If anyone still doubts that Nigeria’s dysfunctional political order is in meltdown, the events of the past few months and in particular, of recent weeks, should have cleared all doubts. For the past decade, the federal government has been locked in a low intensity conflict with militants in the Niger Delta. The militants’ stated goal is greater control of the oil resources bountifully buried beneath their land. That struggle is now less of a clear-cut agitation for resource control, having been adulterated with criminality, organized crime, kidnapping and brigandage. Even so, the essential contention remains over the control Nigeria’s strategic resource. In recent months, the temperature of the conflict spiked following the slaying of 12 soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel and a major. The Joint Task Force launched a sweeping reprisal campaign that culminated in an amnesty announced by President Yar’Adua for all militants who would lay down their arms. For the avoidance of doubt, what is going on in the Niger Delta is a small scale insurgency. Militants have gone toe to toe with federal forces and remain unbowed, and have even been able to extract concessions from the state.
Two weeks ago, over 700 people were killed in clashes between the military and a radical Islamic extremist group known as Boko Haram (western education is a sin). By and large, such episodes are not new in Northern Nigeria where ethnic, political and religious differences combine in a highly unstable cocktail of sectarian animus. There is a long tradition of Islamic extremism in the north notably with the rise of the Maitatsine group in the early 1980s and subsequently similar sects. What is striking about the recent clashes is that they represent an escalation of extremism in the north to the point of full frontal engagement with the state.
The best way to understand the rise of militancy and extremism as represented by Niger Delta militants and sects like the Boko Haram is to situate them within the context of a failed state and as the natural consequence of a coincidence of alarming social indices. At no other time has the state been so comprehensively disconnected from the society at large. Three quarters of our population is under 35. The overwhelming majority of these youths have no jobs, no prospects and no hope. As many as 40 million Nigerians are unemployed. The vast majority of the unemployed belong to the under-35 age group. Furthermore, the federal government freely admits that up to 70 percent of the products of the educational system are unemployable. What these statistics represent is nothing less than the failure of the state and a flagrant inability to secure a sustainable future for the next generation.
This is further compounded by the triumph of antipolitics – the degeneration of politics from the art of governance to nothing more than predatory extraction and plunder. Under these circumstances, as poverty has deepened, an ever smaller cartel of politicians deploy cash and guns to secure electoral victories and then plant themselves squarely at the receiving end of the unearned billions of petrodollars disbursed by the federal government. Most Nigerian states subsist only as beggarly leeches sucking the golden goose of crude oil without any attempt at wealth creation. Nigeria’s politics is that of expropriation and loot-sharing. The consensus that binds the political class is the same as the concord among pirates and robbers as to how to share their plunder. It is fundamentally a kleptocracy. The president sits atop the predatory machine exercising proprietary powers over Nigeria’s mineral resources along with 36 state governors who serve as sub-executives of Plunder Inc.
The subtext of all this is the shrinking circumference of the federal government. The Nigerian state can no longer project its power at will as it used to do at the height of military rule. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the political reality. After Babangida, June 12 and Abacha, it was a politically awakened and sectionally aroused nation that entered into the fourth republic. The increase in micronationalism across the length and breadth of the country was a reaction to the rapacious misrule of the military. It is no surprise that from the Yoruba and the Igbo to the Ogoni and the Kataf peoples, micronationalism took root. Ethnic militias were formed to prevent their peoples’ political extinction at the hands of a neo-colonial state machine long captured by a class of political predators.
The second factor is sheer demographics. Nigeria has a youth bulge. About two-thirds of this country’s population is under 25. The population doubles every 30 years. Demographically speaking, this is not the same country that the military so easily seized control of in the 1980s. Significantly, general productivity, industrial capacity and agricultural production have nosedived as our population has surged. There are many more people to pacify and to police. This surge in our population also means that the contest for spoils and resources that customarily defines our politics has intensified. As oil revenues plunge due to militant attacks and global recession, there is increasingly not enough of the fabled national cake to go round. The Nigerian state apparently has no idea what to do with its burgeoning youth population. Politicians have been unable to galvanize them with economic empowerment through employment or a sense of belonging, identity and purpose. Under these circumstances, militant groups, criminal gangs, extremist sects and violent cults have multiplied as a form of social capital creation by these alienated youths.
