Boko Haram and the evil of ignorance By Reuben Abati


THE current sectarian crisis in parts of Northern Nigeria highlights many of the fault lines in Nigerian politics; it further re-enacts a familiar Nigerian story about religious violence, poverty, ignorance and unemployment. Poverty and unemployment have combined to create a large army of angry youths in virtually every part of the country which can be employed for any kind of sinister task. For a small fee or even without paying a fee, you can recruit idle young men and women, give them arms and ammunition and ask them to do your bidding.

For as long as Nigeria remains underdeveloped and the leadership elite remains selfish, this pattern is bound to subsist. We must be worried about the increasing population of young men and women who are prepared to defy the state and sabotage it. The main promoters of the current crisis in the North are secondary school students, clerics, university drop outs and a former university lecturer.

Young people inflicting pain on the country and doing so brazenly are saying something much deeper about the Nigerian state: the impunity with which people readily take the laws into their hands, the proliferation of small arms, the inefficiency of the security agencies, and the near-absolute disregard for human lives. The Boko Haram fundamentalists insist that there must be the rule of the Sharia in every state of Nigeria and that Western education must be abolished because it is evil.

One of their leaders says he is opposed to the use of the Constitution to govern Nigeria. We seem to be paying the price for the failure of the Federal Government to deal decisively with the Sharia mischief under the Obasanjo administration. President Obasanjo had boasted then that the politics of Sharia would soon disappear. It hasn't. The fanatics argue that Western education should be forbidden because it is sinful, and that Western values are unacceptable. There is probably no point trying to respond to this obviously ignorant assertion. For as Moses Anegbode, the Assistant Inspector-General of police in charge of Zone 12, Bauchi pointed out, "They forbid anything western, yet their leader has an array of western materials in their position and their usage. Even the phone, SUVs, I wonder if they were made by him..."

Recurrent cases of violence in parts of Northern Nigeria and elsewhere in the country can be traced to the failure of governance. The Federal Government in the last few days has put up a rear-guard action to contain the insurgency which has spread across five states but the handling of the crisis is shoddy. The soldiers and the policemen involved in what is now known as Operation Flush II have been just as guilty as the insurgents. They have been shooting on sight rather indiscriminately, and since the fanatics do not wear a uniform there is no doubt that a lot of innocent persons have been caught in the crossfire. Human rights issues have been raised, most legitimately.

There has also been an excessive show of power. President Yar'Adua, before traveling out to Brazil had justified the state's response when he said that the security agencies are the ones who initiated the attack by launching "a pre-emptive" strike against the extremists after "tracking them for years". There is certainly nothing pre-emptive in their action. Where was the state when the insurgents set up a school where they trained and brainwashed young person to turn them against the state?

Members of the Boko Haram travelled across the Northern states to Maiduguri where they had planned to launch their holy war. Why didn't the security agencies pick this up, and nip it in the bud? The insurgents launched their attack in Maiduguri last Sunday, blocking the highway, and burning down houses, mosques and churches. They attacked the police headquarters, the police armoury, the Maiduguri prison, and burnt down police patrol vehicles. Within 24 hours, over 157 lives had been lost. It took a while before the Nigerian government responded. The police were caught unawares. The fanatics were so well organized they also struck in other cities: Kano and Bauchi; they represent a dangerous tendency that requires greater alertness on the part of the state. There was a failure of intelligence at play. And yet President Yar'Adua boasts as follows: "I want to assure that this administration will not tolerate any arms insurrection anywhere and in any part of the country. Anywhere any group of people begin to launch an insurrection and destruction against their fellow Nigerians they will be dealt with squarely and promptly."

This statement is probably directed, for effect, at the Niger Delta militants. It is possible to imagine that a similar "pre-emptive strike" may be on the cards in the Niger Delta after the expiration of the amnesty period. This may not be part of the President's calculation but were he to launch a fresh offensive in the Niger Delta next month, he could deflect charges of ethnic cleansing by claiming that he had ordered a similar operation in Northern Nigeria. A government that focuses on issues of governance and provides the leadership that the people need may not feel compelled to resort to such desperate tactics. In the North, Mohammed Yusuf and his band of fanatics, like El Zaky Zaky before them, have succeeded in further exposing the weakness of the Nigerian state and its institutions. For almost a week, the military and the police have been searching for the leader of the insurgency like a pin in a haystack. Pre-emptive strike indeed.

A big blow has been dealt again to the idea of national unity and cohesion. With incessant killings in Northern Nigeria, many Southerners in that part of the country have chosen to relocate elsewhere. Parents are reluctant to allow their children to participate in the NYSC scheme in the North. The gradual transformation of parts of the North into natural centres of violence has obvious implications for investment and development in that region. The religious elite in the North must take responsibility for the conversion of a religion of peace into a platform for less ennobling pursuits. The educated class in the north is also culpable. Apart from a few statements from the Northern Governors Forum, the JNI, the Sokoto Council of Ulamah and Imams, and the Sultan, they have all been very cautious in their responses. They are afraid, obviously. But more voices should be raised in condemnation of this primitive assault on the Nigerian public space.

Where is President Yar'Adua in all of this? He is, at the time of this writing, in Brazil sipping tea and exchanging diplomatic hugs. Meanwhile, Nigeria burns. The state visit to Brazil is so important to him he could not even ask that it should be postponed to enable him attend to the emergency at home. The Brazilians would have understood. But our president is in Brazil looking for partners. I hope he would have convincing explanations for those would-be partners about the slaughter of innocent women and children in Maiduguri, Yobe, Kano and Taraba. And hopefully, he will not feel embarrassed when his hosts draw his attention to sordid footages of the mayhem. What image of Nigeria would he sell to his hosts? The right place for President Yar'Adua to be, as a wave of violence spreads across Northern Nigeria, and as many as 500 lives have reportedly been lost, is home, not abroad. Leadership is about responsibility and care. Providing a justification for his trip, President Yar'Adua had insisted that he was scheduled to travel to Brazil last year, but the trip was aborted. Now, he cannot afford not to honour a second invitation! In addition to the crisis in the Northern states, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU has been on strike for a month. There is disquiet in the Niger Delta with the militants, the Governors and ordinary people protesting the proposed siting of a Petroleum University in Kaduna State. Before jetting off to Brazil, President Yar'Adua said the situation at home is "completely under control". I don't think so. Everything seems to be out of control around here.

When the President returns, there are specific issues that have gone out of control that he will need to address: the architects of the violence must be hunted down and made to face the full wrath of the law, the displaced persons in all the states must be assisted, and every effort should be made to begin a study of the aims and methods of religious fundamentalists and common criminals who seem to be thriving so much in part because the Nigerian state has failed to develop a memory bank for responding to their impunity.

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