By Eugene Ohu. Nigerians often hear in the news of bomb blasts in other parts of the world: Israel, Iraq and Pakistan, never believing it would soon come to its doorsteps. Despite having a large Muslim population, the general feeling has always been that extremism is either not that high or that Nigerians are not prone to suicide. This perception was soon to change with the bombing of the United Nations building in the nation’s capital on Friday 26 August 2011, and the bombing of the headquarters of the Nigerian police. Even then, many doubted if the perpetrators could be Nigerians or infiltrators from neighboring countries. And since the victims were security agents and government and UN employees, the events retained a certain remoteness and unreality, that is until Christmas Day 2011.
While people were coming out of Sunday Mass, a bomb planted in a car outside a Catholic Church near Abuja detonated and killed more than 40 people.
Along with these attacks, a new Islamic group has been coming into the forefront. It is called the Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad”. Boko Haram is what the locals have since dubbed it, which means, “Western education is forbidden”. The group wants to enshrine Islamic law and customs all over Nigeria, claiming that the current secular government and laws is diabolic and that they have an obligation given by Islam to convert everyone else to its says.
It would not be the first time that an extremist Muslim group would be grabbing national attention. In the early 1980s, another group called The Maitasine claimed a similar mandate and its attacks led to the death of more than 4,000 people until the death of its leader during a shootout with security forces led to the end of the group.
Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by a Muslim ideologist called Mohammed Yusuf. There initially engaged in strings of violent attacks against the police and the army, leading to several violent confrontations. Each attack by the police led to reprisal attacks by Boko Haram and vice-versa. There were allegations of extra-judicial killings of several arrested and unarmed Boko Haram members by the police. This then lent another argument to Boko Haram’s justifications for its attack – self defense and revenge.
On July 30 2009, a group of soldiers led by a colonel invaded a location where the Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf was hiding. The army had been called in to help because the police seemed helpless. Before this time, it is on record that Yusuf had been arrested and released by the police on their occasions. Following the military invasion, Mr. Yusuf was arrested without much resistance. Some AK47 rifles and anti-tank weapons were also recovered from Yusuf’s hiding place. As required by law, the soldier then handed Mr. Yusuf to the police who on their part signed a handover note. When he was handed over to the police, Mohammed Yusuf and hale and hearty and there were no visible injuries on him. Less than 24 hours later, Mohammed Yusuf died in police customer. 5 police officers are now standing trial for his murder.
The speculation is that Mohammed Yusuf was killed on the orders of highly placed persons who wanted to stop him revealing the names of the sponsors of Boko Haram.
Boko Haram vowed to revenge the murder of their leader thus beginning a string of attacks of police installations and the murder of several police officers around the north. The UN bombing would be their first attack against non-police installations. With the Christmas day attack on the Catholic Church everyone has been understandably apprehensive as to its shifting motives.
Is there a single “Boko Haram” or is there now a proliferation of criminal groups operating until this name in the north, just as many groups in the Niger Delta often used the name of the most notorious group (MEND) to perpetuate violence? Is Boko Haram fighting a religious or a political battle? Are there northern politicians sponsoring the violence in the north in order to create problems for the sitting Christian president? Is the Nigerian security truly ignorant of the identity of those sponsoring or perpetrating this violence?
It would seem that often the name “Boko Haram” has become an intellectually lazy euphemism for a rising trend of violence in the north of apparently mysterious origins. There is consolation in defining an unknown quantity, give it a name and boundaries in order to reduce the anxiety caused by mysteries. Although Boko Haram was quoted to have claimed responsibility for the Christmas day bombings, another voice purporting to represent the group has recently come to deny that they carried it out.
Nigeria is a very complex country and nothing is what it seems at face value. A combination of lack of information from without, corruption within, lack of publicity from within and academic laziness on the part of many, means that whenever something happens in Nigeria, there is a hasty attempt to attach a label to it and thus allow the news to move on. Being a country with an equal number of Muslims and of Christians, the world is quick to label all strife as religious, drawing a parallel from similar occurrences in other parts of the world. Nigeria’s own past history of a civil war in the last 1960s does not seem to help its image, and it does not matter if the civil war was mainly ethnic in origin.
Recent events has made many people to wonder if the country is not slowly heading for another civil war, or even worse, a religious war. While external indices, especially looked at in isolation, might seem to point in this direction, a little more background and an awareness of the complexity of this country would counter this fear, and say, not so, and not yet.
There are some people in the North of Nigeria who consider it their birthright to rule this country (a northern state even has the vehicle registration motto as “born to rule”) and so whenever a non-northerner (usually Christian) comes to power, they must do what they can to either wrest power from him and failing that, orchestrate a new structure to seek to balance the power.
Nigeria’s complex political structure
Nigeria, a country with more than 250 ethnic groups runs a federal system of government where power rests in a powerful center. Nigeria has 36 States and a Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, which is geographically centered and religiously neutral to an extent. The states do not however enjoy the autonomy of regions, as is the case for example in either Spain or in the States that make up the USA.
The major source of the country’s revenue comes from crude, as Nigeria is the sixth largest oil producer in the world. This revenue is managed by the federal government at the center who disburses shares to the states; the army is controlled from the center and the police is a national one, also controlled from the center. What this means is that the position of the president of the Nigeria is a very powerful one, and whoever controls it controls the entire country.
