On Sunday, Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, visited the scene of last week’s bombing at the United Nations office in Abuja, the capital, and said the sort of things that presidents must say on such occasions.
Since the UN was involved, he said that it had been not just an attack on Nigeria, but on the whole international community. But then he said that the group behind the blast, Boko Haram, was a “local problem” that would be dealt with.
So which is it? An attack on the whole international community, or just a local problem? The answer is important, especially for Nigeria itself.
“Attacks on the international community” are basically meaningless. What is the international community going to do? Surrender? But attacks on Nigeria’s unity, though just a “local problem,” are a very serious threat to Africa’s biggest country.
The miracle is that the 150 million Nigerians still live in the same country at all. Nigeria fought a bloody civil war to stop the secession of the southeast region, the main source of the country’s oil riches, only seven years after getting its independence in 1960.
That war was triggered by a coup by military officers from the Muslim north which inaugurated a period of three decades in which Nigeria’s rulers were mostly Muslim generals from the north. The north is much poorer than the Christian south, but the generals ended up very rich.
Democracy returned to Nigeria only in the past decade, and the unwritten deal was that the presidency would alternate between Muslim leaders from the north and Christian politicians from the south. It made sense for a country split almost exactly between Christians and Muslims, but the deal depended on the traditional feudal rulers of the north retaining their influence over the Muslim community.
The sheikhs’ main strategy for stopping the rot was to emphasise their religious role, and religion in general: Around 2000, 12 Muslim-majority states of Nigeria adopted Sharia law, even though some contain large Christian minorities. The strategy did not halt the decline of the sheikhs’ power, but it certainly created an environment in which Islamist extremists could prosper.
Boko Haram was founded in Maiduguri in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a radical local cleric. He preached that Muslims should shun all aspects of Western society, including secular education and democracy.
The sect he created advocated jihad against Nigeria’s rulers, and by 2009 Boko Haram had grown so popular that the Maiduguri state government sent police to attack Mohammed Yusuf’s mosque and compound. His followers fought back, and hundreds were killed in street battles. Mohammed Yusuf was captured by the Nigerian army and subsequently murdered by the police.
That did not put an end to Boko Haram (the name roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden”). New leaders emerged, and its local support soared. The terrorist attacks began shortly afterwards, at first in Maiduguri and neighboring states, but by last December they reached the national capital.
Since then violence has escalated rapidly, with a bomb at national police headquarters in Abuja in May and now on the UN headquarters in the same city. And what makes it so much more dangerous than similar attacks by Islamist extremists in countries like Pakistan and Iraq is the fact that half of Nigeria’s population is Christian.
It’s the north that would lose the most if Nigeria fell apart, for the oil is all in the south. But everybody would pay a lot, for the division of the country would imply massive movements of the minorities: Christians fleeing the north, and Muslims fleeing the south. It would be a catastrophe comparable to the division of India and Pakistan in 1947.
The situation in Nigeria has not reached that point yet. It may never. But Boko Haram has more support across the north than is publicly admitted, and there are politicians on both sides of the religious divide who are willing to exploit the fear and the hatred that its actions create.
Nigeria’s problem is “local” in the sense that Boko Haram is a homegrown movement, not a branch office of al-Qaeda. But that actually makes it much harder for the Nigerian government to isolate and suppress it. It is a very big problem, and Goodluck Jonathan’s government shows no sign of knowing what to do about it.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.