Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
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By Greg Cochran, Ph.D., ICC Fellow 

One of my grandsons has a fascination with volcanoes. He has amassed a small library of volcano literature. What is it about volcanoes that captivates the imagination of a rambunctious boy? More than likely, two aspects of volcanoes keep him mentally and emotionally engaged: their power and their volatility.  

The power of volcanoes is well documented through photographs of spewing lava, as well as through observations of the ancient city of Pompeii—a city both destroyed and (ironically) preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago. The volatility of volcanoes is evidenced by their abiding unpredictability. Even against an army of seismologists, volcanologists, geologists, and an impressive supply of advanced equipment, volcanoes remain unpredictable. Volcanoes are as volatile as they are powerful.   

In like fashion to my grandson, many adults—economists, political pundits, and sociologists—are captivated by power and volatility. Areas of volatile human activity seize their affections and demand their attention. Sure, natural wonders like volcanoes excite the adult imagination, too. But adults often prefer learning how to possess power and wield it to their own advantage. Such wielding of power inevitably produces volatility. So, powerful people and powerful nations become as volatile and unpredictable as volcanoes, erupting seemingly out of nowhere but always according to their nature.   

Given its history of power and its present volatility, Nigeria is attracting volcano-like attention. Nigeria has been called “the giant of Africa.” Nigeria’s economy is number one on the continent of Africa. Yet, Nigeria ranks number six in the world on the Open Doors annual list of countries with the most intense persecution (least religious freedom). Nigeria is a nation whose promise is as powerful as its political climate is volatile.   

The power of Nigeria was on display recently in the response to the junta coup in nearby Niger. So far, the most promising efforts toward a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Niger have been centered in the ECOWAS peace delegation. ECOWAS, of course, is the acronym used by the Economic Community of West African States, a collaboration of nation-states empowered by the Treaty of Lagos [Nigeria] in May 1975. Since then, ECOWAS has grown into much more than an economic community, even marshaling military forces to intervene in civil strife of member nations. In addition to serving as the cradle of ECOWAS since its inception, Nigeria has continually guided the organization through its growth, serving in the role of ECOWAS Chair nine times, which is twice as often as any other nation.   

The current chair of ECOWAS is, of course, President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria. As in his home country of Nigeria, so, too, in the ECOWAS collaboration, President Tinubu will be forced to navigate the use of ECOWAS power in conjunction with the volatility it provokes across West Africa and the Sahel. ECOWAS first used military force in its successful campaign to restore peace in Liberia in 1990.  ECOWAS has since intervened militarily six additional times, the most recent being Operation Restore Democracy in the Gambia in 2017.   

The fact that ECOWAS has intervened successfully in other African nations is a clear indication that the group may successfully intervene in Niger. However, with power comes the potential for volatility. Niger has partnered with two other African nations to forestall any ECOWAS military intervention. At this point, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have established a security pact called the Alliance of Sahel States:  

“I have today signed with the Heads of State of Burkina Faso and Niger the Liptako-Gourma charter establishing the Alliance of Sahel States, with the aim of establishing a collective defense and mutual assistance framework,” Mali junta leader Assimi Goita said on his X (formerly Twitter) social media account.  

The situation in West Africa and across the Sahel has become more volatile. Member nations of the Alliance of Sahel States have pledged to take up arms in defense of any of the three-member nations if ECOWAS (or anyone else presumably) intervenes militarily. Nigeria will play a key role in the region, demonstrating both the nation’s power and the region’s volatility—thus attracting no small amount of the world’s attention.  

In political affairs, military affairs, and economic affairs, Nigeria has been the bedrock nation of ECOWAS. Nigeria’s economy makes up 70% of the GDP of countries in ECOWAS. Likewise, Nigeria has the strongest military in the region, with more than 135,000 troops to serve a fully stocked Air Force and Navy. In addition, Nigeria has about 37 billion barrels of oil reserves. No other country in ECOWAS approaches Nigeria’s primacy for projecting power in the region.  

Since decolonization, Nigeria has risen against the odds to this preeminence of power while remaining steadily buoyed by political and economic stability. But power can produce volatility. And recently, Nigeria’s power has been sliding toward volatility. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Nigeria deserves to be listed among the most egregious violators of religious freedom. Indeed, the USCIRF reaffirmed in May (2023) the need to “designate Nigeria as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).”   

According to analysts at Economic Intelligence, Nigeria is slouching continuously toward volatility. Far from being a buoy of economic and political stability for West Africa and the Sahel, Nigeria is now becoming a net exporter of violence and instability. As the analysts note,  

“The increasing ungovernability of the country’s peripheral regions means that Nigeria has become an exporter of instability in West Africa, and the need to reserve the country’s military to address internal security threats means that Nigeria’s role as a regional hegemon is much diminished, although its economic size relative to its neighbours still allows it enormous influence within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), West Africa’s most important bloc.”   

So the two themes continue to dance together as the sound of Nigeria’s potential for political leadership plays in the background of world affairs like music in a crowded mall. The potential for power remains. The volatility is increasing. The world is watching. Various world leaders will no doubt attempt to cut in on the dance for their own agenda-driven reasons. What does the future hold for Nigeria?  

In many ways, that question is impossible to answer. Only God is able to declare the end from the beginning! But these abiding truths will remain for the foreseeable future: Nigeria will retain much of its power. Nigeria’s power will increase the region’s volatility. Economists, pundits, and other people watchers will be judging the quality of Nigeria’s dance between power and volatility.   

Nigeria’s future potential for power is great. Missiologist Patrick Johnstone, writing for Lausanne, points out significant trends across Africa and, more particularly, the Sahel region. Johnstone notes that while most nations are aging, many African nations have birth rates so high that the populations are getting younger, not older. Johnstone says,  

“By 2050, Africa’s population will be 1.4 billion and 2 out of every 5 children in the world will be African. Of the 20 countries in the world with the highest population growth, 19 are in Africa and 14 in the Sahel itself. Niger has the highest birthrate of any nation.”  

Considering population alone, the Sahel region might be the youngest, most populous region on earth just three decades from now. Will Nigeria unite—Muslims and Christians together—and continue the tradition of being the seat of power and stability for West Africa and the Sahel? Or, will the volatility of Islamic terror, Fulani herdsmen, and political corruption so increase the nation’s volatility that eruption after eruption buries this formerly proud African nation like Pompeii under the ash heap of history?  

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