Ore Afin o Tan Afin: Notes on Religious Terrorism in Northern Nigeria
“Ore Afin o tan Afin, Afin l'on tan ara e” – the albino's friend is not deceiving the albino; it is Mr. Albino who deceives himself! No literal translation can carry the full weight of this proverb. It is one of those Yoruba sayings that must be illustrated and fleshed out for the cultural outsider to appreciate its full philosophical vigour. Imagine an albino area father who wields considerable authority over a horde of area boys at any paraga joint in a Lagos motor park. Every time our albino friend makes his entry into those familiar sites of area boy lingo and socialization, the boys hail him: “alaiye Baba! Oyinbo! Oyinbo Baba! Chairman Baba! Oyinbo! Enyting for your boyz Oyinbo Baba?”
If this albino area father acknowledges these modes of salutation the way area fathers are wont to do, if he revels in them and his face dissolves into spasms of ecstasy as he waves at the boys, there is a serious problem and that is what this proverb is about. For the boys are calling this albino “oyinbo” (white man) and he is acknowledging that identity and even basking in it. Who is deceiving who? If the boys persist in not knowing that their albino area father is not white, shouldn't our subject know that he is not a white man? When he acknowledges and legitimizes the oyinbo alias accorded him by the boys, he deceives himself. The boys who call him oyinbo are definitely not the ones deceiving him hence, “ore Afin o tan Afin, Afin l'on tan ara e”.
This proverb comes to mind when one recalls the modes of discourse that have attended the recent resurgence of domestic religious terrorism from Boko Haram to the latest Jos incident via Abdul Mutallab, Kalo Kato, and other specters of routine Islamist (note that I emphasize Islamist, not Islamic) bloodletting too numerous to mention. To limit things to just the last five years – for the sake of argument – is to stand in contemplation of the crystallization of Nigeria's long and gory march to domestic religious terrorism. Yet, public intellection on both sides of the Nigerian ideo-geographical divide (North/South) has largely discoursed this tragedy within the “ore Afin o tan Afin” philosophical paradigm. Naturally, we are paying for the betrayal of the ostrich-playing elite on both sides of the Nigerian divide with more blood and a body count that may now even shock our friends in the warrens of Gaza, Kandahar, and Baghdad.
Let's start with the simple process of recognizing and naming the problem. It is in fact shameful that it took the Americans – who designated us a country of interest – to name our problem precisely: terrorism of the Islamist variety. With the exception of Wole Soyinka's rigorous analysis of the situation in his essay, “The Precursors of Boko Haram” and Okey Ndibe's heartening interventions, what one witnessed was a rash of commentaries by some key intellectuals of southern extraction which smacked of prevarication, conceptual minimalism, attenuation, and outright denial of the enormity of the problem. I will call these southern commentators “ore Afin”, the albino's friends whose mission it is to misdefine the albino's condition, give him a false sense of security and comfort by convincing him that he is “oyinbo” (white) and not black.
From internet listservs to ezines like Sahara Reporters, Huhuonline, NVS, Pointblanknews, and others too numerous to mention, ore Afin from the south of the Niger poured so much critical energy and vital knowledge production into the cauldron of attenuation, euphemization, and minimization of the problem. His is a dangerous strategy of foisting a Blefuscan big-end approach on a serious but very specific national problem that urgently requires a Lilliputian little-end approach. For instance, as soon as the Abdul Mutallab incident happened on Christmas day 2009, the ore Afin Blefuscans of southern Nigeria went to work, asking us not to see that incident as the crystallization of a localized, specific form of religious terrorism domiciled in the north of Nigeria and which accounts for body counts starting with the Igbo massacres of the 1960s to Abdul Mutallab via such signposts as Maitatsine, Boko Haram, Kalo Kato, Jos, Gideon Akaluka, Christianah Oluwasesin, and Grace Ushang.
So gripping was the euphemization instinct on the ore Afin Blefuscans that they could not even see the inherent contradictions in their modes of discourse. Their strategy was to dissolve specifics into a mist of universalist abstractions and globalist permutations that offer no serious perspectives on the immediacy of the moment. This done, they proceeded to demonize and dismiss those who insisted on localizing and particularizing their analyses as anti-Islamic, anti-Hausa/Fulani, anti-North bigots. Hence rather than seize the Abdul Mutallab incident as a vital national moment to look inwards, name the problem properly, and evince serious initiatives to root it out once and for all, the ore Afins in the south went hunting for bland universalist paradigms: “ah, the boy was not radicalized in Nigeria; what about Britain and Yemen?”
