Following a string of deadly Christmas day bombings and a recently declared state of emergency in central and northern parts of Nigeria, the growing violence in the country has been, unsurprisingly, reduced by many commentators to yet another chapter in Nigeria’s bloody Muslim – Christian clash. Communal violence in Nigeria is often exclusively explained in terms of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism. However, the realities underpinning Nigeria’s political scene and the activities of the extremist group Boko Haram are far more complex than these narratives suggest.
In 2000, following intense disagreement over the proposed implementation of ‘Sharia’ law in most of Nigeria’s predominately Muslim northern states, Christians holding a demonstration against the law in the state of Kaduna were attacked, and several were killed. It triggered what came to be known as the ‘Sharia crisis’ across the state, leaving 600 people dead and more than 150 places of worship destroyed. Reprisals, described invariably as Christian or Muslim revenge attacks, distorted many of the issues, including ethnic rivalries between ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler’ communities, identity politics, as well as underlying socioeconomic factors.
Boko Haram, loosely translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’ remained relatively obscure until 2009, when violent fighting between the ‘Islamist’ organisation and security forces left over 800 people dead. Human Rights Watch documented serious abuses by both parties, including the killing of civilians as well as the extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram’s leader. Pronouncements at the time, which declared that the group no longer posed a threat, proved premature. Not only have future assaults demonstrated better coordination and more ambition, their increasing reach across northern and central states in Nigeria indicates growing support for the organisation.
With a populist anti-corruption message, it is possible to recognise Boko Haram’s attraction. Despite Nigeria being the world’s fifth largest producer of oil, it is estimated that approximately 70 per cent of the population lives below the international poverty line. According to the World Bank, chronic corruption in Nigeria ensures that 80 percent of the nation’s oil wealth is realised by only one percent of the population. In addition, a UN Development Programme report on Nigeria found that poverty levels have ‘consistently [been] above the national average in the three northern zones, with the North East zone recording the highest poverty incidence’. Indeed, Boko Haram’s support bases closely parallel these findings, as the group’s stronghold has endured in the North Eastern Borno state since its birth.
Corruption on a grand scale – combined with an unemployment figure of 40 million – is fertile ground for violent expression. The leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria party, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, commented this week that, ‘our common enemy is poverty, coupled with lack of economic opportunities’. Given the widespread social problems and disaffection of marginalised communities, it is of little surprise that the perceived value of ‘Western’ education is disparaged. Correlations between poverty and conflict have manifested as attacks on government installations, policemen, soldiers and banks – representations of a corrupt clientele system of governance, that honours price over principle. As research into communal violence in Nigeria has shown, perpetrators of violence are overwhelmingly from poor communities, engaging in expressive violence.
The response of the President and government to the violent conflict with Boko Haram has been to send in greater numbers of security personnel to the affected regions and to declare a state of emergency. However, this move could have adverse consequences. As Na’eem Jeenah, director of the African and Middle East Centre has pointed out, the state of emergency ‘can very much be counter-productive because one of the major grievances in the north is the heavy-handed attitude of the security forces, both the army and the police. Now, giving them even more powers than they have had, that could get worse’. As a ‘faceless’ organisation, Boko Haram members seamlessly blend in and out of local populations. This not only makes security operations impractical, it also leaves civilians extremely vulnerable to indiscriminate fire – occurrences in which security officials have been previously implicated.
Furthermore, President Goodluck Jonathan has announced that almost one quarter of the 2012 federal budget will be dedicated to security. In a country where over 100 million people live on $1 or less per day, it is a bewildering decision. Security, an inexorable part of the ruling government’s apparatus, can only solve security problems. Boko Haram however, having survived the death of their leader and having diversified strategically, represent more than a security issue as the group’s growing popularity shows.
Alarmingly, a former warlord from the oil-rich Niger Delta region yesterday stated that southern Nigerians were ready to take up arms against the northern Boko Haram. Speaking about the recent bombings, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari commented that, ‘it is seconds away … Nigeria is on the precipice of a civil war’. Mujahid, himself a Muslim, was speaking of potential retaliatory attacks against ‘northerners’ living in mostly Christian southern states across Nigeria. Tribal allegiances are only hinted at when commenting of Nigeria, although they serve as potent, and as his comments suggest, intractable social symbols; both Mujahid and the President originate from the same Ijaw tribe.
Religion is only one aspect of the recent crisis in Nigeria. Explaining social unrest in terms of an insufficient management of religion is inaccurate. Looking through the fault lines, superficially described as Christianity and Islam, the cumulative and broad factors involved – inequality, poverty, marginalisation and identity – are part of a social reality created by people, not by abstract notions of religion. In the absence of material security associated with a unified Nigerian citizenship, it is inevitable that allegiances are cast elsewhere.
Photo Credits: Diallo, AFP Pics http://www.usafricaonline.com
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