By Emmanuel Chigozie Osuchukwu
Nigeria is presently in a dangerous impasse and there are many who believe that the country is on the throes of disintegration. If the mindless insurgency and bloodletting ravaging particularly the Northern part of the country is not enough evidence, the ongoing national conference is a clear indication that all is not well. The primary question is how Nigeria got to this dreadful position – to a point where it is safer to live in Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia. Thanks to a new phenomenon called Boko Haram. Then we ask again, who or what is Boko Haram? I can only at this point say that it is a faceless organisation that we are unsure who they really are except that they are predominantly people drawn from the Northern part of Nigeria, with a clear proclivity towards Islamic fundamentalism and a violent disapproval of mainstream Nigerian, albeit western values. We could also say a sort of rebels without cause.
There is nothing really surprising about the emergence of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. Many commentators saw it coming and many were condemned for ever predicting that Nigeria will come to such a state. Hence today the Nigerian press is full of comments such as: ‘serves the North right’; ‘they should have seen it coming’; ‘they brought it on themselves’ etc. It is not that such commentators are not appalled by the wanton killing of innocent women and children or grieve over the senseless killing of now mostly Northern Nigerian youths who could easily have become tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, teachers and footballers. But many Nigerians have grown up to believe that the North somehow does not disapprove of senseless killing of innocent lives and we have strong reasons stretching over many decades to assume so. The only surprise is that those who should have anticipated it are the very ones expressing surprise and blaming others for the pitiable state of particularly Northern Nigeria and the country generally. Some supposedly knowledgeable Northern opinions have gone as far as accusing the federal government of President Jonathan of masterminding the ongoing killings in the north. But let us put Boko Haram and the problem of the North in its true perspective.
I will only attempt a very abridged explanation here. The origins of Boko Haram are embedded in the history of the north and how the north evolved in contemporary Nigeria. It is not surprising to me that the North has produced such a vicious and blood thirsty group like the Boko Haram. Boko Haram is the culmination of the North’s worrying social and historical factors and many knew that it was only a matter of time that the North was caught up with the contradictions of their society. Boko Haram is a complicated mixture of northern attitude towards Nigeria; inappropriate use of religion in socio-political affairs and the very nature of northern social structure.
The irony of Nigerian history is that the North has been a reluctant member of the Nigerian nation. Right from the inception of Nigeria, the North has been reluctant to be fully integrated into the Nigerian state. From the time of amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorates in 1914 the North preferred to be preserved as an entity of its own and with its socio-religious features intact. Again instead of looking downwards to the South to embrace their fellow Southern citizens they preferred to look Northwards to Chad, Niger, parts of Cameroon and Mali as their preferred brothers – an attitude I will elaborate later has come to hunt Nigeria today. Since then the North has been pitted against the South and it is not surprising that a geographical entity called Northern Nigeria that ceased to exist autonomously 100 years ago is still hunting Nigeria.
One of the historical legacies burdening Nigeria today is the the preeminence of religious issues in pre and immediate post-independence affairs of the North. Any honest scrutiny of the north will indicate a worrying emphasis on religion. The North most particularly from Sir Ahmadu Bello maintained dangerously close ties between the government and Islamic religious matters. After his death, most of the subsequent Northern leaders including the military ones did not bother to separate their public office from religious affairs. Their Islamic religious affinity can be read through their policies and their religious bias glaringly obvious. Ahmadu Bello is a highly revered Northern leader and in fact the undisputed spiritual leader of the North but ironically he caused a lot of damage to the North. As indicated earlier, when the British colonial powers arrived in Nigeria, they found the Hausa Fulani aristocratic social system very beneficial and proceeded to preserve their social system and unfortunately its archaic and hierarchical class structure. Ahmadu Bello, the grandson of Othman Dan Fodio became the Premier of Northern region and saw it as his manifest destiny to consolidate the gains of his grandfather. He at various times, noted that the British were ‘the instruments of destiny’, and that their conquest of Nigeria was ‘fulfilling the will of God’. And indeed, that colonialism was a blessing for the spreading of Islam, not only in Nigeria, but also in other parts of West Africa. He asserted that ‘in half a century of European colonization Islam progressed more widely and more profoundly than in ten centuries of pre-colonial history’.
