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Nigeria: Is 100 Years Enough?

26 March 2014

Nigeria: Is 100 Years Enough?

The reason they convened a National Conference to discuss Nigeria’s future last week is that it’s the hundredth anniversary of the unification of the northern and southern protectorates into one nation. Well, one colony, actually, since the whole place would remain under British rule for another half-century. And the one subject the delegates are banned from discussing is whether unification was really such a good idea.

It was an excellent idea from the viewpoint of the British colonial administrators, of course. Not only was it tidier, but it crippled resistance to British rule. When you force five hundred different ethnic groups with as many languages into a single political entity, they will spend more time fighting one another than the foreigners. (Even Nigeria’s name was invented by the British.)

A century later, the country is still riven by ethnic and religious divisions that distort both its politics and its economy. Nigeria is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but two-thirds of its 170 million people live on less than $2 a day and even the big cities only get electricity four hours a day. It ranks 144th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which means in practice that most public funds are stolen.

In the mainly Muslim north, an extremist Islamic insurgency by a group called Boko Haram (“Western Education is Forbidden”) killed more than 1,300 people in the first two months of this year. Or rather, they and the brutal and incompetent army units who respond to their attacks with indiscriminate violence together accounted for 1,300 lives.

And when Lamido Sanusi, the internationally respected head of Nigeria’s central bank, accused the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) of failing to repatriate $20 billion of the $67 billion received for oil sales between January 2012 and July 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan suspended him for “financial recklessness and misconduct.”

“Failing to repatriate” actually means that the money stayed abroad and disappeared into the foreign bank accounts of powerful Nigerians. This is normal: it has been estimated that two-thirds of the $600 billion that Nigeria has earned in the past fifty years from selling its oil was lost to corruption by the political and business elite. What was unusual was for a member of the elite to challenge the practice openly.

Sanusi, who was named Central Bank Governor of the Year in 2010 by Banker magazine, was promptly accused of links to Boko Haram in a document circulated to Nigerian websites that was traced back to President Jonathan’s social media adviser. It was a typical establishment response, and it was total nonsense. But a depressing number of southern Nigerians will believe almost anything about Sanusi simply because he is a northern Muslim.

He is actually a member of the northern aristocracy – his grandfather was the emir of Kano – and an Islamic scholar who condemns Wahhabist fundamentalism. He is one of Nigeria’s foremost advocates of a tolerant, inclusive Islam: “Even a cursory student of Islamic history knows that all the trappings of gender inequality present in the Muslim society have socio-economic and cultural, as opposed to religious roots,” he said recently.

Yet the mistrust between Muslims and Christans, northerners and southerners, is so great that Sanusi’s whistle-blowing is seen by many southerners as a political operation aimed at the Christian president. They believe this even though they also know that the money really was stolen by people at the NNPC, and that Goodluck Jonathan is protecting them because some of it was going to be used to finance his re-election campaign next year.

And why does Jonathan need so much money? To buy the support of the northern power-brokers, who will then deliver the votes to keep him in the presidency. Then he will be able to go on protecting his friends. It’s a closed system, and it’s making Sanusi more radical by the moment.

Recently he told the Guardian: “If the population as a whole starts protesting what is going on in our country, how many of them can they kill?” He added that the ousted leaders of Ukraine and the Arab spring nations “never did half as much damage to their countries as our rulers have.”

But Sanusi is unlikely to bring the system down. That is why, at the National Conference on Nigeria’s future that meets in Abuja over the next three months, some people will certainly defy the ban and start talking about re-dividing Nigeria between north and south. They will mostly be southerners, who resent the large amounts of oil income that the federal government transfers to the northern states that desperately need the money.

Northerners will fiercely resist the idea of partition because they would be left running a country only slightly better off than Mali. (Despite the transfers of oil revenue, 72 percent of the population in the North lives in poverty; in the South, only 27 percent does.) And in the end, nothing will happen, because cutting off the North would spoil the game.

