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The War Nerd / April 18, 2011
By Gary Brecher

Today we’ve got election riots in Northern Nigeria, a military mutiny in Burkina Faso, and massacres in Ivory Coast.

They look like separate stories, but they’re not. It’s all one story, a long, slow war between the coastal christianized people and the Muslim inlanders. It’s the same divide all down the line: vegetation, religion, ethnic groups, votes. Rain forest vs. scrub, goat herders vs. farmers, Gbagbo vs. Alassanne–they all overlap, and the biggest divide of all, the religious one, is mostly just a cover for an old tribal divide. We like to think a person changes religion when they see the light, one person getting the beam of light straight from God like Saul before he changed his name and franchised the operation.

It’s not like that, never has been. If your ancestors came from Germany and your family’s Lutheran, it means most likely the Protestants were winning the Thirty Years War when they marched into your ancestors’ valley. If your family’s Catholic, Wallenstein was having one of his better days, before the loopy astrologers got to him. If your folks came from England, you know why you went Protestant: Henry needed sons and that Catholic girl he married wasn’t up to it. Your great-great grandpa didn’t see the light of true religion, he got the word at the end of a pike: “New church in town, any objection?” Not a lot of objections when a feral drunk in the King’s uniform is holding a dagger to your son’s ear.

In other words, religion is a tribal deal. Whole tribes converted at once, in Europe just like they did, and still do, in Africa. Except it’s current history in Africa, whereas it’s old dry shit in Europe, unless you’re in Kosovo or Belfast. Religion isn’t meant to be a personal thing between you and god. Never was. That’s just another democratic lie. Religion is always meant to be unanimous, and there are ways of making sure it stays that way. Like war. So religious divides are usually ethnic divides, and the borders between the groups on the maps usually have those crossed-swords markers identified by the map key as “major battle.”

African empires: Sahel vs. rain forest

That’s why in the old days, they called wars “the movements of the peoples.” That’s what’s happening in West Africa: the peoples are on the move, wrestling, pushing to see who’s going to be THE tribe. It divided into “countries,” and those countries are real in some ways, but the tribal/religious divide is bubbling under all that like the supervolcano under Yellowstone. West Africa has real borders, old borders, under the new “country” borders the colonizers settled in Berlin in 1885. It helps if you think of those old, real borders, instead of imagining that a riot in Nigeria is a separate story from the war in Ivory Coast. It’s all one blob of ethnic lava pouring up through whatever weak spot is handy.

So you can start with the plant life, like a nature documentary. West Africa has a wet coastal strip, inland scrub and then Sahel quasi-desert that’s turning into full-on desert year by year. You’ll notice that the divide between wet coast and dry inlands cuts across all the national borders, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, the whole bunch. That’s the first layer of the ethnic geology here, if you can call it that:

Ivory Coast Veggie Map: Botany is destiny.

Different habitats, different folks: the dry north was always nomad country, too dry to farm but OK for goats and camels. The Hausa/Fulani herders owned the Sahel strip in West Africa long before “Ivory Coast” and “Nigeria” were made up:

Hausa: Cutting right across those national borders

And then came Allah. Islam came south across the Sahara with the caravans about 1300 years ago. The desert people took to it; it was a desert religion, after all. The forest people along the coast kept to their own gods until the Christians started grabbing trade posts along the coasts. And naturally every time they established a slave transshipment outpost they assigned a preacher or a priest to it. Not that the Muslims have the high ground here; most of the caravans that brought Islam south took African slaves back north. Religion and slavetrading go way back, I won’t say any more than that.

The result is a nice little sand painting looking ethno-religious divide that cuts perfectly halfway through all those new countries.

Islam: the only green that’s getting bigger in Africa.

In Nigeria, you get a perfect illustration in this map showing which provinces have Sharia law and which don’t.

Sharia in green, natch.

The provinces in green voted against Goodluck Jonathan, the Igbo Christian who just won in Nigeria. (And who also has the coolest hat of any head of state in history.)

