No Your Excellency You Missed the Point

No Your Excellency You Missed the Point

Thoughts on presentation by Assistant Secretary of State, Ambassador Johnnie Carsons during “Promise and Peril in Nigeria”, a debate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on 11 April 2012

By Rev Yunusa S. Nmadu Jnr

CEO, Christian Solidarity Worldwide Nigeria

In these days when there is a tendency to view Nigeria through a failing state prism, we commend the Ambassador for expressing the important sentiment that Nigeria is ” too important to be defined by its problems, but should be defined by its potential.”

However, there is no getting away from the fact that Nigeria faces acute problems, and that until a problem is accurately defined and identified, it can never be adequately addressed. While the ambassador stated in his address that Boko Haram had become increasingly more sophisticated in the past three years, and acknowledges that a faction of Boko Haram is linked to jihadists, it is baffling that according to reports the US still will not designate Boko Haram a terrorist organization.

While the ambassador correctly identified such problems of corruption, poor infrastructure due to decades of poor governance and, above all, poverty, the progression of his thesis, whereby he identified northerners, and particularly the Hausa- Fulani as suffering most severely, and went on to more or less extrapolate or at the very least imply that this was the reason for the grievances of the Boko Haram Islamist militia is not only erroneous but dangerous, especially if this faulty analysis that is now informing US policy on Nigeria.

While there is no disagreement with the poverty indices quoted by the Ambassador, he appeared unaware that the “north” does not equate to “Hausa-Fulani” only. There are other tribes that are indigenous to the north. In addition, the ambassador also seemed to equate Hausa- Fulanis with “victims”. Although this may be the case in sporadic instances of retaliatory violence in Plateau State, during violence in shari’a states, they are unquestionably the aggressors. Moreover, the real poorest of the poor in northern Nigeria are non-Muslim indigenous tribes. A visit to any non-Muslim village in any of the northern shari’a states would illustrate this point eloquently. These areas are deliberately and systematically marginalized by northern state governments. For example, is the ambassador aware that in the 95% Christian Local Government Area (LGA) of Rogo in Kano State there is no school available for almost 3000 children. To receive state education, a child has to change his or her name to a Muslim one and adopt Muslim practices, but risk expulsion if discovered. Pregnant women with complications must travel to neighbouring Kaduna State to give birth because the area lacks a hospital, and until an NGO recently dug a borehole for them, the Christian community, was prevented from accessing wells, and obliged to either purchase water drawn from wells at exorbitant prices, or dig into dry river beds. Is he aware of situations such as the one that prevails in the remote village of Sanga in Bauchi State, where, non-Muslim subsistence farmers are subjected to an extreme form of usury known locally as Bada Kaka, a system whereby they are obliged to pay for every bag of fertilizer purchased from Muslim traders with two bags of harvest, a fee that doubles upon defaulting. Those unable to pay off these loans ultimately risk being deprived of their land, possessions, and in a few extreme cases, their children, following a Shari’a Court ruling. Or even of the plight of Dusa Village in Kankiya LGA, where neighbouring Muslim village enjoys the use of three boreholes and water pumps while they have no access to water. When the villagers complained to local authorities of a lack of water in the village they were told “Die of thirst. Who asked you to become Christians?” On another occasion they were told that if they were given a water pump “the people there would be lifted up, and how can you expect us to lift up infidels?” These are but three examples of the systematic repression that prevails in remote areas of northern Nigeria against Christians and followers of traditional religious beliefs.

Even in northern towns and cities discrimination against non-Muslims, indigenous and non-indigenous – occurs in employment, education and in accessing public services, as well as in the other forms. There are reports that the US will be concentrating development aid efforts in northern Nigeria. Is there any guarantee that this marginalized and seemingly forgotten underclass which truly feels the poverty “most acutely” will also benefit from such assistance?

