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The savage killings and wanton destruction of property that characterised the recent terror attacks in Damaturu, Yobe State, have left a shell shocked nation and many commentators scratching their heads and searching for answers to the Boko Haram phenomenon. The carnage left in its wake over a hundred dead bodies. Charred remains of vehicles dotted the streets of Damaturu, and many public buildings went up in smoke. This is not the Nigeria many of us dreamt of or grew up to know.

I shook my head as I watched in utter horror and disbelief at the mayhem that was unleashed, wondering whether this was the same Damaturu, where I made twice-weekly trips as a young businessman residing in Kaduna in the early 1990s. Not once during those years did I ever entertain any fear of harassment, let alone being attacked, even though I am a Christian, and do not speak Hausa-Fulani.

It does appear like those days are gone forever. The climate of fear, suspicion, anger, and resentment has beclouded our collective sense of destiny as a people. Not surprisingly, questions are being asked as to the necessity of a united Nigeria made up of diverse ethnic nationalities with strong primordial loyalties.

The tone of despair is easily discernible in the question posed by Simon Kolawole in ThisDay on Sunday November 13, 2011: 'where do we go from here?' Without doubt, it is a question many Nigerians are asking at this point in time. But before we attempt to answer that question, it is pertinent that we find out how we got here in the first place.

Good governance Vs social order
Strenuous attempts have been made to trace the source of the current Boko Haram insurgency to the failure of governance at all levels in Nigeria, that the problem is one of poverty and lack of education. Professor Pat Utomi was quoted in Sunday Sun of November 13, 2011 as saying that terrorism 'is the revenge of the poor.' Professor Femi Odekunle, a criminologist at the University of Abuja, was quoted in ThisDay of Thursday October 6, 2011 as saying: 'what we are having now is not unexpected….in socio-economic terms, the more you deprive people of participation in the political and socio-economic process, the more insecurity you create. The renowned social scientist then postulated that 'only good governance will foster good social order, and thus eliminate the threats of insecurity,' adding that the current security challenges were as a result of the failure of government to provide job security, food security and social security.'

During her visit to Nigeria in August 2009, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, did not pull any punches in her criticism of the Nigerian government. 'The most immediate source of the disconnect between Nigeria's wealth and its poverty is the failure of governance at the federal, state and local levels,' she declared. 'Lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence and reject the authority of the state.'

Without doubt, there is a strong point to be made that the deplorable socio-economic conditions in the country, occasioned by inordinate graft among the political elite, has created the right conditions for social disorder. The ever widening gulf between the rich and poor in Nigeria, abject poverty and squalor in the midst of obvious plenty makes it easy for self-styled crusaders for justice to recruit youths for acts of terrorism, whether in the North, South South (Niger Delta militants), or in the South-East (as kidnappers). A hungry man, the old adage says, is an angry man.

Many Nigerians are angry at a system that cares little for the poor while political leaders live opulent lifestyles at their expense. They are angry at a state that confers national honours on men and women whose only claim to recognition is their access to the national treasury. They are angry at a system that pays lip-service to generating employment opportunities for the youth, thousands of whom cannot find a decent job years after they graduate from school. They are mad at the widespread nepotism in government and the marketplace, and they have lost hope in a system where thieving politicians get a slap on the wrist and are left to enjoy their loot leading to systematic pauperisation of the masses by successive governments.

As strong as this argument may be, things get a little sticky when you examine the profiles of terrorism masterminds. For instance, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, had everything going for him: the son of a wealthy and influential banker, he had access to the best of western education in Europe where he studied. El-Zakzakky, one of the pioneers of radical Islam in Nigeria, is believed to have jettisoned his first-class university degree in economics to pursue his vision of an Islamic state governed by the principles of Sharia. Although Mohammed Yusuf was reportedly a school dropout, it is significant to note that he drew the bulk of his initial followers from tertiary institutions in Borno and Yobe states viz; the University of Maiduguri, Ramat Polytechnic, Maiduguri, and Federal Polytechnic, Damaturu.

Reports had it that these converts withdrew from school, tore their certificates and joined the group for Qur'anic lessons and preaching. On the international level, aside from attending a university, the late Osama Bin Laden was the son of a billionaire construction magnate with close ties to the Saudi royal family. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a qualified surgeon born to an upper middle class family in Egypt. Quite clearly, therefore, the argument that poverty or lack of education is the immediate cause of terrorism is fatally flawed.

Terrorism is an ideology
Terrorism is an ideology rooted in religion, and it is not peculiar to Islam. The Jews in Bible days waged ceaseless guerilla warfare against the Roman government. As a matter of fact, they pioneered the concept of suicide bombing later in the 20th century. Christians have had the crusaders who killed both Muslims and Christians that did not agree with them. Maybe because of the embarrassment of admitting the ugly reality, or the assumption that it could lead to the stigmatisation of a particular religion we shy away from calling the problem for what it is. In a vain attempt to take religion out of the equation, moderate Muslims are quick to claim that 'Islam is a religion of peace.' But how do you solve a problem you do not want to admit is there? And it is this ambivalence that has brought us here.

