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Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and its second largest economy, as well as one of America’s top oil suppliers. Despite a return to civilian government in 1999 after a long spell of military dominance, Nigeria remains a fractious nation, divided along ethnic and religious lines.

A watershed presidential election began peacefully in April 2011, a first for a country with a history of rigged and violent votes in the 12 years since the end of military rule. The incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, a mild-mannered former vice president and zoologist, won an easy election victory after a poll judged by analysts to be perhaps the country’s fairest ever.

But the outcome turned violent. Voting split along regional, religious and ethnic lines, with Mr. Jonathan scoring big totals in the largely Christian south and southwest, and his rival, the former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, leading in the Muslim north. Mr. Buhari, whose mid-1980s military government was noted for its stern repression of dissent, refused to accept the result, and his supporters in northern Nigerian cities protested by setting alight tires and burning down buildings and houses linked to Mr. Jonathan’s governing People’s Democratic Party.

Overall, some 50 million youths in Nigeria are unemployed, the World Bank says, in a country of 154 million. Despite abundant oil revenues, incomes have barely budged in 30 years, life expectancy is only 48 and the country remains one of the most economically unequal in the world, according to the United Nations.

Boko Haram: A Growing Islamist Threat

A shadowy Islamist insurgency called Boko Haram has haunted the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria, surviving repeated, bloody efforts to eliminate it. It appears to be branching out and collaborating with Al Qaeda’s affiliates, alarming Western officials who had previously viewed the militants as a largely isolated, if deadly, menace. The group has called for a strict application of Shariah law and the freeing of imprisoned members in the region, where mass unemployment and poverty have helped fuel social discontent.

In 2009, the group seemed on the verge of extinction. In a heavy-handed assault, Nigerian soldiers shelled its headquarters and killed its leader, leaving a grisly tableau of charred ruins, with hundreds dead.

But by the summer of 2011, the group was striking the Nigerian military, the police and opponents of Islamic law in near-daily assaults and bombings, using improvised explosive devices that can be detonated remotely and bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Beyond the immediate devastation, the fear is that extremists bent on jihad are spreading their reach across the continent and planting roots in a major, Western-allied state that had not been seen as a hotbed of global terrorism.

In August, a suicide bomber driving a vehicle packed with explosives rammed the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, killing 23 people. Boko Haram took responsibility for the blast. The attack appeared to confirm the worst fears of Western analysts and diplomats — that repression is hastening its transformation into a menacing transnational force.

A series of Christmas Day church bombings rocked the country in what appeared to be a coordinated assault by Boko Haram. At least 25 people were killed. Until then, the group had mostly targeted the police, government and military in its insurgency effort, but the church bombings represented a new, religion-tinged front, a tactic that threatened to exploit the already frayed relations between Nigeria’s nearly evenly split populations of Christians and Muslims.

In January 2012, more than 100 people were killed in a series of attacks on Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city, in what appeared to be the deadliest strike yet by Boko Haram. The attackers struck eight government security buildings, the national police said, including the regional police headquarters, two local police stations, the local headquarters of the State Security Service, the home of a police official and the state police command headquarters.

More than 900 people have been killed by Boko Haram in the last two years, according to Human Rights Watch.

A Sinister New Threat: A War Against Schools

By the end of March, the insurgent violence stalking northern Nigeria struck a new target: schools. At least eight public and private schools in the city of Maiduguri have been firebombed, apparently the work of Boko Haram. Crude homemade bombs — soda bottles filled with gasoline — have been hurled at the bare-bones concrete classrooms Nigeria offers its children.

The simple yellow facades have been blackened and the plain desks melted to twisted pipes, leaving thousands of children without a place to learn, stranded at home and underfoot, while anxious parents plead with Nigerian authorities to come up with a contingency plan for their education.

Boko Haram’s very name is a rallying cry against schools — “Boko” means “book” or “Western learning” in the Hausa language, and “haram” is Arabic for forbidden — but it has never gone after them to this degree before, analysts say.

Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Boko Haram insurgency, has become used to living under siege over the last two years. Fear and an army-enforced curfew empty the scruffy low-rise streets well before dark. Nervous public officials — prime assassination targets of the insurgents — avoid speaking the group’s name or blaming it. Army checkpoints are omnipresent. The soldiers, also a favorite target of snipers, are grim-faced and brusque.

Yet the destruction of Maiduguri’s schools has bewildered and demoralized students, parents and teachers here in a way that the near-daily attacks, including one on a crowded market in February that killed 30, have not. The targeting of children, even indirectly, is seen as a new and sinister twist.

Sectarian Violence

For years, the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria has had regular and often bloody outbreaks of sectarian unrest in which hundreds have been killed. In early March 2010, as many as 500 Christians, including many women and children, may have been killed near the city of Jos, long a center of tensions between Christians and Muslims. The attack appeared to be in reprisal for violence in January 2010 when dozens of Muslims were slaughtered in and around Jos, including more than 150 in one village.

While more than 300 were killed in Nigeria’s presidential election in 2007, the death toll appeared to be higher in 2011 in the wake of the re-election of Mr. Jonathan. Ethnic and religious tensions, discrimination by southerners against immigrants from the north, and frustration over corruption in a country where most subsist on less than $2 a day while top officials have access to billions in oil revenues set off the latest round of clashes, much as they have in the past.

