Nigerian Affairs

Boko Haram and the Competing Narratives

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This is an article I recently wrote for the Opinion section of AlJazeera English. It was originally published on the AJE website.

Nigeria has recently been brought to global media attention both as the largest economy in Africa and as the home country of the Boko Haram insurgency. The growing security threat has been accompanied by a failure to develop a comprehensive narrative about Boko Haram’s origins, its motivations and its implications for the country’s future. The absence of such a cohesive narrative by the Nigerian government, its citizens and the communities affected is indicative of the need for a domestic solution to tackle this security challenge.

The recent abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from the remote community of Chibok in Nigeria’s northeast focused the world’s attention on the country’s five-year battle with violent extremism. Within this period, the goals of Boko Haram have evolved – from leading a hermetic life away from a society they deemed corrupt and decadent, to a vengeful war against all symbols of modernity, democratic governance and Western education.

Upsurge in violence

Unfortunately, Nigerians haven’t been as quick to come to terms with the upsurge in violence. The now-daily suicide bombings, mass murders, mysterious assassinations of political, traditional and religious leaders, mass abductions and other incidents of mindless violence are still hard to grasp.

In the first five months of 2014, over 5,000 lives were lost to such violence, according to the think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. In the wake of the glaring inability of the government to contain this violent extremism, several competing narratives have emerged.

On the part of the Nigerian government, the narrative has been mostly incoherent and highly politicised. With the Chibok girls’ abduction for instance, both the federal government and the states in the northeast – Boko Haram’s stronghold – have been preoccupied with trading blame. Constitutionally, the responsibility for security lies with the central government.

Since May 2013, three of these northeastern states have been under a state of emergency, which gives greater powers to the central government over their security.

These states accuse the federal government of negligence, incompetence and corruption affecting the capacity of themilitary. In turn, the federal government blames the states for exaggerating the insecurity in their domains to embarrass it.

The key to understanding this lack of cohesion between the federal and the northeastern states lies in understanding the nature of the heated political environment.

The next round of general elections in 2015 may be the country’s most contentious. President Goodluck Jonathan, it is widely believed, will run for a second term, against a groundswell of opposition under the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Jonathan’s emergence as presidential candidate in 2011 breached the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) power-sharing rule in which presidential power alternated every eight years between the mostly Christian southern elites and their mostly Muslim northern counterparts. In the typical rhetoric of political brinkmanship that characterises electoral politics in Nigeria, a few aggrieved northern PDP politicians who felt short-changed of their turn at the presidency, threatened to make the country “ungovernable” for Jonathan, a southerner.

Where these empty threats should have ordinarily dissipated into thin air, they coincided with the escalation of the Boko Haram insurgency. The Islamist group which emerged in the early 2000s became increasingly violent after confrontations with security agencies, as an International Crisis Group report documents. The extra-judicial murder of Muhammad Yusuf, the group’s leader by the police in 2009, captured on camera, forced the remaining members into hiding. They reassembled a few years later, embarking on a viciously vengeful killing spree.

South-north divide?

In 2011, Jonathan became president in regionally polarising elections, on the platform of a fractured ruling party, and with a simmering insurgency about to explode in its full wrath. The interaction of all these meant that as Boko Haram waged its campaign of violence, including its historic bombing of the UN building in Abuja, the president and his inner circle wrestled to consolidate their power in the PDP.

Consequently, a narrative slowly emerged from the president’s mostly southern support base that the insurgency was being sponsored by “disgruntled northern politicians” to undermine his administration. This view has been articulated by known associates of the president such as Chief Edwin Clark and ex-militantMujahid Dokubo Asari.

It is now a widely-shared belief by many southerners that the worsening insecurity is evidence of the northern elite making real their erstwhile threat, as opposed to the governance challenges bedevilling every aspect of Nigerian society. The northern elite are funding the insurgency, destroying their infrastructure and killing their own people just to make Jonathan look weak, it is said.

In the north where most of Boko Haram’s attacks and victims have been concentrated, a widespread sense of fear, alienation and deep distrust pervades. This stems from the federal government’s inability to contain Boko Haram despite the increase in defence spending to $5.8bn (or 20 percent of the budget) and militarisation of the northeast.

Rather, brutal human rights abuses by the security forces and allegations by combat soldiers of deliberate sabotage by their commanders reinforce the deep distrust in the federal government. The president’s slow response and perceived indifference to attacks in the north has further alienated him from many northerners – he only publicly acknowledged the Chibok girls’ abduction two weeks after.

Consequently, the predominant narrative among many northerners is that Jonathan’s federal government at best has little interest in ending the insurgency in the north; and at worst, his associates may be indirectly fuelling it, to weaken the region and its elites’ national political leverage. This is a view recently articulated by Murtala Nyako, the governor of Adamawa, one of the states under emergency rule. Coincidentally, the governors of all three northeastern states under the state of emergency are in the opposition party, the APC.

