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Nigeria: A Plunge Into the Unknown

“I think, once a dictator, always a dictator,” said Sonnie Ekwowusi, a columnist for Nigeria’s This Day newspaper. “Many people are afraid that if (Muhammadu Buhari) wins, they will go to prison.”

Well, Buhari did win the presidential election, and there are many people in Nigeria who really should go to prison, mainly for corruption while in political office. Quite a lot of them worked with or for the outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan, whose six years in office were marked by corruption that was impressive even by Nigeria’s demanding standards.

The problem is that the last time Muhammadu Buhari was president, in 1984-85, he was a general who seized the office in a military coup and jailed not only the elected president, Shehu Shagari, but some five hundred politicians, officials and businessmen. Many of them undoubtedly deserved it, but legal norms were not observed – and many other people whose only offense was criticising Buhari (like famed musician Fela Kuti) also ended up behind bars.

That President Buhari, now thirty years in the past, was single-minded in his anti-corruption drive, but also somewhat simple-minded. At the petty end of the spectrum, civil servants who short-changed the government by showing up late for work were forced to do frog hops. At the other end, he ordered the abduction of Shehu Shagari’s former adviser, Umaru Dikko, who was found drugged in a shipping crate at London’s Stansted airport.

He was the loosest of loose cannons, and his own military colleagues overthrew him after twenty months of arbitrary mayhem. But once democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, Buhari started running for president as a born-again democrat. Now, on his fourth try, he has won, and by a safe margin: 15 million votes to Jonathan’s 12.5 million.

It’s a typically low Nigerian turnout – around a third of eligible voters – but it is nevertheless a famous victory. It’s the first time in half a century of Nigerian independence that one elected president has handed over power to another after losing an election. Full credit to Goodluck Jonathan for that: unusually for Nigeria, he didn’t dispute the outcome of the election. But there is still a large question mark over his successor.

Partly it is a question of whether the leopard can ever truly change his spots. Buhari claims to have changed a great deal in thirty years, and has apologised for his past behaviour in power, but the doubts inevitably linger. And partly it is a question of whether anybody can rule Nigeria successfully.

The country has three major problems that cannot be solved in the short term. The population, now 182 million, is growing at five million a year, and the birth rate had not dropped at all in the past ten years. Nigeria will overtake the United States in population by 2050, but it will be packing them all those people into an area only slightly larger than Texas.

Secondly, Nigeria is more or less evenly split between Muslims, mostly in the northern half of the country, and Christians in the centre and south, but per capita income in the north is in the north is only half that in the south. The election of Buhari, a Muslim from the north, restores the traditional alternation of Christians and Muslims in the presidency, but that deal is unlikely to last much longer because the northern birth rate is far higher than in the south.

Thirdly, the poverty and over-population of the north has been an excellent incubator for extremism, and an Islamist cult called Boko Haram has now seized control of much of the north-east. At least 13,000 people have been killed in the ongoing violence since 2009, and a million and a half have been displaced. Boko Haram now swears allegiance to the “caliph” of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) in the Middle East, and competes with it in cruelty.

Oh, and the price of oil, the main source of government revenue, is down by half. Muhammadu Buhari may be a reformed character, and he will certainly do much more than Goodluck Jonathan on the anti-corruption front. (He could hardly do less.) But all these other problems will continue to undermine Nigeria’s stability and prosperity even if he manages to eliminate the worst of the corruption.

On the other hand, it could be a lot worse. As Wole Soyinka, the celebrated author who has become Nigeria’s public conscience, told The Guardian on Tuesday, “Unambiguously it is good that the Jonathan government has been removed. It was impossible. Even a plunge into the unknown was preferable to what was going on. We were drowning.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“That president…airport”)

Nigeria: An Election Under Fire

Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has lived up to his name again. Three minutes after he left an election rally in the northern city of Gombe on Monday, a suicide bomber blew herself up in the nearby parking lot. “The president had just passed the parking lot and we were trailing behind his convoy when the explosion happened,” said a local witness, Mohammed Bolari. But Jonathan’s luck held.

His rival for the presidency in the election on 14 February, former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, also has his share of luck. Last July he barely escaped an assassination attempt in the northern city of Kaduna. As in Jonathan’s case, the attack was almost certainly mounted by Boko Haram, the self-proclaimed affiliate of “Islamic State” that now rules an area about the size of Belgium in north-eastern Nigeria.

“A fast moving vehicle made many attempts to overtake my security car but was blocked by my escort vehicle,” Buhari said after the attack. “We reached the market area of Kawo where he took advantage of our slowing down and attempted to ram my car and instantly detonated the bomb which destroyed all three cars in our convoy.” But he too survived.

Good luck for them, but it’s not so easy to say that it was lucky for Nigeria. Africa’s most populous country by far (180 million people) has a long history of dreadful presidents, but these two both rank quite high in that list.

Buhari has been president before. After a lengthy period of military rule, Nigeria got an elected civilian president in 1979 – who unfortunately proved to be spectacularly corrupt and incompetent. So in 1984 General Buhari seized power and imposed military discipline on the nation. The military then stayed in power for another fifteen years – but Buhari lasted only twenty months.

