Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Invisible Conflict

The headlines do not lie. There is an ongoing war between Nigeria and Boko Haram, an ultraviolent jihadist group seeking to establish its own version of an Islamic state. What the headlines frequently fail to capture is the other dimension of the same conflict – an ongoing battle to define Islam in Nigeria. This is an invisible conflict largely unreported by the media and unexplored by pundits.   

Long before its outrages earned it transnational infamy, Boko Haram was killing mostly Muslim ward heads and community leaders in Northeastern Nigeria, and it has made a special point of murdering opposing Islamic clerics. Since then, Boko Haram has bombed churches and killed Christians; it has also killed emirs, imams, agents of the state and civilians. Like all jihadist groups, it claims the right to solely define what Islam is.  As Reza Aslan has observed, “Jihadism is a puritanical movement in the sense that its members consider themselves to be the only true Muslims. All other Muslims are impostors or apostates who must repent of their hypocrisy or be abandoned to their fate.”  

In 2004, Boko Haram’s leader Mohammed Yusuf established the Ibn Taymiyyah Mosque in Maiduguri, an ominously named separate centre for his then fledgling sect. Ibn Taymiyyah was a 13th century Islamic theologian, revered in Jihadist circles, who famously broke with the traditional view that the leader of an Islamic state, whether a caliph, a sultan or an imam, is divinely-ordained and must therefore be obeyed regardless of his deeds. Ibn Taymiyyah argued that if a Muslim leader failed to uphold Islamic principles then he was not really a Muslim but an unbeliever and his rule was invalid. Rebellion against such an impious ruler was a religious duty. Indeed, he declared that any Muslim who was willing to abide by the rule of an infidel was also an infidel. By choosing this name for his mosque, Yusuf served notice to the Northern Muslim ruling class which he saw as apostate.

Boko Haram’s attack on the Kano Central Mosque in late November which claimed over a hundred lives was a significant signpost. It was clearly a response to the call by the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, to communities to arm and defend themselves against the insurgents. Since his ascension to the throne, his vocal opposition to Boko Haram and his emergence as an advocate of popular resistance against the insurgents has placed him in their crosshairs.

In parts of the northeast, most notably Maiduguri, citizen-led self-defence and vigilante units have been instrumental to repelling Boko Haram. The key to militarily defeating the group lies in strategic cooperation between the Nigerian military and such local self-defence groups. Popular resistance may throttle the insurgents in the same way that Iraq’s Sunni awakening defeated al Qaeda in 2008.  

Sanusi embodies everything that Boko Haram reviles; an Islamic scholar yet also a yan boko (western-educated) former banker, urbane, learned and savvy in the ways of the West and the East, dangerously comfortable with pluralism and unjustifiably cosy with infidels. In the extremists’ eyes, he has drunk too deeply from the fountains of Western decadence and his acumen as an intellectual in the Western and Eastern sense compounded by his authority as an Emir, makes him symbolic of the sort of apostate mongrelism that the group seeks to eradicate. In the Emir, the insurgents’ dastardly thesis has located an antithesis. In a recent video, Boko Haram threatened to kill him. The battle lines could not be any clearer.

Kano was once an ancient cosmopolitan terminal on the trans-Saharan trade route making it a cultural and commercial confluence of sub-Saharan, Sahelian and Maghrebian influences and migrations. For centuries, Kano has retained this pluralistic character until recent decades. From the mid 1980s onwards, Kano became identified with a violent prejudice. Chronic eruptions of sectarian violence were seared into its reputation. Extremism rose against a background of deindustrialization, urban poverty and economic collapse with opportunistic politicians cynically playing the religious card.

In a 2004 lecture in Kano, Sanusi lamented the “creeping parochialism in Kano” which contradicted its “accommodating and cosmopolitan character” and its traditional demonstration of “the best Islamic values of tolerance, of diversity and hospitality to guests and travellers.” He identified lack of education as a key factor in Kano’s, and by extension, Northern Nigeria’s, decline and urged his audience to “fight against parochialism and retrieve our Nigerian identity, and realize that a narrow mind closes off opportunities to excellence.” Sanusi has since signaled his willingness to spearhead this fight as Emir.

Boko Haram is violently opposed to nation-states, national boundaries, democracy, pluralism, western education and civic diversity – all concepts that are affirmed by Nigeria. Thus, the current conflict is also about what sort of Islam will prevail in Northern Nigeria. Will it be progressive and tolerant? Will its future be written in the ink of scholars or the blood of martyrs? Will it overcome the residual distrust of Western education and empower millions of Muslims to be productive citizens and yet remain true their faith? Or will Boko Haram’s nihilistic atavism prevail?

