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.