During the pre- and immediate post-independence politics, while Nnamdi Azikiwe was struggling to create a new united nation called Nigeria and Obafemi Awolowo was struggling to advance his people into a modern era, Ahmadu Bello had the opposite preoccupation. With the support of the British and having achieved a preserved status, the North under Ahmadu Bello proceeded to adopt policies that continue to hunt the Northern region of Nigeria. One of the concomitants of preserved status and obsession with religion was the exclusion of Christian missionaries in the North. Since missions were accompanied by schools and hospitals, they resulted in the emergence of educational opportunities and Western lifestyle in the country’s South and in parts of the Middle Belt. In contrast, the Islamic North remained protected from the influences of Western modernity, and this explains in part why the far North areas of Nigeria are still among the poorest and least developed regions in Africa. Reservation about western education with time became the norm in the North. Lacking the wherewithal to compete in modern Nigeria, the North over the years embarked on policies that pampered Northerners in the country. Firstly, Ahmadu Bello’s Northernization policies meant the exclusion of non-northerners from any public office in the region. In his words, ‘the Northernization policy does not only apply to Clerks, Administrative Officers, Doctors and others. We do not want to go to [Lake] Chad and meet strangers (i.e., southern Nigerians) catching our fish in the water, and taking them away to leave us with nothing. We do not want to go to Sokoto and find a carpenter who is a stranger nailing our houses. I do not want to go to the Sabon-gari Kano and find strangers making the body of a lorry, or to go to the market and see butchers who are not Northerners’. Subsequent Northern leaders intensified the preserved status with the policy of quota system which practically meant that Northerners could enter the federal public service with far lower academic qualifications than their Southern compatriots. It also meant that a JAMB candidate from the North can enter the University with minimal score in comparison to the highly competitive score for Southern candidates. To maintain this status quo became an obsession for Northern leaders and sometimes a bargaining tool with Southern politicians. Policies like Northernization and quota system made the insidious slogan of ‘one north, one people’ an attractive idea. In many instances, irrespective of religion or tribe the idea of retreating into the Northern shell became attractive as this guaranteed unfair advantage to the few northerners who had access to western education and also the political elite. But it had the negative effect of constantly placing the North against other Nigerians and according to many analysts the inability of the North to live up the demands of modern era.
To the ironical misfortune of the North and by stroke of historical accident in 1966, the North achieved total control of Nigeria’s political destiny. At some point it seemed that Ahmadu Bello’s prediction of Nigeria being the estate of the Northern ruling class was real. It was so real that during General Abacha’s military dictatorship the Nigerian federal government was aptly described as Northern Nigeria PLC. Northern hegemony reached its climax and reinforced the mentality that Nigerian political leadership and how Nigeria is to be governed is the exclusive domain of the North or whoever they deem fit to exercise that right on their behalf. The ordinary followers in the North believed it and the few Northern individuals who benefited from the privileged status masked a neglected and corroding region.
