Friday, May 23, 2014

Instability in Nigeria

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).

The recent attacks in Jos, where at least 118 people were killed, prompted me to write more about Boko Haram and other threats to the stability of Nigeria. Yet there are too many stories to tell even in two posts.

The kidnapping by Boko Haram of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls is only the tip of the iceberg. Many schools have been attacked before. In one recent case, the boys were killed and the girls told to return to their families and get married. But even these are only a few indications of the instability that marks Nigeria today.

Only after the kidnapping did it become apparent that the Nigerian troops were very reluctant to fight Boko Haram. That seems to be one the main reasons why these girls were abducted so easily. Troops are reluctant to engage terrorists who are better equipped and outnumber them.

The Nigerian government recently faced a mutiny from troops who are sometimes unpaid and always ill-equipped. Some soldiers were angry that they did not have the necessary equipment to fight the militants and blamed the general for orders that led to an ambush and the death of their comrades. They then shot at their superior, who was later relocated.

I lived in Nigeria for six years. I taught at the University of Jos, but I had the opportunity to travel to many of the 36 Nigerian states. What I saw then, and even more what I heard recently about the atrocities committed by Boko Haram, makes me concerned about the future of that country.

I know the area well where the twin bombings took place in Jos. It is a crowded market area and and many intercity buses are based there as well as the University of Jos teaching hospital. The bombings,took place only a few minutes apart. Rescue workers who came to the aid of the first victims were killed in the second one.

Boko Haram has not yet admitted responsibility for these bombings, but  they suggest that the militants and the violence they promote are moving further and further south. According to reports, they have already reached Makurdi, which is south of Jos. Boko Haram want to destabilize the government even further and is using the publicity to gain leverage in any negotiations.

Equally ominously, Boko Haram can count on moles and sympathizers within the police and military, as well as other branches of the government to warn them of impending attacks. Boko Haram has issued two main conditions for release of the schoolgirls and the end of the violence: the release by the government of fellow militants from jails and the cessation of hostilities against them.

Thus far the Nigerian government seems unwilling to negotiate with Boko Haram. That is very foolish and shortsighted. While I do not condone Boko Haram's methods, the government should negotiate, if only to show the world that they are not afraid of Boko Haram. The government too has used violent methods in its fight with the militants, but violence should not be countered with more violence.

Nigerians cannot understand why their government is still unable to find the kidnapped girls after more than a month. Claims by the government that it knows where they are have been dismissed by Nigerians, who have rallied in protest against the inaction of the government as well as President Goodluck Jonathan's refusal to visit the town of Chibok where the girls were abducted.

With 170 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and is now widely recognized as having the largest economy, but one that is based largely on oil. As I wrote previously, there are very few who benefit from this incredible wealth. Most Nigerians are desperately poor. They enjoy a per person national income of $1,401, which is only 3% of what Americans have.

How Nigerians rate their institutions for corruption on a scale of 0-5 

Corruption is the main reason why troops are poorly equipped and sometimes not paid. Corruption is, in fact, the reason for much of the instability in Nigeria.

The state of the military is only one example of instability. There are many more examples; too many to list in this blog. Before I provide a few more examples, let me explain why I am using the term 'instability.'

A stable nation may still have many problems, but none of them will threaten the continued existence of that nation. In the case of Nigeria, however, its existence is hanging by a thin thread. Destabilization could spell the end for this large West African country that wants to play a leading role in the world, but cannot get its act together and address the problems that it currently faces. Is it ripe for a revolution?

If a country cannot protect its own citizens adequately, it not only fails to meet one of the premier purposes of the state but it also threatens its own existence. Mutinous troops are one sign that something is rotten in this state. That is the perilous condition that Nigeria is in at the moment.

The religious/ethnic conflict that is endemic throughout the northern states of Nigeria is another example. This conflict appears on the surface to be religious, but it is often ethnic in nature. A tribe or group that happens to be Muslim or Christian is offended by something or feels cheated in some way, and then it burns down a church or mosque. This violent cycle continues until people are sated or just worn out.

This story is common in Nigeria. So common that only the name of the locality needs to change, everything else remains the same. I read yet another version of that story as I was preparing this post.

The Nigerian government is unable to end these conflicts. The underlying problems that produce the conflicts are not addressed and thus these conflicts continue ad nauseum. Troops are regularly sent to trouble spots, but that does not stop conflicts but only limits them somewhat at best.

Similarly, the government is unable to stop the "nail boys," as they are called in Nigeria. Armed robbers who set up illegal road blocks do so with seeming impunity.

In Nigeria the safest time to drive on the highways is on Sunday morning, since the robbers are in church then. This is not a joke. It illustrates the nature of life in Nigeria, where highway robbery is a profession.

