Nigeria as Necropolis (Part 1 of 2)


by Stan Chu Ilo, December 2020


When John Campbell, the former American ambassador to Nigeria, published his 2010 book, Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, many Nigerian political elites saw him as a doomsayer and rejected the main thesis of his book. Campbell, after a thorough analysis of Nigeria’s violent history and ever-revolving cycle of political crisis and poor governance, had warned that Nigeria was sitting on the precipice of state failure, and needed to undertake a serious national effort at democratization. Ten years after the publication of this important book, I argue in this piece that Nigeria is not only on the brink of state failure, but on the brink of a genocide.


Recent events in Nigeria, including the anti-SARS protests and the violent suppression of that youth-led movement, all show that Nigeria’s current political structure, institutions, systems, and national life are death-dealing. As a result, the Nigerian state as presently constituted can be defined by what the Cameroonian social theorist, Achille Mbembe, refers to as necro-politics. Any state that adopts necro-politics gives birth to a necropolis, a dying nation whose systems, institutions and structures are designed to kill her own citizens, especially minorities and the vulnerable. Necro-politics create the alchemy for genocide. I argue that the Nigerian state as constituted today is existentially and structurally genocidal in nature because of this necro-politics that has come to define daily life. As a country that kills her own citizens, Nigeria exists under a national penumbra of death, decay, and despair.


Mbembe used necro-politics to show how power and interests function in creating structural violence and injustice locally and globally. He drew inspiration from the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea of biopower. Biopower, according to Foucault, is the power of the modern state to ‘administer, optimize, and multiply’ life, ‘subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations’. Biopower exerts a positive influence on life because it is a productive power rather than a repressive power. However, like sexual desire, it can operate at two levels. On the first level, it gives life and nourishes relationships when one understands this desire and is at home with it.


Sometimes, though, it can operate at a hyper-level (sur-savoir) where one ‘over-understands’ this power, and employs different techniques in exercising this desire which are destructive. This classification can be applied as an explanatory account of how power functions in social relations at micro and macro levels. Foucault draws attention to how biopower can be abused and this power of life can become a deadly form of power (biopolitics), that is, ‘the power to expose a whole population to death’. When this happens, the calculated management of life – collective and individual – becomes a ‘subjugation of life to the power of death’.


It is this manipulation or over-extension of power by Nigeria’s corrupt office-holders that leads to what Mbembe calls necro-politics. This ruling few parcel out death-dealing policies, programs, and false narratives of society which bring to the people daily ‘small doses of death’, and occasional ‘small massacres’. The ruling power adopts different techniques of managing power that turn the people against each other through forms of binary thinking (us vs. them; in and out groups) based on deceptive identity politics about ‘who gets what’; who is for us and who is against us. This is the kind of thinking and acting that led to the Rwandan genocide. These techniques of power management and manipulation unleash social, economic, and symbolic violence on the people, leading to the destruction of social bonds, while undermining the people’s capacity to mobilize any form of mass action against the ‘excess violence’ under which the people suffocate.


Necro-politics functions in many ways in modern Africa. However, in the existentially structured genocidal existence of Nigerians today, one can point at the many ways in which necro-politics has led to the Nigerian necropolis. First is state terror, like the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police which turned out to be a government killing machine. According to a report obtained in my personal interview with agents of the Nigerian intelligence firm, SBM, 81 young Nigerians have been killed so far by security operatives during the recent anti-police protests. It also reports 149 extra-judicial killings in Nigeria since 2019.


Second, is the shared use of violence and extermination by non-state actors. In Nigeria, the Fulani Islamists, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, and the Islamic State of West Africa (ISIS-WA) have spread death and destruction in the land. These groups create a schismatic imaginary of those who are against them in their asymmetrical warfare on their perceived enemies, who in most cases are Christians. 


Unfortunately, Nigerian Christians have borne the heavy weight of these killings in the rising religious persecution in the country since the election of President Buhari in 2015. When an insensitive government led by an Islamic supremacist like the current president turns a blind eye towards atrocities committed by radical Islamists, the result is rising violence against minorities.


Christians are facing grave persecution in Nigeria, especially in northern Nigeria. While the complex religious divide in Nigeria cannot simply be reduced to persecution of Christians by Muslims, this rising persecution is presently the most visible manifestation of our religious divides and evidence of necro-politics in Nigera. The grim statistics of religious persecution of Christians in Nigeria, especially in the north are frightening and deeply troubling. 