As the country’s elites and citizens blame one another, Boko Haram appears more determined. As the country’s social fabric unravels after each bomb blast, and the narratives become more disparate, Boko Haram remains consistent with its vision against Western education, modern governance structures and inter-religious harmony. The strong national cohesion needed among Nigeria’s leaders and citizens to collectively tackle this terrorist threat is lacking due to contentious local politics. References to a civil war and a disintegration of the country are now constant features online, in print media and other fora of public discourse.

It is commendable that at this time of need, governments of the United States, United Kingdom and other global powers have pledged military support to help Nigeria to contain this terrorist threat. Yet it is up to Nigerians to decide whether to unite and tackle the insurgency, or continue blaming each other while the country gradually unravels at the seams.

Review of Commitments made at WEFA 2014 – An interview with Channels TV

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My interview with Channels TV, reviewing some of the gains and commitments secured during the recently concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) Africa Summit, May 7 – 9 2014 in Abuja, Nigeria.

Find below, a transcript and analysis of the discussion, culled from the Channels TV website:

The Nigerian government has been urged to make conscious effort in reforming the system in order to maximise the gains expected from the just concluded World Economic Forum on Africa (WEFA).

A communication consultant for the WEFA, Zainab Usman, on Wednesday, said that with adequate reforms and commitments by the government, the inclusive growth that the forum dwelt on would be achieved, with more jobs created for African youths.

At the 24th meeting of the WEFA held in Nigeria between May 7 and 9, several financial commitments were made capable of reducing poverty in Africa and improving Africans’ living standard.

China pledged to increase its credit line to Africa from $20 billion to $30 billion while Dangote group pledged to invest about $16 billion in the Nigerian economy in his petrochemical plant.

Needed Political Will

In the education sector, at least 20 million dollars was pledged for the Safe School Initiative aimed at ensuring that schools in Nigeria’s north east are safe for students.

For all these funds coming into Africa to yield needed results, Zainab said the government must have the needed political will to take needed decision that would ensure that these funds are well deployed.

“There is a link between the bureaucratic processes in Nigeria and other African countries and how they are able to access or utilise funds but reforming the government or public sector institutions is not just an easy process. It is not something that can be easily carried out just because the fund has been made available. It requires a lot of political will in making the environment conducive for business to thrive.

“Things like speedy registration of companies and ensuring that the workforce is efficient and effective and not bloated should be looked into. If we want efficiency we will have to take some hard decisions that will help transform the system,” she said.

Inclusive Growth

She, however, expressed optimism that expected results would be seen based on the level of commitment shown by local and foreign investors at the forum.

“We have seen a lot of commitment from participants at the forum, from policy makers, civil society and the private sector. We have seen commitment in terms of healthcare, power and agriculture. We have the Go Africa Initiative. We have seen commitment in education, with the Safe School Initiative, focusing on the north east.

“Yes there have been quite a lot of commitments by the private sector both local of foreign.

“The government should have the right regulatory framework and policies that would enable these investments grow. It is supposed to be a synergy between the private sector and the government,” she said, stressing that for the private sector actors to be able to redeem pledges made, they also require the government to create a conducive environment. “The government has to be an active partner in this”.

Zainab explained that the Go Africa Initiative is looking to involve small holder farmers or people at the grassroots for the inclusive growth to be achieved in high scale.

With initiatives in education, access to financing will ensure that the people at the grassroots are able to partake in the growth.

“The plan is to move away from previous approaches so they are involving more persons. The realisation is that unless you include ordinary people in the growth process the inclusive growth that we seek would not be achieved”.

Africa has grown in the past decade but the growth is only proportionate to just a few people and the need to make it inclusive was emphasised at the forum that had over 1,100 participants from over 80 countries in attendance.

The forum had emphasised that to include the mass majority of people in the growth, it is important to ensure that they have access to adequate information, education and healthcare.

Thugs Disrupt Peaceful #BringBackOurGirls Protest

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It has been over a month since the abduction of over 200 school girls from a secondary school in Chibok Borno state in Northern Nigeria. Since that time, protests have erupted in several cities across Nigeria, and around the world under the banner of #BringBackOurGirls. Influential politicians, global figures and celebrities have lent their support The protests started from Abuja, and have been ongoing.

I have attended several of the sit-outs in Abuja. Yet, today, things took a completely different turn. Scores of women wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with #ReleaseOurGirls and thugs disrupted the usually peaceful sit-out in Abuja. Several local Nigerian media had previously reported that the #ReleaseOurGirls protesters were meant to counter the narrative of #BringBackOurGirls which had put the government under national and international scrutiny.

From around 5pm, things started happened at a dizzying pace. All I could remember was that several angry young men, some of them in red t-shirts began yelling and hurling insults. Suddenly, they were confiscating cameras and mobile phones, pushing and shoving people, grabbing and breaking plastic chairs all at once. It was frightening.

Surprisingly, the over 50 policemen who were there to contain any disturbance stood by idly and did nothing as the hired goons went on a rampage. We were all told to huddle close together, not cave in, and then we broke into solidarity songs until the thugs left us alone. Eventually some of the police men reluctantly took away away one or two of the thugs.

Everything happened really fast, and I barely managed to capture this short video of the disruption:

Some photos I took as well:

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So, who ‘sponsored’ these guys?

