Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why Nigeria Can't Break Up

No bad idea is regurgitated as constantly as the notion that the solution to chronic violence in Nigeria is for her to “break up.” The case for Nigeria’s disintegration surfaces routinely after tragic episodes of violence and has emerged following the recent increase in sectarian terrorism. Some perspective is necessary. Since the days before the Civil War, beating the drums of separatism has become a sort of pre-programmed response to national calamity. Rumours of our impending divorce attended the 1964 elections, the June 12 1993 crisis, the death of Moshood Abiola in 1998 and the Sharia controversy in 2001. In 1990, a gang of over-ambitious soldiers attempting to oust the Babangida regime even purported to evict five northern states from the federation. Thus, current debates about the durability of Nigeria are nothing new.

It is intellectually lazy and astonishingly parlous thinking to suggest that the solution to our national crisis is disintegration. It is true that much life has been expended on the Nigeria project to no apparent redemptive effect but what we owe the dead and the unborn as well as ourselves is clear-minded thinking on the fate of our union rather than just emotive polemics.

The usual suggestion is that Nigeria be divided between a “Muslim North” and “Christian South” or among its so-called big three – the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Beyond these imprecise propositions, there is little specificity as to what shape post-Nigerian nations would look like except perhaps for the preposterous suggestion that every ethnic group should become a nation. These arguments are fallacious. Nigeria is not and has never been a country of monolithic religious halves. Christians and Muslims are scattered in substantial proportions and ethnic variety across the country. There are Fulani Christians and Igbo Muslims. Millions of Yoruba families contain adherents of both faiths. Nigeria is far more complex and diverse than the Hausa-Yoruba-Igbo tripod. Making each ethnic group a nation throws up problems. What would we make of Ijaw communities who hug the coastline stretching from the south to the south west? The sheer diversity and interlocking spread of hundreds of ethnic nationalities makes tidy disintegration a virtually impossible proposition.

A popular fallacy is that prior to the advent of the colonialists, Nigeria’s ethnic groups existed in self-contained cocoons of utopian bliss unburdened by the necessity of interaction with others. But many of the ethnic and regional identities which are now presumed “sacred” are in fact colonial creations. For instance, it was only after colonization, that the term “Yorubaland” began to be applied to the realms of all rulers who claim descent from Oduduwa, instead of only to the Oyo Kingdom. Before the British came, the Egba, Ijebu, Ekiti, Ijesha and Ilorin peoples fought costly interstate wars among themselves. The longest pre-colonial civil war was the sixteen year Kiriji war which was fought between Yoruba city states. Yoruba nationalism was forged by Obafemi Awolowo who rallied the descendants of Oduduwa as a political force in the new nation. Similarly, Igbos were organized into separate and autonomous republics. Many of them had scant contact with each other with some entirely oblivious of others before the advent of colonialism. Consequently, Igbos fought no wars as a collective. Igbo national consciousness was largely the handiwork of Nnamdi Azikiwe who at one point preached the manifest destiny of the Igbo in Africa. Hausa city-states co-existed through times of war and peace. Even when Uthman Dan Fodio’s jihad established the Sokoto Caliphate, the new emirates were never synonymous with “the North” which was a later British invention and was fortified as a political identity by Ahmadu Bello.

Significantly, pre-colonial societies were not based on ethnic units but rather on age groups, occupations, residence and settlements. Instead of monolithic tribal blocs competing for a share of the national cake, city-states, inclusive kingdoms and republics for the most part made up the area that was eventually christened Nigeria and experienced centuries-long commercial links and cultural cross-pollination.

Dissolving the Nigerian federation will not resolve the violence that bedevils places like Jos, the conflicts between the Ife and Modakeke in Osun, the Aguleri and Umuleri in Anambra or the Ezza and the Ezillo in Ebonyi, the Jukun and the Tiv or the Itsekiri and the Urhobo. Nor will it end conflicts between nomadic Fulani pastoralists and agrarian communities stretching from the north to the south. These are essentially either local or intra-ethnic conflicts.

