International Crisis Group

Back to School

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Me: “I just resumed school this week”

Friend: “What!? School again?? Which school?? :-S

Me: “Oh, lol! I just started my PhD this week…”

Friend: “That’s rilli (really) nice, congratulations! Ah, Zainab, you too like book o…”

This is just a sample of one out of numerous chats/conversations on my return to school to pursue a doctorate degree (DPhil) in International Development at Oxford University. I’ve had lots of kind words of support, good will and encouragement; few responses have been very curt and indifferent, while fewer still hinted at a barely concealed disapproval: from the “oh okay” to the “do you really think this is what a girl your age should be doing?” and to the “but when are you getting married? It seems it is not on your agenda”. The love, support and understanding of my family and those that genuinely care is what is most important.

It has been a very eventful year. I can still recall submitting the application for the DPhil in January this year, just three minutes before the deadline expired; then hoping I’d get in but not really sure I’d make it; receiving the admission offer and being ecstatic about it; and just when I had started fretting about where and how to secure funding for this 3-year-plus degree, Oxford offers full funding for the entire duration of the DPhil and I am euphoric, and shortly after, moving to Brussels for an internship which I had secured simultaneously.

My 3 months in Brussels was a lovely experience: working with a very influential organization, the International Crisis Group and all the amazing people there. It was an opportunity to really explore some other parts of Europe – from the elegant and regal Parisian architecture, to the bicycle-lined streets of Amsterdam, its coffee shops and other places not to be mentioned :-) ; the lovely Belgian cuisine – the famous Belgian frites, the mussels, waffles and pastries. It was an opportunity to meet lots of interesting people and make lasting friendships.

Block of Apartments in Amsterdam

Moving back to the UK was a bit daunting I must confess, not just the thought of relocating again to a new city, finding a place to live and settling back in; but importantly, the fact that I would be part of a prestigious institution almost a thousand years old, where world leaders spanning 26 British Prime Ministers, the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton and Benhazir Bhutto have graced its halls, and economists such as Adam Smith and Amartya Sen, and famous writers such as Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkein have poured over its vast collections of books and brooded in the Bodleain Library. The list of influential people in politics, arts, music, film and industry who have walked it’s cobblestone streets is endless.

The Radcliffe Camera

Oxford University is an institution steeped in centuries old traditions, rituals and rules that sometimes make you grit your teeth, especially as you try to navigate the complex collegiate system found in few universities around the world. For the most part though, one marvels at these traditions as these constitute one of the reasons why Oxford is the great place that it is today; the hundreds of opportunities that are all around jumping at you, begging to be taken; a place that promises limitless possibilities to be who or what you could be. It is incredible. It is overwhelming. It is intimidating, yet it is an amazing opportunity.

In all of the travelling, moving, and relocating – from Birmingham, to Brussels to London and now to Oxford, I am acutely aware of how “lucky” someone of my demographic: black, African, Nigerian (Northern-Muslim in particular) woman is, to have such opportunities to pursue their dream, and to have the constant flow of love and support from those whose opinions matter, coming from an environment with a lowly constructed glass ceiling society has erected for women like myself and which surprisingly, some of us women willingly choose to reinforce. The common perception is that an “over-educated” woman will not easily find a husband to marry because she’d be regarded as too “wise”, too “liberal”, too Westernized, too opinionated, too strong-headed and not easily tamed.

There is also the common perception that an unmarried female who has chosen this sort of career or academic path has clearly placed more importance on her career pursuits than on “settling down” and starting a family, and that her femininity is somehow displaced by these pursuits. It doesn’t matter if some of us have loved reading and writing and were book worms right from our pre-teens, love research and are deeply passionate about what we do; it doesn’t matter if circumstances of life have made us or even forced us to tow this path, it doesn’t matter that maybe there’s a hidden hand of destiny nudging us ahead. All these are inconsequential to this line of thinking, because women like myself are too “exposed”, we’ve chosen our career over a “stable” family life, we’re “losing” our meekness and frailty and are “doomed” to an agonizing lifetime of spinsterhood, loneliness and “feminism” (feminism in this context assumes a different meaning)!

Interestingly, out of about 20 new DPhils that started in my department this year, about 65% or so of us are women – and these are not some old, wrinkled, sad, tired, dishevelled and miserable women – these are beautiful, young women mostly in mid to late 20s (about three of my fellow DPhils could easily pass for supermodels).