About two weeks after I first arrived in Nigeria, I had to go to Kano, which lies a few hours drive north of Jos. On both directions there must have been about 20 illegal roadblocks. This was my first introduction to this grim reality of Nigerian life.

Over the years I learned to accept this reality. Whenever I drove in Nigeria, even locally, I always have a short prayer for safety on the road and protection from robbers.

These prayers have helped for the most part. I have never been robbed in Nigeria, whether on the road or in my house. But I have been stopped many times and threatened. Then it was basically a waiting game to see who would budge first, the robbers or me. If you have enough time, you can generally win.

But that is not always the case. Just the other day I heard about the provost of a new Pentecostal seminary near Jos who was on his way back from a trip to Abuja picking up some people from the UK when robbers with guns were stopping vehicles.

The provost's car immediately made a U-turn, but it was too late; the robbers shot him in the head. Then they deprived the people from the UK of everything, including their passports. Police later brought them to Abuja and put them on a plane home.

Needless to say, such robberies do not promote stability. On the contrary, for years I have wondered why the government did so little to stop this illegal activity. The answer was simple: there was little they can do. Occasionally there was a crackdown on such robberies, but soon the robbers returned.

When people can no longer trust their government, that government is in trouble. When Nigerians as well as tourists are attacked and robbed,this hardly promotes tourism. Such instability threatens the very existence of the government.

As the largest country in Africa, Nigeria serves as a model for the rest of Africa. It is claimed that if Nigeria were to disintegrate much of Africa would follow suit. Instability may ultimately lead to to the disintegration of Nigeria. Disintegration is not an immediate result of what is happening, or perhaps better not happening, in that country, but Nigeria cannot hope to survive if nothing is done there very soon.

Admittedly, there are some problems that are beyond the government's control. But the government must do what it can to deal with the myriad problems facing Nigeria. Other nations of the world must provide any help they can to Nigeria, as I wrote previously. Only then can the problem of instability in Nigeria be resolved.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How can the world help Nigeria?

#BringBackOurGirls is one of the well known hashtags of all time. All because of the recent kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls Nigeria is now making the front pages every day.  Their abduction has struck a chord with many people all over the world.

Not only Nigerians are campaigning for their release but people everywhere are marching and using social media in order to bring these girls home safely.  They have become "our girls" for people in many countries. The above picture was taken at a rally in Toronto supporting their release.

Michele Obama and Malala Yousafzai are only two of the many famous people who have lent their names to this campaign. Ordinary people too are displaying this hashtag.

As I am writing this, the girls have still not been released, but the latest video shows some of the girls all wearing the habib and reciting the the opening surah of thr Qur'an. In the same video, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, demands the release of Boko Haram members held by the government in exchange for many of the girls, but he threatens the girls who had not converted to Islam with slavery. He had earlier indicated that he would sell all the girls for only $12 each as wives for Boko Haram militants.

Boko Haram was founded in 2002. It seeks to establish an Islamic state ruled by sharia and to put an end to Westernization. The name in Hausa is often translated as "western education is sinful." In 2010 Boko Haram turned to violence in response to a government crackdown on its members. Since then it is responsible for more than 3,600 deaths, largely in northeastern Nigeria but also in the capital, Abuja.

The recent abduction of these schoolgirls by Boko Haram was prompted not by any concern that the girls should leave school and get married. That had happened a few months earlier when 29 boys were killed and the girls were told to go home, forget about school, and get married.

It is clear now that Boko Haram had intended all along to use these girls as bargaining chips in order to win the release of fellow militants from Nigerian jails. This was a new tactic for them.

Boko Haram is a terrorist organization like many others in the world today. Unfortunately, terrorism is very difficult to deal with, as the Nigerian government has discovered. Nigerian troops are spread thin all over the country and they are poorly supplied.

Thus the offers from several countries to help rescue these schoolgirls have been welcomed by the Nigerian government, although for the first few days after the kidnapping that help was refused. This help is primarily in the form of surveillance and search equipment.

The US is providing surveillance planes and satellite information. Canada is sending Special Forces and logistic supplies to aid in the search for the girls. In spite of all the high-tech equipment and the thousands of Nigerian troops, so far the girls have not been found. The parents are understandably distraught.

How long will this assistance last? The media are notoriously fickle. This week or even this month the focus is on Nigeria, but next week another problem will probably grab the headlines.

Because of the abduction of these girls, social media have motivated the world to pay attention to the the problem of Boko Haram, but soon world attention will be drawn elsewhere. But the problem of terrorism will remain even when the girls have been released.