Ethnic homogeneity cannot indemnify society against conflict. Somalia, the world’s poster child of failed statehood, has only one ethnic group, the Somali, only one language and is one hundred percent Islamic. South Sudan which only recently celebrated its divorce from Sudan is now embroiled in inter-ethnic conflict within its borders. Back home, we need only look at Bayelsa State and other ethnically homogeneous states to establish conclusively that ethnic homogeneity is not a predictor of peace, social justice or smart governance.

While prodigal political elites practise divisive politics, the Nigerian people themselves live in a socio-economic reality of interdependence and integration. The use of oil wealth from the Niger Delta in sustaining state bureaucracies all over the country may be the most obvious example of this. Less remarked is the dependence of southern urbanites on northern produce for food. The Fulanis are the main custodians of Nigeria’s livestock population, holding over ten million cattle, twenty million goats and millions of sheep. Their industry significantly accounts for protein consumption in the south. The north remains Nigeria’s food basket.

We are so captivated by the witchcraft of separatism that we fail to appreciate the fortuitous or providential alignments of ecological, geographical, cultural and economic factors that have fostered interdependence and integration. For example, if violence in the north was simply about anti-Igbo hatred then it would be saner for Igbos to stay home in the east. But the east is disadvantaged by its erosion-prone poor soil which cannot sustain the population density of the area and which accounts for the comparatively high level of migration of Igbos to other parts of Nigeria. Despite everything, Igbos (and other Nigerians) continue to migrate and mingle because human coexistence dictates it. No man is an Island. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man is from Kano but has most of his investments in the south and employs more southerners than northerners. Millions of Nigerians have become socio-cultural hybrids through intermarriage, cultural adoption and transplantation.   

Nigeria’s problem is not her diversity but the failure of the state to affirm Nigerian citizenship as the ultimate identity superseding all other allegiances. It is our failure as citizens, intellectuals and politicians to articulate an all-embracing Nigerian ethos. Rather we waste valuable time and energy rebooting hackneyed definitions of Nigeria as an artificial creation or a mere geographical expression. Yet all nations, possibly except Australia, being creations of human political will, are artificial and begin as geographical novelties; they are not received from heaven. It falls on succeeding generations to transform them from mere geographies into socio-political moralities; to create transcendent solidarities where none existed before. This is what nation-building is about and this is what we have failed so spectacularly to do. Sectarian politics thrives largely because of the dazzling scale of ignorance that Nigerians demonstrate about their history, geography and each other.  

It is foolhardy to believe that the failure to treat ourselves as citizens rather than as ethnic and religious partisans will disappear if we dissolve Nigeria. If we cannot treat each other humanely now that we are compatriots, how on earth are we going to do better if we become foreigners? Last year, the Abia state government fired thousands of Igbo-speaking “non-indigenes” from its employment to make room for equally Igbo “indigenes.” Significantly, most conflicts in Nigeria are between so-called “indigenes” and “settlers,” a dichotomy that at times seems to defy ethnic or religious solidarity. These petty bigotries and manifestations of apartheid will not disappear with the Nigerian union. The challenge of civic security is inescapable for there is no possible post-Nigerian construct that would not contain either religious or ethnic minorities. It is worth noting that Biafra, the most serious separatist effort in our history was undermined both by the superior power of the federal forces and the reluctance of ethnic minorities who feared for their own prospects as citizens of Biafra. The problem remains creating a just, fair and equal citizenship that shelters all of us regardless of creed, ethnicity, class or gender.    Nothing suggests that new ethnic republics would in any way be more peaceful, stable or more prosperous than the current Nigerian reality. In short, it would require less effort to renew the Nigerian enterprise than to construct afresh new polities.

