It is by now a common, if mysterious habit of American media to treat Nigeria as an important country - "Africa's largest," etc. Not so long ago there was even talk about an "African bomb" to be built by that country, the pride of the continent. The problem is not that Nigeria is unimportant - as millions of Americans receiving email offers of fraudulent riches from Nigerian crooks know. The problem is that Nigeria is a major criminal center, specialized in financial fraud and drug trafficking.
It may have a population over 100 million - the CIA assumes some 133 million - but we will never really know, since no national census has been taken since just after independence in 1960. This is because any result (more Muslims or more Christians?) is too politically dangerous for the region. Nigeria is also a major exporter of oil to the US - when, that is, oil pipelines are not blown up, workers are not killed for being on the wrong side of local tribal conflicts, and tankers are not attacked in daylight by pirates in the main ports.
For those who know Sub-Saharan Africa and have no illusions about it, none of this is new or particularly shocking - nor are Nigeria's claims to "leadership" in a morally and politically leaderless subcontinent. What makes this huge country suddenly relevant is its growing role in producing, recruiting and indeed acting on the principles of Islamist radicalism.
Not that this is particularly new either - in the early 1980s a fundamentalist Islamic sect, the Maitatsine, was active in northeastern Nigeria, influencing neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Today, Islamist customs are applied in Northern Nigeria, with 12 of its 36 states officially adopting Sharia Law as their legal practice.
What is different about the rise of Islam in Nigeria than in other countries in Africa or the Middle East is that it all happened in a rather unusual period of "democracy"- perhaps better described as chaotic, free-for-all politics. Since the collapse of the latest military junta in 1999, Nigeria has a weak, but elected government, led (if that is the word) by a former military dictator, retired general and friend of Jimmy Carter's, Olusegun Obasanjo; a Christian in a country divided, equally it seems, between Christianity and Islam - a division largely parallel to its major ethnic and tribal cleavages. Muslims, who until recently dominated the Nigerian military, make up a far more significant percentage of the population in the northern parts of the country, as opposed to a mostly Christian population in the south.
To make things worse, Nigeria's only source of revenue (other than widespread fraud and drug trafficking) is oil and gas - which provide 20% of its GDP, 95% of its foreign exchange earnings, and about 65% of its budgetary revenues, and is all concentrated in the south-east, the mostly Ibo and Ijaw, non-Muslim areas of the country.
Add to this the fact that the Ibos, who tried unsuccessfully to leave Nigeria in the late 1960s, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of citizens (remember Biafra?), are Christian and have a strong entrepreneurial spirit; unlike the Hausa and Fulani. The latent problems between the rich non-Muslims and the numerous, militant, but largely unproductive Muslims becomes a time bomb - one that is now close to exploding, due to a weak and vacillating central government.
Furthermore, due to the way the newest Nigerian Constitution (1999) is written, local governors have had a free hand to manipulate religion, especially Islam, and one ends with the cutting off of hands and stoning of "adulterous" women in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara - all centers of Islam and Islamism.
Recently, when a unit of GSPC (Jamiyy'a Salafiyya li'l-Daw'a wa-'l Jihad - a Salafist Group for preaching and combat), the main Algerian Islamist terrorist group, led by Amari Saïfi, a.k.a Abderezzak el Para, was decimated or captured in Chad, it turned out that a large part of its members were Nigerians.
This is no surprise, for in addition to the irresponsible political ambitions of northern state governors, Islamic fundamentalism is encouraged there by Saudi funding and Wahabbi-trained imams. As a result, the old and respected Islamic-tradition cities of Kano and Sokoto increasingly serve as secondary recruiting and indoctrination centers for unemployed and unemployable youths from throughout the Sahel.
And this is no small problem, for the Sahel is a huge breeding ground for terrorism, since this area on the margins of the Sahara extends from Mauritania on the Atlantic to the Darfur in Western Sudan, and includes Mali, Niger and Chad. Compounding this Islamist expansion is the further problem that in Darfur these Nigerian influences meet those of Khartoum, sub-Saharan Africa's main Islamist center.
The most immediate threat posed by the rise of Islam in Northern Nigeria is to the unity and very existence of Nigeria itself. Clashes between the dominant Muslims and the minority Christians in the North have occurred for a long time, and the introduction of sharia has not helped matters.
Recently, Christians have begun to answer in kind, especially in the central state of Plateau. There, some 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in September 2001, and hundreds more in April and May of this year. In response, Christians were slaughtered in Kano, while the central government declared a state of emergency in Plateau and appointed a retired general as governor.
While these clashes are routinely described by the Western media as "sectarian," they are far more than that: they are religiously tinged clashes of ethnicity and tribal identities over increasingly scarce resources - land and oil money. The Hausa and Fulani think they have the numbers, but little else, not even food; the mostly Christian Yorubas and Christian Ibos have the skills and the oil.
The central government has enough power to provoke some envy and resentment, but it is too weak to control regional bosses. All this makes for a potentially explosive situation, which could be ignited by a major decline in oil revenues or another major religious clash.
What such a scenario may mean for an already unstable West Africa, sprinkled with failed states like Sierra Leone and Liberia, and weak ones throughout the Sahel, is anyone's guess - but it can only be catastrophic. Nor is it clear what, if anything, outsiders can do about it - unless, that is, they are participants in the radicalization of Islam in Northern Nigeria. Numbers alone suggest that Nigerian radical Islamists would have a dramatic impact in the Sahel, an area already threatened by fundamentalists from the north in Algeria, and east in the Sudan. In short, we would have another major terrorist front on our hands.