Maybe the answer lies in this picture of the vehicles and equipment used by the #ReleaseOurGirls hirelings:

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Nigeria’s Economic Transition Reveals Deep Structural Distortions

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This is an article I recently wrote for African Arguments on Nigeria’s recently revised GDP series.

According to recently reviewed GDP figures, Nigeria is now Africa’s biggest economy. It was about time a more accurate measure of economic output, which captures Nigerians’ entrepreneurial zeal, was adopted. The headline-capturing highlights of the new series reveal the scale of the economy, and greater economic diversification with the rapid growth of non-oil sectors. Significantly, the figures indicate how this growth accounts for the “jobless” economic expansion, the slow pace of industrial development and the regional dimensions of the economic boom.

According to the rebased figures, six sectors now account for 70% of nominal GDP rather than three in the old series. The service sector grew fastest, by 240%, and is progressively constituting a larger portion of the GDP. Conversely, the share of the two hitherto giants – agriculture and oil has fallen to 21% and 14.4% respectively. Nigeria is transiting to a services-driven economy due to the rapid growth of information and communications technology (ICT), banking, trade and the informal economy.

Zenith Bank, UBA and Guaranty Trust Bank are Nigerian financial institutions with a huge presence across the continent. Mobile phone subscription has exploded from just 2.2 million lines in 2002 to over 169 million by 2013. Call credit vendors, petty traders and other unofficial activities in the informal economy have also been included in the new series, as a component of the services sector.

On the surface, the emergence of the service sector as a major growth driver indicates a greater diversification of the country’s production structure away from oil (a long sought after goal). The share of the oil and gas sector has fallen from 32.4% of GDP in the old series to just 14.4% in the new series. On one hand this is good news, on the other hand, it reveals deeper structural distortions. Nigeria appears to be leap-frogging from an extractive to a services-oriented economy without commensurate industrial development, and this comes with some baggage. This slow pace of industrialisation accounts for the non-inclusive nature of growth and widening inequality in the country.

The necessity to experience industrialisation as a phase in the economic development process from a poor to a rich society is well documented. The Economist andForeign Policy magazines both recently hosted debates on the necessity of industrialisation for sub-Saharan African economies. Economist Ha-Joon Chang points out categorically that “…it is a fantasy to think that developing countries can skip industrialisation and build prosperity on the basis of service industries”.

Read the rest of the article on the African Arguments website HERE.

Assessing Crisis Group’s Report on the Boko Haram Insurgency

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Boko Haram militants during a recent attack at an army detention facility in Maiduguri. Photo credit: BBC

The International Crisis Group recently published a report on the Boko Haram insurgency titled ‘Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency (full report available HERE)’. It chronicles the insurgency in a detailed and historical manner and recommends measures for addressing it, to various stakeholders.

The main findings are summarised in the opening paragraph of the Executive Summary:

 

“Boko Haram’s four-year-old insurgency has pitted neighbour against neighbour, cost more than 4,000 lives, displaced close to half a million, destroyed hundreds of schools and government buildings and devastated an already ravaged economy in the North East, one of Nigeria’s poorest regions. It overstretches federal security services, with no end in sight, spills over to other parts of the north and risks reaching Niger and Cameroon, weak countries poorly equipped to combat a radical Islamist armed group tapping into real governance, corruption, impunity and underdevelopment grievances shared by most people in the region. Boko Haram is both a serious challenge and manifestation of more profound threats to Nigeria’s security. Unless the federal and state governments, and the region, develop and implement comprehensive plans to tackle not only insecurity but also the injustices that drive much of the troubles, Boko Haram, or groups like it, will continue to destabilise large parts of the country. Yet, the government’s response is largely military, and political will to do more than that appears entirely lacking.”

 

The recommendations are addressed to the Federal Government, the northern state governments and international donor partners. They are two-fold: those aimed at protecting lives, and those aimed at tackling the root causes of the insurgency.

What I like most about the report is its detailed and granular nature. It is based on extensive fieldwork in various parts of Nigeria, with information gathered from Boko Haram members, residents in the North-East, the epicenter of the insurgency, from federal and state government officials, from security officers and many other relevant stakeholders. This is obviously a marked departure from the predominantly lazy, speculative and recycled analyses sometimes by arm chair analysts who have never been to any part of northern Nigeria.