Having said all this, nations are not eternal but finite, expiring when they have outlived their usefulness to history and humanity. Nigeria is no different. Nigeria does not currently face immediate disintegration but a slow and steady erosion of federal authority by sundry paramilitaries, warlords and terrorist gangs, until the nation slips inexorably into failed statehood. Already we see signs of this in the brazen terrorism of pseudo-religious extremists who seek to establish alternate governments as well as the rise of oil-bunkering pirate gangs in our southern coastal waters.

It would be a pity if we were to let Nigeria fail. No one who has studied her history, encountered her acute humanity, sampled her cultural riches and researched the dreams of her founding fathers can fail to sense her ordination for higher purposes. For us to abort this purpose would be nothing short of cosmic treason. As Eme Awa once remarked, “If we were to dissolve the federation, a future generation of people will pass the verdict that the Nigerian elites committed suicide while of unsound mind.” Nigeria has not been tried and found wanting. We simply have not invested enough of our intellectual and moral energies into actualizing her promise. 

(All Images are sourced from Google Images.)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Meaning of Occupy Nigeria

When Nigerians stormed the streets protesting the federal government’s removal of the subsidy on petrol, they detonated the myth that Nigerians are docile. In reality, the subsidy removal only served to ignite pent-up frustrations with a derelict government into a campaign against the reigning kleptocracy. Nigerians’ tolerance of governmental abuse has long been mistaken for cowardly passivity. In fact, the plain truth is that government is irrelevant to most Nigerians – whether to those who live in what Stanley Macebuh called “categorical poverty” whose material conditions have not changed in decades and will almost certainly not change for their children’s children; or to the embattled Nigerian middle class who have become micro-municipalities providing their own social services; and matters only slightly more to the rich who have fashioned their exit strategies to foreign lands in the event of a long overdue uprising.

In the absence of government, Nigerians have embraced the chore of survival while leaving the reigning kleptocrats to otherworldly judgment, their only caveat being that ‘if the government will not work for us, it shouldn’t impede us.’ The thieves may carry on thieving so long as their thievery does not appear on our front door demanding tribute. This is the understanding that has informed the much cited Nigerian “docility.” By eliminating the subsidy, and effectively imposing higher taxes on Nigerians, the government broke this accord, and provoked the citizens into protest.

In a larger sense, the Occupy Nigeria protests were about a generation which has long been characterized by apathy finally snapping into an awareness of its citizenship. Suddenly, Nigerians were asking serious questions and demanding answers. The awakening started in 2010 when protesters marched on Abuja demonstrating against the government’s hijack by a “cabal” in President Umar Yar’Adua’s absence through ill-health. They demanded compliance with the constitution and the transference of power to the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. The momentum was sustained for the 2011 polls which starred an unprecedented level of youth involvement and sparked off talk of a “youth vote.”

The spirit of activism that recently gripped young Nigerians, as well as the volcanic rumbling of dissent on the streets and in cyberspace all signify the coming of age of a generation. This generation, born between 1975 and 1990, has no memory of a Nigeria that once worked; no rosy recollection of an oil boom-fuelled era of prosperity. Its experience of Nigeria has been one of misery and disillusionment conditioned by economic recession and political repression. It is the first generation that has had to consider exile as a path to self-actualization. Raised during the era of military dictatorship, it understood Nigerian existence as a condition of servitude, of recourse to the heavens in the face of oppression and of gratitude to “benign” authoritarians for the small crumbs of their inheritance grudgingly delivered as privileges. That generation has finally decided to snap off the psychic bonds of subjection and fully assume their mantle as citizens.

For the first time in a very long time, Nigerians microscopically scrutinized a government policy to its entrails, traded obscure policy data on social media and debated the fine points of deregulation. We became emergency technocrats and cyber-parliamentarians, but it is really more accurate to say that we became “active citizens” invigilating political conduct and demanding accountability from our leaders.

To be sure, a week of protests, of cathartic expressions of rage online and on the streets, will not dislodge an entrenched culture of dysfunctional governance. But it can begin to lay the foundations of an authentic citizen-led democracy. Going forward, we can take stock of what we have learned and gained.