Thirdly, the state can no longer project its desires at will because it no longer has a monopoly of violence. The years under Babangida and Abacha were nothing if not an education in the theology and physics of coercion. Most of the militants now negotiating with the federal government were but teens and youths during the 1990s, when the Nigerian state conducted a ruthless pacification of their land. They were conditioned by the extermination of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his band of dissenters. For them it was an education in the utility of violence. This consecration of violence, what Wole Soyinka has called “the divine right of the gun,” is the most insidious legacy of military rule. It taught the post-oil boom generation that treason was alright so long as its practitioners were successful. Coup plotters that failed were executed with dispatch. Those that succeeded became the government of the day. The principle was that he that has the most guns wins.
Eight years under Obasanjo did little to displace this principle from the national consciousness. Politicians have merely borrowed and perfected it by recruiting unemployed youths to serve in their private armies and as storm troopers in electoral campaigns. This militarization of Nigerian politics and public life was responsible for the emergence of confraternal brigandage in our universities but its most prominent progeny is now militancy. In place of the previous state monopoly of violence, there has been a deregulation of terror. Competing franchises on violence are all over the federation – militancy in the Niger Delta, Islamic extremism in the north, organized crime and kidnapping rings in the south-east among others, all of which constitute a fearsome mosaic of domestic terrorism.
The recession of state power is coterminous with the diminution of the moral authority of our politicians and the ethical degeneracy of our public institutions. It stands to reason that if the electoral process is a certified farce, then its products will be an expensive parasitic circus of ostentatious politicians. Ordinary Nigerians have lost faith in governance and have since resigned themselves to the grim chore of daily survival. Voter turnout since 1999 has steadily plummeted. News of the larcenies carried out by public officials and the unconscionable heists perpetrated by government agents now lack impact. It is not simply that “Nigerians have been shocked into a state of unshockability” as Dele Giwa once remarked. It is a grim resignation to the facts on ground – civilians are no better than soldiers when it comes to managing the public trust. The civilian/military dichotomy is no longer a Manichaean moral divide. The current PDP government which is even now engineering the emergence of a one-party state can only be likened to an army of occupation in plain clothes.
This development brings us to the fourth phenomenon of the post-military era. It is the increasing pre-eminence of religious clerics in the popular imagination. The switch to civil rule in 1999 was the climax of the popular discontent with military rule that had been brewing since the dawn of the 1990s. The idea of military Messianism had died a slow and painful death under the deception and intrigue of Babangida and the bare-knuckle savagery of Abacha. Nigerians consequently discarded the idea that salvation would come from the barracks and decided to give civilians another chance. In 2009, ten years into the fourth republic, Nigerians have lost faith in politics and politicians. They have deposited their faith in religious leaders and ethnic warlords. This explains the near mystical appeal that Nigeria’s faith gurus and sectarian freedom fighters command. It explains why not a few people see Asari Dokubo, Henry Okah and their confederates in MEND and allied groups as emancipators waging a just war against a bankrupt state. It accounts for the appeal of the late Mohammed Yusuf, leader of the Boko Haram sect and clerics of his ilk.
Just as militant leaders command great popular esteem in the south, so do religious clerics command great following in the north. According to the State Security Service, Boko Haram has half a million members. The fact that it took the military almost a week to subdue the movement in Maiduguri and that the sect’s followers were spread across several northern states is reflective of the sort of following that these clerics command. No Nigerian politician can command the sort of fanatical loyalty among the masses that figures like Dokubo, Ralph Uwazurike, Ganiyu Adams or Mohammed Yusuf and others elicit. In summary, the balance of power has shifted in this country from the federal government to what we might describe as non-state political actors.
This is the proper context in which to place the emergence of domestic terrorism and the recent deadly clashes in the north. This is the basis for the increasingly prevalent extremist theologies now festering in the cauldron of volatile social conditions and now capturing the hearts and minds of millions in the north. Some of these theologies are hived off those of the puritanical Wahhabi school propagated by some wealthy Saudi Arabian charities and missionary agencies and most recently manifest in Afghanistan under the defunct reign of the Taliban. This is why Boko Haram and allied sects have been described as “Talibans”. The appeal of sects like the Boko Haram is their explanation of the material conditions of the dispossessed: poverty, injustice, famine and hunger are rife because people have abandoned the path of true faith (in this instance, pure Islam of 6th century vintage). Nothing but a theocracy and the rule of Sharia will remedy this situation. The Nigerian state being a colonial invention and all other accessories of the modern nation-state (like western education) are diabolical structures against which a jihad must be levied. The military, the police and all other government institutions are arch-enemies of this theocratic order and must be thus destroyed.
