Nigeria's problem isn't Islamist fundamentalism -- it's the country's corrupt and self-serving government.
- By Jean HerskovitsJean Herskovits is research professor of history at the State University of New York, Purchase. She has been traveling to Nigeria for nearly four decades, most recently two weeks ago.
Nigeria’s latest spate of violence — which began with attacks on police stations in four northern states — is not what it seems. Superficially, the story looks similar to (though it was not connected with) outbreaks of Islamist fanaticism elsewhere in the world: An Islamist sect run amok, threatening a town’s security, demanding an end to Western institutions, and seeking to impose a strict religious code. But instead, the clashes are a northern Nigerian version of what is happening in another (mostly Christian) region of the country, the Niger Delta. Both are violent reactions to the flagrant lack of concern on the part of those who govern for the welfare of the governed.
Ten years of supposed democracy have yielded mounting poverty and deprivation of every kind in Nigeria. Young people, undereducated by a collapsed educational system, may "graduate," but only into joblessness. Lives decline, frustration grows, and angry young men are too easily persuaded to pick up readily accessible guns in protest when something sparks their rage. Meanwhile, those in power at all levels ignore the business of governing and instead enrich themselves. Law and order deteriorate. The Nigerian police, which are federal, are called on, but they have grievances of their own. Ill-trained, ill-paid, and housed in squalid barracks, they are feared for their indiscriminate use of force. The military, though more professional, is not prepared for dealing with unrest — and unrest has proliferated more and more.
Of course, this most recent eruption — which left 700 dead, more wounded, and thousands displaced — had its own peculiarities. Not all uprisings in diverse Nigeria are the same, though usually they are predictable. This time, the principal player was an Islamist sect based in Maiduguri in Borno state and led by 39-year old Mohammed Yusuf. Its name, Boko Haram, translates more or less as "Opposition to Western Education."
Even established leaders of Islam in the north, who condemn Yusuf’s preaching, are aware of how government has failed Nigeria’s young. What has Western education done for them lately? For that matter, what have other Nigerian institutions, all easily seen as Western-inspired, done for them? Boko Haram was demanding something its members believed would be better.
The attacks on police stations last week were triggered by different events in different states. In Maiduguri, just weeks before the first attack, the police had opened fire on a funeral procession of Yusuf’s apparently unarmed young followers. People in Maiduguri were expecting retaliation, and Yusuf himself had declared that if he were arrested, his followers would fight back.
The outbreak of violence, then, should not have surprised the security services; certainly it did not surprise the people of Maiduguri or anyone else in Nigeria. After clashes in nearby Bauchi state a week earlier, Yusuf was widely reported as vowing to avenge police killings of his followers there. Nonetheless, those in charge of security were clearly unprepared. The police were overwhelmed, and the Army, once deployed, called in 1,000 more troops as reinforcements. The intelligence system was aware of Boko Haram and since 2007 had been advocating measures to stop its growth. The government simply ignored the advice.
Last Thursday, after a ferocious battle at Yusuf’s heavily fortified Maiduguri compound, from which he had fled, police caught up with him at the home of his father-in-law. They took him into custody and then shot him dead. Yusuf’s body has been displayed on state television. The first official story was that he was killed in a shootout and not at police headquarters. When the military produced photographs showing that they had handed him over alive to the police, officials offered a new story: that he was shot while trying to escape. Either way, his death is unlikely to bring a lasting end to this crisis. Meanwhile, the excessive force of the military response has compounded the misery of people in Maiduguri. As one bitter resident said, "They used a sledgehammer to kill an ant." There is now growing anger at the indiscriminate killing of guilty and innocent alike.
And so it goes. Nigeria’s far north has a history of charismatic leaders who preach unorthodox Muslim beliefs and rally large numbers of young men in clashes with traditional Islamic and political authorities. In the early 1980s, a major wave of violence spread from Kano to Maiduguri. A smaller outbreak in 2004 in Yobe and Borno states was a forerunner to the present clashes. Then, a rebellious group of young men who called themselves "Taleban," having no doubt heard the name (but not the spelling) on the Hausa service of the BBC or Voice of America, demanded the imposition of full sharia law. That same plea was sweeping all the far northern states, thanks in part to strong popular feeling that Nigeria’s secular institutions were not delivering justice. Sharia, it was hoped, would do a better job.
Boko Haram, which by some accounts evolved from the "Taleban," judged that sharia did not help: Ironically, the four states where last week’s death and destruction occurred are all states that did adopt sharia criminal law. It is said loudly and frequently by those who live there that not only has sharia law been quietly set aside, but that now these are among the worst governed states in the country.
Meanwhile, Nigerians note that as the violence last week was escalating, their president — who is himself from the far northern state of Katsina — chose to leave the country on a visit to Brazil. (An attack on a police station in Katsina followed.) Newspaper columnists contrasted this unfavorably with the Chinese president’s decision to skip the G-8 meetings in Italy last month when unrest enveloped Xinjiang province.
And in the Niger Delta, as in the north, the goverment’s indifference to life on the ground has had growing consequences. Protests there have escalated over the years to kidnappings, explosions, and armed combat. Successive governments, especially at the lavishly funded state level, have done little to develop the area and improve people’s lives. What is different, of course, is that the delta’s oil, which despoils the mangrove creeks but funds Nigeria’s government at all levels, has also produced criminal networks whose activities, with political and even military complicity, have made the tragedy there all the more intractable. And the massive importation of weapons into the delta has made guns of all kinds — particularly AK-47s — available cheaply throughout the country, notably now in the north.
The problems are not new. Nigerians and others who cared to look closely have seen the political venality, lack of concern, and flamboyant lifestyle of the corrupt rich and powerful who have made daily life for the vast majority of the population worse and worse, year after year. A decade ago, with the return of democracy, Nigerians had high hopes. But now, after rigged elections at all levels in 2003 and 2007, and the prospect of nothing different in 2011; with unclean drinking water, a failed electrical grid, unsafe roads, ever rising crime, and a host of other grievances, they have little hope left.
The world will misunderstand if it looks at the latest Nigerian tragedy through the lens of global radical Islam. If Nigeria’s leaders do not urgently start to address their country’s most basic, obvious needs, the only question is what will trigger the next spate of armed mayhem, and where. It could be anywhere. And its causes, with deep roots in corruption in high places, will be no mystery.