Occupy Nigeria showed us glimpses of what our generation can achieve. In Kano, Minna and elsewhere, Muslim and Christian protesters protected each other – a powerful gesture at a time that sectarian violence poses serious questions of our union – showing that it is entirely possible to rise above religious differences. Across the land, Nigerians of different ethnicities, classes and creeds assembled in the name of their nation. Such transcendent solidarity genuinely frightens Nigerian elites who have traditionally used “divide and rule” to sow discord and subvert the emergence of a pan-Nigerian movement. Their panic was evident in the Jonathan’s administration’s shameful frenzied efforts to ethnicize the protest movement, indicating that in almost a hundred years, from the colonial masters to military dictators to the current kleptocrats, the establishment has not changed its tactics and indeed, is incapable of developing new ones.   

The perceived failure of organized labour to be steadfast is symptomatic of the absence of an intelligent principled opposition. In the end, labour was being asked to drive a revolution for which it has neither the moral nor intellectual vision. The muffled protestations of the nominal opposition, indeed, their complicity in the kleptocracy in Abuja suggests strongly that the great divide in Nigeria today is between the powerful and the powerless. The powerful have the means to portray their lusts in sectarian colours as the interests of some religious or ethnic group. The powerless are anonymous and voiceless. Being the voice of the powerless and restoring to them both their voices and their power is the great political task of our time.   

It is easier to be united against something than to be united for something. We must balance our unified opposition to bad government with an equally unanimous proposition of an alternative ethic to govern the Nigeria that we want. This is a harder, though achievable, task but it is not executed in the streets. It is conducted in hidden sanctums where thinkers harness rage into ideology, tears into theology and radical energy into political strategy.

Perhaps, this generation which was born after the civil war will be less susceptible to the spirit of sectarian discord than its forebears. And if we can overcome the burden of inherited prejudice and bigotry, and transform our chains of subjection into bonds of solidarity, we can renew this nation.

Nigeria has experienced civic awakenings before. In the 1930s and 1940s, nationalists rode on such tides of discontent to mount the campaign for independence. Among the nationalist avatars are names that have passed into heroic legend – Azikiwe, Aminu Kano, Raji Abdallah, Sa’ad Zungur, and Mokwugo Okoye among others. During the 1980s and 1990s, pro-democracy groups used the growing disenchantment with the failed economic policies of the military to champion democracy. We remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, Bala Usman, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi etc as icons of this struggle and honour their still living cohorts such as Soyinka, Shehu Sani and Femi Falana. Because nation-building is a generational endeavour, these movements achieved only partial fulfillment. Occupy Nigeria is a link in the chain of a democratic tradition seeking to extend the work of the patriarchs. The living icons of the struggle against militarism are lions in winter. Even as we drink of their wisdom, a new generation must call forth its own prophets and revolutionaries to interpret its possibilities. The consummation of this nascent movement will come not in the form of a few exalted paragons but of heroic multitudes, a critical mass of active citizens who bring to bear upon small and great tasks, a consciousness of their responsibility to God and posterity. The journey of national redemption is long and arduous but if we can overcome our chronic pessimism about ourselves, we can inherit a new dawn.

It would be a mistake to see Occupy Nigeria as a fluke. To do so is to miss the dynamics at work. Nigeria’s most globalized generation has been inspired by the televised revolutions of the Arab world and the “Occupy” protests in the west against capitalism’s inequities. Following the contraction of western economies, many of Nigeria’s exiles are coming back home from the diaspora with the righteous ire of heirs returning to reclaim their inheritance from usurpers. There is a realization that Nigeria is the only country that we have. Their return will not be without incident. Thirdly, there is new and gratifying desire to question authority, whether those of sleazy politicians, irresolute labour leaders or corruptible clergy. This is especially positive given our history of paternalistic authoritarianism.  Every revolution requires some iconoclasm; the destruction of the old idols and symbols of the status quo.  