Some of the highlights of the report, or at least, sections I found very informative include (quoted verbatim):

The group ran (probably still runs) a micro-credit scheme for its supporters:

“(They received) funds from external Salafi contacts, including Osama bin Laden, that he (Yusuf) used to fund a micro- credit scheme for his followers and give welfare, food and shelter to refugees and unemployed youth.” (P.i)

The report interrogates claims of the group’s ssociation with local politicians in Borno and the North-East (these excerpts are rather lengthy but significant):


“The 200-strong splinter group led by Abubakar Shekau and Aminu Tashen-Ilimi accused Muhammad Yusuf of being too soft and went to the then governor of neighbouring Yobe state, Bukar Abba Ibrahim, and requested rural land on which to live an ascetic life away from modern immorality. Ibrahim allowed it to settle in Dapchi, in the Bursari local government area, with a large dam for fishing” (p.9)

“Unhappy with the state government and apparently to cater to his more radical lieutenants, his (Yusuf’s) preaching took a harder line. He criticised the ruling elite, denouncing corruption, impunity, and government failures to the general admiration of the local population.” (P.10)

While already popular, Yusuf rose to much greater prominence when he reportedly formed an alliance with (former Borno state governor) Ali Modu Sheriff, a politician and wealthy businessman from a prominent Maiduguri family. Sheriff and his associates have denied any alliance with Yusuf and accused the PDP of creating Boko Haram. In 1999 Sheriff won the Borno North senatorial seat and helped Mala Kachalla, a far older politician, become governor on the ticket of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) that controlled both Borno and Yobe state. However, an ANPP politician said, they fell out when Kachalla backed out of an agreement to give way to Sheriff after one term…

…It is widely believed in the region and by many Boko Haram members that Sheriff then cut a deal with Yusuf, whose large youth following was a significant electoral bloc. Yusuf allegedly promised to help Sheriff, provided he would implement Sharia and give the sect some senior government appointments.Sheriff denies any agreement, though many politicians and observers say Yusuf gave massive support to his campaign, reportedly including fiery attacks that portrayed Kachalla as a bad Muslim uninterested in Sharia… Sheriff also has been accused of enlisting a group, named “ECOMOG” after the Nigeria-led West African peacekeeping force in Liberia, to intimidate and silence political opponents with impunity…

…The state government allegedly provided funds to Yusuf through Buji Foi, known locally as a Yusuf disciple whom Sheriff made religious affairs commissioner when he became governor.Yusuf used the money to organise an informal micro-credit scheme that gave his disciples capital to set up businesses…

…Cracks appeared in the purported Yusuf-Sheriff alliance, however, after the latter became governor in 2003. According to Boko Haram members, he reneged on his promise to implement Sharia fully in the state, limiting its courts to social matters and refusing to allow traditional criminal punishments such as flogging for theft and fornication, amputation and stoning to death for adultery. Yusuf began to direct ser- mons against Sheriff and his government, ultimately branding him an apostate. In 2007, Buji Foi resigned as religious affairs commissioner in protest.” (P.11-12)

Exploring the questionable engagement of non-Muslim politicians with the sect’s leaders:

“In December 2008, the Borno state government charged Yusuf with terrorism before the federal high court in Abuja. He was released on bail, allegedly following the intervention of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) members. Four influential Nige- rians, all Christians, reportedly signed the bail bond. This led to speculation that Yusuf had backing from northern Christian elites and conspiracy theories that he was being used to undermine northern Muslim leaders” (P.13)

The founder, Muhammad Yusuf’s increasing radicalisation placed him on a collision course with other Muslim clerics:

“Yusuf’s criticism of Western education brought him into disagreement with other clerics, including fellow Salafis; his former mentor, Sheikh Mahmud Jaafar Adam, was his foremost antagonist. Izala clerics, particularly Jaafar Adam and Adam Albany, devoted considerable time to criticising the group and warning the government about it.” (P.12)

Abubakar Shekau’s leadership made the sect more violent and less open to dialogue:

“Yusuf’s main lieutenants were Muhammad Lawan, Mamman Nur and Abubakar Shekau… Nur, said to be more knowledgeable, mature and level-headed, was seen as Yusuf’s deputy and eventual successor, but Shekau was chosen after Yusuf’s death because he was more radical and aggressive…With Shekau at the helm of its most significant faction Boko Haram has grown more ruthless, violent and destructive and less open to dialogue.” (P.19)

The sect is not a cohesive unit. It is highly fragmented into about 6 main factions. Some members are disenchanted by the frequent bloodletting and are pro-dialogue, yet such views are mercilessly crushed:

“Security officials say their successes are due to leaks from disenchanted members. Some are fed up with the bloodletting, want to settle down, but fear advocating negotiations could mean execution by decapitation. Shekau has repeatedly ruled out talks with the government, despite claims by some purported sect members that these were ongoing. Members who proposed dialogue were killed on Shekau’s orders, silencing other pro-dialogue individuals” (p.20-21)

“The killing and capture of top commanders significantly impacted the sect’s eleven- member Shura, leading to its expansion to 37. This made it difficult to reach unani- mous decisions, with consequent adverse consequences for operations. In the past four years it has split into many factions with varying aims, to the point that some believe it is too fragmented to present a common front for dialogue.” (P.21-22)

Boko Haram has ties with extremist Salafi groups around the world:

“Osama bin Laden’s interest in Nigeria dated from his 1992-1996 stay in Sudan, where he reportedly met Mohammed Ali, a Nigerian from Maiduguri studying at the Islamic University in Khartoum who became his disciple and trained in Afghanistan; according to Boko Haram sources, Bin Laden asked him to organise a cell in Nigeria with a 300 million naira budget (approximately $3 million in 2000). Ali returned home in 2002 and began funding religious activities of Salafi groups that were unaware of the plan. Mohammed Yusuf and his group allegedly were the major beneficiaries. With the 2003-2004 Kanamma uprising, in which Mohammed Ali was a major player, Izala groups distanced themselves from him as too radical.” (P.23)

There is a lot more in the report.