With the return of civil politics, the rules of the game changed and the North had to relearn how to operate in a competitive political environment and it has not been easy for the North to appreciate that the arrogant disposition of ‘I must rule’ has no place in a modern democracy. Northern leaders who have always had their way got stuck in their old tricks without realising that a magician has to continually improve on his tricks to convince the crowd. In the past it paid handsome dividends to beckon on the mob to start burning and killing when they can’t get their way. Since 1945 the North has on numerous occasions called out the mob to unleash mayhem on Southerners, particularly the ever visible Igbos. In 1966 the North planned, organized and executed, apart from the Rwandan experience the most genocidal killing ever perpetrated in the continent of Africa. Tens of thousands of Easterners, innocent women and children included were massacred in the most gruesome manner. Irrespective of any provocation, it remains the high point of Nigeria’s bestiality. The then Federal military government did nothing about it and since then the North has been emboldened into descending on innocent people to press their point. Even the work of a Danish cartoonist far away in Europe was enough reason to descend on the Igbos living in Northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram then appeared but this time a new scenario was factored in. Initially it looked like another wave of anti-Igbo and anti-Christian killings have erupted. Nigeria failed to appreciate a developing dimension in mob action. Our normal Northern rioters and killers were armed with bows and arrows, machetes and daggers. The new insurgents have AK 47s, bombs and heavily armed motorised units. The northern leaders particularly did not fully appreciate the dangerous global trend in Islamic fundamentalism and its terrorist accompaniment. Northern Nigeria with its history of rioting and mindless killing was a fertile ground for foreign insurgents looking for new theatres of operation. Northern Nigeria with a huge reservoir of disgruntled, hopeless and vulnerable Muslim youths presented a new theatre of war against anyone who does not share in their Islamic world view. As stated earlier, Northern leaders have always looked to Niger, Chad and Northern Cameroons citizens as their kith and Kin as a result of language and religious affinity. During the civil war citizens of these countries who joined the Nigerian Army committed the worst atrocities imaginable in Igboland. With a history of easy passage through our borders and their treatment as bona fide citizens in the north, infiltration of Nigeria by hardened terrorists was an easy task. Al Qaeda and similar violent Islamic groups already operating in other parts of Africa had a free passage and a welcoming host in Northern Nigeria. The new terrorists are no longer our rioting almajiris and mass of illiterate and unemployed youths simply organised and edged on by religious and political leaders to achieve political ends. Boko Haram is a fusion of a decadent Northern socio-political system that refused to improve the conditions of its citizenry; a society that is living on a terrible lie that its members are condemned to perpetual penury while its leaders and their children lived in the most stupendous lifestyle imaginable in the world; a total lie that education is incompatible with their religious life while their own children trained in the best colleges across the globe; a terrible lie that there is a war to be fought against the infidels of the south while their children ate and drank with people of different religious persuasions all over the world; dangerous lies that it is unacceptable to be ruled by a non-Muslim while they collaborated with Southern politicians to enrich themselves to the detriment of their followers. Against this background international jihadists with access to lethal weapons of mass destruction arrived and gave a new dimension to an already volatile situation. Now I doubt if the current Boko Haram is prepared to listen to their hosts but this will be subject of part 2 of this article.
Nigeria will never be the same again. But fellow Nigerians, do not despair yet. Boko Haram may be a terrible and costly blessing in disguise. Book Haram may have helped to expose the level of decay in the North and may have accelerated the point we needed to reach for Nigeria to change. For Nigeria to change, the North needed to change. No real change will occur in Nigeria without the North changing and the North is brought to embrace the standard ideals identifiable with a 21st century nation. Don’t forget that many Yorubas are Muslims and they are not a liability to Nigeria. The issue is not about Islam. After all the Quran elaborates the right to life, respect, equity, justice and liberty, the right to acquire knowledge, to work, the right to basic need and to privacy. The issue I am describing here is a unique Northern Nigerian problem. For decades we have treated the North with extreme sensitivity. With time sensitivity turned into fear of the North. The fear of who knows what riots and killings they are going to unleash if they don’t get their way. Stupefied as we were, they stopped the south from looking into the despicable injustices meted out to our fellow citizens in the north. In the end northern leaders and the society they created constituted a cog in the wheel of Nigeria’s progress.
We are about to cross a new threshold. Why do you think Nigerian leaders are rattled and have convened a national conference? Firstly we have to recognize that the responsibility for Boko Haram rests squarely with Northern religious and political leaders. They are responsible for the value systems that created Boko Haram and cannot evade that responsibility now by accusing the Federal government of Nigeria, simply because a Northerner is not the President of Nigeria. Northern leaders I believe realise that they have shot themselves badly and they are equally helpless. Would they learn any lessons from the Boko Haram debacle? To start with, Northern leaders may take the opportunity to reflect on the numerous rioting and mass killings that have been a regular feature of Northern Nigeria. They may acknowledge that with time Northern youths developed the mentality that they can just erupt, kill innocent people and get away with it as has always been the case. Having done that I believe that:
- From now Northern religious and political leaders will be hesitant in giving support to mob action having seen the potentially disastrous effect of such course of action. They may begin to recognise that rioting hurts both the victims and perpetrators. A lot of Northerners have realised that the southerners they wasted or who fled with their resources are vital to their economy.