Goodluck Jonathan: He’ll need it.

So in the Ivory Coast you’ve got the French and IMF siding with the Muslim North against the Christian coast, which reacts with massacres and riots; and in Nigeria you’ve got the Christian coastal guy beating the Muslim backed by the North…which reacts with riots and massacres.

They always deplore these riots, and I’m sure they’re not fun to be in unless you’re one of the choppers rather than the choppees, but I’m not sure they violate democracy. These votes are head counts at best, seeing if there’s more of us or more of you. And if you win and can say there’s more of you, the natural response is, “Well, we want it more, just watch!” Any coach would have to approve. You’ve got to want it, etc.

The question of who wants it more gets especially hot if you’re about equally divided, and in that way Nigeria’s like a perfect test lab for ethnic/religious war, damn near 50/50:

The Nigerian Pie: Remember how Lucerne Neapolitan Ice Milk never satisfied anybody?

In that way, seems to me, you could take this last illustration from another Nigerian election and say like the hippies always do: “This is what democracy looks like.”

This is what democracy looks like when people take it seriously.


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Add your own

  • 1. Sconnie  |  April 18th, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    That chant is so annoying! Everytime I hear it I want to rip their dreadlocks out! Those hippies should take a page out of the African playbook and hack a few of the Palinistas to pieces. They’re going to need a new chant, though, I can’t imagine weilding a machete to that rhythm.

  • 2. Chris Connolly  |  April 18th, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Congratulations John, I didn’t think you could but you have outdone yourself, this is the most amazing War Nerd article yet.

  • 3. Nor Word  |  April 18th, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I think you may want the title to read Ethnic Geography, unless you’re willing to wait a few million years for the endless cycle of misery and stupidity known as Africa to turn to stone.

  • 4. NIB  |  April 18th, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Interesting counterpoint to these demographics in another story linked to from the Exile today:

  • 5. Ivan  |  April 18th, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Very topical:

  • 6. Dejo  |  April 18th, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    To civilize means to replace religion and ethnicity with political party and social clique, I’ve noticed. Hardly an improvement. But that’s what the Yanks and the Brits say, and they’re top dogs at the moment.

    This reminds me of something funny. Recently they had a census in Montenegro and my friend wanted to list himself as a Serb but his family said they’d disown him if he doesn’t list himself as a Montenegrin. Little by little, Montenegro is being civilized. I wonder how long that’ll last once the benefactors leave or stop caring.

  • 7. John Figler  |  April 18th, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    “It’s not like that, never has been. If your ancestors came from Germany and your family’s Lutheran, it means most likely the Protestants were winning the Thirty Years War when they marched into your ancestors’ valley. If your family’s Catholic, Wallenstein was having one of his better days, before the loopy astrologers got to him.”

    Man, you put it exactly the opposite way. Protestants expelled by one of Wallenstein’s Blackwater hits, Catholics when the Protestants started getting French aid. Oh, wait, France backing just the guy she was supposed not to? um… Ask a Sana what does he think about that.

  • 8. allen  |  April 18th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    This is a truly excellent article, as good as anything except the most in-depth WN articles (who only win out for content not in terms of elucidation).

    … definitely a lot more elegant and readable than Kaplan’s sanctimonious piece of shit The Coming Anarchy, which did make some of the same points.

    I would really like to see some data on whether it is actually true that voting in this region is done purely on tribal/religious lines. If that’s true, you have a quite a knock-down point.

  • 9. Nait Deth  |  April 18th, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    been reading every day WN, totally loving this every-day shit.

    Please give higher resolution visual aids.


  • 10. Queen Tamar  |  April 18th, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    So Huntington is right? Ethnoreligious affiliation is the only important thing politically?

