Were 276 girls abducted from a government secondary school in the town of Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April? That anyone could ask the question, as the president’s wife allegedly did last weekend, says much about the mess we’re in. It took the president more than two weeks to call a press conference to tell the world: ‘I don’t know where they are… there is no confirmation of the location of the schoolgirls, you are a journalist, you know more than me.’ We are still none the wiser, even as Western powers descend on the country to help find them. We are not even sure of the numbers involved, which have fluctuated between 200 and 300; but the story seems to have finally woken everybody up – both in Nigeria and abroad.
This is not the first time Boko Haram has abducted girls, nor is it the first time they have publicly said what they would do with them: ‘Women are slaves. I want to reassure my Muslim brothers that Allah says slaves are permitted in Islam.’ But it is the first time that Nigerians have rallied around a common cause and stood their ground. People came out in large numbers two years ago, when the government raised the price of petrol overnight, but they were frightened away by the army. The army wasn’t called out this time, but two protest organisers were detained for several hours, for reasons that remain unclear. Their detention was widely seen as yet another example of the government’s hamfisted approach to a national tragedy of its own making.
President Goodluck Jonathan is not himself responsible for the emergence of Islamic terrorism, nor is he entirely to blame for the bungling way his government has gone about failing to address it. In 1980, a religious leader known as Maitatsine and his followers staged an uprising in the city of Kano, in the north-east, which lasted over three weeks and left more than 4000 dead. Maitatsine himself was killed and buried in a secret location. In those days Nigeria was ruled by men from the largely Islamic north – as opposed to the largely Christian south – so the violence was considered an internal matter between those who desired the strict implementation of shariah law and the decadent backsliders in power.
But now power has shifted south. Worse yet, Jonathan comes from the oil-producing Niger Delta, where all the money comes from. It’s possible that Boko Haram may have been initially encouraged by the northern ruling class as a way for them to wrest back power, which has now spiralled out of control. It is certainly true that the violence currently associated with the sect only exploded in late 2010, when Jonathan emerged as the leading contender for the 2011 elections following a series of unforeseen events, including the death of the serving northern president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Unfortunately for Jonathan, the long years of corruption which he inherited, and which he has himself deepened – ‘If you talk about ownership of private jets, Nigeria will be among the first 10 countries,’ he said last week, ‘yet they are saying that Nigeria is among the five poorest countries’ – have enfeebled every institution in the country, above all the military. The top brass – the ‘pepper-soup generals’ – loot the bloated security budget in order to entertain their girlfriends in plush Abuja hotels, while the rank and file are sent off to engage rebels who are better armed than they are. The Islamists, on the other hand, have ready recruits in the so-called Almajiris, the more than 12 million young men whose only education has been studying the Koran in Arabic, a language not spoken in Nigeria.
In 2005, an American think-tank, the National Intelligence Council, raised the spectre of ‘the outright collapse of Nigeria’ by 2015. The best-case scenario now is that we become another Pakistan where whole ‘tribal areas’ are out of bounds to all outsiders except American drones. But at least most Pakistanis are Muslims. Here in Nigeria we are now witnessing the rise of Christian fundamentalism in response to the Islamic threat. The Christian Association of Nigeria described the kidnapped Christian girls as ‘Daughters of Zion taken captive, to be treated as slaves and sold into marriage to unclean people.’