- Our democracy will be strengthened as a result of this calamity. Northern leaders have no aversion to the use of violence in achieving political ends. It is either they are organising the mob for street action as was the case in particularly 1945,1953, 1966 and 2011 particularly or conniving with the military to execute military coups. Military coups are no longer possible and now mob action has disastrously backfired. Northern leaders will now be forced to learn how to operate in a competitive democratic political system.
- Northern elite may recognise the potential hazard of repressing millions of young men and women and that failure to empower mass of millions of people is simply creating a potential minefield that will engulf both victims and oppressors.
One other significant positive development from the Boko Haram insurgency is the flight of young Northern men from the far North to the relative safety of the East. There is hardly any town in the South East without the visible presence of mostly young men from the North. What they will see may make a difference. They will possibly see that Southerners are not blood thirsty cannibals as they have been indoctrinated to believe. They may also learn that those Southerners they have been chasing about are just ordinary Nigerians looking for opportunities to make a living in their own country. They may also learn that there is hardly any town in the South East without a few primary and secondary schools and almost all of them built by community efforts. They may also learn that these hustling young men and women return home to look after their family and at least build homes for themselves. They may also learn that the young medical doctors or other professionals in their villages in the North are sons and daughters of farmers, wine tappers and labourers who got to where they are by their own personal efforts and families.
Every Northerner, Muslim or Christian have their share of the blame for Boko Haram because they acquiesced to the ideals that define the entity called Northern Nigeria. One cannot pick and choose when to be a Northerner. Therefore the South has a message for the entire North. You and you only can solve the current problem of Boko Haram insurgency. Over the years the South developed extreme sensitivity towards the plight of Northern Nigeria. We became too afraid to shout. We are sorry because this served the Northern elite a useful purpose as the South cowed into their shell while they created the monstrous society that bred the Boko Haram phenomenon. The time has come for Nigeria to dispense with our sensitivity and tell the North a few home truths. We need to tell the Northern elite that they have an obscene appetite for power. Having monopolized power for the greater part of our independence what we see is ruling elite that used their monopoly of power to their scandalously personal advantage. Conversely, their region is noted for the worst records of abject poverty; prevalence of diseases that have been controlled or eliminated in other parts of the world; worst record of illiteracy in the continent of Africa. The worst of it all is indoctrinating their own people into believing that they are not good enough to compete with others and there is no point in aspiring and improving themselves to cope with the demands of 21st century. Northern penury became a bargaining chip for the elite to gain more concessions from the South. The unmanageable population of the North became a tool in the hands of the Northern elite without reminding the common people that in the 21st century you have to think of how to train your offspring. Politics is a game of numbers we are often reminded by Northern politicians. Now the region they lead and obtained numerous concessions for more than 50 years now are nowhere near the southern part of the country. It is a fact that after many years of giving concessions to the north, one State in the South-East produces more JAMB candidates than the 2 far-North geo-political zones with about 13 states. Whose fault? Definitely, it is not the fault of the South. After many years of granting the North concessions, the Southern states are almost exclusively remitting over 21 billion dollars annually through their sons and daughters in the diaspora. Thanks to the huge investments in education in their home states. We know the destination of foreign remittances into Nigeria. Where is the north? Can you imagine what Nigeria would look like if the north is pulling their weight? Today Nigeria has a Police Service with service men who can hardly express themselves in one correct English sentence. Can you imagine the outcry of anti-north policy if we insist that only graduates should be recruited into the police service? Many states in the South will meet the criteria. Would the North? These are few examples to highlight the level of the backwardness of the North and the frustrations building up in Nigeria.
Today it is the Boko Haram of the North - the misguided and pampered children of the North. The day the short-changed and blatantly cheated youths of the South run out of patience the conflagration will be uncontrollable.
(Osuchukwu is a London based writer. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or tel. +447880600236)