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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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9.  (“At…closed”; and “The Nigerian…Nigeria”)

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”)