Nigeria's incompetence fuels Islamic insurgency

By Gwynne Dyer


It is not known if the word "dysfunctional" was invented specifically to describe the Nigerian state 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 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 (It means "Western education is sinful") began as a loony but not very dangerous group in the northern state of Bornu who rejected everything they perceived as "Western" science. Its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, claimed that the concept of a spherical Earth is against Islamic teaching.

Bornu is very poor 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 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 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.

Six people died in an attack on a church on Christmas Day, seven were killed in Maiduguri, the capital of Bornu state, on December 27, 15 Christians were murdered mostly by slitting their throats 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: 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, probably killing more innocent people than terrorists. In the 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.

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, as the cynical politicians are being outflanked by genuine fanatics who reject not only science and religious freedom but democracy itself.

Nigeria's Islamist terrorist problem is mostly centred in the north 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 seized control of the north and divided it in two.Many in the south wouldn't mind a bit: just seal the new border, and forget about the north.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist, published in 45 countries.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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