It is important to highlight this invisible conflict, to support leaders like the Emir of Kano, to encourage mainstream Muslims in their ideological struggle for hearts and minds. The federal government should promote and protect moderate clerics who are at the frontlines of this battle of ideas. We must also condemn the sort of Islamophobic paranoia and bigotry in non-Muslim circles which inadvertently strengthen Boko Haram. In the contest between moderation and extremism, we should be vigorously backing the former.

(Images sourced from www.osundefender.com and www. nigerreporters.com)

Monday, November 10, 2014

First, They Came To the Northeast

History suggests that there are three main triggers of national transformation – moral awakening, political revolution and social trauma. Moral awakenings redefine socially acceptable norms and conventions. The struggle to abolish slave trade in the 19th century and the civil rights struggle in 1960s America were fundamentally ethical revolutions – transformative shifts in society’s perception of racism and slavery. Campaigns for social justice such as those that promote fundamental human rights, a fair minimum wage and gender equality all represent an evolving moral intelligence on these issues.

National transformation also comes by way of fundamental changes in political reality whether they are revolutions, coups d’etat or electoral regime change. Historical examples include revolutions in Haiti, France and Russia, the Sokoto Jihad and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Political upheavals tend to throw up new leaders who set new coordinates for national progress. 

Where moral traditions and politics fail to deliver change, it often takes an epic national trauma to change the course of a country’s history and trigger a collective catharsis. This usually takes the form a catastrophe – a natural disaster, famine, economic depression, war and pestilence. At such times, societies typically unite to confront their challenges. This is the generally positive outcome. On other occasions, traumas, while transformative, can also yield negative results. The Depression of the 1930s coupled with its defeat during the First World War set the stage for Germany to succumb to the white supremacist lunacies of Hitler and the Nazis. More positively, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 became the background for the ascent of President Paul Kagame and the resurgent East African nation is now one of Africa’s most competently run states.

Clearly, Nigeria’s five year-long insurgency represents both an existential threat and a national trauma. But it has provoked neither a moral awakening nor a paradigm shift in our politics. Religious leaders have failed to chart a moral direction that urges us towards a greater reverence for the sanctity of life to counter Boko Haram’s feral bloodlust. Instead, they have been mostly agents of discord and intolerance. While they bicker over whether the insurgents are killing more Christians than Muslims or vice versa, the terrorists carry on with their mass murder of Nigerian citizens. A fickle, feckless rent-seeking political class cannot marshal the resolve to decisively confront the terrorists or to rally Nigerians across their sectarian cleavages.

Social trauma as a transformative instrument works best where there is a high degree of empathy and solidarity. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation set off a popular revolt in Tunisia because Tunisians identified with his traumatic humiliation by a state official as a microcosmic representation of their own traumatic alienation from the state.

Boko Haram’s continuing expansion has cruelly exposed our mutual alienation and the exhaustion of our social capital. Scenes from Nigeria’s northeast evoke memories of Rwanda circa 1994 while politicians obsess with winning elections. The continuous barrage of body counts contrasts sharply with the body language of an incumbent president evidently more preoccupied with defeating the opposition in an election than defeating the insurgents even as they unfurl their dark and bloody banners over more chunks of Nigerian territory.  The northeast might as well be another country.        

In a memorable statement, the German pastor Martin Niemoller explained the series of moral abdications and derelictions of conscience that marked the decent into Nazi terror: “In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”  By keeping silent, the German population allowed Hitler’s Nazi Party to grow confident in its appalling atrocities until it metastasized into an omnivorous evil threatening to consume everyone.

Boko Haram would never have emerged if we had condemned the culture of violence which for decades targeted ethnic and religious minorities or if we had ardently resisted the idea that violence is justified when it is inflicted upon those with whom we share neither creed nor kinship. The insurgency would have been aborted if the administration had acted as though it were a national problem rather than a northern or northeastern problem.

This empathy deficit is why the abduction of the Chibok girls has not marked a cathartic turning point in the administration’s shoddy handling of the insurgency. It is why the administration has bizarrely tried to criminalize the Bring Back Our Girls protesters whose main crime is ensuring that the girls are not consigned to our mounting trash heap of acceptable abominations, and that we, in turn, do not lose our humanity. It is why twitter trolls have subjected Oby Ezekwesili to abuse for being a southern Christian busy body whose “overzealous” concern for a few expendable girls in the “Muslim North” is embarrassing her “brother’s” government.

The worry is that this ongoing trauma needs to assume a larger scale to shake us out of our apathy. It may well be that these torments have to spread beyond the northeast; that grief and suffering have to be democratized, and that something truly catastrophic has to happen to bestir the national conscience. Perhaps, denizens of Abuja will awaken one morning to bloody battles between government troops and the insurgents on their streets. Such an event would dispel the illusion that Abuja is a fortified city where political frivolities can proceed while barbarians are seizing swathes of Nigerian territory.