I find three main weaknesses in the recommendations section:

First, there is little to no emphasis on how to address the politicization of the insurgency, particularly the alleged involvement of non-Muslims in an ostensibly Islamist phenomenon. For instance, the well-documented involvement of non-Muslims in botched bomb attacks of churches, the arrest of Boko Haram’s medical doctor, Dr. Isaac Ikere, a World Health Organisation (WHO) consultant and that Yusuf was bailed by prominent non-Muslim politicians (although this was explored briefly in the main body of the report in pg. 13) and numerous similar incidents are all highly significant.

Second, the report did not recognise that the media (collectively) are important stakeholders in insecurity and violence in Nigeria. The mainstream media play a huge role in moulding public opinion in Nigeria. Media ownership reflects some of Nigeria’s regional and religious cleavages and the way incidents are reported with a certain slant contribute to the tensions in Nigeria.

Third, I would argue that any recommendation must include a counsel to the Federal Government to revamp its PR on this insurgency. The army’s poor communication strategy has significantly eroded the already thin public trust in the military and in other security agencies. They frequently under-report casualty figures and their human rights violation record in the North-East is legendary. They willingly misinform the public with exaggerated claims of victory. Last year the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) claimed they had killed Abubakar Shekau which turned out to be patently false. Then they callously claimed that the reports of the 20 school girls abducted in Konduga in Borno in February were false. Most recently, the JTF claimed to have rescued the 200 female students abducted in Chibok, Borno a few days ago, a claim that was widely disputed by the school principal. These tall tales are insensitive, are a contemptibly futile attempt at winning hearts and minds and have done incalculable damage to the security agencies’ reputation. The army needs to urgently review it’s public engagement strategy to regain the trust of Nigerians.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the Crisis Group report is meticulously written, easy to read and devoid of unnecessary jargon. It is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the Boko Haram insurgency.

Boko Haram and a Nation Gripped By Fear

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In most cultures of the world, a word exists for a frightening creature or the bogey man. In Hausa for instance, it is the dodo. A fiendish entity, other-worldly, yet beastly in its aggression and human in its scheming prowess, the dodo lurks, stalks and terrorises. Stories of the bogey man are used strategically by parents to whip misbehaving children back into line, because no one knows quite what the bogeyman is – it is everything and nothing.

In Nigeria’s North-East, the heart of the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency, the bogeyman may have traversed the realm of fantasy into cold reality. Boko Haram militants lurk at night, to murder school children while they sleep. In the last few days, we have been held spellbound by the brutality unleashed on defenseless school children in Borno and Yobe. 43 young people were killed in the attack on a secondary school in Buni Yadi, Yobe. About 20 female students were abducted by the militants from a school in Konduga, Borno.

Survivors have recounted spine-chilling stories of dormitories set on fire and of escapees gunned down. The few that evaded gun fire were chased, and slaughtered like cattle. Photos of charred remains of adolescents and of bodies drenched in blood from sliced throats and bullet wounds have flooded the Internet. The massacres occur daily. The bogeyman has come to life – it spares no one in its violent wake.

Naked fear is firmly embedded into the spines of most. The fear in part stems from the realisation that regardless of class or economic status, no one is safe. The ‘unknown gunmen’ who routinely terrorise others are hardly ever caught and prosecuted. The murders of prominent citizens such as Bola Ige, Saudatu Rimi and Sheikh Jafar are yet to be resolved years after, not to mention crimes against faceless and nameless ‘commoners’ in Bama or Baga. The Police, the Civil Defense Corps and the Army seem to be out-gunned, out-motivated and over-whelmed. In a country with massive economic and social inequalities, this collective insecurity is one area where all Nigerians are equal.

Mostly, this fear comes from confronting a deadly enemy which appears fluid, formless and extremely vengeful – a bogeyman. Boko Haram is a rapidly changing, complex and fragmented movement. Its doctrine is as fast changing as it is contradictory – anti-democracy, anti-secularism, and anti-establishment. Yet it liberally employs internet enabled smartphones and other tools of modernity and western education to perpetrate attacks. Any criticism of the group’s approach by ordinary citizens, Imams or traditional rulers in the North draws a swift and vicious response.

The eccentric pre-2009 hermetic ragtag sect, avenging the death of their slain leader Muhammad Yusuf from 2010, have quickly metamorphosed into a highly sophisticated terrorist group with deep local and global networks. From laying siege on police stations and army checkpoints, they have attacked churches, brothels, prominent Islamic clerics, mosques, northern traditional rulers and now they’ve added the murder of helpless school children to a blood-drenched résumé. It’s difficult to project what tactics they will adopt next.

