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Nigeria: fundamental issues

May 15, 2014, 1:10 PM

Boko Haram’s gruesome rise has prised open crevices where ethnic, religious and socioeconomic fault lines intersect. A bombing campaign is reductionist by design.

Complex societies with long and painful histories end up being reduced to simple dichotomies : north v south, Muslim v Christian, poor v rich. Or in Boko Haram’s case, the righteous v the apostate.

There is something particularly chilling in the interview published with a representative of the Islamic militant group, whose campaign of violent jihad has claimed hundreds of lives already this year.

It is when he claims that Nigeria’s 70 million Christians would be “protected” under the group’s envisioned Islamic state but goes on to deliver the following threat: “There are no exceptions. Even if you are a Muslim and you do not abide by sharia, we will kill you. Even if you are my own father, we will kill you.”

Three fault lines crisscross Nigeria’s troubled land: ethnic, religious and socioeconomic. Boko Haram’s gruesome rise to prominence – it has graduated from drive-by attacks on beer parlours to bombing the United Nations headquarters in Abuja – has prised open crevices where all three intersect.

To say that Nigeria’s problems are just about a chronically poor Muslim north and a rich Christian south is to do scant justice to the degree both poor Muslims and poor Christians have suffered from corruption and the unequal distribution of state resources.

It is to ignore the fact that, despite the violence in the north that cost 1,000 lives after Goodluck Jonathan’s election last year, the president received an overwhelmingly national mandate – at least 25% of the vote in 31 out of 36 states. He did not, however, win a single state in the far north.

Nor is the situation there any less complicated. As the International Crisis Group has argued, the grievances of the rioters in the wake of April’s elections should not be reduced to sectarianism, although there was a clear sectarian slant to their rioting.

Sectarian violence is a convenient camouflage for struggles over citizenship, group rights and distribution of public resources.

Boko Haram’s campaign is a clear and growing national threat. To prevent it swelling further and channelling the separate grievances which have fuelled its rise, the president will have to address a situation which Nigeria’s security forces previously dismissed as an internal northern squabble. That will mean redistributing state resources.

Years of corruption have meant that 70% of the population live in extreme poverty despite an oil industry that produces 2m barrels per day. It will mean addressing the religious divide and providing protection for all. Above all, Nigeria should not confuse counter-terrorism with counter-insurgency. The only community that will see Boko Haram off is the one from which it came. Guest commentary obtained from Nigerian press.

“Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.”
Noam Chomsky