Only the most ignorant Nigerian will write off this summation as the stuff of fringe lunacy. For while it is right to say that these extremist groups live on the margins of society, it is also correct to say that the vast majority of our people have, in fact, been forced onto the margins of society, alienated by the social injustice and impoverishment wrought by anti-politicians. Youths who have no hope and no prospects roam around these fringes from where they can be initiated into extremism. The appeal of groups like the Boko Haram should not be a mystery. They provide a theological explanation for the dispossession of millions of Nigerians who are born into this country in poverty and are apparently preordained to live and die in poverty. The theology casts injustice and class inequities in Manichaean terms as a struggle between light and darkness. Above all, it provides our existentially frustrated youths with a transcendent cause (jihad) for which to live, fight and die. In a reality characterized by lack of moral clarity and amorality, these theologies provide a firm moral order through which the faithful can interpret their circumstances. Their doctrines of sainted exclusivity and exclusion offer the very sort of self-esteem and self-respect that the Nigerian system so abjectly fails to give its youths. In addition, Nigerians remain hungry for leadership, and following the serial failures of military messiahs and civilian buccaneers, they are quite willing to settle for the oracular certitude of charismatic militants and pseudo-prophets.
It needs to be said that these symptoms are in no way restricted to Islam. They are mirrored in the ascendancy of some Pentecostal, neo-Pentecostal and wholly Nigerian brands of Christianity in recent decades. We must see the moral equivalence that connects the excesses of groups like the Boko Haram and the atrocities perpetrated in some communities in Akwa Ibom and Cross River, some of whose denizens abused, tortured and even murdered their children because some Pentecostal clerics had dubbed them witches. In both cases what is evident is that a cadre of priests are providing scapegoats for the material circumstances of the faithful. For Boko Haram, it is western education and the Nigerian state that sustains it; for the Pentecostal gurus in Akwa Ibom, it is defenceless children. The saga of Reverend Chukwuemeka King who was sentenced to death for murder in 2007 and others of his kind intimates us of the equivalent capacity for extremism that exists in Nigerian Christianity. In short, over the years the failure of the state and the general moral degeneracy of society have created the perfect circumstances for the emergence of false prophets and the germination of extremist theologies. Reason is in decline. Unreason, superstition and unhinged zealotry have taken centre-stage.
These trends are not in anyway restricted to fringe religious groups. Nigerian politicians have been adept at manipulating religion to serve their own ends. It should be remembered that it was Nigerian politicians not clerics that declared Sharia law in some northern states in late 1999 and 2000. For the politicians, Sharia was a convenient piece of populist gimmickry. For the long suffering masses, Sharia held out the promise of redistributive justice and a more ethical society. This is why the people took to it. As it turned out, these high-minded objectives were far from those of the politicians. But their betrayal of the people stirred the deadly broth of discontent that has produced extremists like Boko Haram. As governor of Katsina, Umar Yar’Adua also instituted the Sharia. The first execution under Sharia law in Nigeria was in Katsina under his watch. After his victory in the farcical 2007 polls, President Yar’Adua urged his opponents and Nigerians to accept his election as the will of God.
Reason demands that we trace a parallel line of congruence between Yar’Adua’s definition of his dubious victory as the will of God and Mohammed Yusuf’s definition of his crusade against western education as the will of God. In Yar’Adua’s case, it was the consecration of an electoral heist executed with generous deployments of state-sponsored terror; in the case of Yusuf and the Boko Haram, it was the sanctification of privatized terror deployed against the state and its agencies. It is not a leap in logic to propose that Yar’Adua and Yusuf, as far as their pronouncements are concerned, are neighbours on a spectrum of religious belief – one that purports the appropriation of divine sanction for partisan agendas. This speaks to the need for us to resolve the role of religion in public life in this country.
