Nigeria Is a Failed State: US Foreign Policy Officially Declares

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US ForeignPolicy

MAY 27, 2021, 3:18 PM

By Robert I. Rotberg, the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation, and John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.

A man throws a tire into a bonfire on the Kaduna-Abuja highway during a protest against kidnapping and killing in Gauraka, Nigeria, on May 24.

Nigeria Is a Failed State: The first step to restoring stability and security is recognizing that the government has lost control

Nigeria has long teetered on the precipice of failure. But now, unable to keep its citizens safe and secure, Nigeria has become a fully failed state of critical geopolitical concern. Its failure matters because the peace and prosperity of Africa and preventing the spread of disorder and militancy around the globe depend on a stronger Nigeria.

Its economy is usually estimated to be Africa’s largest or second largest, after South Africa. Long West Africa’s hegemon, Nigeria played a positive role in promoting African peace and security. With state failure, it can no longer sustain that vocation, and no replacement is in sight. Its security challenges are already destabilizing the West African region in the face of resurgent jihadism, making the battles of the Sahel that much more difficult to contain. And spillover from Nigeria’s failures ultimately affect the security of Europe and the United States.

John Campbell

This designation of repeated failure is not a knee-jerk, casual labeling using emotive and pejorative words. Instead, it is a designation informed by a body of political theory developed at the turn of this century and elaborated upon, case by case, ever since. Indeed, thoughtful Nigerians over the past decade have debated, often fervently, whether their state has failed. Increasingly, their consensus is that it has.


There are four kinds of nations: the strong, the weak, the failed, and the collapsed. According to previously published research estimates, of the 193 members of the United Nations, 60 or 70 are strong—the nations that rank highest in the listings of Freedom House, the human rights reports of the U. S. State Department, the anticorruption perception indices of Transparency International, and so on. There are three places that should be considered collapsed: Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.

Eighty or 90 U.N. members are weak. Weakness consists of providing many, but not all, of essential public goods, the most important of which are security and safety. If citizens are not secure from harm within national borders, governments cannot deliver good governance (the essential services that citizens expect) to their constituents.

Possibly a dozen or so states are failed, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Myanmar. Each lacks security, is unsafe, has weak rules of law, is corrupt, limits political participation and voice, discriminates within its borders against various classes and kinds of citizens, and provides educational and medical services sparingly.

Most of all, failed states are violent. All failed states harbor some form of violent internal strife, such as civil war or insurgency. Nigeria now confronts six or more internal insurrections and the inability of the Nigerian state to provide peace and stability to its people has tipped a hitherto very weak state into failure.

According to political theory, the government’s inability to thwart the Boko Haram insurgency is enough to diagnose Nigeria as a failed state. But there are many more symptoms.

At a bare minimum, citizens expect their states to keep them secure from external attack and to keep them safe within their borders. The bargain that subjects long ago made with their sovereigns was being kept from harm in exchange for allegiance and taxation. When that quid pro quo breaks down, a state loses its coherence, its social fabric disintegrates, and warring factions subvert the social contract that should provide the fundamental foundation of the state. Nigeria now appears to have reached the point of no return.

Indeed, few parts of Nigeria are today fully safe. In 2020 and so far in 2021, according to weekly tracking reports by the Council on Foreign Relations, about 1,400 Nigerians have lost their lives to Islamist insurgents in northeastern Borno state and neighboring areas.

Boko Haram, a fundamentalist-inspired militia of possibly 5,000 attackers, also raids neighboring Chad and northern Cameroon, and is believed to shelter in the Sambisa forest along Borno’s mountainous border with Cameroon. Exactly why a Nigerian Armed Forces of 300,000 troops and a $2 billion budget has failed to extirpate Boko Haram is not clear; corruption in the military is allegedly a major factor, as well as inconsistent leadership from officers and politicians. (And, like Afghanistan’s Taliban, Boko Haram seems to have some limited local support.)

According to political theory, the government’s inability to thwart the Boko Haram insurgency is enough to diagnose Nigeria as a failed state. But there are many more symptoms.