Nigeria is unquestionably the most dysfunctional large country in the world, but it will hang together because all the elites benefit from the dysfunction, which allows them to steal massive amounts with complete impunity. Indeed, you might say that Nigeria survives because it is dysfunctional.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 6 and 11. (“It was…British”; “Failing…openly”; and “Recently…have”)

Boko Haram

30 December 2012

Boko Haram

By Gwynne Dyer

It is not known if the word “dysfunctional” was invented specifically to describe the Nigerian state – several other candidates also come to mind – but the word certainly fills the bill. The political institutions of Africa’s biggest country are incapable of dealing with even the smallest challenge. Indeed, they often make matters worse. Consider, for example, the way that the Nigerian government has dealt with the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram.

Or rather, how it has failed to deal with them. Boko Haram (the phrase means “Western education is sinful”) began as a loony but not very dangerous group in the northern state of Bornu who rejected everything that they perceived as “Western” science. In a BBC interview in 2009 its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, claimed that the concept of a spherical Earth is against Islamic teaching. He also denied that rain came from water evaporated by the sun.

Bornu is a very poor state, however, and his preaching gave him enough of a following among the poor and ignorant to make him a political threat to the established order. So hundreds of his followers were killed in a massive military and police attack on the movement in 2009, and Mohammed Yusuf himself was murdered while in police custody. That was what triggered Boko Haram’s terrorist campaign.

Its attacks grew rapidly: by early 2012 Boko Haram had killed 700 people in dozens of attacks against military, police, government and media organisations and against the Christian minorities living in northern Nigeria. So last March Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, promised that the security forces would end the insurgency by June. But the death toll just kept climbing.

In September, a senior official told The Guardian newspaper that “There is no sense that the government has a real grip. The situation is not remotely under control.” Last week alone saw six people dead in an attack on a church on Christmas Day, seven killed in Maiduguri, the capital of Bornu state, on 27 December, and the abduction and murder of fifteen Christians, mostly by slitting their throats, in a town near Maiduguri on the 28th.

President Jonathan’s response was to visit a Christian church on Sunday and congratulate the security forces on preventing many more attacks during Christmas week: “Although we still recorded some incidents, the extent of attacks which (Boko Haram) planned was not allowed to be executed.” If this is what success looks like, Nigeria is in very deep trouble.

Part of the reason is the “security forces”, which are corrupt, incompetent, and brutal. In the murderous rampages that are their common response to Boko Haram’s attacks, they have probably killed more innocent people than the terrorists themselves, and have certainly stolen more property. Right across the country’s mainly Muslim north, they are Boko Haram’s best recruiting sergeants.

But it is the government that raises, trains and pays these security forces, and even in a continent where many countries have problems with the professionalism of the army and police, Nigeria’s are in a class by themselves. That is ultimately because its politicians are also in a class by themselves. There are some honest and serious men and women among them, but as a group they are spectacularly cynical and self-serving.

One reason is Nigeria’s oil: 100 million Nigerians, two-thirds of the population, live on less than a dollar a day, but there is a lot of oil money around to steal, and politics is the best way to steal it. Another is the country’s tribal, regional and religious divisions, which are extreme even by African standards. In the mainly Muslim north, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; in the mostly Christian south, only half do.

Now add a ruthless Islamist terrorist group to the mix, and stir. Boko Haram’s support does not just come from a tiny minority of religious fanatics and from grieving and angry people turned against the government by the brutality of the security forces. It also comes from a huge pool of unemployed and demoralised young men who have no hope of ever doing anything meaningful with their lives.

Democracy has not transformed politics dramatically for the better anywhere in Nigeria, but the deficit is worst in the north, where the traditional rulers protected their power by making alliances with politicians who appealed to the population’s Islamic sentiments. That’s why all the northern states introduced sharia law around the turn of the century: to stave off popular demands for more far-reaching reforms.

But that solution is now failing, for the cynical politicians who became Islamist merely for tactical reasons are being outflanked by genuine fanatics who reject not only science and religious freedom but democracy itself.