That the emergence of domestic terrorism poses an existential threat to Nigeria is beyond doubt. The question is how to defuse the incendiary circumstances in which extremist and militant movements have been incubated. The solution to the crisis lies squarely in the province of moral leadership. The challenge is one of repurposing our politics, reorienting the political class and reforming the character of the Nigerian state which at this moment is essentially a machine of internal colonialism. Bombing campaigns and amnesties will not resolve the Niger Delta conflict. Over the years, Nigerian military chiefs have publicly admitted on several occasions that a military solution to the conflict is not viable. The conflict is a prime example of asymmetrical warfare with a comparatively small band of irregular combatants operating in a familiar and inscrutable terrain, a labyrinthine network of creeks and amongst a largely sympathetic local population. An all out military solution is fraught with the risk of high casualties for the armed forces, unconscionably high collateral damage in human and material terms; much of Nigeria’s oil infrastructure would be imperilled and above all, such indiscriminate deployment of military force against Nigerian citizens would only further radicalize the surviving population.
In the north, law enforcement agencies can be deployed against these extremist groups but only as one component of a holistic strategy. The fact that these groups tend to disperse and reappear again with increased ferocity indicate that there is a large pool of disaffected people from which to swell their ranks. Let there be no mistake. Nigerian forces may have routed the Boko Haram in Maiduguri but this is no time for jubilation. All that has been achieved is the decapitation of a particular sect. Yet, the extra-judicial execution of Mohammed Yusuf by the police somewhat proves the point of the sect which is that the agents of the state are messengers of a degenerate power. The slaying of their leader will serve to further radicalize the members of the sect. The police through its thoughtless brutality may have simply created a martyr in whose name more disenchanted youths can rally. Indeed, while a certain sect has been neutralized, there remains a widespread movement in the north of people who share the sect’s disenchantment with western education, modernity and the Nigerian state. Therefore, containing extremism cannot be a matter of who can deploy the most force. The challenge facing the political elite is to enthrone good governance and social justice.
Militancy and terrorism are Frankenstein monsters that were conceived by the militarization of politics and nurtured in the Petri-dish of antipolitics. In order to eradicate militancy, the political culture that has created it must be addressed. President Yar’Adua must come forward and commit publicly and unequivocally to ending political violence, not as a sermon or a piece of presidential posturing but as a matter of urgent national priority. He must commit himself to putting an end to zero-sum politics. In practical terms, this means insisting that the ruling Peoples Democratic Party does not have to win every state in the federation and discarding the party’s manifest design to establish hegemonic one-party rule; he must ensure that the relevant agencies particularly INEC and the police are unshackled and empowered to function as truly autonomous arbiters in the electoral process; and that the police and allied security agencies will safeguard the integrity of the process.
The chain of causality is obvious. When politicians recruit unemployed youths as thugs and arm them with cash and guns, they create the next generation of militants and terrorists. When these politicians take power, their knavish misrule creates the material conditions that gestate terrorists and extremists. Antipolitics is the reason that the federal government has thus far failed in the Niger Delta. Hopelessly rigged elections produce public officials that are answerable not to the electorate but to cliques and cartels in the ruling party. When the Yar’Adua administration created the absolutely needless Ministry of the Niger Delta, it created, in effect, yet another channel of plunder and patronage for party chieftains. The dubious provenance of the Niger Delta Ministry and of the “selected” officials in the zone means that government will never deliver for the long-suffering denizens of the region. This is because they were never on the agenda in the first place. This democracy deficit is the key factor in the instability in the region. Only as the Nigerian state cleanses itself of its predatory proclivities will it assume the moral authority needed to distil the social ferment in the country into criminal terrorist elements and genuine democratic activism and agitation.
In the Niger Delta as in every other part of this country, Nigerians need to know that their votes count and that their leaders will be held accountable. Issues like devolution of powers from the centre, adjustments in the derivation formula and revenue allocation are ultimately political outcomes best pursued through the channels of political engagement and public debate. But as long as our electoral process is subverted to the point that its outcomes are undemocratic, no such debate will occur. The democratic channels that provide a valve for discontent and legitimate agitation will be closed. Under such circumstances, Nigeria’s growing army of discontents will ardently adopt the eloquence of violence to press their claims. The gap between state and society will widen and terrorists, warlords and extremists will fill the void, serving as a buffer between a bankrupt political elite and a disillusioned citizenry. In time, these agents of disruption, enabled by their weapons of war and ennobled by the disenchantment of the masses will carve out turfs where their rules rather than the laws of Nigeria apply. Their little kingdoms will continue to increase, while the circumference of a state manned by an intellectually exhausted political class continues to shrink into irrelevance. The country will drift further into the outer darkness of statelessness and failed statehood. This is the possibility that the Yar’Adua administration must now work to avert.