December 4, 2022

Nigeria and the Nation-State – Council on Foreign Relations

  • October 28, 2021
  • 5 min read
Nigeria and the Nation-State – Council on Foreign Relations

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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 if we are to avoid the mistakes the United States made in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as U.S. security and economic relations with Africa intensifies.
by John Campbell
November 16, 2020 6:45 pm (EST)
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. Ambassador Campbell concludes with recommendations for different U.S. diplomatic approaches.

This book is suitable for the following types of undergraduate and graduate courses:
More on:
West Africa
U.S. Foreign Policy
More on:
West Africa
U.S. Foreign Policy
In an 800-word opinion piece, identify and explain the root cause of one Nigerian security crisis.
Write a 1,500-word essay on one of the following subjects:
You were recently appointed as the head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Bribeopolis. The country has vast reserves of oil, but the state-owned firm controlling production is corrupt and uncompetitive globally. You want to cut down on corruption, and suggest to the new head of the firm (the old one was removed after a scandal) that the company should be privatized. However, this will be politically difficult, as there is a huge amount of national pride in the firm, many people will lose their jobs, and citizens’ access to oil is subsidized. Write a speech that explains to the public why this move is both necessary and beneficial, and be sure to address their criticisms.
Wole Adebanwi and Ebenezer Obadare, eds., Democracy and Prebendalism in Nigeria: Critical Interpretations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

John Campbell and Matthew T. Page, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Sarah Chayes, Thieves of State: Why Corruption threatens Global Security (New York: Norton, 2015).

Herman J. Cohen, US Policy Toward Africa: Eight Decades of Realpolitik (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2020).

Stephen Ellis, This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa, The Boko Haram Reader (London: Hurst and Co., 2018).

Jacob Olupona, Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2004).

Nigerian Newspapers (available online)
Daily Trust (Nigeria)
Guardian (Nigeria)
Premium Times (New York and Nigeria)
This Day (Nigeria)

“Criminal Politics, Violence, ‘Godfathers’ and Corruption in Nigeria,” Human Rights Watch Report 10, no. 16 (A) (2007), http//

Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West African Province,” International Crisis Group, Africa Report 273, May 10, 2019, /Africa/west-africa/Nigeria/273-facing-challenge-islamic-state-west-africa-province.

Matthew Page, “A New Taxonomy of Corruption in Nigeria,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 17, 2018,

Aaron Sayne, Alexandra Gilles, and Christina Katsouris, “Inside NNPC Oil Sales: A Case for Reform in Nigeria,” Natural Resource Governance Institute, August 4, 2015,

Download the Teaching Notes PDF

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