In the 1990s, the ecologically-devastated creeks and militarized communities of the Niger Delta generated an insurgency that threatened to destroy the soft underbelly of the Nigerian state – its hydrocarbon economy. Goodluck Jonathan’s emergence as president will not solve the fundamental questions raised by this insurgency but it symbolically defangs Ijaw militancy and answers the clarion of southern minority marginalization. Just as the creeks produced a generation of militants, the multiplying ghettoes of northern Nigeria combined with the devastation of rural agrarian communities by drought and desertification have sired a culture of homicidal zealotry that manifests frequently in bouts of sectarian violence. This cult with its offspring terrorism is the most urgent national security threat confronting Nigeria today.
There are four distinct though closely related formats of violence in the north. Conventional ethno-religious violence pits the mainly Christian Berom against the mainly Muslim Hausa in Jos, the Tiv against the Jukun in Wukari and the Muslim Hausa-Fulani against the mainly Christian Sayawa in Bauchi. This type of conflict is frequently more ethnic than religious, revolves around land ownership and political primacy and frequently conflates religious and ethnic identities. There is the conflict between the largely non-Muslim nomadic Fulani pastoralists and various agrarian communities which is fundamentally a non-religious struggle for scarce land resources. With drought and desertification forcing increased southward migration of pastoralists, this is Nigeria’s most consistent low intensity conflict. There is sectarian violence that pits Muslims, usually members of extremist sects like Maitatsine, against Christians. Fourthly, there is the emergent strain of nascent terrorism in the form of groups like Boko Haram who seek to create their version of an Islamic society. With the exception of that between pastoralists and farmers, all these conflicts are closely linked to urban poverty.
Let us be clear. The problem of the north is not Islam. Too often commentators struggling with ignorance and prejudice sacrifice analytical integrity on the altars of their prejudices and slander a whole religion and its adherents. The notion of an Islamic north and a Christian south hermetically sealed off from each other is a fallacy. There is a very significant Muslim population in the southwest (just as there is a significant Christian population in the north) and the zone records little religious violence. The difference is that Islam in the southwest historically interacted with western education, economic empowerment, the accessories of modernity and an industrial economy. In the north, Islam exists in a pre-industrial vortex rife with ignorance, poverty and illiteracy. This precarious existential condition produces an inferiority complex and notions of ethno-religious supremacy that incubate extremist violence. Religion in this situation can only become a hideous zealotry.
Once Islam is eliminated as a cause then we may examine the geography of sectarian violence which is consistent across the north. It occurs mostly in the densely populated ghettoes with high concentrations of unskilled young males and is entirely unheard of in the upscale neighbourhoods and estates of the middle class and the rich. It may spread occasionally from the ghettoes to the commercial districts where these alienated males destroy businesses and storefronts – the bastions of an economy from which they are excluded. Churches are unfortunately deemed fair game because they embody an alien presence more culturally and organically connected to the same economy that has no place for the talakawa.
The dynamic of Hobbesian violence in slums is similar all over the world. Consider the gang-bangers of American inner city ghettoes, the gangs of Brazilian favelas or the small time narco-trafficantes of Mexican barrios. During the 1960s, Martin Luther King argued that the serial rioting of blacks in the American inner city communities was not because they were black but because they were poor. They were victims of a structural violence that had trapped them in the slums in the first place. This is the case with northern slums and ghettoes. Violence always wears garments of cultural convenience. In northern Nigeria, violence wears the garments of Islam just as in the Niger Delta it assumed the form of Ijaw ethno-nationalism. Violence typically adopts the socio-cultural properties of its immediate environment.