So little credible information about the group is available. Boko Haram itself thrives on secrecy. The Army bragged about the leader, Abubakar Shekau’s death in August 2013 only for his taunting videos to resurface shortly. Whenever an evident victory is proclaimed by the authorities, a more daring attack is perpetrated. The insurgency has become like the monster in Greek mythology, Scylla – when one head is sliced off, three more sprout up in its stead. As the rise of the ‘yan Gora or the Civilian Joint Task Force – the youth vigilante fishing out suspected insurgents from the community – is celebrated, Boko Haram ferociously retaliates against such communities working with the authorities.

Where little information is available, speculation thrives. Where speculation is rife in the midst of unbridled fear about a formless enemy, conspiracy theories fill the gap. In Nigeria, these conspiracy theories are as numerous as they are destructive: Boko Haram is a creation of “disgruntled northern politicians to destabilise Goodluck Jonathan’s government”. “Boko Haram is a creation of the Federal Government in Abuja to destroy the North for political advantage”. The group “is a creation of the West to fulfill their prediction of a disintegrated Nigeria by 2015″. Some of these toxic opinions neatly overlap with people’s innate prejudices particularly in the wake of the divisive 2011 elections.

While these conspiracy theories are mostly ludicrous, anecdotes of suspicious events give them weight. According to the Yobe state governor, the soldiers guarding the school in Buni Yadi were mysteriously withdrawn from their duty posts a few hours before. The traditional ruler of Bama bemoaned that while the town was sacked and torched over several hours in February, frantic efforts to call local Police and Army chiefs were futile as they were all mysteriously unavailable. Ground troops, whose courage must be appreciated, are known to be severely under equipped relative to the sophisticated weaponry carried by Boko Haram despite the almost one trillion naira allocated to security in the national budget.

Most troubling is that recently, Reno Omokri, the President’s Special Assistant on New Media was identified as the author of a malicious article falsely alleging that the ‘suspended’ Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido is a Boko Haram financier. Many such unexplained events have planted suspicion in the minds of many in the North-East, and allow for dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.

A Screen Shot showing the article and the author details. Source: Feyi Fawehinmi on Twitter @doubleEph

The reality is that fighting such an entrenched insurgency anywhere will be a grueling and bloody war of attrition. The difficult experiences of America in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite being a highly militarised super power are instructive. In this trying period, it is necessary to ensure that some semblance of national cohesion against the insurgency exists.

For a start, genuine efforts must be made at restoring the trust of residents in the North-East in the Federal Government. Symbolic gestures by the President to sincerely console victims of brutal murders would alleviate some of the widespread sense of alienation in the region. Greater efforts must be made to address lapses and incompetence by the security agencies in order to lay conspiracy theories to rest. Proper investigations of leakages in the security infrastructure must be made to understand why combat troops in the firing line are under-paid and under-equipped. President Jonathan must as a matter of urgency, take decisive and punitive action against the despicable act of his aide- Reno Omokri, failure of which would send the message that the frame up attempt was sanctioned by the Presidency.

Finally, Nigerians must be commended for the resilience and the solidarity in expressing collective outrage in the wake of the recent escalation of violence in the entire North-East. Despite the prevalence of fear and the sense of helplessness, we must have faith that Nigeria will somehow endure and emerge stronger from this all.

Does Nigeria Really Need a ‘Sovereign National Conference’?

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This is a piece I wrote for the Royal African Society’s African Arguments blog.

In a few weeks, Nigerians across ethnic and regional divides will be gathering at a roundtable to discuss critical national issues. The imperative for this National Conference as a necessary discussion over Nigeria’s future was underscored by the President, Goodluck Jonathan, in his Independence Day commemoration address in October 2013. No doubt, there is need for consensus among the country’s distinct ethnic and religious groups on critical governance issues such as the structure of government, federalism, revenue distribution, political representation and power sharing. Whether the National Conference taking place this year is capable of addressing Nigeria’s perennial existential problems is another question.

The clamour for a national dialogue among Nigeria’s over 350 ethno-linguistic groups has been as old as the country itself, since the aftermath of the first military coup in 1966. Frequently called a ‘Sovereign National Conference’ (SNC), this roundtable discussion is regarded as the elixir to pervasive corruption, ethnic chauvinism, conflict and perversion of the rule of law all, of which have stifled economic development, social harmony and the forging of a collective Nigerian identity. The inflamed emotions in the debate for and against an SNC in the Nigerian public sphere inhibit a dispassionate interrogation of its practicality or necessity

For proponents, a national dialogue is a bottom-up democratic opportunity for many Nigerians to participate in nation-building in an otherwise exclusionary political system dominated by a handful of elites. These include the military and key players in the coups of 1966 who are the major power brokers today, their associates, powerful state governors, an increasingly powerful business class and media moguls.

Gani Fawehinmi, a vociferous SNC advocate once lamented that Nigerians “never had the opportunity to make inputs into, accept or reject any constitutional framework through a referendum”. The national conversation is thus a catalytic opportunity for Nigerians to “negotiate the terms” of living together, within a contraption of British colonialism. In this pro-SNC camp are ethnic associations, marginalised politicians, activists, youth associations and other groups excluded from the power circle.

