Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Bloodier still in Abuja

Christmas Day bombings by Boko Haram and petrol price protests across Nigeria augur ill. Are the authorities in Abuja dancing to the wrong tune, catechises Gamal Nkrumah

"Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand" -- Karl Marx

Click to view caption
From top: Father Issac Achi (l) speaks with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan during a visit to St Theresa's Catholic Church, outside Abuja; Jonathan visiting the scene of the Christmas bomb attack at the church; women weep over their beloved ones who died in the explosion

Religious strife has sadly become a fact of Nigerian life. The question is now where, not whether embittered protagonists are waging religious wars and committing acts of terror. The consensus for peaceful co-existence that lasted for four decades seems to be breaking, but why? An ominous mix of belligerence and prickly defensiveness now conveys a sense that terrorism is a social distraction. The not so subtle shift in religious intolerance, though, has not yet reached the level of high politics as in Sudan.

Despite the apocalyptic visions of a divided nation of a decade or two ago, Nigeria has come a long way. But obviously, the Christmas Day bombings that claimed the lives of some 50 people by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, demonstrates that Nigerians should aim higher. That expectation is easier said than done.

And, at that historical juncture matters might have stayed, if only militant political Islam did not evolve so alarmingly. Many of Nigeria's political problems are summed up in its mismanagement of its oil wealth and its enduring north-south divide. Now the Christmas Day blasts have made matters much worse.

In stark contrast to its shipwreck during the Nigerian Civil War and the failed attempt at secession by the predominantly Christian southeast of the country -- Biafra -- Nigeria has sailed through the turbulent decades battling in vain the scourge of corruption without leaking much water, or should I say oil. The southeast of the country, and in particular the Niger Delta home of the country's current president and many of his closest associates, is the economic engine of Nigeria. Nigerian democracy appears to have firm foundations in spite of the latest round of confessional butchery. However, the entrenchment of power in Christian and southern Nigerian hands may detract somewhat from President Goodluck Jonathan's greatest-selling point that is his clean image.

Talk is cheap. Northern Nigeria -- barren and drought-prone -- lacks the rich natural resources of the forested southern part of the country. That is presumably why in spite of the demographic advantage, the northern aristocracy's political powers are under constant threat from the more enterprising southern elite, an expediency which may yet whittle away the traditional northern political hegemony further.

Cynics counter that Nigeria's oil-rich south ought to be the natural hub for business in the country. Critics contend, moreover, that political power was traditionally reserved to the emirs and sultans of northern Nigeria and the aristocracy. The recent spate of Boko Haram bombings reflects not just the northern Nigerian aristocracy's past sins, but also the perception that nothing really has changed since independence. The popular fury at business as usual among Nigeria's impoverished Muslim masses in the northern backwaters is understandable to say the least. Islamist militancy is the symptom and not the disease. The Christmas tragedy is therefore not Boko Haram's last hurrah.

Dramatic changes in the pecking order of the Nigerian political establishment mask a lack of profound change in the political system itself. The northern Nigerian upper echelons, including traditional Muslim clerics and religious leaders, traditionally flirted with their southern counterparts. It is an undisputed fact that the bulk of the northern Nigerian Muslim population was impoverished and excluded from power -- a situation that inevitably led to the emergence of politically disgruntled and disfranchised groups such as Boko Haram.

Key indicators of poverty, such as the rate of child malnutrition have scarcely improved since independence from Britain in 1960. The incidence of maternal mortality is far worse in the north of the country and even in the oil-producing Niger Delta itself than in many other African countries with no thriving oil and gas industry.

The political devolution of power worked in favour of the booming southern Nigerian economy spearheaded by highly motivated and enterprising entrepreneurs. The southern Nigerian consumers, a considerable majority being Christian, meant that the economic slowdown in northern Nigeria contrasted unfavourably with the commodities boom in resource-rich southern Nigeria, triggering a wave of exasperation and indignation in the north.

The northerners looked in vain for a knock-off effect on northern Nigeria. Yet a considerable number of southern Nigerians, too, are resentful of the inflation and President Jonathan's threat to remove key subsidies. Nigeria spent $8 billion in 2011 on fuel subsidies, which the government claims the country can ill afford.

Labour unions threatened in retaliation to paralyse Nigeria with protests and demonstrations over Jonathan's threat to halt fuel subsidies. Higher petrol prices caused uproar this week. A former Member of Parliament even threatened to get rid of the Jonathan government using what he described as the "Egyptian way".

"We intend to completely paralyse the government and make the country ungovernable. They have pushed Nigerians too far," warned Assistant Secretary General of Nigeria's Labour Congress Denja Yacoub. The government counters that removing subsidies is essential in order to enable it to spend on infrastructure development.

Nigeria is one of the most graft-ridden countries and the labour unions have threatened a "declaration of war" against Jonathan's government, according to the Pan-Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera. The Nigerian labour unions have threatened to picket all petrol stations in Nigeria in a desperate measure to halt the Jonathan administration's decision to halt fuel subsidies. Nigeria refines an insignificant amount of its crude. And the doubling of fuel prices as of 1 January was vexing as far consumers are concerned, especially as the country is Africa's second largest oil exporter in Africa after Libya.