Skeptics will ask why the presence of slums in the south has not produced similar ethno-religious violence. The socio-economic dynamics are different. Historically, the north has always had lower crime rates than the south. This has less to do with piety than opportunity. Urban centres like Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu, and Onitsha have economies that can sustain a thriving underworld. Crime is a sort of black economy but it requires a flourishing legal economy to exist. For example, armed robbery exists where there is actually something to steal; kidnapping is rife where there are high net-worth individuals who can pay hefty ransoms. Advance fee fraud or 419 requires people wealthy enough to be scammed. Drug dealers need people that can afford their products. Lagos has more schools, banks, hospitals, industries, cybercafés, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and IT technicians than the 19 northern states put together. This indicates the geographical concentration of a middle and upper class whose presence can sustain crimes of acquisition. Advanced societies address crime by instituting wealth redistribution and welfare programs. In our unequal society which has no social safety nets, crime is often like an informal wealth redistribution program.
However, the northern economy cannot sustain crime in the same degree as in the south. Kano, the erstwhile commercial centre of the north has been reduced to a de-industrialized ghost town. The destruction of northern industries which began with Babangida’s structural adjustment policies has stripped the region of its productive capacity. In northern towns, there is little of a middle class but plenty of idle rich, contractors, retired generals, political operatives and ex-bureaucrats who live on government patronage but do not create wealth. There is literally little or no economy to steal from in these parts. Since the hoards of the dispossessed have little to steal, they take to killing and destroying. Thus, while underclass angst in the south assumes the form of conventional crime, in the north, it is simply arson, murder and brigandage. But we do not call it crime; we call it ‘ethno-religious violence.’
The problem, therefore, is not Islam. It is systemic poverty – the structural impoverishment of a region that was late in accepting western education and has therefore remained behind the rest of the country in every conceivable way except possibly in the incidence of random violence and the burgeoning population density of its urban areas. What divides north and south is not fundamentally religion or ethnicity but the disproportionate distribution of skills and empowering tools fostered by British colonialists and their local allies but then carried on by a generation of northern elites who exploit the region’s poverty as a political weapon. These elites have used the rage of the talakawa to underwrite their claim to power while ensuring that generations of northerners remain entrapped in Dickensian conditions. Thus radicalized by neglect, these youths become ready recruits for all kinds of cults, wannabe terrorists and a host of malcontents with grand anomic aspirations.
Privation of the scale we see in Nigeria is dangerous enough. But it is compounded because it significantly coincides with ethnic and confessional lines creating a situation in which the condition of the talakawa can always be explained by demagogues as a conspiracy against Hausa Muslims or Arewa in general. When poverty seems to be the exclusive property of a particular ethno-religious community, sectarian violence rears its head. Paranoia is its own reason and logic, its own court, judge and executioner.
Our national security infrastructure needs urgent reform to deal with the escalating threat of domestic terrorism, especially the law enforcement, policing and intelligence administrations. But the typical response of militarizing a strife-torn area is not sufficient. The conceptual link between social security and national security has to be rediscovered. People who have been educated have the tools to actualize their potential and are less likely to throw their lives away. People who have good jobs are ennobled by the dignity of labour and have a sense of self-worth as contributors to the economy. They have much to live for and therefore no reason to risk their lives in suicidal acts of mass delinquency. People who earn decently are unlikely to hire themselves out to politicians to fight and die for causes they barely understand. Such people perceive themselves as citizens, part of a social economy, and are not inclined to destroy that economy.
The geography of sectarian violence indicates that densely populated areas which lack basic social amenities are especially prone to breeding anarchic nihilism. Indeed, Nigeria’s geography of violence corresponds with its geography of economic opportunity. Seen from this perspective, the provision of basic social infrastructure – potable water, electricity, sewage systems, healthcare and schools – to raise the quality of life in these areas, as well as the provision of jobs, is an urgent priority. An urban transformation project aimed at replacing these slums with environments actually fit for human habitation is necessary. In short, good governance commends itself as the ultimate national security strategy. Of course, merely providing social services will not completely stamp out extremist violence but it will reduce its incidence to the activities of an intransigent delinquent minority, whereas military deployment as a sole solution will only radicalize whole communities.
The grand narrative of northern political domination has long obscured the larger truth of northern poverty. The plight of the presumed hegemon of Nigerian politics has not elicited as much sympathy as that of the Niger Delta did. Even so, the case for northern slums is not a matter of sympathy but about pursuing what is right, just and fair.