Nigeria only has an Islamist terrorist problem at the moment, mostly centred in the north and with sporadic attacks in the Christian-majority parts of the country. But it may be heading down the road recently taken by Mali, in which Islamist extremists actually seize control of the north of the country and divide it in two. And frankly, lots of people in the south wouldn’t mind a bit: just seal the new border, and forget about the north.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“One…lives”)

 

The New Division of Africa

13 February 2012

The New Division of Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

Sudan was bombing South Sudan again last week, only a couple of months after the two countries split apart. Sudan is mostly Muslim, and South Sudan is predominantly Christian, but the quarrel is about oil, not religion. And yet, it is really about religion too, since the two countries would never have split apart along the current border if not for the religious divide.

Ivory Coast was split along the same Muslim-Christian lines for nine years, although the shooting ended last year and there is an attempt underway to sew the country back together under an elected government. But in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country by far, the situation is going from bad to worse, with the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram murdering people all over the country in the name of imposing sharia law on the entire nation.

“The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought (in 1967-70, which killed between one and three million people),” said President Goodluck Jonathan. That’s a major exaggeration – the current death toll in Nigeria from terrorist attacks and army reprisals is probably only a few hundred a month – but the potential for much greater slaughter is certainly there.

In an interview with Reuters, President Jonathan said: “If (Boko Haram) clearly identify themselves now and say…this is the reason why we are confronting government or this is the reason why we destroyed some innocent people and their properties, why not (talk to them)?” But it’s pointless: he already knows who they are and what they want.

“Boko Haram”, loosely translated, means “Western education is forbidden,” and the organisation’s declared aim is to overthrow the government and impose Islamic law on all of Nigeria. In a 40-minute audio message posted on YouTube two weeks ago, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened that his next step would be to carry out a bombing campaign against Nigeria’s secondary schools and universities.

This is not only vicious; it is also completely loony. There is no way that Boko Haram could conquer the entire country. Only half of Nigerians are Muslims, and they are much poorer than the country’s 80 million Christians. The Christian south is where the oil is, and the ports, and most of the industry, so that’s where most of the money is too. The same pattern is repeated in many other African countries: poor Muslim north; prosperous Christian south.

There was no plan behind this. Islam spread slowly south from North Africa, which was conquered by Arab armies in the 7th century, while Christianity spread rapidly inland once European colonies appeared on the African coast in the last few hundred years. The line where Islam and Christianity meet runs across Africa about 1,100 km (700 mi.) north of the equator (except in Ethiopia, where the Christians have the highlands and the Muslims the lowlands).

In general, the Muslims ended up with the desert and semi-desert regions of Africa because Islam had to make it all the way across the Sahara, while the more fertile and richer regions nearer to the equator and all the way down to South Africa are mainly Christian because the Europeans arrived by sea with much greater economic and military power. But some 350 million Africans live in countries that straddle the Christian-Muslim fault line.

There probably won’t be a full-scale civil war in Nigeria this time around, but Boko Haram is targeting Christians indiscriminately. The Nigerian army, not best known for its discipline and restraint, is almost as indiscriminate in targeting devout but innocent Muslims in the northern states that are home to the terrorist organisation. Christians are already moving out of the north, and Muslims out of the south.

It will get worse in Nigeria, and it is getting bad again in what used to be Sudan, and Ethiopia is an accident just waiting to happen. Even Ivory Coast may not really be out of the woods yet. There is a small but real risk that these conflicts could some day coalesce into a general Muslim-Christian confrontation that would kill millions and convulse all of Africa.

Christianity and Islam have been at war most of the time since Muslim armies conquered half of the then-Christian world, from Syria to Spain, in the 7th and 8th centuries. There was the great Christian counter-attack of the Crusades in the 12th century, the Muslim conquest of Turkey and the Balkans in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the European conquest of almost the entire Muslim world in the 18th-20th centuries.

It is a miserable history, and in some places it is likely to continue for some time to come. But nowhere in sub-Saharan Africa does the frontier between Muslim-majority and Christian-majority areas derive from conquest: these populations are not looking for revenge.