A campaign against graft is underway in Nigeria. With its huge domestic market, rising oil prices will undoubtedly fuel political instability and embitter the bulge of better-educated professionals in southern Nigeria as well as in the northern backwaters.

It is against this grim economic backdrop that Islamist extremism has not been contained in Nigeria. And Muslim-Christian tensions have been exacerbated by the relative loss of political power by the Muslim elite in the North to the predominantly Christian cream of the crop in the South -- highly-educated and sophisticated professionals, savvy politicians, international-oriented tycoons and the like.

Nigerian policymakers naturally congratulate themselves on having steered the country from the abyss of the 1960s and 1970s. But many Nigerians have now come to believe that is too complacent. The Christmas bombings rang the alarm bells.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency and high security alert in four states out of the 36 -- Bornu, Niger, Plateau and Yobe. Special attention was paid to 15 local government municipalities in the four worst affected states where terrorism is allegedly endemic and militant Islamist terrorist groups are most active.

The president's task now is to stack his administration with competent technocrats -- both Christian and Muslim. The country needs deep reform at all levels. "We will restructure, we will re-adjust and make sure we get a team that will meet with the challenge we are facing today," pledged President Jonathan.

Boko Haram, meanwhile, has changed its tack, and seems poised now for the fatal stroke that will deal the deathblow to interfaith co-existence in Nigeria.

The Jonathan administration insists that it is preparing to remedy the chaotic situation in the country. "Terrorism is a war against all of us," the Nigerian leader was quoted as saying after a visit to the scene of Christmas bomb attack on a church in Madalla, on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital Abuja.

Boko Haram retaliated by threatening terrorist blasts and suicide bombings in Nigeria's economic capital Lagos, in the southwest of the country. And in the metropolis of Ibadan also in the southwest -- an area inhabited by the Yoruba people who are equally divided between Muslims and Christians with a strong animist component in the population. In like manner, Boko Haram also vowed to blow up the United States diplomatic missions in Abuja and Lagos as well as targeting US commercial interests in the sprawling country of 160 million, Africa's most populous nation.

This is by no means the first time a state of emergency has been declared in Nigeria. In May-November 2004, a state of emergency was declared but it failed to eradicate the Boko Haram threat even though it temporarily restored order in Jos, capital of the northern Plateau State that has a substantial Christian minority.

Boko Haram derives its political philosophy from the Quranic injunction "Oh believers, fight the unbelievers who are near to you." The movement conveniently overlooks the Quran's admonition "Our Allah and your Allah [Christians and Jews] is One."

It is interesting that Boko Haram intends to enforce strict Islamic laws only in the northern states with a Muslim majority. The movement is not interested in proselytising in the predominantly Christian south. Fundamental social and political problems must be addressed across the country. It is not clear, however, why some poor people tend to be more violent in their reaction to than others. How do different ethnic and religious groups deal with social injustice? What is clear is that the hardliners, like Boko Haram, are spoilers.

"Go after those involved in this heinous act. We must stop this Boko Haram madness," Jonathan urged his compatriots. "There is no safe haven for Boko Haram," he added. Jonathan is prepared to dialogue with moderate Islamists and religious leaders but not with Boko Haram.

Two of the West African country's major security apparatuses -- the Joint Task Force and Operation Restore Order -- have been deployed to assuage the fears of Nigerians and the international community.

"We are all scrambling to find our feet," Inspector General of Nigerian Police Hafiz Ringim was quoted as saying in the Nigerian daily This Day. The onus was on national unity. The influential paper also noted that President Jonathan and his administration were set to embark on major security reforms in the country.

"Security agencies and most importantly Nigerian police have made a lot of gains which have not come to the fore. I want to seize this opportunity and talk to everyone of us to remain resolved and resolute to join in the fight against this cankerworm that will not leave anyone of us if we do not put our acts together. This is something that should galvanise us in our quest to remain together and also to bring down the scourge," added Ringim. It is worthy of note that Boko Haram and other militant Islamists groups have so far resisted the temptation to call for secession of the Muslim northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram, literally "Western Education is Sinful", survived the assassination of its leader Mohamed Youssef last year, but there is a sense of urgency in the heavy-handed attitude of the Jonathan administration to Boko Haram. "Closing the border is a joke," claimed Richard Dowden director of the Royal African Society in London.

Nigeria is among Africa's wealthiest nations in terms of natural resources, but poverty remains endemic in the northern two-thirds of the country. Nigeria's wealth is concentrated in the oil-rich south which is mainly non-Muslim.

The Christians of Nigeria are indignant but are not yet up in arms. Ayo Oritshejafar leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) this week counseled his flock to uphold Christian charity and forgiveness.

"Boko Haram is no longer a child's play but a security threat to the entire nation which President Jonathan should not handle with kid's gloves in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the nation's armed forces," Anglican Bishop of Enugu Diocese and Chairman of CAN, Southeast Zone Emmanuel Chukwuma cautioned.

Terrorism, corruption and confessional conflict will not disappear overnight. Public or open debate will not yield immediate results as long as gross income inequalities and development discrepancies exist and continue to be exacerbated. Poverty is 70 per cent in the Muslim north and 30 per cent in the predominantly Christian south according to United Nations estimates. At a dark time for the world economy Nigeria ought to be one of the world's leading lights with its oil wealth and not a synonym for mayhem.

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