Choosing to have a career (whether academic or otherwise) doesn’t take away one’s femininity, doesn’t mean you’ve sworn-off relationships and marriage, doesn’t mean you’ve resigned yourself to a life of perpetual spinsterhood and is not an automatic one way ticket to hell. It is all about taking an opportunity to do what it is you love doing, to explore and exploit your God-given abilities, to be useful to society and make good use of your time and contribute your own quota to the betterment of yourself at the very least, and the people around you. This doesn’t deprive women like myself of our ability to smile, to laugh, to be warm and caring, to love and to be loved, to start a family and to be there for them, to gossip with friends or to cook.

On another note, certain situations over the past few months have truly restored my faith in humanity and the intrinsic good within most human beings. I have found myself, several times, in relatively distressing situations and I was and still am amazed at how complete strangers go out of their way to help one in need, whether by helping to push one’s trolley loaded with several suitcases just in time to catch a train booked in advance or just someone giving a helping hand when you need it the most. There are still good, kind-hearted and generous people left in this world, and this is probably why the world still hasn’t imploded on itself with all the evil and wickedness that abound elsewhere daily.

As I resume school in earnest, only time will tell in the next three years or so as I continue my academic and career pursuits, whether I will acquire more masculine attributes and perhaps, grow a beard, or whether life will just go on as usual. Until then, I can’t wait to plunge into my research fully, with relish.

Nigeria, Boko Haram and Pervasive Distrust

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At around 01.30 am in the wee hours of Tuesday 13th March, while checking local Nigerian and global news as I usually do before heading to bed, I came across an article on the British daily’s website The Independent, titled “On the Trail of Boko Haram” by Andrew Stroehlein, the Communications Director of the International Crisis Group. Thinking it was one of those typically reductionist articles written by one of those foreign “experts” or “keen observers” of Nigeria, I initially dismissed it. However, my curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to skim through thinking that if I found it to repeat the same trite assertion of an impending apocalyptic implosion of a “Muslim-North and Christian-South” I would silently curse the author and go to bed.

As I read the article though, I had the exact opposite reaction, I felt it was brilliant and captured the situation in Nigeria accurately, objectively and succinctly. I had wanted to share it immediately on Facebook, Twitter and on several Nigerian online discussion boards, but my eyes were heavy, so I put it off for when I woke up in the morning. Not surprisingly, by the time I woke up, the article had gone viral, at least in Nigeria. Amidst glowing commendations, one interesting description of the article was thus: “one of the most accurate summary of the Boko Haram group in Nigeria, sadly by a foreigner”. What then is so spectacular about this piece when so much has already been written and said about Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria?

The insecurity in Nigeria especially with the orgy of violence unleashed by the group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad popularly known as Boko Haram, or what I prefer to call the Boko Haram plague has been escalating as the group’s tactics have similarly evolved. Local and international media agencies have been falling over themselves to report (accurately and inaccurately) the group’s deadliest and bloodiest attacks. Journalists, columnists, pundits, analysts, experts, and bloggers all claiming some knowledge and expertise over the group’s activities, it can be argued, have covered all possible angles of the Boko Haram insurgency. However, what Andrew Stroehlein seems to have done differently is to go straight to the heart of the issue without looking at any angle per se. He focuses on the cold hard facts and that is why his sounds like the gospel truth to many. The four salient points which I believe the author strongly makes are:

First of all, he desists from treading the simplistic path taken by many foreign “analysts” and “experts” of depicting Nigeria as hopelessly polarized along a “predominantly Muslim North and Christian South” fault line, subtly implying the two parts are irreconcilable and probably better off apart than together. Consequently, Stroehlein does not succumb to the tendency to portray Boko Haram as a manifestation of a disgruntled and increasingly alienated “Muslim-North” unhappy with and trying to undermine the Federal government largely under the control of the “Christian-South”. He says: “Like other political and armed movements that have sprung up in this country, including the recent fuel subsidy protests that brought the country to a standstill, Boko Haram is just a symptom of the crumbling Nigerian state.” He does admit that: “…the vast majority of Nigerians do not turn to armed militancy, of the Islamist variety or any other…

By so doing, Stroehlein depicts Boko Haram rightly, as a bye product of state failure, bad governance and especially rampant corruption which he argues needs to be addressed by pouring “the oil wealth into government services rather than officials’ overseas bank accounts”. This is one point many analysts have alluded to, but perhaps because of the high level of tension and paranoia in the Nigerian public sphere, those who have made this argument have been rashly labelled as Boko Haram supporters or “sympathisers”. This fierce rejection of alternative narratives reminds me of journalist Richard Hall’s op-ed on the UK riots last year, where he makes a clear distinction between attempting to understand something and condoning it. In particular, Hall says:

“The impression appears to be that the crimes committed were so great and so senseless that to try and understand them is to condone them… Any discussion about the potential causes of the riots become indistinguishable from excusing those who carried them out, and those who attempt to analyse become apologists.”