Simply because the streets have fallen silent does not mean that the spirit of protest has been bound. For now, our placards are in our hearts. The genie of discontent is well and truly out of the lamp. Radical energies have been released and are crackling about us. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be converted from one form to another. Similarly, the energy that animated those protests has simply shifted phase, and remains intangibly in the ether, proclaiming the inevitability of change.  

(All Pictures Sourced From Google Images).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The`Politics of National Security

Because of the unprecedented threat of random terroristic violence, like no other leader before him, President Goodluck Jonathan will be judged on the matter of security rather than on the previous perennially staple themes like the economy. However, the challenges are far more fundamental than apparently realized.

We cannot truly have national security without a progressive nationalist vanguard articulating the meaning and purpose of the Nigerian nation and what it means to be its citizen. If as the French philosopher Ernest Renan said, “A nation is a moral consciousness,” then to the extent to which that consciousness does not pervade the government, it will be incapable of designing an authentic national security doctrine. It is impossible to define national interest without there being a national consciousness active in those who would define such an interest. This is in essence the summary of our current crisis. Although a single party controls the presidency and the national assembly, it cannot forge the sort of elite consensus with which to generate a nationalist ideology because its raison d’ĂȘtre is rent sharing.

 In the military era, national security was deemed exclusively synonymous with the personal safety of the Head of State and the stability of his regime. Only security threats that directly threatened the Head of State were recognized by security czars. This accounts for why a security apparatus that was stunningly efficient at detecting both actual and imagined coup plots or arresting journalists for perceived slights against the Head of State, his family and his cronies, was incompetent at relatively mundane tasks like securing the nation’s borders.

The very nature of the post-colonial state complicates attempts to define state security. Because the state is less an organ of national interest than a vehicle captured periodically by competing elite factions, concepts like “state security” and “enemies of the state” are disturbingly fluid. Ijaw militants who less than a decade ago could be rightfully defined as terrorists and enemies of the state are now powerful non-state actors and friends of the current administration. The Nigerian state is not anchored to a singular national ethos but to a constantly shifting constellation of grudges and appetites in sectarian hues. This is why it has been difficult to articulate a consistent national security doctrine that defines the interests and enemies of the state.

Furthermore, a system of elite selection based on ethnic or ethno-regional representation cannot possibly produce a nationally-minded leadership and therefore cannot accurately interpret and address national security threats. Olusegun Obasanjo’s candidacy in 1999 was based on the notion of compensating the southwest following the death of Moshood Abiola, the winner of the annulled 1993 election. Umar Yar’Adua became president on the strength of the argument that power should return to the north and Jonathan was picked as his running mate on the basis of his Ijaw ancestry to placate the militants of the Niger Delta.

In all these instances, accident of birth was the sole or major propellant of presidential bids and significantly, the presidency was used to reward the implicit or explicit threat of violence and terrorism by some elites who saw it as the turn of their ethnic groups to rule. Precisely because the threat of sectional violence underwrites claims to national leadership, leaders thrown up by this process cannot interpret anti-state insurrections as anything other than ethnically or religiously motivated challenges to their own power.

This is why some senior figures of the security establishment have apparently settled for the lowest of the low hanging fruits by defining Boko Haram as a dastardly plot to destabilize the Jonathan administration orchestrated by powerful northern politicians.

The grounds for defining Boko Haram simply as an anti-Jonathan conspiracy or more broadly as an anti-southern presidency conspiracy are scant. Until now, the deadliest Islamist extremist insurgencies in Nigerian history have occurred while Northern Muslim presidents where in office – the Maitatsine revolt in Kano in 1980 under President Shehu Shagari and Boko Haram’s siege in Maiduguri in 2009 under President Umar Musa Yar’Adua.  The violence of both groups led to bloody confrontations with the army. Comparatively less serious uprisings were staged by the Shia Muslim Brothers in Zaria, Kaduna and Katsina during the mid 1980s while General Ibrahim Babangida was in power. It makes no sense, therefore, to interpret Islamist extremist revolts as secret weapons periodically unsheathed by northern elites to threaten southern Christian presidents. There is frail empirical basis for perceiving Boko Haram as northern anti-Jonathan agenda. Indeed, to define it as such is to reduce a national security threat to the envy of one man’s good fortune. To say that innocent Nigerians, Muslims as well as Christians slain in Maiduguri and elsewhere by the group have died simply because their murderers hate the president who is safely ensconced in Abuja suggests a level of vainglorious conceit at work in high places.

