Nigeria: fighting fear with hope
A red glow fills the sky as the sun sets over the beautiful sandy beach and the swimming pools of the seafront villas. The TV presenter, in his fetching holiday hat, adopts a smooth demeanour as he visits one luxury house after another. We feel a surge of romanticism as he watch him explore this faraway land. And there, the holiday programme ends. We are in Nigeria. With the presidential election campaign in full flow, the TV cameras are turned on an enthusiastic rally for Muhammadu Buhari, a member of the military junta of the 1980s and the main challenger to the incumbent president. On the stage, religious figures of all stripes line up to sing the praises of their candidate. The camera zooms out: the stadium is packed with thousands of supporters, with street sellers serenely weaving their way amongst them, carrying their baskets on their heads.
With a month to go until polling day on February 14, election fever has gripped the nation, and Channels TV is not missing a second of the official campaign. For a Westerner accustomed to seeing alarmed headlines at the slightest hint of scandal in Europe, something unimaginable is happening here: one could almost forget that the Islamist rebellion by Boko Haram has massacred over 2000 people and razed sixteen villages to the ground in the last 20 days. Among Boko Haram’s foremost targets are students, who have been massacred in their hundreds since 2010.
What, as recently as the early 2000s, was a small and peaceful Islamist group, has become a death machine. Critical of the national government, the group began to clash ever more frequently with the Nigerian authorities. But the real turning point came in 2009, with the controversial death of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf. Since then, Boko Haram’s members have obtained arms and terrorised the north-east with their raids and the whole country with bomb attacks. Since spring 2014, the threat has grown significantly. Attacks have come thick and fast, culminating in this winter’s horrific large-scale massacres of civilians.
Fear everywhere, all the time
The group’s name is a two-word declaration of war on western education. Some see “Boko” as a distortion of the word “book”, the quintessential symbol of that education. Others translate the Hausa moniker as “Western education is a sin”. Hence the kidnappings of young schoolchildren in the country’s Muslim north-eastern regions, where the sect is wreaking havoc, as this map from Courrier International shows
Julius* is a young student like any other. His Facebook page is full of football photos, political debates and selfies with his friends, and he makes no secret of his taste for Hollywood Westerns. In spite of his own desperate situation, he makes a point of offering his condolences for the deaths of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, before stating categorically: “Boko Haram is against all that is Western”.
Even though the area controlled by the sect is a long way from his town in the centre of the country, the threat is still there. One need only look at the multiple attacks that are now happening in regions previously thought to be safe and the thousands upon thousands of people who are losing their lives.
Since he first heard about the group six years ago, the entire country has been put at risk.
The north and the south are two very different worlds, separated by the Niger, but no region is exclusively Christian or exclusively Muslim, and those who claim that the danger is limited to one part of the country are misinformed.
Alicia* comes from the north of the country and has spent the past few years studying abroad. She, too, has plenty to say about the sect: “Boko Haram is an enigma. We can never be quite sure if someone is a member or not. You have to be extremely careful.”
The young lady has already witnessed four explosions in the past four years, and lost classmates and one close family friend in terrorist attacks. She doesn’t trust anyone anymore.
The reason why everyone is afraid of everyone else can be traced back to accusations of collusion between the Islamist insurgents and the army, or even the federal government, as the President himself has suggested.
“There is lots of tribal and religious manoeuvring behind it all,” explains Alicia. “We knew about it in the north, but we didn’t think it would go this far. Their goal – they have said it – is to islamicize Nigeria.”
Fear is in the air:
“Looking in from abroad, I feel sad for my friends and family. It’s our home country and they are seeing it destroyed, with help from overseas still nowhere to be seen.”
She describes a pyramid structure: “Most of their supporters are poor people who haven’t had access to education, but some of them, at the top end, are extremely rich, powerful and educated.”
The rebellion is gaining traction in areas where poverty is on the increase. It is in the poorest States that the most violent instability is to be found.
Serena* is a Cameroonian studying in Paris. Her voice does not waver when she talks about the subject:
“As far as I’m concerned, Boko Haram is a business first and foremost. They are setting themselves up as long-term economic predators. They owe their success to poverty and the fact that young people have nothing to do. Being part of the rebellion is a job for some of those young people.”
But, ultimately, the very stability of the country, a stability built upon fragile political power-sharing arrangements between different ethnic groups, is under threat.
A group that people still know little about
These accounts give the impression that the group is much more sophisticated than it might appear. “The Western media always want to put everything in boxes, so they say that Boko Haram is primarily a religious organisation. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a business,” Serena concludes.
Julius goes further: “What your media shows is only a tiny part of what Boko Haram really is. People only talk about them when they carry out a major attack. But they forget to mention that their intention is to wipe out every ethnicity and religion but theirs.”
“Despite all this, the European and American press is still better informed than the Nigerian media,” laments Alicia, who only trusts one national TV network, Channels TV.
The economic capital, Lagos (pictured above) is the biggest city in Sub-Saharan Africa. The crimes of Boko Haram have overshadowed the fact that, in addition to being the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria has become Africa’s leading economic power in the past year.
The situation of women is equally complex. Julius explains: “The rebels don’t have any qualms about kidnapping women to use them as sex slaves.”
But Alicia does not want to jump to any hasty conclusions: “Our society is very patriarchal. It might seem as though women are targeted more than others, but in reality I don’t feel any more threatened. I don’t feel any less threatened either. Everyone is a target for Boko Haram. Since the girls from Chibok were abducted [prompting a huge global campaign, Ed.], dozens of young boys have been kidnapped too.”
It seems that the group’s power in the region also needs to be put into perspective:
“Boko Haram could be wiped out with a single military intervention, if only the army wasn’t so divided!
For the moment, it feels like the army is mostly fighting against itself,” Alicia rails.
Serena, meanwhile, is still not too concerned about the armed group’s presence in northern Cameroon: “There have been a few accusations of collusion directed at two ministers, but I don’t think they have representatives in the rest of the country. The north has ethnic and religious similarities with Nigeria, but this remains a secular country, and people do not support Boko Haram’s agenda. Thus far, the losses caused by the fighting have been essentially military.”
How can the crisis be resolved?
“Why isn’t the West helping us?” says a despairing Julius, who would like to see foreign military intervention. Alicia shares his concern, but remains hopeful for her people: “The government is so ineffectual that any sign of solidarity from foreign countries will have no impact. I don’t expect anything from them anymore. Power has to change hands. The Nigerian people have to rise up. I’m hoping for a total overhaul of the entire political and administrative system.”
The accounts of these three young people paint a picture of Boko Haram reigning over an empire of fear created through division. When people are afraid, they are suspicious, and thus make perfect targets for the rebels. But as soon as a people resolutely affirms its determination to remain calm and united, the sect’s task becomes much more complicated. At present, solidarity is taking a bruising from all the violence, but hope remains.
What better weapon than hope to counter and – sooner or later – defeat these peddlers of despair?
* Names have been changed.
Picture source: Tuxboard.