  • 11. Doug (not that Doug)  |  April 18th, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    @Queen Tamar

    My problem with Huntington is that he paints with too broad a brush. He doesn’t give a shit about any of this tribal or geographic stuff – he sees this solely as “Muslims fighting Christians because they’re Muslims and Christians.” Well, that’s pretty inaccurate. His whole picture of large-scale civilizational conflict doesn’t really match up with what people are really doing. They’re fighting because of kin/clan affiliations, NOT as some larger clash of value systems, you know? And their religious affiliations come from those clan affiliations.

    Love the blog, btw, Brecher.

  • 12. h_pants  |  April 18th, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    @John Figler, #7

    I don’t think he had it the opposite way. Saying your ancestors are Lutheran Germans is basically saying they survived the Thirty Years War only because the Protestant armies were in their “valley” at the right time.

  • 13. some_nigerian_guy  |  April 18th, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Holyshit dude!! you just BLEW my fuking mind!! Interesting perspective.

    Unfortunately, we still have to deal with ethnic “choppers” who don’t necessarily carry religious grudges. With over 250 ethnic groups, Its a multi-layered cake of FAIL.

    The northerners (Muslims) always seem to have shit together though cause they have “sharia’d” their way into religion being above everything else so there is less difference between a north-east and north western Nigerian than between a south-eastern and south-western Nigerian

    *FUN FACT*.
    Google whether goodluck is truly ibo or ijaw (he was born on ibo land that is now ijaw, he has a mixture of ibo and ijaw names). Shit like this just confuses the ethnic “choppers” when they come

  • 14. helplesscase  |  April 18th, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    One of the best WN daily blogs yet.

  • 15. super390  |  April 18th, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    People like Huntington are paid to make the following insinuation:

    Non-Christian = non-entrepreneurial.

    All that Protestant work ethic crap is supposed to uplift our little brown brothers. Yeah, right. The hot missionary action in Africa is Pentecostalism. Here’s why Pentecostalism is not compatible with the Protestant work ethic.

    The real work ethic Weber was talking about meant Lutherans and Calvinists like the Pilgrims. Note that while the witch-burning Pilgrims believed that magic existed, they saw all magic – all short-cuts to success – as satanic, and denied it to their members, condemning their noses to the grindstone of savings and investment.

    But Pentecostals, man… They’re distantly descended from holdover voodoo beliefs among African-Americans. From the early snake-handling to the modern prayers for wealth and vengeance, these guys believe they deserve some magic too. The Prayer of Jabez, the Gospel of Prosperity, that kind of magical greed is a cancer on Christianity, at best telling the proles to stick to their Wal-Mart jobs while sending bribes to the Lord to win the lottery.

    Fat chance sending that crap back to Africa is going to lead to nations united by the belief that hard work and mutual sacrifices will lead to prosperity for all. Wait for the Chinese to roll over the continent and lay it out for both the Christian and Moslem brothers.

  • 16. Paul  |  April 18th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    These articles have been consistently brilliant so thank you.

    I would like to know WN if you have an opinion on Guns, Germs and Steel?

  • 17. jim  |  April 18th, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Wow, this comment took a whole 15 seconds to type out on my keyboard. What a genius this anonymous commenter is! I tremble before his mighty commenting skillz!

  • 18. Brendan  |  April 18th, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Love the daily updates. You’ve given me something to look forward to every day, which ain’t easy!

    The more I look at the situation in Africa, the more I realize how right you are about it. Makes me wonder if there hadn’t been such early and quick domination of North American tribes, what we’d be looking at over here now.

    Which brings to mind a question… I wonder how long a dominant interventionist force must be in play on a multitribalist society before this sort of intertribal issue starts to die down?

  • 19. pimp of the Balkans  |  April 18th, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Not always the way, WN. Religions sometimes spread against the wishes of the power structure – Christianity in Rome is a classical example, but there’s also, say, Calvinism in Scotland. That cuius regio stuff wasn’t a truism but an attempt to deal with the very real problem of many choosing to follow a religion (well, sect) the rulers were set against.

