The two faces of same coin

Before crude oil was discovered in Nigeria, agriculture was the mainstay of the national economy. The East produced and exported palm oil. The North produced and exported groundnuts and the West, cocoa. Nigerian citizens were then self-sufficient and very happy people. Today, they can scarcely be said to be as happy as they were in those days. Despite the fact that the country is now enormously richer in manpower and mineral resources, a huge number of its citizens is greatly impoverished. As much as 95% of Nigerian families is deprived, living under one pound (or two hundred and fifty Nigerian naira) a day.

Crude oil was discovered at Oloibiri in the Niger Delta region in 1956, after nearly fifty years of exploration by Shell-BP. The first oil field that was explored in 1958 produced over 5,000 barrels per day. The discovery of oil meant that the country had joined the ranks of oil producing countries of the world. After independence in 1960, exploration rights to areas adjoining the Niger Delta were extended to many more foreign companies. Oil companies like Shell-BP, Chevron, Total, Agip, Elf and Mobil among others competed vigorously to outdo each other in oil production and exportation.

By the late 1960s, Nigeria had attained a production level of over 2 million barrels of crude oil a day. By the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, the global price of oil had escalated astronomically. Nigeria became automatically very rich from its oil production. It joined the expensive Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1971.

Production figures dropped in the eighties due to a global economic slump. But by 2004, the Nigerian government embarked on a total rejuvenation of the oil sector. The result was a record level production of 2.5 million barrels per day. It was also planned at the time that by 2010, development strategies that had already been put in place would help increase production to 4 million barrels per day.

With the first production in 1958, soon after Nigeria's independence in 1960, petroleum production and export began to play a dominant role in the country's economy. As of now, oil accounts for about 90% of the country's gross earnings. This new found wealth invariably pushed agriculture, the traditional mainstay of the economy between the early fifties and middle sixties, to the background. The new oil wells created enormous wealth for Nigeria. Literally, money was flowing like a river through every nook and cranny of the country. Every Nigerian knew by this time that the main source of the nation's wealth was its vast oil wells scattered all over the Delta region and environs.

Then came the era of military interregnum! The interference of the military in the democratic evolution of Nigeria which was characterized by its chain of coups and counter-coups, created a situation that became comfortable breeding grounds for rogue governments and business communities throughout the country.

The first problem was the way most of the oil companies treated their host communities. Nigerians from the oil producing states knew full well that the oil companies were simply greedy. They never really bothered about the lands which produced the oil they were so profusely exploring, or the welfare of the people who owned the land. Although the oil companies made spirited efforts to exonerate themselves from the allegation of neglect, one only needed to travel the very narrow roads in the Delta region in comparison with the rest of the country to have a feel of the level of injustice that was being perpetrated on those areas. No good roads, no portable drinking water, substandard and ill-equipped schools, few clinics also ill-equipped, mud houses with thatch roofs etc.In the midst of this excruciating poverty, the oil companies were pillaging billions of pounds daily. Their chief executives and top officers were living like mini-gods in the big cities, feasting with Presidents and Governors, walking tall on the corridors of power.

Everyone felt that this was like sitting on a keg of gunpowder. It could explode any time. And sure enough, sooner than later, the keg of gunpowder exploded and Nigeria's oil boom turned out to become its oil doom! Many daredevil organisations sprung up overnight in the Delta region. Most prominent among them was the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which claimed it was fighting for the rights of the deprived people of the Delta Region. MEND has since been responsible for a long string of destructions within the oil sector of the national economy.

By the time Chief Obasanjo was the President, so many disturbances to oil production had taken place. Wells had been destabilised. Oil workers, both local and foreign, had been kidnapped, some for ransom. Obasanjo knew he had to do something to stabilise the nation. He believed that if an indigene of Delta region was President, he would use his position to address the injustices that his people had suffered for so long. Obasanjo knew he had to do something about that because of his love for Nigeria and because he was anxious (from experience) to been seen as the man who stabilised Nigeria.

Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar 'Adua was Governor of Katsina state. And by some strange circumstance that saw his predecessor impeached, Dr Goodluck Jonathan had become Governor of Bayelsa State. Obasanjo knew that Musa was very ill. He had gone for treatments abroad as Governor. Obasanjo had it all worked out in his mind. He would sponsor Yar 'Adua to become Nigeria's next President. A Delta man would become his Vice. So, Obasanjo sponsored both Yar 'Adua and Jonathan as Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. Trust OBJ. He had it all mapped out in his mind. If President Yar 'Adua died from the pressure of work, the Delta man would take over as President. OBJ very much believed that a Delta man in the position of Nigeria's President would hold the magic wand that would break the circle of injustice that was being meted out to Delta people.

Yar 'Adua died in office. Jonathan became President. But the magic wand didn't happen. At-least, it hasn't happened. And the fact that this hasn't worked is, in a very special way, an eye-opener to politicians and political parties in Nigeria that “quota system” has not worked and will not work in a united Nigeria. The politics of the country is too complex for it to work. As a matter of fact, there is more trouble in the Delta Region now than ever before. Rivers State now boils as if it is a kettle of hot water.

On the other side of the coin is the Boko Haram insurgency.

To fully understand what the nation is into, we need to know how all this came about in the first place. We need to know that communal violence has been a constant and defining feature of life in Northern Nigeria for as long as history remembers. So has the mobilisation of faith-based political identities. And in a sense, these are some of the factors that gave Boko Haram relevance in its political quest.

