UC Santa Cruz expert explains origins of political crisis in Nigeria

Paul Lubeck
Professor Paul Lubeck, left, with Y. Z. Yau, director of the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), a key partner of the Global Information Internship Program at UCSC that Lubeck directs. Yau and CITAD are working with Lubeck to complete a digital mapping of industrial estates/clusters in Kano, Nigeria using Google Earth.

The car bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital Aug. 26 is an ominous sign of the increasing militancy of disaffected Muslim youth in Africa's most populous nation, according to UC Santa Cruz professor Paul M. Lubeck, who spent six weeks this summer conducting research in Kano, Nigeria's largest city in the predominantly Muslim north.

"The problem is an enormous demographic explosion, mass unemployment, radical Islamic preachers, directionless government policies and now a full-blown insurrection," said Lubeck, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Global, International and Regional Studies at UCSC. "That's compounded by the extraordinary brutality and incompetence of Nigerian security forces," he said.

It also has profound implications for the West, including the United States, if violence spreads and there is pressure to intervene in yet another Muslim society.

A group called Boko Haram – a radical Muslim splinter sect whose name means "western education is sinful" in the Hausa language  – claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed at least 23 people and wounded more than 70 in Abuja, Nigeria's capital in the center of the country.

Lubeck said Boko Haram wants to institute a strict form of Sharia law in northern Nigeria and has conducted an increasingly effective campaign of assassinations and bombings against government officials. There is mounting evidence the group has received outside help and some fear it may have formed links with Al Qaeda.

Nigeria, with 166 million people, is roughly half Muslim. This means Nigeria’s Muslim population exceeds, Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country.  Demography, poverty and militancy are correlated because the birthrate in the northern states is 7.4 per woman compared with 4.5 per woman in the south, Lubeck said. 

The north's swelling population is beset with economic despair, said Lubeck who has been researching the economic and political crisis there for more than 30 years.

"They are sitting on a population time bomb with generations that cannot be absorbed," he said. "This leads to despair and hopelessness, and in this environment, radicalism thrives."

Security is part of the problem.  Two years ago after attacks on police, Nigerian federal and state security forces conducted a brutal crack down on the group, killing hundreds including the assassination of Boko Haram's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, after his arrest. 

Lubeck's work in Nigeria includes working with industrialists and policy makers who are trying to invigorate the economy in the north. The region developed a manufacturing base in the 1960s and '70s that has since dwindled. Lubeck is working with officials to stimulate employment for the region’s growing population.

Lubeck said young men, many drop outs from college and secondary schools, have "absolutely no hope" and are drawn to charismatic radicals. "If Islamist radicals become more influential they will support the insurrection which could increase pressure on the U.S. to intervene to protect an American oil supplier," he said. "If that happens, everyone's worst expectations will be fulfilled."