-Bissau and Mali raise question regarding whether radical political change will sweep other parts of west and sub-Saharan Africa. The region is of course no stranger to dramatic and frequent political change, with 26 successful coups have occurred between 1963 and 2000. While the past decade has been quiet by comparison, recent events in Guinea-Bissau and Mali appear to indicate a rising propensity for the region's militaries to reassert power at the expense of democracy.

In Mali, the Tuareg have maintained a fierce sense of independence despite numerous peace agreements having been signed with the government -- most recently in 2008. Ongoing grievances over the lack of investment and perpetual military involvement in the North have created underlying tension that prompted a mutiny by the armed forces which spiraled into the coup. Mali's military capitalized on the instability that is inherent in any fragmented state, but the ease with which it was able to sweep into power is a concern, as it represents the clear failure of a structural foundation to support the country's nascent democracy. So many Malians had become disenchanted with their country's political system and widespread corruption that the initial attempts to visit Mali by West African leaders following the coup were rebuffed by sympathetic crowds.

Guinea-Bissau's situation is somewhat different, the country having experienced at least six political assassinations and three attempted coups over the past three years -- making it by far the most coup prone country in Africa. Although a connection between events in Mali and Guinea-Bissau is perhaps therefore tenuous, it is a reminder (as if one were needed) that political change is an ever-present component of the landscape in many parts of Africa.

Having a democratic tradition spanning 32 years, Mali would not appear to be the most obvious contender for non-democratic change, but the rapid collapse of the government indicates that simply paying lip service to democracy will not prevent political upheaval. While the dramatic change of government in Libya may have contributed to the coup in Mali, events in both Guinea-Bissau and Mali remind us how fragile democracy in many West African states is. A combination of populations divided ethnically and/or religiously, weak central government control, and rising disillusionment by a greater percentage of citizens -- who object to rampant corruption and a failure on the part of the central government to deliver basic needs -- reinforces underlying fragility. And given that these fragile democracies often coexist with militaries who are underpaid and also disillusioned, it comes as no surprise that perceived security threats are often used as an excuse to promote political change.

So what does all this imply for Nigeria? Since the unification of Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914, the country has long struggled to create a cohesive national identity. As a result of the inherent ethnic and religious tension between north and south, the Salafist movement Boko Haram (BH) has recently made its presence felt through a series of attacks on a variety of targets in the north. Since the movement's birth in 2003 it has maintained opposition to a secular government in Abuja, with the aim of making the country ungovernable. BH has changed its strategy -- moving away from attacking security forces and focusing instead on attempting to inflame existing sectarian tensions by targeting civilians. This is a particularly worrisome development considering the volatility of Nigeria's ethnic and religious fault lines.

Although much of the violence occurs along ethnic and religious lines, many of the underlying grievances that BH have been able to exploit revolve around perceived inequality between the north and south, especially regarding who is (and is not) benefiting from the nation's oil wealth. Despite Nigeria's booming economy -- with growth rates ranging between 5.4 percent and 7.9 percent from 2005 to 2010 -- the central government has failed to distribute oil revenues equitably. During the same period, the number of people living in absolute poverty actually rose, with those in the north faring worse than their southern counterparts. Similar to Mali, Nigeria has struggled to integrate the north of the country economically, resulting in further polarization along religious and ethnic lines.

Political relations in the country have also worsened since President Jonathon decided to break the implicit agreement he made with the country's political groups that leadership would rotate between northern and southern candidates every two terms. As he now attempts to push through a host of reformist policies the president faces strong opposition from influential northern politicians. Both Babangida and Gusau -- who vied with Jonathon for PDP leadership in the 2011 election -- have the potential to seriously undermine his government if they cannot find common ground. Concessions would most likely come from revisions to the Petroleum Industry Bill, the manner in which the Sovereign Wealth Fund operates, and, ultimately, granting amnesty to relatively moderate BH members. While such concessions would be damaging to Jonathan's reformist agenda, they would also likely result in a significant erosion of political support for BH.

This presents Jonathon with a serious conundrum: BH presently benefits from grass root support in the north of the country and its current campaign to raise sectarian tension is leaving the government in an increasingly weakened position. Given the rising potential for serious civil strife in the future, Nigeria's military may believe it has no choice but to intervene in the political process. Unfortunately for Jonathon, one of the most viable strategies for subduing the BH threat is to make concessions to northern political elites, but doing so runs the risk of jeopardizing long overdue progress against corruption and how the country's oil wealth is managed, which themselves are key to improving the governance and thus the stability of the country.

While the coups in Guinea-Bissau and Mali may not have immediate ramifications for Nigeria, the government would be smart to bear them in mind as it grapples with its plethora of problems. Maintaining strained relations across disparate regions is no recipe for a secure democracy, and in an ever shrinking world there is no telling when an external event may suddenly alter the balance -- as returning Tuareg fighters did in Mali. With its own pockmarked history of military juntas, Nigeria is of course no stranger to coups, and while the professionalization of its military and the country's rising prominence internationally would appear to make a coup less likely, the threat BH poses cannot be overlooked.

If BH achieves its aim of making Nigeria ungovernable, any outcome suddenly becomes conceivable, given Nigeria's modern political history. Preventing BH from exploiting sectarian tension is therefore paramount, but shoring up the support of northern political figures while driving through a reformist agenda will be no easy task. How resilient Nigeria will be to a future coup depends on whether president Jonathon is able to balance these two objectives. It is important to remember that Nigeria's return to democracy was only a dozen years ago. Given Nigeria's tumultuous political history, the propensity of its military to seize power, and the nature of current political change in North and West Africa, many Nigerians must be wishing their own democratic political foundation was a bit more entrenched.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the new book Managing Country Risk (www.managingcountryrisk.com).

Joshua Wallace is a research analyst with CRS.

Joshua can be followed on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/JLP_Wallace