WE kneel and pray for the safe return of the over 230 schoolgirls recently abducted from Chibok, Borno State by the terrorist group, Boko Haram. We applaud the pledge by foreign nations to help find the girls and perhaps stop the Boko Haram menace. Our civil societies hold press conferences to pressure the government to rescue the girls. Our politicians hurl empty broadsides at each other over the incident for political capital.
Sadly much of this populist energy is a reductionism of Chibok, a catastrophe foretold. Chibok is only a metaphor for our country’s long history of violence in the form of abductions, kidnappings and massacres. It is an allegory of the morbid harvests arising from political chicanery and corruption. To stop the bloody cycles of violence and win against terror, we must have the political will to stop corruption, organise citizens’ resistance and enforce laws to put paid to the bloodletting. But first we must do critical self-analysis.
Wikipedia lists 25 massacres in Nigeria since 1966. I think that is a conservative figure. Two of the massacres were in Southern Nigeria and executed by soldiers on defenceless citizens. On October 7, 1966, Murtala Mohammed who later became Nigeria’s military head of state, led federal troops to round up and shoot some 500 defenceless males in cold blood in Asaba, Delta State. On November 20, 1999, hundreds of men, women and children were massacred by soldiers on the orders of yet another head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, as retaliation for the alleged killing of some security agents by some Niger Delta militants. These are clear examples of how state power is perversely used on citizens.
The other 23 massacres are in Northern Nigeria and executed not by soldiers but civilian religious zealots who routinely massacre Southerners, particularly the Igbos and Christians, destroying homes, schools and churches for reasons as trifling as crises in foreign Islamic countries or allegations of blasphemy against Islam. The Kaduna riots of 2000, Jos riots of 2001, Miss World riots in Kaduna in 2002, Yelwa/Kano riots of 2004, Muhammad cartoon riots in Maiduguri in 2006 and various Jos rampages have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens in the name of God.
In 1980, Maitatsine, a virulent Islamic fundamentalists sect led by Muhammadu Marwa, a radical preacher from northern Cameroun, embarked on one of the bloodiest religious rampages in Nigeria’s history in Kano. Some 5000 people died; churches, mosques and homes were destroyed with thousands displaced. Marwa was killed in a confrontation with the police. His followers under his successor, Musa Makaniki went on killing sprees near Maiduguri and in Kaduna in1982, killing over 3000 people.
Another 1000 were slaughtered in Yola with 60,000 made homeless. Hundreds more were murdered in Makaniki’s home state of Gombe. He was arrested in 2004 and was allegedly set free after several years by a judicial panel of enquiry for lack of evidence for complicity in the riots.
But Maitatsine was only to give way to a more virulent monster of religious extremism in the form of the Jamat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-dawa wal-Jihd (The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad) with the Hausa nickname of Boko Haram (meaning Western education is sinful). Mohammed Yusuf founded the group in Maiduguri, Borno State in 2002.
In 2009, Yusuf was arrested and killed in police custody following Boko Haram’s clash with security forces investigating allegations that the group was arming for attacks. That clash claimed over 700 lives. The police was accused of extra-judicious killing of Yusuf whose successor, Abubakar Shekau who has since exploded the group’s activities into full blown terrorism using guns, bombs and suicide bombers. He is believed to have the support of international terror cells.
Boko Haram has executed horrendous bestiality and war crimes. It operates with impunity and disdain for security forces in the North East region and Abuja. From 2010 until today, Boko Haram has executed over 15 horrific massacres, murdering over 5000 innocents and still counting, razing down towns, villages, schools, churches, mosques, displacing thousands of people, robbing banks and businesses as well as raping and kidnapping girls and women.
This historical recount is to put the issue of massacres in perspective and to prod questions? What has the leadership, including Northern elites and elders, done to stop the carnage? Why do fanatics find it easy to raise massive followership and raise armaments in the face of security operatives? In the decades of bloodletting what deterrence structures have been put in place? Why have citizens from both the North and South not risen against massacres by both governments and religious extremists?
Several answers. The civil war and military rule have inured citizens to bloodshed. Leadership itself engages in massacres and citizens sometimes even applaud the massacres. Extreme poverty and deprivations among citizens that is caused by elite corruption and insensitivity has provided a huge army of young hungry, uneducated and jobless youths to enlist willingly with religious extremists. The North East has the largest swath of the extreme poor and it is no surprise that it is the most violence-prone region.
Our leaders and elders treat massacres with shrugging indifference after all they and their families are mostly immune from the blood and destruction. The Presidency’s reaction is also inexplicably unhurried. It sets up investigative committees while thousands of citizens are being murdered. Like President Shehu Shagari did with the Maitatsine in the 1980s, setting up the Federal Government commission of enquiry under the chairmanship of Justice Aniagolu, so too has President Jonathan set up a committee of enquiry over Boko Haram.
Hours after the Boko Haram bombing of Nyanyan killed 74 people and injured 124 others, President Jonathan was at a political rally in Kano. Two weeks after the Chibok girls’ abduction the Presidency offered no official statement. And it took nearly four weeks after the Chibok abduction before Northern elders visited the President in Abuja to advise against use of force to get out the abducted girls and suggest two options to secure their freedom: Payment of ransom or release of some detained members of Boko Haram as swap for the girls. Outrageous.
The Nigerian peoples have also, until now, played the role of impotent docility in the decades of bloodletting. We pray that the citizens’ protest marches across the country and the world in the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement would change the strange citizens’ apathy over corruption, misrule, violence and oppression. Our leaders may also have to rethink their pact with the devil and galvanize the political will to stop corruption and callous indifference to the misery, ignorance and poverty of the greater majority of their people. The northern elders will particularly do well to find urgent options to the grinding poverty in the north by using state resources to provide education, jobs, opportunities and social amenities.
We must act now and fast. If not Boko Haram may just be the small wave heralding the tsunami waves that may consume all including the ruling elite. Not only must we pray that the Chibok girls are rescued unharmed, we must stop the cycles of bloody violence through elite fairness to the people. A word is enough for the wise.
KEN TADAFERUA, a public affairs analyst wrote from Lagos.