  • 20. Jesse the Scout  |  April 18th, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I always facepalm a little on the inside when Americans talk about spreading democracy to the third world. Without a solid framework of stability, rule of law, and all that stuff democracy is just 51% hacking up 49% once they win.

    The extremists on both ends of the political spectrum in the US often bitch about how middle of the road and watered down US government tends to be, but in fact that’s usually a good sign. Watered down centrist decisions mean despite disagreements both sides are willing to compromise. They still recognize each other as having a say even if they disagree fervently. The beginning of the end is like what’s been happening in WI, where one party gets in and decides to simply crush the other side with the powers it’s won. If one side starts believing they are so right or their dissenters so worthless as to be willing to completely disregard their input you start down the path of third world democracy: we have more people than you, we have more power than you, it’s time to die.

    Democracy is like running a marathon, you don’t shove a nation off the couch of mass killings and off they go. It has to be trained and prepped for. And that training can atrophy too.

  • 21. Tim  |  April 18th, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Want to see 5,000 years of religion in 90 seconds?

    History of Religion (by Maps of War) @

    Good thing if you ain’t color blind!

  • 22. leO  |  April 18th, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    At the risk of sounding facetious: just another day in Nignogollywog land. Get it together, Negroes.

  • 23. Zorg  |  April 18th, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Hey War Nerd, could you post some bigger maps and graphs? I can barely read some of it, and the rest of it I can’t read at all.

  • 24. Michal  |  April 18th, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    A very thought provoking article. I like the notion that religion follows, and doesn’t lead armed conflicts. That’s neat, I fear that’s something Europe has already forgotten amidst all that Islamophobia.

    Anyhow, what unsettles me is, that if this is actually true then there’s no “good” way of handling these conflicts. It’s not a pretty picture by far, but of course if we were to ask for disney-like pictures of our present, we wouldn’t be reading War Nerd.

  • 25. Esn  |  April 18th, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Mr. Brecher, could you please upload larger images? The thumbnails are tiny, and clicking on them doesn’t lead to bigger versions of the image. Very hard to see.

    I think the election in Nigeria is a bit more complex than simply a headcount – after all, Jonathan won with 57% of the vote (and international observers say that the election this time around was fairly counted). If it was simply a headcount, the result should have been much closer to 50%.

    This means that although the northern provinces as a whole did vote against him, a smaller percent of their population voted FOR him (which you don’t see in maps that only show how the majority voted).

    So there are must be other factors in play besides tribalism. Yeah, tribalism is still by far the most important one, but it’s not the only one, and those other ones are the ones that tip the balance and prevent civil war.

    I don’t know what they are, but they must be there.

    Also, I agree, President Jonathan’s hat is awesome. Apparently it’s part of the cultural dress from the region he comes from. Looks like 1920s American jazz fashion never went away there.

  • 26. Warrus Nerdicus  |  April 18th, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Hey hey heyee hey,


  • 27. andrew  |  April 18th, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    i first realized this, what brecher is going on about, when i got sidetracked during grad school a few years ago making this:

    this one has sound effects, which i think improve it greatly:

    it’s my only contribution to youtube, in case you don’t want to watch. i spent 2 months doing nothing but reading wikipedia, making maps, and writing scripts in matlab to generate these maps of 20th century politics and war.

    look at what happens in central-west africa starting in december 1965. all these countries had been created just a few years before, and finally it all gives out – mobutu goes in for the kill, then there are coups throughout the former french colonies, then the war starts in biafra, all in a period of about 6 months.

    it’s like, for a few years they were all standing around, confused, not sure of what to do with themselves. then Mobutu shows them the way, and they get back to the Old Business. they’re still at it!

  • 28. Soj  |  April 18th, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    “until he franchised the operation” = pithiest statement I’ve ever heard on Pauline Xtianity.

    Brilliant, brother, simply brilliant. My hat’s off to you for that line 🙂

  • 29. Retro Man  |  April 18th, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Amazing perspective Gary!

