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.

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