This summation ushers the current crisis into the distressingly familiar territory of North-South suspicion which is the intellectual comfort zone of the majority of our political elites. If as this narrative holds, President Goodluck Jonathan is being opposed because he is a southerner and a Christian, then countering Boko Haram shifts from the realm of developing strategic and institutional measures to that of recriminatory histrionics and jingoistic saber-rattling along ethno-regional lines.

What this means in effect is that the state cannot truly respond to conflicts as a neutral arbiter of contending political passions and custodian of national sovereign will; only as a hostage to sectional and class interests. Most times, the federal government responds by localizing, ethnicizing and politicizing security challenges, evading responsibility, while asking religious leaders and traditional rulers to “intervene”. Thus, Boko Haram is still considered a “northern Islamic” problem even when it poses a direct unequivocal threat to our putative national values of pluralism and tolerance.     

Our crisis is compounded by the fact that recruitment into the public sector including strategic services is based on a bastardized model of affirmative action that emphasizes ethnicity (and creed) rather than merit. The original aim of creating a representative bureaucracy has been pursued to unconscionable extremes.  This is the kernel of the dysfunction of our government and the legendary ineptitude of the civil service; too many offices are occupied by the wrong people who are indemnified in their incompetence by their ethnicity or religion. Consequently, we have an official bureaucracy that reflects the negative aspects of our diversity but possesses nothing of our intelligence, energy and industry. It is a system that reinforces the popular racist and bigoted idea that intelligence and stupidity, competence and knavery are unequally distributed among Nigeria’s ethnic groups.

The virtual collapse of governance is rooted in this malaise but the political elites who sit atop this sepulchral system have no incentive to make meritocracy the prime ethic of the Nigerian state. Yet, Nigerians persist in demanding excellence from a system that is not even configured to deliver performance. The politics of being a “good representative” of one’s ethnic group or faith cannot coexist with the imperative of serving the national interest.

As terrorism deepens, Nigerians have duly looked to the security services for answers and have been angered by their apparent inability to deliver results. Much of this anger is misplaced. There is no reason to expect a state which cannot deliver power supply to excel at law enforcement. Nor should we expect security services to perform above the general decrepitude of our infrastructure. On the occasions that they have miraculously done so, it stems from the work of a remnant of patriotic professionals who remain marginalized by an oppressive public service terrain.

The rise of anti-state violence and the government’s inability to curb insecurity across the country are symptoms of a profoundly pervasive governmental incapacity. Indeed, even if the political will to confront terrorism existed, there would still be the problem of state capacity which has been diminished by decades of graft and by the unhinged appetites of the ruling class.

Yet, the dark cloud of terrorism hanging over our nation has a silver lining. Our perennially fractious country periodically requires a common enemy, a foe so democratic in its affliction of our diverse members, that it qualifies itself as the object of our collective wrath. Boko Haram indiscriminately targets Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Southerners, men, women and children. It is the perfect enemy.