  • 30. Abc  |  April 19th, 2011 at 12:24 am

    Zorg at #23,

    If you want bigger images you may want to install the Firefox browser: just open the image in separate tab and then press “Ctrl +” to scale it up to the size you want. Works for me

  • 31. Nick  |  April 19th, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Coolest hat of any head of state? Way to go Goodluck Jonathan, there’s more handsome kid in town now. Check out Salva Kiir Mayardit’s headgear (

  • 32. JohnFigler  |  April 19th, 2011 at 1:15 am

    @ 12. h_pants

    Well, if that’s the case, why should anybody want to leave his valley when his folk are winning?

    Around here you migrate when you lose, not the other way around. Unless there’s hunger, of which there was quite a bit in Germany back then… but, then again… German Lutherans to America in 1620?

    If they survived one hundred years before migrating it makes little towards probing his point and I didn’t get that nuance. The Thirty Years War, after all, was almost a draw, in Religious terms that is. What probably would happen to West Africa, BTW.

  • 33. coldequation  |  April 19th, 2011 at 5:44 am

    Off topic, but WN, check out this death porn committed by our allies in Libya:

    The party starts around 2:30.

  • 34. BahamaPapa  |  April 19th, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Thanks for the laser beam article! I feel like I get WN on demand.

    Nigeria gets a little bit more complicated than this. The country is actually a three-way split. The major groups are the Muslim Hausa/Fula up North, The Christian Igbo in the Southeast and the Christian Yoruba in the Southwest. Then you’ve got a whole bunch of other, smaller groups. The Muslims have a more coherent ethnic and religious identity. The South is more of a patchwork. The Biafra war, back in the 70’s, was the Igbos trying to split off from the rest of the country. The Igbo’s territory sits on most of Nigeria’s oil reserves, so it’s no surprise that they figured they’d be better off keeping the oil wealth closer to home. It’s even less of a surprise that the rest of Nigeria (Christian and Muslim alike) didn’t think that was such a good idea.

    Interestingly, the political parties in Nigeria are not really split along ethnic/sectarian lines. The ruling party that Mr. Jonathan represents, has a “gentlemen’s agreement” whereby they rotate the presidency between a Muslim Northerner and a Christian Southerner. The Christian Obasanjo (same party) was in power for two terms. Then it was the turn of the Muslim Yar’adua (same party again) who was supposed to serve two terms in office, but he died halfway through his first term, leaving Mr. Jonathan as his successor. Now he’s gone and won the election and the Northerners are saying “Mommy, mommy it’s MY turn to go shotgun!”

    Western narratives of Africa often portray Africans as being possessed of some primal “tribalism” like they’re all genetically programmed to slaughter each other, but there’s usually a bit more to it than that. Other societies have similar ethnic, sectarian and regional rivalries and African conflicts are fuelled by the same issues as conflicts everywhere else. I can recommend the book “The Graves are not yet Full” by Bill Berkeley that shows that most of these “tribal” conflicts are in fact well organised at the high levels and fought over resources, money and “big” political power. The same tribes that kill each other sometimes manage to get along just fine at others. Compromise and balance of power is at play here, too.

    Anyway, for all of Nigeria’s divisions, I suppose it’s remarkable that they’ve managed to keep the country together for as long as they have, so props to them for that.

  • 35. h_pants  |  April 19th, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    @JohnFigler, #32

    You’re probably right about German Lutherans migrating 100 years later and not in 1620. Probably because there was “cheap” land (i.e. on loans) in America.

    As to probing his point, I don’t think the immigration consideration matters. Even being a Protestant alive today in Germany (evangelisch) proves that valley of your ancestors stayed Protestant, no?

  • 36. Loki  |  April 19th, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    BahamaPapa # 34 has a bit more than a point. This “West African Ethnic Geology” idea sets kind of a chess board, but the players are a different bunch.

