fd1f76f94d868210VgnVCM100000e56411acRCRDapproved/thenational/Articles/Migration/2009-Q3Can Nigeria be a nation again if it has never been?ed1f76f94d868210VgnVCM100000e56411ac____Can Nigeria be a nation again if it has never been?The decades-old question of whether Nigeria is actually a nation is being debated with ever greater intensity<p>Anyone with an e-mail account has received messages from Nigeria trying to entice them with unlikely "business" proposals. Africa's most populous country has acquired the reputation as the world's internet scamming capital. Business travellers have recently voted Lagos, the country's commercial capital, the world's worst destination. It is hardly surprising then that the government is trying to rebrand the country with the slogan, "Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation".</p>
<p>These days the decades-old question of whether Nigeria is actually a nation is being debated with ever greater intensity. A long-running rebellion in the Niger Delta, home of the country's oil industry, is crippling oil exports. Powerful criminal gangs are siphoning off the crude and smuggling it abroad. And now a rebellion in the Muslim north of the country by gunmen loosely named the "Nigerian Taliban" is raising once again the issue of secession.</p>
<p>A casual observer could easily conclude that this is the end of Nigeria. But some caution is required: the country has been written off at regular intervals since 1967 when the south-east of the country separated as Biafra, sparking a three-year civil war. It has lived through brutal years of military dictatorship and shamelessly corrupt periods of democracy. It has survived the split between Muslim North and Christian South.</p>
<p>The first thing to point out is that Nigeria is too important a country to be allowed to collapse. Traditionally, western security in Africa has been built on a triangle of countries - South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. But Kenya has been weakened by tribal violence and South Africa seems to be heading for a period of introspection. The former beacon of stability in West Africa, Ivory Coast, split in two in 2002. That leaves Nigeria as the anchor of regional security, a role which it has played by leading peacekeeping missions in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and now Darfur.</p>
<p>The latest upsurge of domestic violence took place in the northern city of Maiduguri where a local Islamist group attacked police stations. Hundreds of people in four states are believed to have been killed, but the gunmen now seem to have been driven into the bush are after four days of fighting.
Though the fighters are called the "Nigerian Taliban" for their long beards and strict interpretation of Islam, they are not known to be formally associated with al Qa'eda, or any other radical group. They call themselves Bako Haram - meaning "western education is forbidden" - but this seems more of a slogan than the mission statement of a structured organisation.</p>
<p>The name refers to a historical grievance among the Muslims of Nigeria that resonates in politics to this day. When the colonial powers arrived on the coast, they set up Christian missionary schools, so western standards of education established themselves more rapidly in the south than in the north. Among the Muslims of the north, who ruled a great empire in the 19th century, western education is seen as a cause of their relative decline.</p>
<p>The leader of Bako Haram, a wealthy preacher called Muhammad Youssef, seems eccentric rather than focused, and does not share the technical sophistication of the al Qa'eda leadership whose cadres are often doctors and engineers. He told the BBC in an interview that his sect does not accept that the world is round. "We believe rain is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain," he said. With such views he may attract unemployed youth who believe Nigeria's western-style institutions have failed them, but he is unlikely to split the country.</p>
<p>His abortive uprising follows hard on the heels of an attempt by the Nigerian president Umaru Yar'Adua to resolve the rebellion in the Niger Delta, prompted by demands that more of the country's oil wealth should be spent where the crude is extracted. With oil production down by one third due to theft and sabotage - forcing Nigeria into second place behind Angola as Africa's largest producer - Mr Yar'Adua is offering to pay the Delta gunmen a daily wage to lay down their arms.</p>
<p>This offer seems hardly likely to end the Delta rebellion. The people want real development, and implicitly an end to the system where the political elite grabs all the spoils of power. The president's concession does, however, provide an example for any other armed group: cause enough trouble and the federal government will come with a sack of gold to buy peace. Perhaps this is what the Bako Haram leader hoped to achieve.</p>
<p>Nigeria has many problems but its main difficulty it shares with many other countries whose only export is oil. Politics is reduced to a scramble for oil revenues. Even though Nigeria is a federal country - with 36 states - the only game worth playing is access to the federal coffers. Though it is going through a democratic phase - Mr Yar'Adua was elected in 2007 in a vote which even he concedes was far from clean - mere voting does not lead to democracy and fair allocation of resources.</p>
<p>When countries are divided ethnically or religiously, a change in the leadership tends to mean that another crew gets to funnel money to their families, their clan or their coreligionists. The result is a state built on oil patronage, with many of the best educated seeking their fortunes abroad.
With oil revenues falling, there will come a time when there is not enough money to buy the loyalty of everyone. Whether Mr Yar'Adua, a taciturn former chemistry teacher, is the man to find a new glue to hold the country together is an open question. He does not look in the strongest of health and neither does his country. Nigeria needs more than rebranding to restore the authority of the state.</p>