Since the imposition of the State of Emergency (SoE) in 3 northern Nigerian states namely Borno, Adamawa and Yobes states about 6 weeks ago, I haven’t heard from or been able to contact family members in these states. There is very little news in the print and digital media about how the states are faring under the SoE rule. To police the states effectively and ensure that saboteurs amongst its ranks do not give away plans of pre-emptive strikes, the Joint Task Force (JTF) has completely cut off all means of mobile communication; this means that phones and the internet do not work. This strategy appears to be effective, if only in the short term, judging by the reports of only sporadic Boko Haram (BH) attacks since the SoE came into effect. We hear BH has been pushed to the fringes and its members have fled to neighbouring countries.
I fully support the SoE and commend the efforts of the JTF and local communities in combating the BH insurgency. Personally, I think the government should have used the provisions of SoE sooner than it did instead of offering amnesty to BH. Anyone with the faintest understanding of Jihadists ideology would have known that BH was not going to accept the amnesty. Short of the imposition of Sharia rule and the islamisation of the entire country, no proposition is acceptable to this group. The group has made this position very clear. On this basis, therefore, it was very naïve of the government to offer amnesty to BH despite the government’s earlier assertion that the group was faceless. How was it going to negotiate with people it claimed it didn't know?
Why am I bothering to write? I am concerned that the government does not appear to have long-term strategies for dealing with this problem. I have not heard any plans other than the use of military force; I apologise in advance if anyone is able to prove me wrong. It’s important for JTF to be professional in its use of force and avoid extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses, which would be counter-productive and only lead to further radicalisation. There might be peace for a short while but soon, BH and its new army of sympathetisers, would emerge from the fringes a bigger and a more organised group.
It’s important to consider the factors that have led to the emergence of BH if we are to have lasting peace. In my opinion, they are a combination of: failure of governance, corruption, poverty, lack of education, political thuggery and the imposition of Sharia law in northern Nigeria. Intricately related to all of these are the almajiris (Hausa word for disciple) and the Quranic schools whose curricula are not regulated. I will explain these factors briefly before I offer my suggestions on how to tackle them.
There is a general failure of governance in the country but nowhere more so than in northern Nigeria. This region lags behind others on nearly all indices of human development. Its people are predominantly fatalistic, unquestioning, and accept whatever happens to them as the will of Allah (God). Islam is the major religion here; polygamy is rife and it’s not uncommon to find a man with 30-40 children. A man can simply divorce one wife whenever he wishes and marry another giving him endless access to 4 wives at all times. This practice is seen as normal and no one questions it. Often, these men are unskilled and uneducated, and their means of livelihood consist of a small stall containing household items such as sugar, salt, washing powder, groundnut, cola nut, fish all tied in small ‘nylon’ bags; really nothing to sustain their large families. It is usual for them to choose one or two favoured children whom they send to school and leave the others to fend for themselves. The little girls hawk on the streets where they are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. They are given away in marriage in their teenage years to much older men; some of these in their 50’s and 60’s. This explains why vesico-vaginal fistula is common in northern Nigeria. The boys end up on the streets as almajiris often hundreds of miles away from their parents. Having experienced little or no emotional love, these boys are tough and hardy. They attend Quranic schools where they are taught to recite the Qur’an and they roam the streets all day begging for food from strangers. The curricula in these schools are unregulated and anything can be taught including hateful and extremist notions. Like their parents, the almajiris are given no life-changing skills whatsoever. Very few of them, if any at all, attend conventional Western-styled schools.
The northern leaders have known about these problems for ages and have done nothing about them. In fact, they have exploited the ignorance of their people and encouraged these practices so that they can continue to rule without the poor masses (the talakawa) challenging the status quo. They send their children to school abroad and upon returning home the kids take up important positions in government, big corporations or the private sector thus replacing their parents. And the cycle is repeated endlessly. Lacking any life-changing skills or education or money, the almajiris and the talakawa continue to be used as pawns in the hands of the northern elites and politicians and have no chance of breaking free from this cycle of subjugation. When political scores need to be settled, it's these individuals that are asked to do the dirty jobs (political thuggery).
The politicians and northern elites employ all sorts of tools cleverly to continue the subjugation of their people. One such tool is the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria, which was formed in 1999 (approximate date) and wants to see Sharia law imposed all across Nigeria, albeit in stages; no difference, really, to what BH demands. The founder of BH, the late Mohammed Yusuf, was said to have been a member of the Sharia Council. More than a decade after its formation, the Council has no website or any statement of purpose that is accessible to the public. This is shocking when one considers that Sharia is currently either partially or fully implemented in nearly all of Northern Nigeria and impacts the lives of nearly160million people in one way or another. In any case, because the almajiris and talakawa have already been blinded by poverty, lack of (Western) education and assimilation of radical notions, they cannot see beyond this political gimmick. No thieving politician has had their hands chopped off since Sharia rule was imposed in northern Nigeria nearly 15 years ago. What it has done however is emboldened radical elements who now seek to extend the boundary of Sharia law to the entire country.
The northern elites and religious leaders are very powerful and their words are obeyed without questions. This attitude, coupled with the fact that these leaders can be very disingenuous can have quite disastrous results. Take for instance the polio vaccine debacle. One of these leaders, who happens to be a medical doctor, made a bogus claim that the Western world had tampered with polio vaccine to induce infertility in northern Nigerian men. This singular pronouncement has lead to increased morbidity and mortality from this preventable disease. Health workers helping to immunise children have been shot dead in northern Nigeria in circumstances not too dissimilar to those that happened recently in Pakistan. Nigeria remains one of only 3 countries in the world where polio is still endemic; the other two being Pakistan and Afghanistan!
What should we the citizens and the government do? I can’t decide which of the factors is the most important. But I think all of us have to start from a position of honesty and acknowledge that the northern elites and politicians are responsible for the emergence of BH through systematic failure of governance. We need to have a critical and non-emotive look at the issue of almajiris; this army of people is a menace to the survival of the north and Nigeria as a whole. The north (and the Federal Government) needs to separate religion from governance. We need a system of social and mass mobilisation that will expose the hypocrisy of the northern leaders/elites and at the same time educate and empower the talakawa. We need a dispassionate look at the issue of family planning, polygamy, teenage marriage, poverty alleviation and education, education and education. And more education! The government needs to find a way of regulating Quranic schools or at least integrating conventional school curricula into those of the Quranic Schools. The public cannot afford to have a clandestine Sharia council; if it impacts our lives we need to know what its objectives are. If these run contrary to the values and dignity of humanity that we espouse, then it should be proscribed.
Finally, I believe that we need (and now is the time) to have a robust and honest dialogue which is selfless, non-partisan and devoid of ethno-religious prejudice about if, and how we should remain together as one nation. These are long-term strategies that I believe will assure long-term peace and we need to start implementing them from yesterday!! The use of military force alone will not guarantee lasting peace.
Medical doctor of Nigerian heritage writes from England