With regard to Boko Haram, an interesting narrative appears to be emerging state-side linking the group’s advent to the fact that the north is underdeveloped in comparison to the south, with an implication that this may have occurred deliberately. It is difficult to understand what the ambassador means by the term “long standing northern grievances”, since northerners have exercised the reins of power for the majority of Nigeria’s independence. These northern leaders – particularly military generals –became fabulously rich, while maintaining a system of patronage in their own areas for their own political purposes. Even since 1999, the north east and north west still receive higher federal allocation than the south east. The problem in the north stems from what the leaders the north supports or elects to govern it are doing with the money. That is where the responsibility for underdevelopment of the region primarily lies. It is interesting that the “underdevelopment vis-a-vis the South/resource allocation” narrative is espoused and expounded most heartily by northerners who are privileged in comparison to their co-regionalists. Could this in itself be a symptom of avoidance of responsibility and of obscuring the issue, particularly following the April violence, which also targeted traditional northern elites, indicated the disillusionment of disadvantaged northerners with the ruling elite.”

Thus the only people who have underdeveloped the north are northern politicians themselves, and they must not be allowed to evade responsibility for this by somehow pointing the finger at southern Nigeria while more money is unwisely placed at their disposal by susceptible donors. The north does not need a ministry for northern affairs; it needs responsible and accountable leaders who make use of state reserves in an ethical manner. The only area in Nigeria that had grounds for complaint of deliberate under-development is the Niger Delta, whose resources enriched northern and other elites while the area was neglected and the environment destroyed. Consequently, any terrorism that arose in the Niger Delta is wholly distinct from the terrorism that is currently occurring in northern and central Nigeria, and cannot be resolved in a similar manner.

The founders and leaders of Boko Haram are/were not poor. The group consisted of former university students and disaffected scions of wealthy northern families, and was thought at that time to be around 200 strong in 2002. Moreover, from the beginning the group, espoused the creation of a Shari’a state. In late 2003, it began a brief armed uprising in Yobe State, issuing pamphlets declaring its determination to make Nigeria a Muslim State. Then the young militants invaded Kanamma and Geidam Local Government Areas (LGAs) and destroyed Kanamma police station, killing a policeman and carting off weapons while chanting Allah u Akbar. Next, they marched to the town centre, took over a primary school, renamed it “Afghanistan”, hoisted their own flag and declared a jihad against Christians and the Nigerian Federal Government. These aims have not changed.

The group went on to cause havoc in several towns and villages, including the state capital Damaturu, occasioning the displacement of around 10,000 people. Federal forces eventually crushed the uprising and arrested several members of the group, four of whom were killed while allegedly attempting to escape from Damaturu prison. In September 2004, the group murdered over a dozen Christians during raids on the towns of Bama and Gwoza in Borno State, situated in the north-east close to the border with Cameroon. Around 60 sect members were also reported to have attacked police stations in the area, killing four policemen. As a joint police and army force launched an operation against them, the group took seven people hostage, forcing them to act as porters as they retreated over the Mandara hills and into neighbouring Cameroon. Then in 2009 as the group fought a last battle at its Maiduguri headquarters, it took around 200 Christians for use as human shields, forcibly converting some and beheading those who refused.

Boko Haram may have split into different groups espousing different aims and may be capitalizing to an extent on the unemployed youths, and particularly al Majiris who are regularly at the forefront of religion-related looting and violence ( as occurred most recently during April 2011). However, given the prevailing guiding ideology of the original Boko Haram, it is difficult to understand how the assistant secretary of state can claim that religion is not driving extremist violence in Nigeria. Contrary to his contention, religious diversity ought to be a source of Nigeria’s strength, but in reality it is not has not been for some time. Moreover his statement proclaiming daily attacks “on mosques and churches is patently incorrect. There have been no attacks on mosques. There have been attacks on people leaving or preparing to go to mosques. These have been targeted assassinations of Imams, politicians and other public officials that the group deems enemies. Such assassinations are truly appalling, but are clearly distinct from the targeting of church services and buildings, and cannot be described as daily attacks on mosques.

An economic strategy will not fix the Boko Haram problem, because it is essentially ideological. It will placate those who seek a job and development, but will not placate the ideologues. The British government does not negotiate with terrorists. Neither did the American government negotiate with Bin Laden or other key al Qaeda leaders. Yet according to the BBC, there is now pressure by the US administration on Goodluck Jonathan to return to negotiations with Boko Haram. How is a government expected to negotiate with a group that seeks its elimination? What meeting point or point of agreement can be reached with such a group?

As long as US policy on northern Nigeria is predicated on a fundamentally flawed analysis, not only will the policy be ineffective in terms of what it seeks to achieve; but it could also result in strengthening the very forces it seeks to curtail.

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