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Can Nigeria save itself from the threat of civil and religious war?

Crowds in a street in Zaria, Nigeria.
Ian Horrocks
Written by Ian Horrocks

Nigeria has a long history of overcoming hardships and atrocities, from the military coups of decades past to the militancy of the oil-rich Niger Delta. Religious violence orchestrated by the secretive and bloodthirsty Boko Haram sect however poses a deadly new threat, writes Ian Horrocks, a journalism graduate and CJA-UK member.

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”

Ben Okri’s antiquated yet prevailing words offer the westerner a peek through the keyhole into the Nigerian psyche.

The literary poet lays bare a constant in the tumultuous history of the African nation. A nation that, since the turn of the 20th century, has fought for independence with spears against colonial muskets, endured interminable military coups and been the playground for bloodthirsty civil wars.

Despite the succession of catastrophes which dominate her past, Nigeria has a habit of answering tragedy with democratic triumph. Thirteen years of relatively stable democracy since 1999 has seen the oil-rich nation develop much faster than the rest of the sub-Sahara, aided by an average GDP per capita increase of eight per cent each year. The country is now certified ‘middle income status’ by the World Bank.

But, as ever with Nigeria, a fresh catastrophe looms. Islamist sect Boko Haram are currently wreaking havoc in the predominately Muslim north, bombing Christian churches, kidnapping officials and gunning down anyone who stands in their way.

The government retaliation to these attacks has been equally unequivocal, with security forces being accused of widespread extra judicial killings and arrests of suspected Boko Haram militants. Despite this heavy handed approach, the secrecy and splinter-cell organisational structure of Boko Haram, whose name loosely translates as ‘Western education is sin’, has rendered the government crackdowns hopelessly futile.

The Christian community has largely reacted by fleeing the north for the relative safe-haven of areas such as Lagos and Rivers in the south, although some have begun to take up arms and form counter-militias in an attempt to achieve what many feel the Nigerian establishment has failed to do – defend the Christian public.

“When the government fail to provide security, the people provide their own type of security. And that becomes chaos… anarchy,” warned the Anglican Benjamin Kwashi, Archbishop of Jos – one of the flashpoint cities of the conflict – in a CBN News interview.

It seems that once again Nigeria is on the brink of civil war. Century old divisions – North vs. South, Muslim vs. Christian, Hausa vs. the myriad of other ethnicities in this melting-pot state – are returning once more to haunt the nation’s latest generation.

The intense cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of Nigeria, which is perhaps only matched by the nation’s unique levels of bio-diversity – the Cross River state is believed to have the widest range of butterfly species of anywhere in the world – has fostered the simmering tensions which so deeply characterise this country of countless identities.

Okri’s belief in his people’s capacity to “become greater than their suffering” is set to be put to the test once again.

At present there is little agreement amongst the people, nor the politicians, of how best to halt the chain of events which has led to the prevalence of Boko Haram and the threat of civil war which the extremist group brings with it. The only clear consensus is that any efforts to rehabilitate the country should not be purely focused upon forcefully eradicating Boko Haram. There is a feeling that the emergence of Boko Haram has simply presented a singular manifestation of issues which have been endemic in Nigerian politics and society for years.

Chronic corruption in government, outrageous wealth disparity in the North compared to the South and poor education infrastructure have all been blamed for the spate of extremism which has gripped the country in recent times.

An often overlooked element of Boko Haram’s history is that of the groups early years as a peaceful organisation comprised of “people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings”. Created and led by radical Islamist cleric Mohammed Yusuf, the group sought to initiate a tide of schooling which would eventually result in Nigeria being transformed into an Islamic state.

Pervasive persecution of the sect since its creation in 2001, led by successive Christian governments, was interpreted by Yusuf as being motivated by religion. The systematic police brutality which occurred as a result of this persecution pushed the group further toward radicalisation and eventually, in the rainy season of 2009, Boko Haram turned militant, launching a campaign of violence across North-Eastern Nigeria which would lead to the loss of hundreds of lives. Using make-shift weapons such as fuel-laden motorcycles and bows with poison arrows, the group showed for the first time the horrific destruction that they were capable of.

The immediate aftermath of the clashes saw the arrest and subsequent televised execution of Yusuf by security forces and this was the birth of the modern Hydra-esque Boko Haram; splintered, vengeful and heavily armed.

The Nigerian government have repeatedly struggled to cope with the implications of attempting to shut down such an organisation through purely forceful means. Despite the 90 sect members executed and the hundreds of arrests since 2009, Boko Haram keeps re-appearing, always stronger and more bloodthirsty than the last time.

Many now feel that it is time for the Christian President, Goodluck Johathan, to set his pride aside and engage in dialogue with the militants. This approach succeeded exceptionally just a few years earlier in a separate incident, when the rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) was persuaded to lay down their weapons in a government imposed amnesty, in exchange for money and absolution of their crimes.