Assuredly, if terrorists had abducted 200 young girls from one of Abuja’s elite schools, among them daughters of public functionaries and their cronies, the quality of the administration’s response would have been radically different. The poor northeastern communities simply cannot generate the same response and are paying the penalty for poverty. There is a sense that some epic disaster has to burst the bubble of gilded indifference which currently insulates the high and mighty from the nightmare that has befallen millions of their compatriots.

Perhaps, being constantly bombarded with tragedy has, in the words of Dele Giwa, “shocked” us into “a state of unshockability” or the spirit of the age has warped our moral senses and sharply curtailed our capacity for fellow feeling. Either way, this loss of empathy can only endanger more Nigerians.  

The transformative logic of social trauma suggests that there will have to be more death and destruction. This catastrophe, it seems, must endanger the powerful or perhaps nullify the myth that the Rivers Benue and Niger are impenetrable barriers to the rest of the country, before we are roused to empathic action. Barring a sudden moral rediscovery of our common humanity and shared perils, or the outbreak of a serious commitment and resolve on the part of the government, the political class and the military to win this war, or the electoral eviction of the current administration, this contagion of chaos will probably broaden its geographical footprint. It is a frightful thing to imagine that for all the horrors already abroad, the nightmare may just be beginning. But this is the road we are now taking. 

(All images sourced in order of appearance from www.newsrescue.com, www.tobietti.com, www.news247.com.ng and Harry Olufunwa; @holufunwa) 

Monday, November 3, 2014

God and Nigerian Politics

Here is a trustworthy axiom of Nigerian politics: When Nigerian elites “do God”, political intrigue is afoot. In the buildup to the 2011 elections, a photograph of President Goodluck Jonathan kneeling before Pastor Enoch Adeboye, one of Nigeria’s most influential preachers, was widely circulated. Ahead of a keenly contested election, the president’s posture of prayerful humility projected him as a devout Christian armed with a highly respected cleric’s blessing.

Jonathan’s uncertain if nondescript pedigree should have faced greater scrutiny, but the pentecostalization of the Nigerian mind aborted any serious interrogation of his credentials. His meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency within a decade, abetted by outrageous fortune, was the quintessential overnight miracle rags to riches story that is the stuff of Sunday morning church testimonies. To millions of voters, Jonathan’s presidency was a validation of their own secret fantasies of miraculous success and could only have been God’s doing.

Many Christians and Muslims share this fatalistic worldview. It is the product of an environment in which meritocratic paths to power and success in public life are exceedingly rare. In April 2011, the Emir of Gwandu described candidate Jonathan as a God-ordained leader and assured him of God’s support saying, “God has made you all you are and he will give you all you want.” Nigerian popular theology, whether in its Christian or Islamic manifestations, retroactively designates all power and privilege, no matter how illicitly or serendipitously acquired, as divinely ordained.  

Now seeking re-election, the president has reactivated a trusted stratagem. This time, it meant embarking on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem accompanied by some of Nigeria’s most influential pastors including Ayo Oritsejafor, the scandal-prone President of the Christian Association of Nigeria. The pilgrimage was a reconnection with divine anointment in the holy land as the president prepares to seek a second term.

Oritsejafor has been instrumental in promoting a narrative of Jonathan as a southern Christian president embattled by a dark conspiracy intent on “Islamizing” Nigeria particularly with the ongoing terrorist insurgency. In the process, he has become the arch-promoter of a highly polarizing presidency. The administration and its ecclesiastical allies have tried to use the tired bogey of “Islamization” to immunize Jonathan against charges of ineptitude and graft while smearing the opposition as a proxy for the terrorists. CAN itself has become little more than a department of the presidency. As electioneering commences, we can expect even more divisive rhetoric and more attempts to slander the opposition from the administration and its retained prophets.                 

The ecumenical diversity of Boko Haram’s casualties would have enabled a more sensitive leadership to rally the country across its sectarian fault lines but Jonathan, already entrapped by his own narrative of personal victimhood, has been unable to hit those unifying notes. The same moral paralysis has prevented Oritsejafor and fellow conspiracy theorists from castigating the “Christian” president for his epic ineptitude at protecting his supposed brethren.

Obviously, Jonathan is not the first Nigerian politician to exploit religious sensibilities for political gain. Ahmadu Bello’s Northern Peoples’ Congress smeared Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union as unislamic and apostate for collaborating with southern-led parties which were deemed conclaves of infidels. The NPC used both the bogey of southern (Christian) domination and the banner of Islamic solidarity to justify its repression of the opposition.

Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria subtly campaigned as an Islamic party in Northern Nigeria and tarred the opposition People’s Redemption Party as unislamic. Olusegun Obasanjo played his up his born-again Christian credentials to counter the hostility of southwest Awoist elites who saw him as a lackey of northern Muslims and then later to offset his rejection by his erstwhile (mostly northern Muslim) backers.