The Americans, who very nearly lost a whole plane load of their people to our criminal negligence of never having done anything about our old problem of Islamist terrorism, did not escape the universalist fury of the ore Afin Blefuscans. How dare they help us name a problem we have been cowardly dancing palongo around since the 1960s? Aren't they implying that we have a terrorism problem by putting us on that list? We are not terrorists. We don't have a terrorism problem. Alas, Islamism is no respecter of discursive niceties! The ore Afins had only about four days for this sort of noise making before events made a cruel and tragic joke of their claims.
Abdul Mutallab was on December 25, 2009, Kalo Kato exploded in Bauchi state on December 29, 2009, smack in the middle of their anti-American bloviation. Kalo Kato claimed about 40 Nigerian lives. The four days we spent playing the ostrich, blaming the Americans, and being in denial after Abdul Mutallab, could have saved those lives if only we had immediately seized the Abdul Mutallab moment to gaze real hard in the mirror… but the ore Afins of eNigeria kept claiming that to call the problem domestic terrorism and to localize where it always occurs in the north was to be a bigot.
The ore Afin Blefuscans of southern Nigeria were not done. When Kalo Kato took the wind off their sail, they merely changed tack, left the global stage and returned to Nigeria to fish for every spectre of violence that has ever happened elsewhere in Nigeria as reason why the peculiar problem of religious terrorism in the north must not be engaged on its own specific terms. The Niger Delta struggle was an auspicious bonanza for this new line of argument. The 'gold rush' by the confusionist generalizers to showcase the ubiquity of violence in Nigeria led to a tragic equation of the long-drawn legitimate struggle that is associated with heroes like Isaac Adaka Boro and Ken Saro-Wiwa with the murderous actualities of Islamist terrorism.
As if the fact that criminal elements had hijacked that legitimate cause in the Niger Delta and had indeed turned it to a form of terrorism was sufficient reason to begin to discourse two disparate and completely unrelated forms of violence as two sides of one evil coin. The need to prove that terrorism abounds in the Niger Delta – just as in northern Nigeria – forced the ore Afin Blefuscans of southern Nigeria to continually insult the struggle of the Niger Delta by forgetting that it has its inflatus in years of eco-genocidal practices by oil companies and the impoverization of the goose that lays the golden egg by the criminal Federal Government of Nigeria. Despite its hijack by criminal forces and the attendant encrustations of terrorism, the Niger Delta struggle is undergirded by a social justice, environmentalist, and humanitarian telos. That is the tripodal core of the Niger Delta struggle, irrespective of the regrettable plunge into terrorism by criminal hijackers of that legitimate struggle.
We need to ask the southern Nigerian intellectuals who are riotously staging epistemic insult online by pointing to the Niger Delta as evidence that terrorism is not exclusive to the north: at what point did they discover that Maitatsine, Boko Haram, or Kalo kato have social justice and humanitarian revendications at their core like the Niger Delta struggle? When these intellectuals are not muddling up issues with the Niger Delta, they throw everything they can find into their cauldron of confusion: every communal clash that has ever happened anywhere in the southwest, southeast, and south-south are suddenly brandished as evidence of our collective human vulnerability to violence; the racial past of the United States is dredged up and you get ecstatic declarations: “see see see, they had also had terrorism, race riots, and massacres in the US o! We are not alone!”
Of course, terrorism is not exclusive to northern Nigeria. Nobody ever claimed it was! Of course violent clashes and bloodletting aren't exclusive to northern Nigeria. But terrorism of the Islamist variety is. And the ore Afin Blefuscans of southern Nigeria continue to hedge, dodge, prevaricate, or refuse outright to name this malaise. They refuse to deal with the body count. And it just so happens that Islamist terrorism tops the global agenda more than any other form of terrorism. What is more, the ore Afin confusionists of the south always bank on the fact that not too many reading Nigerians do nuance. Hence, a critique of Islamism (the ideology which twists Islam and turns it upside down) is always equated with a blanket criticism of and hostility to Islam; a critique of the tiny fragment of religious and political opportunists in the northern elite who invest in Islamism and profit from it is also always equally seen as a blanket and bigoted pillorying of the north and her people. With such pervasive lack of nuance, it is easy to make demons of those who name the problem in the north – Islamist terrorism – and that is precisely what the ore Afins in the south do.