Muslim-Christian violence has drawn a threat of jihad from an al-Queda linked group. And a tenuous truce in the restive, oil-producing south fell apart when Mr. Yar’Adua was hospitalized. The violence has driven down oil production by about 1 million barrels a day, causing the country, long Africa’s top oil producer, to fall behind Angola in 2009.

Government Backs Down on Cutting Fuel Subsidies

In January 2012, Nigeria swallowed a hard lesson that has been inflicted on governments of developing nations the world over for years: try cutting subsidies for gas and the populace will erupt in rage.

Faced down by thousands of demonstrators, demands for his removal and a weeklong general strike that paralyzed his fractious country, President Jonathan abruptly gave in, partly restoring the fuel subsidy that — more than an Islamic insurgency in the north or a long-running conflict in the south — seemed to crystallize the frustrations of the people and draw them to the streets in outrage.

Similar scenes have played out around the world in recent years, from Latin America to the Middle East to Asia, and the government response is frequently the same: give in quickly, despite the counsel of economists and international financial institutions that fuel subsidies are wasteful and distorting, sapping governments of money that could otherwise be used to improve education, public health or other needs.

The Nigerian government spends about $8 billion a year on fuel subsidies, and getting rid of them would be “an important first step” to shoring up the finances of one of Africa’s largest economies, according to a 2009 International Monetary Fund report.

But in resource-rich countries like Nigeria, with its enormous gap between rich and poor, subsidized gas is one of the few benefits trickling down from an infamously corrupt government that has pocketed billions of dollars in oil profits, with little to show for it.

For the poor — and three-fourths of this country’s population lives on about a dollar a day — the fuel subsidy means a cheap ride to the market. It means lower prices for the food they buy there. And it means some sense of ownership in a national resource, oil, in which roughly 80 percent of the economic benefit has flowed to 1 percent of the population, according to some estimates.

Under the rollback agreed to by union leaders in mid-January, gas in Nigeria would drop to about $2.27 a gallon from about $3.50 — higher than the $1.70 price before Jan. 1, but low enough to end the strike.

Still, many Nigerians were disappointed that Mr. Jonathan had not dropped the price all the way back down.

The protesters made it clear that the fuel subsidy removal — abrupt and unaccompanied by any palliative measures — was seen as one more act of insensitivity by a government they criticized for favoring the wealthy.

Transition to Civilian Rule

Nigerians, keenly aware that their impoverished and wealth-stratified nation had not realized its potential, hoped that President Umaru Yar’Adua might help it do so after his election in 2007. But Mr. Yar’Adua’s chronic ill health sapped his initial promises of reform and led to a constitutional crisis in his country. Mr. Yar’Adua, who suffered from kidney and heart ailments, died at age 58 on May 5, 2010.

The West African nation’s vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, had been acting president since February 2010, filling a power vacuum left by Mr. Yar’Adua who departed for emergency treatment in Saudi Arabia in November 2009. When Mr. Yar’Adua returned to Nigeria in late February 2010, he did not reclaim the powers which the Nigerian Parliament reluctantly transferred to his deputy. By virtue of his presence, Mr. Yar’Adua had placed a question mark over the presidency of Mr. Jonathan, a native of the rival southern half of Nigeria. With Mr. Jonathan’s election, that has been removed.

When Mr. Yar’Adua was inaugurated president in May 2007, it was the first time since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960 that power passed between two civilians. Nigeria has long been one of Africa’s worst-governed countries. It returned to democracy in 1999 after a long bout of brutal military rule. The elections held in 2007 were chaotic and marred by widespread charges of fraud.

Afterward, opposition parties challenged the results in the courts, and a newly emboldened judiciary overturned the elections of the Senate president, seven governors and dozens of other lawmakers. A panel of judges later unanimously threw out a challenge to Mr. Yar’Adua’s victory, ruling that the evidence of ballot box stuffing and phantom voting booths presented by two candidates was not enough to overturn the result.

Oil Wealth, Graft and Poverty

Nigeria, a vast and resource-rich country of 154 million people, has its share of paradoxes. Even though it is a leading exporter of oil, the country is chronically short of gasoline. In 2007, Mr. Yar’Adua’s government decided to break up the giant and notoriously corrupt state petroleum company into several smaller entities in an effort to manage oil revenues and gasoline refineries better.

Mr. Yar’Adua had promised to tackle a culture pervaded by corruption, improve the shaky to nonexistent electricity supply, and to end the violence that crippled production of oil, Nigeria’s principal source of cash. But his truncated presidency fell short on all three points.

Mr. Jonathan is a former governor of oil-producing Bayelsa state whose calm demeanor and southern background are regarded as assets in tackling what he has described as the top objective, solving the conflict of oil in the south.

Graft has been also a continuing problem. Experts, prosecutors and watchdog groups say they fear that major setbacks to anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria, as well as in South Africa and Kenya, are weakening the resolve to root out graft, a stubborn scourge that saps money needed to combat poverty and disease in the world’s poorest region.

Culled from http://www.nytimes.com


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