Boko Haram’s style of radical Islamism is an import from somewhere else entirely, and it would be a terrible mistake for large numbers of Muslim Nigerians to embrace it. On the other hand, it will be a terrible mistake if Nigeria doesn’t get a choke chain on its army, whose brutal actions are all too likely to drive Nigerian Muslims in exactly that direction.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Christianity…revenge”)

The African National Congress at 100

5 January 2012

The African National Congress at 100

By Gwynne Dyer

“It’s a bittersweet victory,” said William Gumede, a distinguished South African academic, about the hundredth anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC), which opens with a enormous party in Bloemfontein on Sunday. “This is our tipping point. From here things will go downhill. No liberation movement has moved upwards from this point.”

It’s a grim prognosis, but Gumede, author of “Thabo Mbeke and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC,” insists that South Africa is no exception to the rule. “Every African country thought it was exceptional. If you look at the archives of Nigerian papers at the time they got independence (1960), everyone in Nigeria, in Africa and indeed the world over thought they were exceptional. No one wanted to criticise them.” But then it all fell apart.

It has not fallen apart yet in South Africa. Eighteen years after Nigeria got its independence, there had been a terrible civil war, the generals were already ruling the country, and the average income was lower than it had been in late colonial times. Whereas eighteen years after the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, it is still a more or less peaceful democracy, and the living standards of the poor have at least not declined.

But maybe that was just because South Africa was fortunate to have an extraordinary generation of leaders: men like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo who were intelligent, incorruptible and dedicated to democracy. Without them at its head, can the ANC be trusted? A lot of people doubt it.

Mandela chose Thabo Mbeki as his successor because he trusted him to keep the government clean and democratic, but there was already something wrong there. However saintly Mandela was, the way he imposed Mbeki as leader of the ANC, and therefore president of the country, was considerably less than democratic.

Mbeki turned out to be more autocratic than Mandela had hoped, but his overthrow in an internal ANC coup in 2008 was hardly a triumph for democracy either. Of the two men who played the biggest roles in organising that coup, one, Jacob Zuma, is now president of the ANC and the country, while the other, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, spends all his days plotting to take his place.

Zuma, a man who has faced multiple charges of corruption and rape, miraculously emerges unscathed from the courts each time, and his co-conspirator in the main corruption case, Shabir Shaik, has just been released from prison for “medical reasons.” Malema, an accomplished demagogue, has built his popularity among the poor black majority on barely disguised racial incitement against whites, mixed-race people and other minorities.

Politics is a tough old game in every country, but there is a systemic problem here: the ANC doesn’t do democracy well. Gumede put his finger on it when he pointed out that the ANC, like other African parties that fought liberation wars, had a military structure. “They tended to centralise; there was not much internal democracy. When they came to power they couldn’t break away from this culture, which undermined internal democratic processes.”

Dozens of heads of state and an estimated 100,000 ordinary South Africans are flocking to Bloemfontein to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the ANC. They honour it because it brought freedom to the black majority in South Africa without destroying the country’s democratic institutions in the process. South Africa still has free elections, free media and a justice system that is free from government influence (most of the time).

But that has been relatively easy up to now. The ANC still enjoys mass support because of its heroic past, so it has won every national election so far without having to break the democratic rules. The question is: what will it do when it can no longer win without breaking the rules?

That day is probably not very many years off. The ANC’s share of the vote has been falling steadily, partly because of its perceived corruption but largely because almost two decades in power will erode the popularity of any political party. The election in 2014 will probably be the last in which it can hope to win a parliamentary majority honestly.

The most important crisis in South Africa’s history will occur when it loses the election after that. Only if the ANC then goes meekly into opposition can we conclude that South Africa really is an exception to the rule that liberation movements don’t do democracy.

The rule doesn’t mean that Africa is doomed eternally to political oppression and corruption. A number of African countries have passed through that long tunnel and emerged on the other end as flawed but generally law-abiding democracies: Kenya, Zambia, and Mozambique, for example. But it would be much better not to go into the tunnel at all.

The ANC will really deserve the admiration of the world if it can leave power without a fight. At the moment, the odds on that happening are no better than even.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“The rule…even”)