Nigeria was unable to cope with Boko Haram even before the girls were kidnapped. Reports are that only 17 troops and police were stationed in Chibok in Borno State when Boko Haram arrived. Outnumbered and outgunned, they were powerless the prevent the abduction, although hours earlier there had been warnings of an attack on the school, according to reports from Amnesty International.

Many troops were needed in Abuja in the days leading up to the World Economic Forum on Africa that would be held in early May. After the Forum troops were belatedly sent to northern Nigeria.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with a population of 170 million. After recent re-calibration, it now appears to have the largest economy on that continent. It is wealthy, but much of the income from oil has been pocketed largely by politicians and the very rich and very little has trickled down to ordinary people. This is especially true in northeastern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim, although Chibok is Christian.

Education has been neglected in the northern part of Nigeria. People in the southern parts are often better educated, but poverty is extensive everywhere in the country. Very few benefit from the wealth that oil has brought. This is largely due to corruption.

Corruption is the main problem in Nigeria. It is one of the reasons that Boko Haram arose. Until corruption is dealt with, Boko Haram will continue to thrive. Military force alone will not be able to eliminate terrorists.

The foreign aid that is being offered will probably disappear after the girls are released. Then the Nigerian government will be forced to deal with Boko Haram alone. Unfortunately, it has already demonstrated that it is incapable of doing so by itself.

What is needed is long-term help both with terrorism and the central problem of corruption. Corruption is hard to eradicate because it has achieved structural forms in Nigerian society. Thus it requires more than a change of heart on the part of those who are involved.

The outside world must put pressure on the government to clean up its act. Unfortunately, corruption is endemic in Nigeria at all levels and in all institutions, including the churches. Yet with sufficient pressure, Nigerians can be shamed into dealing with this problem more effectively.

Nigeria can one day become an example for all of Africa. The world must not leave Nigeria until the problem of corruption is properly dealt with.

More than military help is therefore needed. The attention of the world must remain focused on that troubled country for a long time; otherwise, Boko Haram will continue to use violence in order to impose its solution.

The Islamic world must become involved in order to root out Boko Haram. They must inform everyone that Boko Haram does not properly represent Islam. They must refute what these terrorists have done.

For example, the girls were forceably converted to Islam, which is contrary to the Qur'an which teaches: "There is no compulsion in religion" (Al-Baqara 256). But Boko Haram has their own interpretation of the Qur'an.

The use of violence is also contrary to Islam, which is the religion of peace, as the name indicates. Some people may find this difficult to fathom, since Islamism has hijacked the Islamic faith.

For more on Islamism as the politicization -- and thus a corruption -- of Islam, see my earlier posting.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau

Muslims must lead the struggle against Islamists all over the world. Muslims must act for several reasons, some of which have already been alluded to:
  • Boko Haram is giving Islam a bad name. Islamists are Muslims in name only. They do not evidence their faith in the way they live. Islam does not permit the killings and violence that Boko Haram has practiced for many years nor does it condone the kidnapping of schoolgirls and their enforced conversion to Islam.
  • Boko Haram, because of its anti-western stance, will not listen to anyone except Muslims. Muslims from outside Nigeria will be respected more than Nigerian Muslims are, since the latter are tainted by corruption.
  • Boko Haram receives extensive funding from Islamists in the outside world. This funding must stop. It also funds itself through bank robberies, but any outside support must be terminated immediately. This action will send a message not only to Boko Haram but also to the outside world that Muslims do not support terrorism. 
The world must not desert Nigeria after the girls are released. Social media have put Nigeria on the front pages and now the world must remain focused on its many problems, of which corruption is the main one. Only with the involvement of the outside world can corruption be fought with effectively.

The involvement of the Muslim world will be needed to fight Boko Haram, but corruption as the underlying cause of the warfare that Boko Haram engages in must eliminated, or at least reduced.

Let us pray that the girls will be released soon. Pray too that the world may continue its involvement so that Boko Haram can be defeated and, and perhaps of equal importance, the enormous wealth of Nigeria can be divided more equitably.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hope for the world

This short essay on hope was prompted by someone questioning whether there is any hope in the world after my previous post had discussed the end of democracy. There is hope, and everyone needs it.

Is there any hope for the world? It would seem not after the daily litany of problems in the media about the many trouble spots in the world. Nigeria and Ukraine are currently topping the news, while Syria has been pushed to the sidelines with the Assad regime regaining control of Homs. There are many other stories that make the headlines too. Some are local, while others have a wider national or even international scope.

As I wrote last time, democracy is under major threat today. No wonder that everything looks hopeless to many people. After publishing that post, someone asked me what he should tell his children about the demise of democracy. Is there any hope in the world?, he asked. I assured him that there is hope. Of course, this is something he already knew, since he is a believer in Christ, yet we all need that reassurance once in a while.