In Nigeria, sadly this seems to be the case.

Secondly, the author points out that Boko Haram should be dealt with as criminals and also harps on an urgent need for reform of the Police, the intelligence agencies and strengthening the Judiciary’s independence to deal with such criminal challenges. Even though, Stroehlein links Boko Haram to the wider problems of poverty, corruption, bad governance and predatory management of state funds, he avoids the pitfall many foreign analysts fall into of advocating for an “appeasement” of the “marginalized” Northern-Muslim establishment (purportedly the sponsors of Boko Haram) who lost out in the current political dispensation as a way of mitigating and addressing the Boko Haram plague.

Alleged Christian Bombers in Bauchi. Photo Courtesy Daily Times Nigeria

Thirdly, the author corroborates what many have said before, especially those with first-hand knowledge of the North, that there are splinter groups of Boko Haram and that “Boko Haram” is now a cover for criminal activity across a wide spectrum. Stroehlein notes: “anything that turns violent can be blamed on the Islamist movement, whether it has a link to it or not. It is a perfect alibi, one that prevents further questioning. Bank robbery? Boko Haram. Attack on political opponents? Boko Haram.”  This became more evident in the recent high-profile abduction and murder of the British and Italian hostages, the group’s denial of its culpability given that it wastes no time in bragging about its violent attacks and the emergence of a new player, Al Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel (AQIM) claiming responsibility for the abduction and murder. The argument about the existence of Boko Haram copycats is also given more credence especially when one considers that many of those caught-in-the-act whilst trying to burn churches in Bauchi in August 2011 and again in February 2012 and Bayelsa for instance are aggrieved church members or those who do not fit the typical Boko Haram profile.

Fourthly, Stroehlein makes a damning indictment of the media — both local and international — as concerned with being very sensationalist by misinformation and spreading fear and paranoia in covering the insurgency in Nigeria, typically spreading the now trite narrative that Boko Haram is a manifestation of the promise made by prominent “disgruntled Northern politicians who have vowed to make the country ungovernable for Goodluck Jonathan”. Stroehlein says: “the hype in much of the Nigerian media also contributes to the problem, as many media outlets chasing sales seem all too willing to fall for unsubstantiated rumour and outright lies proffered by political trouble-makers — or by nobody at all”. Of international media, he asserts their reports have: “also been more scare-mongering than substance, presenting this as a new terrorist threat to the West, when it is fundamentally a Nigerian issue.”

From these thrusts of Andrew Stroehlein’s piece and the reactions the article has elicited, it can be inferred that there is a deep-seated lack of trust in Nigeria between ordinary Nigerians of each other and of the government, fanned, aggravated and enabled by the local media feeding fat on public paranoia. The mutual distrust is symptomatic of the deep cleavages in Nigeria which have extended to the public sphere such that any attempt by traditional or religious leaders especially from the North where Boko Haram is most active to explain the context of group’s activity is misconstrued by a militant and sectional press, members of the public and even some politicians as trying to rationalise, sympathise or justify Boko Haram’s activities. Those who been persistently calling for dialogue with the group have been labelled Boko Haram “apologists“, even though the Federal Government has recently began talks with the group ostensibly out of realization that the purely militarized approach has done little if anything to contain the insurgency. Conversely, the general perception in the North, is that Boko Haram’s activities are a deliberate and calculated attempt at sabotage and destruction of the economy and social cohesion of the region from elsewhere.

The danger here is that this distrust is increasingly preventing sincere, meaningful, fruitful national discourse in the Nigerian public sphere on Boko Haram and insecurity in Nigeria. Consequently, analysts like Stroehlein who sum the facts we are all aware of and state the obvious are seen to have said something spectacular (and it is in many respects) precisely because in our national subconscious Stroehlein falls outside the categories and labels we are increasingly allowing ourselves to be boxed into — “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Northerner”, “Southerner” “Core North”, “Middle Belt”, “Minority” etc — he is regarded as a neutral party more capable of stating the unbiased facts apparent to everyone better than Nigerians themselves.

Effectively tackling Boko Haram requires a strategic, concerted, collective and coordinated action by all and sundry: not just the government and security agencies, but traditional and religious leaders, the media and members of the public. This would entail an adept combination of the military approach, dialogue and any other effective tactic as is required and is deemed fit. Unless Nigerians come to the realization that everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to Boko Haram and appreciate the need to engage in meaningful discourse on what Boko Haram stands for, the threats it poses to national security and social cohesion and ways of halting the orgy of violence, Boko Haram will continue “winning” against Nigerians.