Now considering that the structure of the country and its divides was unilaterally set by the former colonialists with little consideration for the people’s diversity, since independence in 1960 Nigeria has been fighting a ‘battle’ of internal integration, leading to one civil war from 1967 – 1970 and constant doubts in the minds of its people as to whether the country would forever remain one.
The first military coups in 1966 were bloody and sectarian, first with Igbo (South East) soldiers killing Hausa (Northern) political leaders; later it was the reverse where Hausa soldiers began to kill Igbo Soldiers living in the north. Thus began the so-called pogrom and the mass exodus that led many Igbos to return home, no longer confident of their safety in the north. Note that this was political and ethnic but never religious, even though in the main, the north is Muslim and the others Christian. When the Igbos could no longer trust that their interests would be protected by the center (who had a Hausa [through Christian] military leader, Gowon), they decided to secede, and thus started the Nigerian civil war with the declaration of the Igbo Sovereign state of Biafra.
Anyone looking at Nigeria now might easily reach the conclusion that current external are very similar to those that preceded the civil war: killings based on ethnic identity, reprisal attacks, massive exodus back to ones places of origin, etc. Boko Haram’s call on Christians in the north to leave and for Muslims in the South to return tends to add credence to this fear.
In a recent interview with the BBC, the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka agreed that it was not far-fetched to compare the present times with the late 1960s, saying, “It is not an unrealistic comparison”. According to him, though there has been disagreement between Muslims and Christians, but that where some Muslims unprovoked open fire on unarmed and innocent Christians, it is an indication of having “reached a certain dismal watershed”.
When Obasanjo came to power as civilian president in 1999, many in the north were not comfortable with a Christian at the head of the country. The ‘power balancing’ tool they took advantage of them was the declaration of Sharia (Islamic) law in some northern states. It was a declaration that Muslims did not accept being government by civil (secular) laws of the state and would rather be government by the Koran. Many thought what they were actually rejecting was a Christian president and a lamentation of their loss of the hold to central power. While the whole world was fretting, the then president Obasanjo understood the posturing for what it was and assured everyone it would blow over, and so it did.
Now, one cannot fail to wonder if the present Boko Haram threat is not another attempt by some northern politicians to restore the ‘balance of power’.
Perhaps an example is necessary to show how not every north/south crises in Nigeria is religious in origin. The city of Jos in Plateau state of Nigeria is the flash point of many of the oft-reported Christian/Muslim crises, which Nigerians know as a clear struggle between two ethnic blocs: the so-called Indigenes (mostly Christians incidentally), and the so-called Settlers (most Muslims incidentally). They have been fighting to determine who would occupy political positions during elections because the “Indigenes” do not recognize the rights of the “Settlers” to hold political positions, even if these latter have ‘settled’ in Jos for close to 100 years now.
But is this saying that religion never plays a role in any of these crises? It does to an extent. Wole Soyinka believes that the ‘soldiers’ of this ‘religious’ war are the protégés of some northern politicians with ambitions to power. The moment power slips from their hands; they use the youth to sow mayhem.
There is abject poverty and underdevelopment in northern Nigeria and a great gap between the extremely wealthy (most politicians) and the ordinary people who are very poor and uneducated.
With such level of want the few rich northern businessmen and politicians have at their beck and call many young Muslims who depend on them for livelihood. Children of the poor are sent off to the so-called Madrasas (or Arabic schools) for education. These young Islamic pupils (Almajiris) depend on the Madrasas for education and when done with learning their Koran and Arabic, would be sent off into the streets to beg for a living. Islam furthermore makes it a rule for the rich to give alms to the poor and so naturally, the few rich Islamic businessmen and politicians are a magnet for the Almajiris, who come to seeking sustenance. Thus grows a relationship between protégé and patron. When these patrons who are politicians have political grouse, it is easy for him to convince these Almajiris, that his own political enemies are at the same time an enemy of their mutual religion – Islam. As he who pays the piper dictates the tune, these Almajris become a willing army in the hands of a political unscrupulous gladiator. No wonder then that though the motive may be political, the tool for battling it can often be religion.
Professor Soyinka further believes that now it seems that these politicians may have lost control of their former many of them have now become independent and some even have university education. Seeing the wealth disparity around them, and seeing through the lies fed them by their erstwhile patrons, this new breed of Islamic fundamentalists (who see themselves as used and then dumped by politicians) now operate with a mind of their own.
Although there are people who call Nigeria a “project” and not (yet) a nation, the likes of Soyinka believe that it is still possible to make a country out of it, if only the people are ready and courageous enough to have a serious “dialogue”. This is a call many have been making for years, calling for a so-called “Sovereign National Conference”, where Nigerians from all parts will come together to decide if they want to be together and under what terms.
On Saturday 14 January 2012, the Nigerian police arrested the suspected mastermind of the Christmas Day bombing. Surprisingly the very next day he was reported to have escaped from police custody in broad daylight and while still in handcuffs. A police commissioner has been arrested in connection with this unlikely escape. Such news fuel suspicious of how highly placed may be the sponsors of this violence, recently corroborated by President Goodluck Jonathan who declared that “Boko Haram” has infiltrated all arms of the government.