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The seeds of Nigeria's troubles were sown at its creation

This writer lived in Nigeria for a while, in the early 1970s, just after the end of the civil war which lasted from 1967 to 1970. 

That conflict was one of the bloodiest since the end of WWII.

Well more than three million people perished, most from starvation and disease.

Yet today the Nigerian civil war is nearly forgotten. Try mentioning "Biafra" to a group of notionally well-educated folks and see how many know what you're talking about. 

In case you're not sure -- Biafra was the name Nigeria's Eastern Region gave to itself when it seceded from the Federation and declared independence in 1967.

That secession had followed two military coups.

Junior military officers carried out the first coup, and their stated aim was to 'cleanse' the country of corruption.

The second coup, the so-called Colonels' coup, was carried out by senior officers. They installed a respected General from a small minority tribe as head of state.

The coups had ethnic and religious overtones. They greatly exacerbated tensions in a vast country that, at its birth, was very much an unnatural creation of colonialism.

'Direct' rule with Western education; 'indirect' rule, without

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British did not assert their colonial authority over a single entity, which we now know as Nigeria. They created separate and distinct colonies in the largely Muslim North, and in the Southeast and Southwest, where, at the time, traditional religious practices pre-dominated.

In the North, the British encountered well-established hierarchical and theocratic monarchies, and decided to assert control through what they famously called "indirect rule." They left vestiges of the existing indigenous ruling order in place; and they kept Christian missionaries, with their Western education, out.

Although there were many ethnic groups in the North, there was one dominant group whose language was used by almost all: the Hausa.

In the South, the British ruled directly and opened the doors to missionaries, with their education and westernization. The Yoruba, Igbo, Benin and many other peoples of the South adopted Western ways, in varying degrees, particularly Western education.

Southerners, especially the Igbo of the Southeast, became, to some extent, junior partners to Empire, providing skilled labour to the colonial civil service and an entrepreneurial middle class.

Many Igbos, Yoruba and other Southerners moved to the North to take advantage of opportunities in small business and colonial administration. In Northern cities, such as Kano, Kaduna and Maiduguri, the local people took to calling any new district inhabited by these "outsiders" a "Sabon Gari" -- a strangers' quarter -- a term still used today.

The junior officers who engineered the first coup in 1967 were, as it happens, almost all Igbo. They seized power with a sudden and well-planned outburst of well-targeted and murderous violence. In one blood-soaked night they assassinated most of the key political figures of the country, including the North's most powerful and revered politician, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello.

The reaction in the North was quick and equally violent. Many Northerners turned on the Igbos in their midst in a series of what were, in effect, bloody pogroms. The Northern Igbos fled back to their homeland in the Southeast, creating a sense in that homeland of being besieged and under attack.

The counter-coup, led largely by Hausa and Yoruba officers, pushed the Igbos over the edge, and they declared the independence of what had been Nigeria's Eastern Region. 

The newly created country known as Biafra included not only most of the Igbos, but many other minority ethnic groups, such as the martyred poet Ken Saro-Wiwa's Ogoni, largely concentrated on the oil-rich coast.

Secessionist Biafra had almost all of the country's known oil and gas reserves, and so war was predictable and almost inevitable.

And war there was, between the Biafrans and the so-called 'federal' Nigerians.

It was an unequal match, from the outset.

The Americans were notionally neutral and tied down by their adventure in Viet Nam; but both the British and Russians supported the federal side. The Chinese provided some support to the Biafran secessionists, as did the dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, which still had African colonies and thus great interest in the continent.

The federal side was much stronger, more populous, richer and better equipped, and had much more powerful allies. It fairly quickly gained the upper hand.

Forced starvation became one of the federal Nigerians' weapons of war. They effectively blockaded Biafra's access to outside goods, and whenever they took over secessionist territory destroyed much of its farming capacity.

Hope after the civil war was soon betrayed by greed and corruption

When the war ended the erstwhile Eastern Region was in ruins; but there was some effort to pump money and aid in to build it back up.

When I was working in Nigeria, not too long after the end of the war, one had the sense that the military government, headed by General Yakubu Gowon, was making genuine efforts to knit the disparate religious and ethnic groups together.

The government also seemed interested in using its generous oil revenues to build up the country's infrastructure, especially its schools.

And Gowon's government had an ambitious plan to bring in universal primary education throughout Nigeria. Western volunteer teachers, working in teacher training colleges, were part of that effort.

Sadly, that resolve did not last.

The Gowon government fell to another coup, which fell to another, while oil revenues continued to flow.

There was a brief period of return to civilian rule, then yet another coup, which brought to power the country's most brutal military dictatorship, led by the notorious Sani Abacha. All the while, multinational oil companies were making huge profits and paying royalties to the Nigerian government, without inquiring too deeply as to where that money went.  

The man who was Vice-President during that brief civilian interregnum once complained that the greatest curse to befall Nigeria was oil.

The easy money from black gold, he said, distorted economic incentives in the country, resulting in neglect of the once-thriving manufacturing and agriculture sectors. As well, it created a greedy class of ruthless opportunists willing to play any angle to get a piece of the oil bonanza.

Nigeria has been a democracy for 15 years now, but electoral democracy has not delivered the goods for most of the country's citizens.

Long Africa's largest country by population, the oil rich country has now surpassed South Africa as the continent's largest economy. However, that giant economy suffers from an extremely unequal distribution of wealth.

Today, many decades after an early and relatively enlightened military government committed itself to the goal of universal, public education, Nigeria is farther than ever from that goal.

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