Those opposing the National Conference argue that it is incapable of addressing Nigeria’s problems which are outcomes of governance, leadership and rule of law failures. Spending N7 billion ($42 million) towards yet another summit by a country with the highest number of out-of-school children in the world is regarded as “wasteful” by the Labour Union president and “diversionary”, by the main opposition party, the APC. Others regard it as an instrument for attaining a nefarious agenda by the specific government in power. This “agenda” covers a wide gamut of allegations from tenure elongation and covert constitutional amendment to regional domination and secession.

Unsurprisingly, the expectations of what a National Conference can or cannot achieve range from the pragmatic to the utopian. It is not uncommon to hear the “we must talk” refrain in the wake of a Boko Haram attack, a kidnapping incident or a grand corruption scandal. As usual, the debates are laced with the poisonous sectional prejudices which normally characterise the country’s public discourse. What is paradoxical however, is the very elitist nature of the discourse over a summit aimed at inclusive nation-building. A recent opinion poll revealed that nearly 9 in 10 (88%) Nigerians are not aware of the call to constitute a sovereign national conference… Read the rest of the article on African Arguments.

Embattled Nigerian Central Bank Governor on ‘Overcoming the Fear of Vested Interests’, in TEDx Talk

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Embattled Nigerian Central Bank Governor talks about Overcoming and Confronting the Fear of Vested Interests in TEDx Talk in August 2013 Abuja, Nigeria.

Some excerpts:

“…I have learnt in the past 4 your years in Abuja that if we understand that (vested interests), we may begin to unlock the key to how to change our world, the world of a country in which we live”

“Everyday we talk about potentials, everyday, and yet China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, Brazil…all of those countries have turned the potential they had into reality. What is the one thing we need to do to turn this potential into reality? In my four years in Abuja, I have come to the conclusion that we need to overcome the fear of vested interests”

“I came to the Central Bank (in 2009) knowing that banks had problems believing that these problems were caused by a global crisis… And that they would be fixed by addressing the normal risk management issues in banks. Shortly after… I discovered that the Nigerian banking system is infested with the same corruption of the rentier system of this country, that a number of banks chief execs had fleeced their banks, using depositors funds to buy property all over the world just like people do in ministries or government agencies”

“The fundamental character of the Nigerian state is that for decades, since we found oil, it has existed not to serve the people, but as a site for rent extraction by a very small minority that controls political power and it doesn’t matter whether this group comes from North or South, or Muslim or Christian, or Military or Civilian, the state has always been a site for rent extraction”

“The system that was supposed to protect depositors and handle criminals was used and manipulated to promoted a Judge so that he would not convict a thief (bank CEO). Now this is an example…of the kinds of things that stop a country from reaching its true potential”

“After we discovered the things that happened in the banks, the critical thing was we had to make a decision that would pitch us against powerful economic and political forces. We were dealing with chief execs that in 2009 had become invincible. They were in the seat of power. They had economic power and they had bought political protection. They were into political parties, they financed elections and they believed that nobody could touch them”

“Banks do not fail. When people say banks have failed, it is like saying a man whose throat was slit has died. He did not die. He was killed. And those that murdered the banks, those who destroyed these deposits have always walked away. They become Senators, they become governors, they become captains of industry, they set up new banks and they continue… And [for] the millions of poor people! that’s it”

“But the banking industry is just one part of Nigeria. What is happening to other parts?”

“We don’t have development because vested interests continue to rape the country and take the money out. And the only way to move from potential to reality is to stop preaching and to start asking ourselves : how can we overcome the fear of vested interests and how can we confront them?”

The one thing I learnt from banking is that they (Vested interests) are not to be feared, they stand on quick sand, they’re not very intelligent people and they’ve got only two tools: 1. Their ability to bribe/induce 2. Their threats to destroy reformers

“We have to ask ourselves as a country: how have we been reduced to a level far below our potential?”

“We have 65 million young people in Nigeria. What does it take for one of you to get your votes and be president of the country? What does it take to address these issues sector by sector, identify the interests and confront them? Why does it take the fuel subsidy removal for us to come out and challenge the rot that is in our country? What are we afraid of? We are afraid of losing the security that we have today”

“We must recognise that at the heart of 90% of our problems from Boko Haram to ethnic crises to unemployment to the lack of education to the lack of healthcare is that there are people who profit from the poverty and underdevelopment of this country, and these people are called ‘vested interests’… So long as they remain entrenched, so long as we don’t overcome the fear of them and dislodge them, we are not going to find a solution to this problem and we are not going to reach our true potential”

Reflections on the ‘Historic’ and Disturbing Letter by Obasanjo

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President Goodluck Jonathan and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Photo credit: naija247news.com

Last night, I was distracted from concluding my tribute to Mandela which I started writing a few days ago. This distraction was the lengthy 18-page open letter (PDF) written by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to President Goodluck Jonathan. I took my time to read the letter described as ‘historic’ by Premium Times (which broke the story) in detail. For obvious reasons, this document and its contents have gone viral within the Nigerian online and mainstream media, public discourse and even the international media.