It is a species of evil that we cannot combat with sectarian rhetoric. President Jonathan should use this existential threat to our common humanity and citizenship to rally Nigerians behind his administration and to forge a new sense of national solidarity.
In confronting a group that uses suicide bombers, the state must address a burning question: what is the value of a Nigerian life? Boko Haram has amply demonstrated its low valuation of life. But does the state offer a radically different estimation of the worth of its citizens? Consider the level of alienation that could provoke young Nigerians to effectively renounce their citizenship and seek self-definition in a hate-filled life of violence. Consider the police officers and soldiers that have been killed by the group. Often these deaths in the line of duty pass unsung in the haze of statistical anonymity. But at least a Boko Haram operative can say what he is fighting for however nebulous. For what cause are young Nigerians in the police and the military being sent to fight and die in the north east or in the Niger Delta? What does it mean to be a citizen and a servant of the republic? An authentic national security doctrine must affirm the right of the Nigerian citizen to life and livelihood anywhere in the federation without hindrance or discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or gender. 
There is an opportunity here to redefine our articles of faith as a nation and to articulate a new social covenant that meaningfully binds state and citizen. This conflict is ultimately a clash of ideals and values. It is about which ideal offers the most tangible psychic and material incentives and rewards. Beyond armed confrontations, the more significant struggle must be won in the dimension of the heart and mind. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

We Must Stop Politicizing Terrorism

The tragic Christmas Day terrorist attacks portend a long drawn-out conflict that could rapidly degenerate into a sectarian cycle of destruction and retribution. The slaughter of worshippers in a church, a choreographed act of murderous sacrilege clearly intended to ignite conflict between Muslims and Christians, calls for a revision of our conceptual and strategic responses to Boko Haram.

The militant sect formerly led by the slain cleric Mohammed Yusuf, strengthened by the assistance of foreign terrorists, has coalesced with the large pool of bandits retained by local politicians as thugs during elections but cut loose afterward. It is likely that what we call “Boko Haram” no longer describes a single organization but a culture of nihilistic violence and anarchic rebellion with aims and demands so diffuse and nebulous as to be practically unattainable, but which will nonetheless continue its campaign of terror, spreading destruction, hate and fear. In a very real sense, Boko Haram and similar groups are agents of chaos who swell their ranks by feeding on the profound alienation and discontent in the society.

The scale and spread of the devastation we are witnessing does not suggest an organization with a centralized command and control structure but a program of destruction that has taken on a life and a momentum of its own. “Boko Haram” has become an umbrella term that covers everything from suicide bombings and bloody bank heists to targeted killings of police and military personnel. It is highly unlikely that any politician or cleric can now control this phenomenon. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle and can only be put back in by a reasoned application of moral and martial force; a synthesis of soft and hard power.  
The continued reference to Boko Haram as “Islamic fundamentalists” or “Islamists” is a major flaw of the government’s counterterrorism strategy. These arguable definitions should matter for sociological analysis only. People who shoot and blow up citizens should be properly defined as criminals, specifically, murderers. Describing them as “Islamic” militants legitimizes them by linking their goals to the millions of Nigerian Muslims who do not share their aspirations. Their claim to Islamic orientation is irrelevant. Throughout history, terrorists of all shades have festooned their crimes with high-sounding causes. Boko Haram should not have been allowed to define itself and the terms of the conflict.

There are also geostrategic considerations involved. There are more than twice as many Muslims in Nigeria as in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace. By reason of demographics, Nigeria could play a very significant role in shaping the complexion of Islam in Africa. It is not in our national interest to allow an ultraviolent anarchist group become the face of the faith on our shores.   
There seems to be this idea that bandits cease to be criminals and evolve into political activists once they can explain their crimes with ethnic or religious motivations. We have seen this approach before with Niger Delta militant groups and the Odua People’s Congress. These species of terrorism were apparently legitimized by their actions purportedly on behalf of their ethnic communities. Terrorism is a description of means not ends. Seeking greater resource control or a wider application of Sharia Law does not make one a terrorist; Murder and undermining public safety to achieve these goals does. The intelligent government’s response is to address the legitimate grievances proclaimed by the terrorists and also to stridently punish them for their methods.

Sadly, the Nigerian state in its dealings with various armed groups over the years has acted as though religious or ethnic sensibilities can sanctify violence. The result has been a disastrous consecration of violence as a tool of political negotiation. It should be immaterial whether a mass-murderer claims to be a Muslim or a Christian. What should matter is the crime itself and implementing swift unequivocal justice to honour the memory of the dead and give meaning to our citizenship.