If the ore Afins in southern Nigeria continue to minimize the problem; if they continue to euphemize it by using their big-enders globalist approach to evade the localized specifics of the matter; if they insist that we should not say that this specific form of terrorism is domiciled in the geographical area covered by Nigeria's sharianistan but we should rather talk generally about violence in all parts of Nigeria and the need for Britain and the US to be designated terrorist countries, what about Afin (the albino) himself in northern Nigeria?
This is where it gets interesting. Intellectually and ideologically, I am able to read two Norths in terms of how the elite perspectivize the national question. There is the north of Nuhu Ribadu, Col Abubakar Umar (rtd), Najatu Mohamed, Nasir el Rufai, Aminu Masari, Balarabe Musa and other progressives too numerous to mention, especially the crop of writers assembled for Leadership newspaper by Sam Nda Isaiah, Hannatu Musawa in particular. But precisely because the progressive camp in the north has never been able to clearly articulate a coherent response to and praxis against the banality of religious terrorism, let alone challenge the Caliphal conservatives as the dominant face of the north, the production of meaning has been conceded to hard core conservative jihadist intellectuals in the ilk of Mohammed Haruna, Adamu Adamu, and other Jihadi writers assembled by the newspaper, Daily Trust.
Although a number of public commentators have had occasion to comment on the insufferable jihadic arrogance of the Mohammed Harunas and the Adamu Adamus of this world, the latest being Bishara John Goni in his widely-circulated treatise, “Plateau, the Middle Belt, and the Myth of One North”, few commentators, including John Goni, have made an organic connection between the jihadic brazenness of the Adamu Adamus and the Mohammed Harunas on the one hand and the coterie of southern minimizers of the problem on the other hand.
The connection between the two camps lies in the affects and effects of discourse. Through the repetitive euphemization of the problem, the southern minimizers create an atmosphere that comforts the sort of discursive brashness you encounter often in the writings of some northern Jihadi intellectuals who would rather not have the problem properly defined and are in fact not inclined to face it squarely. Thus, ore Afin in the south screams from the roof top: “Afin my northern brother, don't mind these noise making bigots. Religious crisis is a universal problem jare! We are all capable of violence. Evil is part of human nature. There is violence everywhere from the Niger Delta to the Amazonian jungle via the kukukuru hills!”
And Afin in the north responds: “yeah man, you're right my broda! You are a great detribalized intellectual! You are not like those anti-North and anti-Islamic bigots saying we have a problem of religious terrorism in the North! Those Yoruba and Igbo bastards are always talking nonsense”! Tragically, Afin in the north laps up the soporific discourses of his southern ideological comforters and servicers. Sadly, this marriage of deception between ore Afin and Afin is paid for with Nigerian limbs and lives for they will not let us name the problem, let alone address it squarely.
In the rush to demonize those who insist on calling a spade a spade by identifying Nigeria's problem of religious terrorism and its localization in the northern part of the country, ore Afin and Afin conveniently ignore the fact that other problems of violence in the country are predominantly discoursed according to their prevalent geographical localization without anybody raising the spectre of bigotry. Hence, evocations of kidnappings in national discourse always imply localization in the south-south and southeast; mention political assassinations and there is a discernible pattern of discoursing that scourge as a southwest malaise. If these specific aspects of our national tragedy are always discoursed in relation to their predominant geographical areas of actuation, why is it anathema to localize Islamist terrorism where it mainly occurs? Why is it bigotry to name the problem as a precondition to solving it?
Ours is a polity fraught with some of the most benumbing fault lines associated with modern nationhood. Beneath the veneer of problems commonly shared – poverty, horrible governance, infrastructure, etc – are pernicious localized or regionalized problems that need to be apprehended and engaged in terms of their localized historical provenance and trajectories. If some Christian sects are labeling children witches and killing them from Port Harcourt to Calabar, my intellectual responsibility is to name the problem in terms of its specifics and in registers that would expose the brutal and barbaric nature of the problem and not to rush to the archives to fish for evidence of the killing of child witches in Sokoto. Afin will solve his problem the day he looks into the mirror and stops seeing Oyinbo.
By Pius Adesanmi