    Ever wondered, why Kongo’s Kabila sen. was supported by the US in an up to then French dominated area? And why, just 5 years later, a similar gamble blew up in Ivory Coast just about 4 years later? And why the US and France together are suddenly backing Ouatarra now? Not to speak of the USMC guys who protect off-shore platforms in Nigerian waters …

    That’s just some appetizers. Dig a bit deeper and you will find paradise, provided that you tend to paranoia and enjoy some sound conspiracy theories. Welcome to Africa! (or, probably better: Africa is everywhere)

  • 37. no one in particular  |  April 19th, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Great article ! One quibble: i think ‘geography’ would have been a better word to use, not ‘geology’

  • 38. R. Green  |  April 20th, 2011 at 9:06 am

    A few people have mentioned that geography would have been a more accurate choice opposed to geology. While the production quality of a blog-a-day is obviously less then the big works, in this case I think geology was the preferable word selection. Geography is the lay of the land whereas geology unravels the parent materials that led to this current political/ethinic formation.
    I have noticed that geology as a term is used far more by Canadians. You been hanging with Canucks, Brecher?

  • 39. R. Green  |  April 20th, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Considering the oil wealth of the area I’d put good odds that there is more known about the geology of West Africa than has been written about the geography.

  • 40. Coreligionist of Nigerians  |  April 20th, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Agreed on tribal mass conversions, in fact many Germans are Christians because Charlemagne pulled a move out of the old Constantine playbook mass baptism by herdin’ folk through the river, cowboy style.

    But those Nigerian Christians, mass converted or not, have all the fervor of a convert. They take their religion for reals, whether Protestant or Catholic. They grow so fast! I come from a smallish German Anabaptist sect and in a few short years Nigerian co-religionists will outnumber us because of demographic growth in Nigerian and apotosy (me included) in the States. Some of those guys came to our church once, freaked me out. Pious people saw the light in their eyes and might take heart, I thought these guys could give a holy roller a run for their money. Something like this with Catholic orders, no?

  • 41. Carpenter  |  May 13th, 2011 at 4:16 am

    Wait, what? Does this mean African immigrants to Europe won’t start loving Democratic Principles? I’m shocked. SHOCKED. Only a racist could say that Africans are still sticking to tribalism. Everyone who has listened to leftist teachers and media knows that only Whites are racist.

  • 42. Bonnie  |  May 14th, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    It only has to do with RELIGION, puere ans simple!

    The christians that have been around longer and mellowed, and the newer religion, still violent, islam.

    Don’t think that in previous centuries christianity was JUST as terrible, violent, psycho,which wrested the reins of power from the Nature Worshippers, they had the gall to call “Pagans…when all the while, then and NOW, christians are the Pagans.

  • 43. Bonnie  |  May 14th, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    It only has to do with RELIGION, pure and simple!

    The christians that have been around longer and mellowed, and the newer religion, still violent, islam.

    Don’t think that in previous centuries christianity was JUST as terrible, violent, psycho,which wrested the reins of power from the Nature Worshippers, they had the gall to call “Pagans…when all the while, then and NOW, christians are the Pagans.

    Well, now islam, with it’s close mindedness, now considers christians, “the Other,” and seeks to slaughter them, as instructed by their text, the koran.

  • 44. Bonnie  |  May 14th, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Allen #8 said: “I would really like to see some data on whether it is actually true that voting in this region is done purely on tribal/religious lines”

    They better vote the way their tribe votesk or they’ll get their head cut off!

    Africans don’t do things halfway, and they take voting VERY seriously.

  • 45. Random Paleocon  |  June 18th, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Some ethno-religious groups get on with each other better than others, but religious divides are more difficult to bridge than ethnic ones.

    Neighbors with a common religion can use intermarriage, including dynastic marriage, to solidify alliances. This doesn’t work so well with neighbors of different religions, as there will usually be a necessity for one spouse to convert to the other’s religion, which will also be that of the resulting children.

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