He jailed hundreds of politicians, officials and businessmen for corruption. Most were probably guilty, but he didn’t bother with proof. As part of his “War on Indiscipline”, he ordered Nigerians to form neat queues at bus stops, and sent whip-wielding soldiers to enforce the order. Civil servants who were late for work were publicly humiliated by being forced to do frog jumps.

So Buhari was overthrown by another general after only twenty months – but as soon as democracy returned in 1999, he began his campaign to return to the presidency. Every four years he runs again, and this time he might even make it. That’s partly because the four main opposition finally united and made him their candidate, but it’s also because Goodluck Jonathan is such a hopeless case.

Jonathan is clearly intelligent – he has a PhD in zoology – but he has a reputation as unimaginative, unambitious man who rose to the presidency almost by accident. He was a humble environmental officer for the Niger Delta Development Commission when the governor of his home state, Bayelsa, chose him as his deputy. Then the governor went to prison for corruption, and Jonathan became governor.

From there he was picked as a safe running mate for President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner who needed a Christian southerner (but not a potential rival) to balance the ticket. Then Yar’Adua died, and Jonathan became president of Nigeria. By accident, so to speak.

That was six years ago, however, and Jonathan ran in his own name in 2011. Now he’s seeking a second term as president, so we can forget the bit about his not being ambitious. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to dismiss the claim that he is inept, inert and unimaginative, and that most of the people around him are corrupt and very greedy.

When 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria last April, it took Jonathan forty days even to mention the incident. Ten thousand Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram in the past year, but he didn’t even mention the organisation’s name in the speech launching his reelection campaign.

Nigeria’s defence budget is $4 billion, but the soldiers fighting Boko Haram are less well equipped than the rebels, and often lack food, ammunition or even decent uniforms. The north-east’s biggest city, Maiduguri (pop. 2 million) is under attack by Boko Haram and could fall any day.

When the governor of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, pointed out last year that $20 billion had gone missing from the state oil company in only 18 months, Jonathan responded by dismissing him from his job. He has been a disaster as president – but would an unrepentant ex-dictator like Buhari be any better? Nigeria deserves a better choice, but the system was not designed to produce that.

“The Nigerian system was designed by colonialists to extract as much as possible and transfer it to (an elite group),” said Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, director of the Lagos-based Centre for Public Policy, in an interview with The Observer. “From time that group changes – first it was colonial masters, then the military, then a select group of citizens. So from that point of view, the government is functioning as it should be.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“A fast…survived”; and “Nigeria’s…day”)

Nigeria: The Band Plays On

There’s going to be an election in Nigeria in mid-February, and the weird thing is that it’s not going to be all about Boko Haram. The Islamist terrorists are now killing people at the rate of at least 500 a month — two 9-11s a year, in a country with half the population of the United States — but most Nigerians seem to regard Boko Haram as just one more problem, and a fairly local one at that.

Up in the three northeastern provinces of the country, where Boko Haram has now declared that it is setting up an Islamic “Caliphate” on the model of ISIS’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, they do care about terrorism. They are also now starting to worry about it more in the rest of the north, where Boko Haram attacked the central mosque in Kano, the biggest northern city, last Friday, and killed at least a hundred people.

But in the rest of the country, the terrorist threat has not really risen to the top of the political agenda. The forthcoming election will not focus on the stunning incompetence and sheer inertia of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government in the face of this threat.

Boko Haram’s rise to prominence has taken place entirely on Jonathan’s watch, and at no time has he shown much interest in fighting it. He spoke out strongly when Boko Haram attacked targets in the capital, Abuja, but did nothing. For the rest, he left the problem to the army and to his northern allies, the feudal emirs who still dominate politics there.

These traditional rulers have managed to hang onto their power because the north’s population is more illiterate and far poorer than that of the southern states. In order to justify their wealth and political privilege, the emirs have always stressed their traditional religious roles. So when reformers began to criticize them from a radical Islamic standpoint in the 1990s, they tried to steal the radicals’ thunder by bringing in Sharia law right across the north.

That didn’t placate the growing Islamist opposition to the rule of the emirs. The opposition turned violent in 2009, with Boko Haram’s first attacks, and despite its extreme cruelty it enjoys some support across the north among both pious Muslims and the downtrodden. And the army, as usual, did nothing useful.

Last Friday’s attack on the Kano central mosque showed all these cross-currents vividly. The building is on the main square right next door to the palace of the emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi II, who frequently preaches in the mosque. Naturally, he always exhorts the populace to resist Boko Haram.

But the emir also urges people not to depend on the army, because it is useless. They should organize to defend themselves, for the soldiers cannot be trusted to protect them. “If people flee the villages (because the army hasn’t come),” he said, “the terrorists slaughter our male children and abduct our girls to force them into slavery.”