‘Paying off’ Boko Haram however, as MEND had been, may prove difficult, if not impossible. Boko Haram are a group whose aims are mainly socio-political and aren’t driven by the Western ideals of capitalism. Attempting to entice them into retirement by offering money, the embodiment of the very ideology which they abhor and seek to overthrow, will only prove futile.

Goodluck Jonathan must look elsewhere for bargaining stock. But what can be offered to appease an organisation whose goals are so brazen and unequivocal? Boko Haram seeks both the dissolution of the Western-style establishment which governs Nigeria and the implementation of Sharia Law across all parts of the nation. These are terms which the President simply cannot meet and which leave little room for concession on either side.

One strategy being mooted is to offer Boko Haram political gifts, in exchange for an amnesty of the group’s weapons. If Boko Haram could be integrated into the political system, i.e. given the chance to set up a political party or one of their members the opportunity to join a mainstream party, then the group may be persuaded to seek its radical goals peacefully. A return to the group’s peaceful roots, combined with a role in the parliamentary process would seem to be a fair compromise, with winners on both sides.

Obviously it is difficult for many Nigerians to forget the crimes which Boko Haram have committed, especially the devastating Kano attacks in January, which left 185 dead. Absolving mass murderers, as well as shoe-horning them into government, seems to be an inherently disgraceful thing to do. But in the face of the continued bloodshed in the Northern regions, surely anything is better than allowing even more people to perish in this deadly conflict.

Once again however, Boko Haram’s disgust for the West and its teachings would perhaps dissuade members from accepting such an offer. They want an overthrow of the governmental system – which is heavily based on America’s – not a bit part role within it.

A short-term resolution is available however. In recent, heavily secretive, negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, the militia offered an olive branch to President Jonathan. They would agree to a three month cease-fire, in exchange for the release of all Boko Haram members currently held in custody by the security forces. Whilst the government hold deep contempt for this deal, as releasing the hundreds of detainees would make Boko Haram stronger, it would buy the Jonathan administration some time to work out exactly how to appease the fundamentalist organisation long-term.

Perhaps the answer to this longer term pacification lies not in direct confrontation with Boko Haram, but in turning public opinion against them and their methods. A concerted Federal effort to weaken Boko Haram could possibly de-radicalise its current members, whilst stopping other disaffected Hausas from joining the group.

Boko Haram have become so powerful in such a short space of time because many Muslims in the North feel they have been abandoned by their government, left to wallow in poverty whilst their southern compatriots delight in the wealth that the bountiful amounts of oil in the Delta region have brought. Poorly educated, estranged Nigerians have been pushed towards Boko Haram and radicalisation by a government which has spectacularly failed to distribute its wealth evenly. Investments in education and healthcare in the North can only help to reverse this process and consequently tame the Hydra that is Boko Haram.

In true Nigerian fashion however, this resolution is not as simple as it sounds. The Northern Hausa areas of the country are controlled by ‘Political Elites’, a set of Muslim aristocrats who each control their own region. The immense wealth generated through the oil in the southern Delta area is in fact divided evenly into each of Nigeria’s regions. But in the North, most of this oil money goes straight into the pockets of the Fulani aristocrats and Political Elites. There is a jaw dropping disparity in terms of the budgets the Northern Elites receive and the spending which goes into developing infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and amenities. Kano state has an annual Federal Government allocated 2012 budget of 210 million Nigerian dollars and yet 90 per cent of its students are expected to fail their WAEC exams this year. It also has twice the budget of the southern states Kwara, Anambra and Ekiti, thrice the budget of Enugu and yet a higher poverty level than all of these states put together.

If effective wealth distribution is ever to be achieved, the government must first put pressure on the Northern Elites to use the money they receive to improve the lives of Northern Nigerians, rather than just embezzling the money into private companies and bank accounts.

Nigeria faces an immense task in pulling itself away from a civil war which would pit Muslims against Christians and become another bloody milestone in the country’s tempered history. It is not too late however, for President Jonathan and his administration to implement measures which benefit the whole of Nigeria, from the dusty savannah of the Muslim north to the dense tropics of the Christian south.

This time, it is only a united Nigeria which will overcome and become greater than its suffering.

Photo credit: Crowds in a street in Zaria, Nigeria. de-la Hay / ComSec.

From YourCommonwealth.org / CJA-UK.org

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About the author

Ian Horrocks

Ian Horrocks

Freelance journalist/website developer, co-founder of Portrayt.

Ian's CV spans a wide range of employment, from events coordination, website development and youth outreach work at the Commonwealth Journalists Association to senior editorial production and strategy formulation at new media pioneers Magnific.

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