I can also assure you that you and I must never lose hope. The visible reality we see everyday is not what it seems to be. On the contrary, appearances are deceptive. Thus we should seek to dispel those feelings of hopelessness that are all too common, especially if we ingest too much of what is passes for "news" in our day and age.

Hope is hard to define; there is no universal agreement on what hope is and where it can be found. Human beings need hope in order to survive, however. Even without complete agreement, everyone appreciates the necessity of hope. Without hope, we will perish. We need hope as much as we need food or air, or even love, which is described as the greatest of the triad of faith , hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13).

Thus we can continue to hope even in the face of adversity. Alexander Pope realized this when he penned,
Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed. The soul, uneasy and confined from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
That is the way this saying is often understood: even when everything appears hopeless, people will continue to hope. Some people continue buying lottery tickets; others expect their reward will come in the afterlife.

The hope I am talking about goes beyond that, however. It is based on reality, but a reality that transcends the world that we see. It does not take refuge in a vague expectation of a life to come, as Pope seems to suggest, but it is concrete and reliable because the God who in whom that hope rests is faithful and can always be counted on. He keeps his promises even when we neglect to do so, as is too often the case.

It is worthwhile to examine what Greek mythology teaches about hope. In the Pandora myth, when she had opened the jar (but not a box, as modern interpretations have it) releasing every kind of evil, hope remained behind in the bottom of the jar. This was an early version of theodicy -- the attempt to explain the existence of evil in the world.


In the Greek myth hope is retained in the jar in order either to comfort humanity or to purposely keep it from them as a punishment. Is hope a blessing or a curse? Modern scholarship cannot agree on which one.

For me, and indeed for most believers in God, hope is a blessing that does not need to wait until the end time to be revealed. This blessing is seen as a manifestation of God's faithfulness. His promises can always be counted on, unlike human promises which too often cannot be kept.

God's faithfulness is manifested throughout both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The names that believers use for God indicate his faithfulness. Other religions have similar descriptions of God. What they all indicate is God's faithfulness serves as the basis for hope.

God sometimes reveals the end of a story in the scriptures in order to look to him for hope. But today we have no such revelations.

No one knows how the story of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria will end. There are now several international efforts under way to rescue these girls, yet there is no guarantee that these efforts will succeed. Should the parents and all those who are praying for their safe release, therefore, lose hope? Hardly.

Nor should we be dismayed by what is currently happening in Ukraine, Syria, and other trouble spots in the world. We can pray for a peaceful resolution of these crises, but our hope is not dependent on knowing they will end. We have to learn to leave everyone of these events in God's hands.

I am not preaching passivity, but rather the realization that ultimately God is in control, although he can and does use us to achieve his purposes.

Hope is not based merely on such knowledge, but it is rooted in the God who controls all of history, who has always been faithful and reliable in the past, continues to be such today and will also manifest himself that way in the future. He is the one we can always trust. Thus he is the basis of hope, even when people fail to acknowledge or even recognize him.

Beyond the stories that our media serves up every day there is a meta-narrative, a grand narrative in other words, that many today who are mesmerized by postmodernism deny. While there is much we can learn from postmodernism, there are some things that it does not get right. One of these is the meta-narratives that are found, among other places, in the scriptures of various religions.

These scriptures, of which the Bible is only one example, reveal God as source of hope for us and, indeed, the whole world. Even those who may not believe in God may yet be discover hope and be given it by others who want to share the basis of their hope.

The psalmist knew where hope could be found. His hope was in God:
We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you. (Psalm 33:20-22)
Thus there is hope for the world, a hope that is based in God. This hope can give us courage when the world seems to self-destruct around us. Thus no matter what happens we k now that the world is in God's hands and thus we do not have to despair about the "news" that is dished out for us every day.

Nor must we be excessively worried about possible threats to democracy. These threats will always be present and need to be countered, but we can assure ourselves that those who are intent on destroying democracy will not prevail. Democracy will survive in many countries.

There is hope for the world. Trust in God and then we no longer need to despair about what is happening in our world. I purposely refrained from making this post too overtly Christian by saying that "Christ is the hope of the world."

While I personally believe that Christ is the hope of the world, many followers of other faiths would not agree with me. However, Christians do not have an exclusive right to hope. Everyone can have hope, even those who claim not to have any religion.

Everyone needs hope. Some people, myself included, have hope because of our trust in God. Others still have hope, although the basis of their hope is not a transcendent God but rather something imminent in the world. Regardless, the need for hope remains. How else can one live in the world today without hope?