In 1999, Zamfara State Governor, Ahmed Sani Yerima expanded the jurisdiction of Sharia law to include criminal justice matters. It was actually a ploy to mobilize plebeian piety as a counterweight to the far better resourced Peoples’ Democratic Party. This gave the All Nigeria Peoples’ Party the powerful weapon of Islamo-populism with even northern PDP governors forced to similarly enact Sharia law to avoid being tarred as “unislamic” and evicted from office. Such was the revivalist fervour cynically unleashed by Yerima. However, given its fraudulent provenance, what emerged was a legal code that targeted the weak and the deprived – cattle thieves and teen mothers – even as its promoters continued to indulge in atheistic levels of vote-rigging, public theft and hedonism.

Muhammadu Buhari’s fulsome support of the Sharia gambit and his presidential candidacy in the ANPP, which marketed itself as an Islamic party in the north, made him a political megastar in the far north but anathema in the Middle Belt and in the south. Buhari is not the religious extremist alleged by his traducers but his past links with the ANPP’s Islamo-populism and his recurrent bouts of Freudian logorrhea have continued to haunt him. However, for all the accusations of religious bigotry leveled against Buhari, it is actually the Jonathan administration and the PDP that have perpetrated the more egregious manipulation of religious sensibilities in recent years.

In a sense, Oritsejafor’s heedless support of Jonathan symbolizes the radicalization of CAN in response to Islamo-populism. The Jonathan presidency is seen as an opportunity for Christian elites to benefit from power in the very same way that Muslims have supposedly done historically. This is a “Christo-populist” spin on the argument that Jonathan’s presidency is the turn of the longsuffering people of the Niger Delta to enjoy the national cake.

This argument depicts Jonathan as the victim of a powerful northern Muslim clique – a view reinforced by the inflammatory utterances of some northern politicians in the build-up to the 2011 polls. Although there is no evidence linking the impotent vituperations of these politicians to the insurgency, Jonathan supporters have seized upon them to argue that the insurgency is designed to unseat the president. This sidesteps the fact that Boko Haram emerged under Jonathan’s Muslim predecessor and that the last comparable insurrection in the north, the Maitatsine uprising, occurred under Shagari, another Muslim.

True, by their utterances, some northern politicians project a sense of ethno-religious primacy and entitlement. But this is an expired populism, the blame for which cannot be fairly imposed on all northerners. Such rhetoric is now simulated by some Niger Delta elites who insist intemperately that in 2015, it will be “Jonathan or nothing”. This is the verbal jousting of rent seekers portraying their self-serving pursuits as being in the service of their faiths and regions. In reality, bigots and extremists on both sides of our fault lines are merely reinforcing each other.   
In our prebendal rentier political economy, the terms “Christian” and “Muslim” are often less about confessional commitments than political allegiances. Groups like CAN and the Jama'atu Nasril Islam (JNI) are relevant only because of the Nigerian state’s failure to act as a guarantor of the common good. They are less doctrinal organizations than para-political movements that thrive on the mobilization of faith groups as political constituencies to contest for rents. Pilgrims welfare boards, for example, are little more than channels of patronage for servicing the religious elite. These organizations also enable politicians to claim religious affinity with ordinary Nigerians whose aspirations are totally incompatible with elite greed.

In this zero-sum contest for “religious parity” in public life, actual governance suffers. The exploitation of confessional identities means that politicians cannot be held accountable since they posture as defenders of their respective faiths. These pseudo-religious shenanigans would be comical if not for their often lethal consequences. Despite their religiousity, politicians continue to exhibit agnostic impunity. Tens of thousands of lives have been consumed in suburban sectarian wars. Boko Haram is the Frankenstein monster spawned by the cynical manipulation of Sharia in the early 2000s. The toll in terms of broken trust and depleted social capital is inestimable.

We must now articulate the necessity of a secular state as a neutral mediator of sectarian passions, underwriter of religious freedom and pluralism, and protector of various shades of belief, unbelief and disbelief. Such a state would outlaw the public funding of pilgrimages and other personal religious diversions. It would enact robust hate speech legislation that aggressively penalizes preachers of hate. Above all, it must be a guarantor of human security that prioritizes education, healthcare and other developmental deliverables, the absence of which have enabled the rise of charlatans.

The mysteries of inequity and social justice that make religious dog-whistling so potent have to be decisively addressed.  Ultimately, we must restructure the political economy and restrict access to the unearned oil rents which constitute the primary incentive for crude sectarian politicking. In truth, the ruling class is an ecumenical league of plutocrats and kleptocrats; their victims need to unite and take back their nation.

(All images sourced online in the order of appearance from premiumtimesng.com, ekekee.com, assets.vice.com, channelstv.com and risenetworks.org)