What frightens me deeply about the contents is not the allegations made, but that General Obasanjo (the President’s mentor) made these grave accusations. Disturbingly, the allegations only confirm many rumours that have been going round (most of which I hitherto refused to believe in) such as:

  1. Clannishness and ethnic factionalism in government on the part of the President in favoring his Ijaw kinsmen principally, and his region to the exclusion of other Nigerians;
  2. Deliberate polarisation of Nigerians across a North-South and Muslim-Christian divide to such a level not seen since the Civil War, to further narrow political ambitions;
  3. The President’s tacit support to some of his aggressive kinsmen and known militants who threaten others for disagreeing with him;
  4. Brazen corruption and impunity in government on a scale unrivaled in Nigeria’s post-independence history (the $50 billion unremitted by the NNPC surpasses the $12bn windfall earnings which disappeared under General Babangida. This is just one of numerous cases) — crude oil theft and systematic plunder of the nation’s wealth by powerful people;
  5. Indirect fueling of the Boko Haram insurgency by refusing to take concrete and feasible steps to address it;
  6. Extreme intolerance by the government for any form of dissent by opposition politicians or civil society;
  7. The existence of a clandestine “killer squad of snipers” and a political watch list containing over 1,000 names;

…and many other such allegations.

Where are we heading to in this country!?

Just on Monday this week, we found out about the Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s letter alleging that $50 billion (N8 trillion) went missing under NNPC’s watch between 2012 and 2013. Then on Tuesday, the Speaker of the House of Representatives accused the President of encouraging grand corruption. Then on Wednesday, this scathing letter from Obasanjo was published.

All this is barely two months after the corruption scandal involving the President’s close ally, the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah. Nothing yet has been done about this.

This systematic plunder of our country’s resources and values is perpetuated against the backdrop of monumental crude oil theft in the Niger-Delta and other numerous scandals.

Is this a country we can thump our chests about? What example are we setting for the rest of Africa? Is this the leadership that will create a strong and united country? What future (or lack of) are we building for our offspring?

President Goodluck Jonathan and former President Olusegun Obasanjo at a campaign rally. Photo credit: Y!Naija

True, General Obasanjo is not at all blameless in all this and he is one person whose intentions are always, always, ALWAYS suspect. We vividly recall how his ambition to elongate his tenure beyond the constitutionally mandated two-terms threatened to plunge the country into chaos between 2005 and 2007. Perhaps, as the late Whitney Houston once sung, Jonathan “learnt from the best”.

Yet, given Obasanjo’s close relationship (as a mentor) with President Jonathan, it would be extremely naive and foolish to dismiss these allegations in their entirety.

Say what you want about Obasanjo, but at the very least, his administration established a relatively effective EFCC to fight corruption, established an effective NAFDAC, reformed the Federal Inland Revenue Service, the Customs service and many other institutions. Where are all these institutions today? Where is the EFCC today? How many parallel, overlapping, redundant and toothless committees have been set up to do the work that the EFCC has been obstructed from doing?

I ask this question, where are we heading to?

To the Nigerians reading this, put aside your ethnic, religious and regional allegiances briefly and please ask yourself sincerely: ‘Is this the Nigeria I want, is this a country I am proud of’?

The late Madiba, Nelson Mandela expressed his anger at the behaviour of Nigerian leaders. This is a prime epitome of the leadership Mandela was referring to.

One interesting thing to note is that this is a toned down version of the letter. The original version, according to Thisday newspaper was so harsh that former Head of State General Ibrahim Babangida advised Obasanjo to revise it.

Discussing Women in Government and Politics in Africa

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I recently wrote a brief piece for Democracy in Africa,  reflecting on the discussions during the first Women in Government and Politics Conference for Africa, held at Central Hall in Westminster, London. The event was put together by the Winihin Jemide Series and I facilitated one of the panel discussions. Find the excerpt below:

Some of the delegates at the Women in Politics and Government Conference. Photo Courtesy: Winihin Jemide Series

African women have made remarkable strides in positions of leadership and authority across the continent. This has been especially evident with the wave of democratization over the past two decades. Women now occupy presidential seats in Liberia and Malawi, foreign ministry portfolios in Rwanda, Kenya and Somalia, the leadership of the African Union and many other positions hitherto regarded as the exclusive domain of men. It is in order to take stock of the progress made so far, the existing challenges remaining and how to overcome them that the first Women in Government and Politics Conference for Africa, held at Central Hall in Westminster, London was put together by the Winihin Jemide Series

Moderating one of the discussion panels. Photo courtesy: Winihin Jemide Series
Moderating one of the discussion panels. Photo courtesy: Winihin Jemide Series

The two-day conference involved female delegates in influential leadership positions such as parliamentarians, cabinet members, academics and activists. They liberally shared their views, their experiences on how they were able to surmount obstacles to get to where they are today, and their suggestions on moving forward. The Nigerian Minister for Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke while delivering a keynote address, noted that 11 African countries have reached the 30% benchmark of female representation in leadership positions through quotas and parity schemes. In fact, countries like Nigeria had surpassed this average, she reminded the audience. The Minister however reiterated the need for women to be proactive in supporting one another….

Read the rest of the article on the Democracy in Africa website.