Boko Haram and growth are fighting a battle royale in Nigeria

At Lagos’ notoriously chaotic Murtala Muhammed International Airport, arriving passengers compete for a place in the clump of other passengers awaiting the approval of an overworked immigration official. Permitted entry, a second scamper ensues to get luggage—brands like Tumi and Rimowa intermingle in a pile with black masking-taped sacks, because the conveyer belt has stopped working. Collected, passengers are directed to the arrivals exit where a sign greets them: “Danger: Modernization In Progress.” The sign is intended to warn passengers arriving in the country of 170 million people about the ongoing renovations—renovations that commenced a decade ago to help Lagos’ airport better cope with the surge in traffic and commerce in the midst of the country’s economic boom. But the sign also raises an important question: Are the forces driving Nigeria’s economic boom also generating dangerous problems?

Nigeria is not alone. Africa is in the midst of an unprecedented rapid industrialization. Standards of living have increased exponentially since the beginning of the 21st century. The percentage of poor Africans fell from 58% in 1999 to 47.5% in 2008. Africa’s growth has generated enormously positive change for the continent: urbanization has increased productivity, technology has provided access to information to more people than ever, and several hundred million have been lifted out of abject poverty. At the same time that things have been getting better, things have also gotten worse. Coups, violence, uprisings, and volatility have all risen sharply in the past two years. The top 10 countries in the world most at risk of state failure are African. Five of the top 10 most unequal societies are African. Joblessness in the major cities have produced a disillusioned underclass—neither beneficiaries of, nor contributors to the state.

Among the more conspicuous consequences of modernization is the double burden it places on the state to develop rural regions and manage rapid urbanization. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nigeria, where the state is both unable to exercise authority over sparsely settled lands—a fact made tragically clear by Boko Haram’s virtually uncontested war in the Sahel—and increasingly incapable of providing jobs or public services for the citizens rapidly moving into the cities, evidenced by power failures, water and sanitation insufficiencies.

As urbanization continues, these challenges will grow. Lagos is urbanizing at double the rate of the rest of Africa, and quadruple the rate of the rest of the world. According to the African Development Bank, this rate of growth is expected to hold into 2050 when over 60% of Africa’s population will live in cities. That’s 500 million people moving into Africa’s cities over the next 35 years.

Samuel Huntington called the rural/urban gap “the primary source” of instability in modernizing societies because it tends to be driven by “push and pull” factors. Urbanization has increased productivity, but at a differential rate for different social strata, growing inequality and instability even as it pulls people out of poverty. Similarly, adoption of information communication technologies has led to a more informed citizenry, but also a citizenry agitating for change and expecting more from their state. Why these factors develop the capacity of some states, while undermining it in the rest is an open question. The dichotomy is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the Ebola outbreak, where multiple African states were unable to detect an outbreak in the hinterland, and feckless in the face of the virus’ rapid advancement in the city centers. But in Nigeria, where officials used cell-phone records and other tracking technologies to sequester at risk populations, they were able to control the virus almost immediately.

Modernization has also done away with the common language of politics. States in Africa used to rely on anti-imperialist narratives and on Marxist theories to assert legitimacy. Those ideologies delivered real benefits, but were largely inadequate in the face of current challenges. African states today are overwhelmingly non-ideological. Most have adopted broadly similar fiscal, monetary and electoral policies as those in Western countries. Yet most still fail to deliver, leaving open terrain for anti-state ideologies to compete. Boko Haram is a case in point: it offers a rudimentary, if sadistic, template for governance and survives in part because of the absence of a broadly-accepted and compelling alternative.

As Nigeria prepares to hold elections, it’s worth exploring how governance and policy reform have reduced corruption, which remains a key feature in how the economy operates. Transparency International, which has tracked perceptions of corruption since 1995, has recorded only marginal gains in Nigeria despite major international and domestic anti-bribery campaigns. Paradoxically, as Nigeria’s regulatory environment has evolved, it has tended to become more complex, and as a result, more susceptible to rent-seeking. Best practices and donor-specific requirements overlay existing laws and policies, generating both confusion and contradiction. The result is a multiplication of laws and processes that has had the obverse effect of creating more opportunities for corruption. Implementation becomes less a question of what is the right policy, and more a question of who has the right resources—relationships, or otherwise.

After the fastest decade of growth on record, it may be too soon to tell whether the forces generating progress are different from those inhibiting it in Nigeria. But it’s worth exploring further whether—and to what degree—Nigeria’s and Africa’s rapid modernization has made possible the construction of robust political and economic systems in some regions, and their devolution elsewhere.

You can follow Eliot on Twitter at @eliot_p. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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