Today, Borno State is the seat of the Boko Haram insurgency. It wasn't by an accident. Borno was the heartland of what was once known as the Kanem-Bornu Empire. This Empire was Islamized in the 11th century and it declined in the late 18thcentury when it was dislodged by Usman Dan Fodio in a successful jihad. Following the fall of the Empire, Sokoto Caliphate was established over and above it in 1809. But the practice of Islam in the Caliphate fell within the dictates of Sufism, possibly due to the influence of the British administrators of the country at the time.

Bornu was not comfortable with that. So, it turned to the more violent dictates of Mahdism – a faction of Islam which encouraged militancy and opposition to authority – as it spread westward from Sudan Africa .This school of thought preached that the Mahdi ('The Saviour') would reappear in times of difficulty. It preached that Muslims would get rid of oppression, that the unfaithful would be killed, and that Islam would triumph over evil. Assuring equity, peace, and riches for all, its message understandably appealed to the poor and the marginalised. That the message was widely embraced in Bornu was not surprising. The need to resist dominance by the Sokoto political masters could only be expressed through doctrinal differentiation. However, the administrators of colonial Nigeria were not comfortable with the practice of Mahdism either. They repulsed, and therefore resisted, its violent nature. This may have been responsible for the sect's insistence that Western education was evil.

More challenges to the Sokoto Caliphate came by the early 1970s when the 'Maitatsine' insurgency metamorphosed. By 1980, the movement had begun to make good on its violent threats. In 1982, it sparked off anti-establishment riots which saw 5,000 dead in Kano. In 1984, more clashes broke out. The government allied with Caliphate leaders, and the Maitatsine threat was nipped in the bud.

Yet the game had not played out. Sani Abacha's brutal rule of the 1990s grossly eroded the legitimacy of the Caliphate. A Kanuri from Borno tribe, Abacha was born and brought up in Kano. So, it was not that difficult for him to manipulate Islamic authorities on both sides of the divide to win support for his widely unpopular military interregnum. He imprisoned the Sultan and installed his preferred office-holder as successor. By the time he died and civilian rule had been restored, he had completely eroded centuries-old social and political power-base in, and structure of, the Islamic hierarchy in the North.

Obasanjo emerged as the only credible leader after Abdulsalami Abubakar who succeeded Abacha when he died. As a two-time President, Obasanjo felt the absolute need for power shift to the South after decades of predominantly northern military rule. And although that was not going to be easy, Obasanjo knew he had to do what he had to do. In the midst of the social confusion that attended the relief of the Presidency from Northern clinch, young Muslim aspirants again tried to assume their "God-given" place at the helm of the country's affair from a Northern position. In a spell of only three years, from 1999 when the current Constitution was ratified to 2002, twelve Northern states expanded Sharia Law in their various states. To understand Boko Haram's aims, strategy and language, therefore, we must first see the insurgency from its historical perspective.

Boko Haram insurgency is simply the result of the social and political upheavals that attended the ambition of younger pro-sharia Muslims in the wake of Northern politicians seeking to build a new religious constituency. Perhaps, this is why it has been very difficult to silence them. From every indication that buttresses their determination, Boko Haram's operations are known to be brutal and to many Nigerians somewhat senseless. But even at that, it is also clear that the Nigerian military is not going about its assignment the right way either. It is as if they do have in mind to suppress the old Kanem-Borno Empire. Moreover, there is no evidence that these spates of persistent violence are having any effect in subsiding the sustenance of the Boko Haram insurgency. The movement is still embarking on dangerously large-scale operations all over the Northern States and still having its high level of support. Indeed, in a sense, the army's alleged frequent killing of young people unconnected to Boko Haram has only helped to increase public antagonism towards the army and government, in effect serving the interest of the insurgents.

On the whole, it is obvious that Boko Haram wants to promote radical Islamism within Nigeria – a radical concept of Islam that is opposed to Western values. Therefore, if the Jonathan administration sincerely wants to proffer a lasting solution to the menace of both the Niger Delta dissidents and the Boko Haram insurgents, it must clearly recognise the need to dialogue with the right people in the conflicts. For instance, it has been wrongly or rightly suggested that some powerful politicians (who cannot be named) are behind the Boko struggle to enthrone a Sharia country, hopefully in the North. It has also been suggested that some governors know that their financial allocations from Abuja would be greatly enhanced if there is violence in their states. These schools of thought would be better informed if they see the Boko struggle from its historical perspective.

The Jonathan administration must not see Boko Haram as a militant threat by local Islamic extremists. On the contrary, the government at the centre must address the proclivity of shifting power structures in the North. It must find a way to provide at-least a window or better still a door for the expression of local Islamic aspirants – within the concept of a stable, united Nigeria. Any attempt to impede the aspirations of these determined Muslims to access regional power or to co-opt them into the national network of governance will simply be a waste of the government's precious time and money.

If Nigeria must come to terms with the challenges posed by the insurgency in the South-South and Northern Nigeria – these two faces of the same coin – a need to allow oil producing states in Nigeria to manage their own resources and pay tax to the central government must be recognised and put in place. In the same vein, a means must be created which will allow young, economically disadvantaged young men and women in the deprived areas of the North to access governance structures. Moreover, the long-standing friction within Islamic ruling hierarchies in the North must be resolved in a round-table conference by the Presidency in a spirit of nationalism.

*Mr Asinugo is a London-based journalist and editor of Trumpet newspaper

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Articles by Emeka Asinugo