According to the Christian charity Open Doors, more than 3,500 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first year of President Buhari’s administration in 2015. With such a frightening number, Open Doors declared Nigeria the most dangerous place to live as a Christian because, “there were more recorded killings of Christians due to their faith in Northern Nigeria in 2015 than in the rest of the world put together”.


In 2019, things got worse for Christians in Nigeria.  That year, Open Doors counted 3,731 Christians killed in Nigeria, up from 2,000 the previous year, and totalling 9 out of 10 of all martyrdoms reported worldwide. In addition, Open Doors reported 569 attacks on Nigerian churches, up from 22 in 2018, and 29,444 attacks on Christian homes and shops, up from 5,120 in 2018. Open Doors described the killings as "religious cleansing to eradicate Christianity" from Northern Nigeria.


Last Christmas, 11 Nigerian Christians were beheaded by ISIS-WA. In an audio message released before the gruesome massacre, a voice was heard saying: “Those who you see in front of us are Christians, and we will shed their blood as revenge for the two dignified sheikhs.” The two sheikhs being referred to were the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his successor, Abu al-Hassan al Muhajir, who were killed in two US strikes.


Another sad aspect of the Nigerian necropolis is that it operates through predation of natural resources, like the ecological disasters in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region. This region is suffering from perhaps the worst ecocide in Africa, as documented by such reports as the Human Rights Watch’s The Price of Oil and Amnesty International’s Nigeria: A Criminal Enterprise. Both reports document evidence that some of the foreign oil companies operating in Nigeria are complicit in this ecocide, in the destruction of people’s natural environment, and in the impoverishment of whole communities. At the same time, the resources of their land are used to develop other non-oil producing areas of Nigeria, and to enrich the corrupt Nigerian oil gatekeepers and their partners in crime, that is, most of the foreign oil conglomerates operating in Nigeria today. When people in this region rose up against this ecocide, they were met with the instruments of Nigerian necro-politicians—maximum violence, the greatest of which were the state-sponsored Odi and Choba massacres of protesting Niger Delta youth in November 1999.


Other forms of deaths in Nigeria occur as a result of poverty, poor healthcare, environmental pollution and other factors too numerous to mention. Nigeria places 152 out of 157 in the world’s measurement of the human capital index (HCI). The HCI is based on four indicators – the chances of a child reaching age five, the rate of stunting of children under age five, expected years of schooling (adjusted for quality), and the adult survival rate. Nigeria’s dismal ranking reflects how many Nigerians die as infants and young adults, and how many never fulfill their mental or physical potential – land of the living dead, indeed.


Political and religious leaders in Nigeria use varying moral justifications to legitimize these deaths. The most common justification is the argument for national unity. This national unity argument was employed recently both by the president of Nigeria and the governors of the northern states after the anti-SARS protests. Rather than responding to the cries of the poor for justice in the land, the holders of power in Nigeria always frame legitimate protests against their misrule and pervasive corruption as threats to national unity. National unity has come to stand for maintaining the Nigerian necropolis built on the backs of the poor, on the persecution of minority groups, and on the blood of Christians killed in many parts of the country, particularly in northern Nigeria, where according to Amnesty International, an estimated 366 people were killed in southern Kaduna State between January and June this year alone.


Nigeria today has no functioning responsive and responsible government. What exists in Nigeria can only be understood by transcending the lenses of religion, ethnicity or regional sentiments. These are layers of a problem that has deeper roots in historical, and global factors, and the rough edges of neo-liberal capitalism, under the throes of the failed Afromodernity projects of statehood and development. This is what has often been referred to as the African predicament. One needs to probe deeper into the convoluted and complex realities shaping the Nigerian necropolis. This, I propose, can only be achieved through an analysis of power (who gets what) which proceeds through a social analysis of the way power has been acquired and retained in the hands of those political circles and religious elites who continue to benefit from the present necropolis that Nigeria has become. We must pay attention to who has less or more power in this political arrangement. We must pay even greater attention to who is benefiting from the present dysfunctionality in Nigeria; whose interests are being served; and who is suffering under this system whose wheels are coming off, having destroyed the human and economic resources and rich cultural and religious diversity of the land, and the creativity and ingenuity of its people.


In Nigeria, there is a general conviction that the best never happens, but more often than not the dire predictions about Nigeria never materialize. My hope is that this country should never see any other mass killings through wars, religious persecution or ethnic pogroms in our land. However, we must understand the complex power play of 'who gets what' in Nigeria, which underlies all of this violence, failed conflict management, restiveness and social convulsion.


Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest of Awgu Diocese in southeastern Nigeria, a research professor of World Christianity and African Studies at DePaul University, Chicago, USA, and an honorary professor of Theology and Religion at Durham University, Durham, England

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