The Nigerian army is widely accused of corruption, brutality, and even cowardice. It rarely takes the fight to Boko Haram directly, but it often fires on the crowds who gather after terrorist attacks to protest at the government’s failure to protect them. Nigerian army troops did that again outside the Kano central mosque last week, and nobody even bothered to express their outrage. Nobody was surprised.

This is how almost all of Borno state except the capital, Maiduguri, has slipped out of government control. So have large parts of neighbouring Yobe and Adamawa states, and Maiduguri itself, a city of two million, may fall before the election.

In these circumstances, you would expect the federal government, and especially President Goodluck Jonathan, to be under constant attack for having failed to act decisively against Boko Haram, but nothing of the sort.

When the four biggest opposition parties united two years ago to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), they gave Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) its first serious opposition since democracy was established in 1999. But the APC’s charms have faded as the election nears. It attracted lots of prominent defectors from the PDP at first, but those new recruits brought their old reputation for corruption with them.

It is this new struggle for power at the centre, not the ugly and alarming developments in the far northeast, that monopolizes the attention of the political class, for the outcome of the February election matters greatly for them. It will decide who gets their snouts in the trough for the next four years.

Voters’ expectations are so low that they are not even shocked by the quite plausible accusation that Jonathan has failed to fight hard against Boko Haram because the three northeastern states would probably vote against the PDP in the next election. Whereas if there is enough chaos in the northeast, the election will be cancelled in those states.

And so the band plays on, as Nigeria drifts towards civil war and disintegration.

Two New “Islamic States”

A coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims has written Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to stop using the phrase “Islamic State”when talking about the new country carved out of Iraq and Syria by Islamist terrorists. That’s what Abu Baqr al Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself “the caliph of all Muslims and the prince of the believers,” calls his newly conquered territory, but it’s giving ordinary Muslims a bad name.

The British Muslim leaders declared that “the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that “UnIslamic State” (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternate name to describe this group and its agenda – and we will begin to call it that.”

Good luck with that. But meanwhile two more “UnIslamic States” are being created right now, on Libyan and Nigerian territory: same black flags, same fanaticism and cruelty, even the same ski masks. (It’s a fashion statement.)

The city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, has more than two million people. It is surrounded by the forces of Boko Haram – the name roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden” – and most of the rest of Borno has already fallen under their rule. In fact, the whole north-eastern corner of Nigeria is passing out of the government’s control.

“At this very moment,” Alhaji Baba Ahmad Jidda, the secretary to the Borno state government, told The Independent newspaper last week, “most parts of Borno state are being occupied by Boko Haram insurgents. Government presence and administration is minimal, with economic, commercial and social services totally subdued. Schools and clinics remain closed.”

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal was the imposition of an Islamic state in Nigeria ever since it began active operations in 2009. It was in touch with al-Qaeda from the start, and later with the jihadi groups in Syria that subsequently turned into ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and finally into the “Islamic State” that now spans those two countries.

Only the northern half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, so that was where Boko Haram’s murders and abductions were concentrated, although it also carried out terrorist bombings in the Christian parts of the country. 3,600 people were killed in these attacks in the four years to 2013, but then there was a major acceleration: 2,000 more people have been killed in just the first half of this year.

From about mid-July, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau also changed tactics: instead of hit-and-run raids, he started to take and hold territory. In August, after his fighters captured the town of Gwoza in Borno, he released a video declaring that the area was “now part of the Islamic Caliphate.” He now rules over about three million people in northeastern Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon.

The Nigerian army rarely stands up to Boko Haram’s fighters. Like the Iraqi army, which ran from far smaller numbers of ISIS troops, it is corrupt and badly equipped, but it is also deeply penetrated by Boko Haram sympathisers: last June fifteen senior military officers were found guilty by court martial of passing arms and information to Boko Haram. So Abubakar Shekau may end up ruling much of northern Nigeria.

Libya is considerably further down the same track. A civil war broke out between the various militias left over from the 2011 campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator, shortly after the June election that might – just might – have produced a government that would try to disarm those militias. It has got so bad that almost a third of the Libya’s population, 1.8 million people, has fled the country, mostly seeking shelter in Tunisia.

The real divisions between these warring militias are regional and tribal, but a number of them have adopted extreme Islamist ideologies, partly because it guarantees a flow of arms and money from certain governments in the Gulf. These Islamist militias have emerged as the winners both in the savage fighting in western Libya around the capital, Tripoli, and also in the other major city, Benghazi, in the east.

In fact, Islamist militias with ISIS-style ideologies now control every city along the Libyan coast except Tobruk, a short distance from the Egyptian border. That is where the new parliament elected in June has taken refuge, and the parliament’s members are living on a hired Greek car ferry that is serving as a floating hotel. The front line starts just west of town – and the next town along the coast, Derna, has been declared an Islamic caliphate.

A lot of this is just ideological fashion, of course. The various “caliphates” are in touch with one another, after a fashion, but there is no master plan. However, the results are truly nasty both in Nigeria and in Libya – and the risk of over-reaction by those who feel threatened by these developments, especially in the West, is quite large.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9.  (“At…closed”; and “The Nigerian…Nigeria”)