Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy With the Post-Colonial World

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Monday November 23, 2020 / 5:23 PM / by John Campbell / Header Image Credit:


In Nigeria and the Nation-State, John Campbell explains what makes Nigeria different from other countries in Africa, how it works, and why understanding it is vital to avoid the mistakes the United States made in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as U.S. security and economic relations with Africa intensifies.



In  Nigeria and the Nation-State , former diplomat and Africa expert John Campbell provides a clear-eyed vision of Nigeria and why it matters. Nigeria is a case study of many of the challenges faced by other post-colonial, multi-ethnic countries. With population projections to displace the United States as the third largest in the world by 2050 and as one of Africa's largest economies, it has democratic aspirations, yet it is undermined by weak governance, terrorism, and insurgency.


Nigeria is not a conventional nation-state, even if that is how other foreign ministries and international organizations perceive it. It is not quite a nation because Nigerians are not united by language, religion, culture, or a common national story. It is not quite a state because the government is weak and getting weaker, and it fails to provide for the security of its citizens, the primary requirement of any state. Instead, Ambassador Campbell characterizes Nigeria as a prebendal archipelago: prebendal because Nigeria's corrupt elites appropriate public money for private purposes, but prevent the state from breaking apart due to ethnic and religious rivalries out of self-interest. Elites benefit from state preservation through access to revenue from state-owned oil, government contracts, and office, all of which require a formal state. Simultaneously, the elites keep the government weak so they are not challenged, and government authority is restricted geographically to islands in a sea of ungoverned spaces-an archipelago. With this duality, it is a challenge for African democracies to build a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.


Main Takeaways

  1. There is no such thing as pre-colonial "Nigeria" as it is fundamentally a creation of British colonialism and therefore foreign to the people within it. The government is the successor of the colonial government; there was no revolution at independence, and British officials were replaced by Nigerian ones.
  2. Nigeria's move toward independence was largely spearheaded by the British rather than a nation-wide independence movement that crossed ethnic divisions.
  3. Nigerian independence did not undo changes wrought by colonialism, but instead solidified them. Newly independent Nigeria had a government built by British colonial officials; borders drawn by Europeans nearly a century earlier; and it was now part of the post-World War II international state system constructed by the victors.
  4. The Nigerian state is run by a small cartel of self-serving elites. Its purpose is to provide a venue for their cooperation across religious and ethnic divisions, just enough to divvy up state oil revenue among themselves and their clients. They otherwise do little to improve the lot of the vast majority of Nigerians.
  5. The government is centralized but weak, while true political power is decentralized in government and non-governmental entities.


About the Author             

John Campbell is a former US Ambassador to Nigeria. He is also a Senior Fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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