Unfortunately, the Jonathan administration has continuously acted as though the terrorists are more important than their victims. Its willingness to negotiate with Boko Haram – even when the group had repeatedly expressed its non-recognition of the federal government and the non-negotiability of its demands – not only reflected weakness; it fostered the dangerous impression that terrorism is a passport to political relevance. The government by opting to negotiate with the killers over the dead bodies of their victims demonstrated an utter lack of value for the lives of Nigerian citizens.

We must cease the practice of inviting religious clerics to take center stage after each terrorist outrage. It fortifies the ill-informed myth that Nigeria is composed of hermetically sealed off blocs of Northern Muslims and Southern Christians and validates Boko Haram’s propagandistic self-definition as an armed wing of the Muslim community. Urging Muslim leaders to condemn Boko Haram as if it is exclusively “their” problem is beside the point. We all should be condemning Boko Haram. The fact that the group claims Islamic justification for its crimes may place an onus on Muslims to denounce them but then what? Boko Haram kills Muslims as well as Christians and has killed several Islamic clerics.
No amount of condemnation will dissuade a bloodthirsty band of nihilists from their anarchic agenda. We should not allow the government to shirk its responsibility of securing the citizenry by suggesting that the terrorists would stop if only clerics issue obligatory rebukes after every attack.

For the past two years, rural communities on the outskirts of Jos have suffered repeated nocturnal attacks with great loss of life by marauding bands of Fulani herdsmen. Yet, one wonders about the reportage of these incidents. Often the identity of the murderers as Fulani herdsmen is trumpeted in such a way as to render it synonymous with “Muslim” and to create a portrait of generic sectarian violence affecting the entire Plateau area. In fact, there is no evidence that the violence in these rural communities has anything to do with the chronic clashes in the Jos metropolis.

But should the ethnic identity of these marauders make any difference at all in apprehending them as criminals? Is it not enough that families have been slaughtered and communities terrorized? Should we not be thinking of them simply as murderous bandits and deal with them as such, rather than calling them Fulani Herdsmen, both to see that justice is truly blind and also to avoid the unfortunate slander of an entire ethnic group by association?

In what other instance would it be necessary to refer to the perpetrators of a crime by their faith or ethnicity? How often do the media ask us to think in terms of “Igbo” drug dealers or “Yoruba” kidnappers or “Christian” fraudsters? In the eyes of justice, crime is what we do rather than whom and what we are or what we believe. 

We must now change the terms of discussing conflict. What we call “ethno-religious violence” should be distilled, for the sake of moral clarity, into crimes – arson, terrorism, rape, mass-murder, etc. Terms like “ethno-religious violence” are useful for socio-scientific purposes but their popular usage can deodourize their true meaning and desensitize us to them.

To address recurrent violence, we must identify it as crime rather than as politics. The application of religious and ethnic labels to conflict is a pretext for politicizing terrorism, with the implicit and at times explicit proposition that there is nothing wrong with violence so long as it is done in the name of God or kin; and that it is equally agreeable to murder people for the crime of being “infidels” or “non-indigenes.” Sectarian violence recurs without its perpetrators being punished because we have come to accept such violence as a necessary aspect of our politics rather than a breach of law and a crime against our collective humanity and citizenship.

By characterizing conflicts as religious or ethnic even when they are patently about resources and power, terrorists are encouraged to escalate their violence by claiming heavenly or historical motivations for their profane agendas. From being susceptible to solutions rooted in good governance, justice and social security, the hostilities mutate into intractable generational cycles of strife and vengeance. Because the combatants perceive not only their lives but their souls and identities to be at stake, conflict becomes an existential continuum, impelling communities to seek their salvation by destroying others.  We must “secularize” these conflicts by stripping them of their ethno-religious labels. This will delegitimize warlords who rely on myths of sacred identities to foment conflict.

Nigeria’s war against terror will be arduous. It must be fought intelligently.