[ ] A nation at war with itself
The recent bomb attack in a bus terminal at Nyanya, a bustling outskirts of Abuja, by a suicide bomber suspected to be a Boko Haram terrorist or sympathizer, was one too many. Perhaps more than any of the previous attacks by the sect, the Nyanya incident, which targeted people hustling to get to work in the city of Abuja, aroused a collective sense of sorrow and outrage. Estimates of the dead and injured vary – depending on whom you want to believe. What appears obvious is that anywhere between 75 and 130 people lost their lives in that mayhem, with some 150-200 others sustaining various degrees of injury. Properties and means of livelihood lost in the carnage are yet to be estimated. The psychological trauma induced by the incident will live with many of the residents of Nyanya and beyond for a long time.
Barely 24 hours after the Nyanya attack, came another report that some unidentified gunmen suspected to be members of the terrorist organization, abducted more than 100 female students from a Government Girls Secondary School at Chibok Local Government Area of Borno State – the epicentre of the Boko Haram challenge. Reports of deaths in Bornu state have become a daily staple such that for many, those deaths, reported daily in the media, no longer shock or awe them – a classical indication of the ‘normalization’ or routinization of evil.
Our challenge as a nation is to refuse to allow such impunities to be ‘normalized’ by the frequency of their occurrences or the longevity of their existence. Retaining a sense of outrage against such impunities is the strongest statement that they are unacceptable and cannot be ‘normalized’ like other acts of impunity in the country.
But why will otherwise ‘ normal’ people derive sadistic joy in the mass murder of people who have done them no wrong?
The German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt tells us that the great evils in history are not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their actions and therefore participated in them on the grounds that those heinous actions were normal. She used this to explain why evil deeds tend to be everywhere in a society. She called this the ‘banality of evil’. For her, those engaged in barbarous acts such as the Boko Haram terrorists accepted the premises of their actions as just – even if the rest of the society thinks otherwise. Acts of impunity against innocent Nigerians unfortunately reflects the federal – violent armed robberies across the entire country, kidnapping especially in the South-east and south-south, turf war by militarized cults and gangs in Bayelsa State, ritual murders everywhere, senseless intra and inter communal ‘warfare’ across several parts of the country and of course terrorism couched in religious revivalist rhetoric in parts of the North.
Despite the ‘banality of evil’ or the ‘normalization of the unthinkable’, in several parts of the country, there are reasons why the impunity purveyed by Boko Haram and groups acting in its name, or sympathetic to its cause, pose a special threat to the country:
One, though impunity couched in religious revivalism has been an integral part of the conflicts in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram and Ansaru were the first drivers of conflicts in the country to be declared terrorist organizations by the United States and the United Kingdom. Two, both are also the first purveyors of violence in the country to be strongly linked to international terrorist networks, essentially Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and possibly the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, (MOJWA),- also known as Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). MUJA was formed in 2011 allegedly because of the marginalization of Black Africans in AQIM.
Three, Boko Haram was also the first group to introduce suicide bombing in Nigeria. Use of suicide bombers had been unknown in West Africa because suicide is regarded as cultural anathema - until two high-profile attacks in Abuja - the June 2011 police headquarters bombing and the August 2011 United Nations headquarters bombing. Since then, suicide bombing has become part of the tools in the arsenal of the two groups. Four, the two terrorist groups were also probably the first purveyors of impunity in Nigeria with both international and domestic territorial ambitions. For instance while in 2011, Boko Haram’s terrorism was largely confined to Nigeria’s northeast by the end of last year (2013), Boko Haram- driven attacks occurred in most of the 19 States in the North, including the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. Boko Haram suspects have also been arrested in Lagos. The group was equally linked to the kidnapping of the French Catholic priest, Georges Vandenbeusch, in Cameroun in November 2013 and to another kidnapping of a French family in the same area of Cameroun in February 2013. Flowing from the territorial ambitions of the two groups, the conflicts they trigger have wider national implications and by virtue of their links to international terrorist networks, also wider international implications than the traditional conflicts that the country is used to.
Fighting the new terrorism has been problematic not only because of their methods but also because of disagreements on why such a group came about. The conspiracy theories that seek to explain the phenomenon tap into the fears that are edged in our traditional fault lines:
There are several conspiracy theories about Boko Haram. One, which is popular among commentators from the Southern part of the country, is that the sect is sponsored by key
SNorthern politicians to make the country ‘ungovernable’ for President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the minority Ijaw ethnic group. One of the weaknesses of this ‘theory’ is that much of the mayhem carried out by the sect has been in the North and against Northern Muslims. It is in fact difficult to see the nexus between destabilizing governance in some Northern states and making the country ‘ungovernable’ for the Jonathan administration. But there are several who believe in such, making it difficult to mobilize that sense of collective outrage needed to tackle the menace. Obviously there are certain local grievances that revivalist movements tap into but that must not be confused with deliberate sponsorship.
Another conspiracy theory is that Boko Haram is actually being sponsored by the Jonathan administration to make Islam look bad or give the impression that the North was out to pull it down as a way of mobilizing the support of his ‘Southern brethren’ and Christians behind his administration. A variant of this is that Boko Haram is actually sponsored by the government to weaken or destroy the North. Those who believe in any of the variants of this conspiracy ‘theory’, essentially people from the North, point out that during the Abacha days, the government deliberately bombed some places and then blamed it on NADECO, which was campaigning for the re-validation of the June 12 election won by Abiola but annulled by the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida. This variant of the conspiracy ‘theory’ therefore believes that the Jonathan administration is borrowing a leaf from the Abacha regime.
One of the weaknesses of this theory however is that nothing in the confessions of some of the arrested Boko Haram members supports any of these conspiracy theories. Also it defies logic why a President should set part of his domain on fire, especially where one cannot determine the direction of such conflagration - just to weaken a particular religion or part of the country
While there are a number of other efforts at scholarly explanations of the reasons for the emergence and subsequent radicalization of the sect, I have always believed that a more comprehensive explanation will be to see the sect as a reflection of the crisis in our nation-building processes. The crisis in our nation-building conflates with the crisis of underdevelopment to create an existentialist crisis for many Nigerians. Therefore for many young people, a way of resolving the consequent sense of alienation is to retreat from the Nigeria project and construct meanings in chosen primordial identities - often with the Nigerian state as the enemy. This must not be confused with supporting or condoning Boko Haram and its ways but the need for us to dig deeper, including finding the local grievances that they tap into. We will need to fight both the symptom of the problem and the root cause simultaneously.
Fighting terrorism is never easy or straight forward anywhere in the world. Victory can hardly come easily or quickly. Often the challenge is to contain the group such that the society can continue to function normally despite the episodic impunities they purvey – the way the society has learnt to live with other impunities carried out intermittently by other groups. The key challenge we have with Boko Haram is that the mayhem by the group is not only spreading across the country, but also becoming ‘routinized’. And while this is happening, politicians are playing silly blame games while their foot soldiers complicate matters with their absurd conspiracy theories.