#BringBackOurGirls: Boko Haram and the Hydra-headed monster in Nigerian Politics
I haven't written for a long time. The reason: distress writ large about Nigeria and our girls who have now been in captivity for well over 3 months. There's nothing less desirable for me than writing this. The piece I'd rather write is that which leads the crowing and jubilation about Nigeria's newfound stature as the largest economy in Africa. Alternately, I’d rather write one that points out some glorious achievement or another that my country of origin or its intrepid people have accomplished. So for many days I've put this onerous assignment on my back burner. I also felt conflicted. At one point I just hadn't done enough in my estimation to deserve the luxury of armchair pontificating. I also had my constant need to study more. Perhaps there was something about the Boko Haram situation that I didn't know or understand; perhaps there's some stellar analysis out there; perhaps.... Now that I'm professor #BringBackOurGirlsNYC, I have earned the right to give what I hope is enlightened, thoughtful and well-reasoned response to this horrific situation, this unfolding tragedy, this cataclysmic rending of the social and political fabric of Nigeria.
There's a pervasive tendency toward uni-dimensional analysis by many who have commented on the Boko Haram issue. Some see this as an issue concerning inequitable denial of girls' access to education. Others see human trafficking looming large. For yet others, this is a Muslim attack on Christians. Some consider it a case of humanitarian crisis. Many in Southern Nigeria see it as a Northern problem. I see the problem as hydra-headed since it has elements of each dimension enumerated immediately above. And yet it's more. The problem is structural, historical, political and economic, and it has extraordinary and profound ramifications.
Boko Haram is widely perceived as the source of the problems of insecurity that currently beset Nigeria. But it is not. What it has successfully done is to exploit the weaknesses in the body politic to push its agenda of forcing its own warped perspective of what the proper observance of Islam should be on all the people it encounters. It does not brook resistance, and disagreement with it is met with overwhelming force that aims to destroy, even obliterate opposition. It challenges traditional as well as post-colonial state, as witnessed by its destruction of state-owned infrastructure, battles where it increasingly deploys superior firepower against state security forces; foiled abduction and assassination attempts on Muslim traditional rulers, including the Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero, in February 2013; the assassination of the Emir of of Gwoza in May 2014, the attacks against a former Head of State, Muhammadu Buhari, and the moderate Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi on July 28. UN House in Abuja was bombed as were numerous churches, markets, and countless public gathering places. The terror and mayhem inflicted on the Nigerian people by Boko Haram are unprecedented in the annals of Nigerian history.
Boko Haram is not the source of insecurity. The structural problems that were set in motion by the establishment of the modern Nigerian state under the tutelage of the British colonizers are responsible for the emergence of Boko Haram. The most serious aspect of those problems include the weakness of the state and the inability or unwillingness of its custodians to prioritize the security of Nigerians. This enabled not only Boko Haram, but other militia groups to thrive and permitted them to act with impunity. It is the absence of the state and its lack of awareness of its most fundamental reason for being that allows an insurgent militia to strike at will, mostly unchallenged to wreak havoc and mayhem in a region of the territory under its sovereign control that the state itself says is “very remote”. Sovereignty over an area means that it can never be too far to be availed of the same basic protections as the capital, otherwise, the state might as well pack up shop.
Structurally, there is a North-South divide that drives ongoing struggles for access to political goods, including the proceeds from the natural resources produced by Nigeria. Complicating that struggle is the Christian-Muslim divide, the sectarian divides among Muslims, the rampant and grinding poverty of the masses of Nigerians, which is more extreme in the North, the mass unemployment of even educated youth, inadequate and atrociously barren educational opportunities of the children of the poor, lack of social welfare for the teeming masses, and increasingly, a refusal to accept this as a perpetual fate of the poor who bow and kow tow to the wealthy, who are indifferent to their plight. The indifference of the wealthy is a key part of the resentment and anger that gives Boko Haram a ready army of footsoldiers to carry out its horrendous agenda.
The incapacity of the state to challenge Boko Haram and bring it to heel is another key element. A third element is the embrace by even those who barely managed to claw their way into middle class status, of the gross inequities and stark inequality that is writ large in Nigeria. These are people who have escaped poverty and never want to see it again. They thus distance themselves from the plight of the poor. Many only get passionate when they are consuming the exploitative and manipulative interpretations of their chosen religion’s tenets by their favorite "Man or Woman of God”/clergy. The wealthy spend their sometimes ill-gotten resources with wanton disregard for the plight of the struggling masses. The state elite is part of this nouveau riche, and it is also blatantly uncaring about the poor and oblivious to their needs. It was caught unawares when Boko Haram came calling. It still refuses to go beyond its very limited comfort level because it would rather see the problem as one caused by its political enemies who would rather not have a replay of a Jonathan administration. One wonders who is advising the Federal Government of Nigeria and why it continues to embrace policies that don’t work.
The state governments in the Northeast of Nigeria where Boko Haram has been most destructive have also succumbed to imposing “easy” solutions, such as the establishment of vigilante groups to battle Boko Haram. Regardless of the success of the vigilantes, it is difficult to see the groups as advantageous to the corporate integrity of the state. Vigilantes are not legally constituted entities. They may be seen by pragmatic people as a stop-gap but they challenge the very existence of the state because they are in essence an admission that the state has failed.
Boko Haram’s violent reign of terror has not been checked in any appreciable way by the Nigerian government and this has caused a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. 3 million people have been displaced by this violence. Millions have also escaped from affected areas to neighboring countries. They are in dire straits and there’s no meaningful response by NEMA and the various SEMAs. The inability of the Nigerian state to check Boko Haram, (which by the way, is not the first insurgent movement in the area, having been preceded most recently by the Maitatsine millenarian movement in the 1980s), is at the heart of the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
As the humanitarian crisis unfolds, there is devastating disruption of everyday life and the tendency of the wealthy to distance themselves from the plight of the poor means that many in close proximity to the affected areas also do not see this crisis as their problem. It is the problem of the vulnerable poor. The farther the distance of the wealthy to the epicenter of the Boko Haram controlled zone, the more their blasé attitude and determination to carry on business as usual. Nigerians should be ashamed! Even so, there is a possibility of redemption if we all gird our loins and engage the struggle of making sure that we rescue those beset by Boko Haram predators, and by so doing, begin to rescue Nigeria from its serious structural flaws that are most damaging to the body politic.
Being the largest economy in Africa is well and good, but it means nothing if there is no peace and security, if majority of Nigerians are still scrabbling in the dirt for their day to day sustenance, if our communications infrastructure is at best inadequate, at worst, decrepit and decayed; if our educational system is full of substandard institutions that are poorly funded and neglected because the children of the wealthy and upper middle class have alternatives. It is most unseemly that the majority of the citizens of a country as wealthy as Nigeria are in the dire straits that have become their norm. Growing into the true manifestation of the largest economy in Africa means Nigeria begins to take care of ALL its people. Since there’s no existing culture of doing this in a serious way, doing it well will be challenging, but it’s not impossible.