Boko Haram is part of the global phenomenon of jihadism. Time and time again, these militant organisations, whether al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, or Boko Haram have made their intentions known to us - to establish Islamic states that would be regulated by Sharia. However, for reasons best known to us, we naively conclude that it cannot be their goal. We rationalise that it is unrealistic and, some may add, impossible for Boko Haram to Islamise Nigeria. Just because it sounds unrealistic to us does not mean they are not serious about it. When it comes to religious fanaticism, that which you call unrealistic is considered the product of a faithless mind, one that cannot grasp and embrace the power that absolute faith in an all-powerful God can do. It is the nature of religious fanaticism to be unrealistic and unreasonable; that shouldn't surprise us.

Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, once said: 'Peace for us means the destruction of Israel. We will not rest until we destroy Israel.' Sheikh Hassan al-Nasrallah, one of the leaders of Hezbollah, declared that he could not 'conceive of living in a state that is not Islamic.' Convinced that only the restoration of Sharia law could 'set things right' in the Muslim world, Bin Laden's ideology included the idea that innocent civilians, including women and children, are legitimate targets of jihad. He openly canvassed for the killing of those who propound alternative concepts such as socialism, communism, and democracy.

Where we missed it
From all accounts, the spectre of religious terrorism had been brewing since the 1970s, but was allowed to fester through a bad mixture of religious politics and political compromise. Very typical of us. Recent media reports have indicated that the upsurge in Boko Haram insurgency is the aftermath of government inertia and dubious handling of early warning signs. Some of us may be familiar with the embarrassing disclosure by Wikileaks that in early 2008 the government released 18 terror suspects under the State Security Service 'Perception Management' programme.

The cable alleged that the release of the suspects was to appease some northern traditional and Islamic leaders and 'to ensure Nigeria is not given the distasteful reputation of a 'terrorist safe haven.' But for more on this subject I will turn to Dr. Femi Adegbulu, a university teacher whose research paper on 'Home Grown Terror: A Study of Nigeria's Boko Haram' deserves careful study by all stakeholders in project Nigeria. He wrote: 'Operation Sawdust' carried out in 2005 by the military and the police encompassing Borno, Bauchi and Yobe states, led to the arrest of Islamic fundamentalists whose activities posed a threat to the security of the Nigerian State. Among those arrested were Yusuf Mohammed, the leader of the Boko Haram sect, a certain Bello Maiduga and Ore Ashafa. These arrests provided the first facts about the links between the fundamentalists and the Al-Qaeda terrorist group.

'The three arrested revealed they had been trained in terrorism in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Iraq. Items recovered during the operation included maps and diagrams of government establishments and of some specific buildings in Abuja (Newswatch, August 17, 2009: 69). They were kept in prison custody until ex-President Obasanjo left office in 2007. When Umar Yar'Adua assumed office as president, some Muslim scholars and religious elite in the North lobbied for the release of arrested terrorists by persuading him to believe that they were simply Islamic evangelists. Yar'Adua ordered the release of Yusuf and some of his cohorts.

Dozens of reports on the sect's activities were said to have been forwarded to President Umaru Yar'Adua and the Borno State government asking that the group be crushed. This went on for a long time until the security agencies were apparently frustrated by the conspiratorial silence of the state and federal governments on the matter. According to the Director General of the State Security Service, Afakriya Gadazama, 'information before this crisis started and others were passed to the appropriate quarters' (Okuta, 2010:4).… An Islamic teacher in Bauchi simply put the entire blame on government: 'In the North, our religion, Islam, is the number one thing. People may not send their children to the conventional school, but you can be sure that the kids will attend Quranic schools. So, in a typical village you may have one conventional primary school, and then have up to 20 small Quranic learning centres. Whatever is taught them at the Quranic school is accepted as a message from God. Unfortunately, government treats these schools as if they don't exist. (Danjibo, 2009).'

Dr. Adegbulu concluded: 'The obvious lack of circumspection on the part of government, coupled with the absence of deterrent mechanisms explains why the incidence of terrorism will continue intermittently for some time to come.'

Even more frightening is his disclosure that Mohammed Marwa, 'the alleged mastermind of the 1984 Maitatsine mayhem in Yola, is still in prison. His prosecution for about two decades appears to have run into a cul-de-sac, since all evidence against him remains circumstantial and prosecution unable to pin down witnesses to hang any sentence on the man. The implication is that the man may walk out of Yola prison into the society, a victorious and free man; and, characteristic of Nigeria's politico-judicial system, where deterrence is not a popular corrective measure, the case may be as good as closed.'

So, where do we go from here?
Like all other facets of our national life, such as education and economy, it took us quite a while to get into this mess. It will take some doing for us to get out of it. Mr. Kolawole hopes it will not take the government 'decades to get to the basics of Boko Haram.' It is my considered view that it will take as long it takes us to stop playing politics with the truth, as long as it takes us to stop living in denial, as long as it takes us to muster the political will to tackle the problem head on no matter whose ox is gored, as long as it takes us to reform our law enforcement, as long as it takes us to reverse the disproportionate ratio between the cost of law making vis-à-vis that of law enforcement, and as long as it takes us the citizens to realise that national security is a shared responsibility.

• Ekwugum is the publisher of LifeWay magazine in Lagos.