People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 10

March 04, 2012


Nigeria: New Threats to Unity


Yohannan Chemarapally



NIGERIA, Africa’s most populous country seems to be veering dangerously into political and sectarian strife. The acts of terror in the north of the country by the radical Islamist group, Boko Haram, have dramatically escalated. The coordinated terror attacks in the city of Kano on January 20 which claimed more than 211 lives, is a clear indication that the organisation poses a clear and present danger to the stability of the country. In early January, the entire country was affected as ordinary people took to the streets to protest against the sudden decision of the government to double the price of petrol on January 1. The country’s trade unions, under pressure from the grassroots were forced to call for a national strike from January 9. Oil industry workers had also threatened to stop the production and distribution of oil. The Nigerian economy is almost totally dependent on the revenues generated by oil sales.


Till the strike was called off after negotiations with the government on January 12, many cities witnessed violent scenes leading to loss of many lives. The Nigerian army had to be deployed on the streets in a big way to control the angry mobs for the first time since the end of military rule in 1999. The steep hike in the petrol prices had a cascading effect with the price of basic necessities doubling immediately. 70 per cent of the Nigerians live on less than $2 a day and the unemployment rate of Nigerians under the age of fourty stands at fourty per cent. Nigeria, one of the world’s leading oil producers, has been subsidising the sale of petrol in the domestic market. Life was slowly limping back to normal after an agreement between the government and the trade union federation. The Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan personally went on national television that the government was temporarily reducing the hike in the fuel price by one-third.




The Nigerian government had justified the sudden dramatic increase in fuel prices by arguing that the $8 billion it would be able to save every year by the removal of fuel subsidies would be better utilised for public work projects. Nigerian refineries have become virtually non-functional forcing the government to import 85 per cent of refined crude. Businessmen having links with the influential politicians have made big profits by setting up companies to import refined fuel in a country which produces the highest quality of crude oil. The Nigerian public, going by past experiences, has very little faith in the government. Much of the government funds and revenues continue to disappear into the secret bank accounts of politicians and top government officials. Some of the local state governments in Nigeria have a bigger budget than many African countries yet very little development can be seen on the ground. In president Jonathan’s home state in the oil producing Niger Delta, hospitals are without medicines for malaria.  


“Why should Nigerians trust you and your government to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates and improve the country’s infrastructure, when you can’t handle the simple task of identifying the leeches who’ve been stealing the fuel subsidy funds”, the Nigerian journalist Okey Ndibe wrote in the newspaper, the Daily Sun. A 2009 Wikileaks cable reported that “official manipulation that may have cost Nigeria billons of dollars” because “international fuel traders overcharged the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) by over $300 million”. The document mentions “sweetheart deals” between highly placed Nigerian officials and international companies and emphasises that “the principal problem in the country is corruption and lack of transparency which will swallow whatever is saved from withdrawing the fuel subsidy”.


President Jonathan had won the presidency with a huge margin but he was never a popular figure in the Muslim majority North. Now in the aftermath of the fuel price hike fiasco, his popularity seems to be ebbing nationwide. To make matters worse he has now to confront the menace of Boko Haram. Translated loosely from Hausa, Boko Haram means “western knowledge is forbidden”.  The official name of the group is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidd’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. The militant Islamist group had signalled its presence in Nigerian politics, after a bloody skirmish with the police in the northern town of Maiduguri situated near the border with Chad in 2009. Hundreds of Boko Haram supporters were killed along with the founder of the movement, Mohammed Yusuf. The supporters of the movement claim that their leader was killed in cold blood on the orders of the Federal authorities. The Nigerian government was quick to announce that the movement no longer posed a threat.


But as events in the last two years have shown, that was a serious miscalculation. In the last two years, Boko Haram has carried out a series of audacious attacks targeting politicians, churches, military barracks, government institutions and even a United Nations compound in the Nigerian federal capital, Abuja.  Muslim politicians and clerics who have spoken out against the terror tactics of Boko Haram have also been among those who have been targeted. The violent communal clashes between Christians and Muslims in Central Nigeria in recent years which have killed thousands, has helped Boko Haram to attract new recruits. The biggest coordinated attack was the latest one in Kano, a city of more than 10 million.  Boko Haram’s aim is to create a purely Islamic state. Such a state would theoretically comprise only of the northern part of the country, where there is a Muslim majority. Sharia law is already prevalent in the North.


The Boko Haram is against Muslims participating in elections, receiving western education or even wearing shirts and trousers. Boko Haram followers swear by the Koranic phrase which says: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors”. A 2004 BBC survey revealed that Nigeria was the most religious country in the world with 90 per cent of those polled saying that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for their religion. In the South and the East of the country messianic Christian cults have found huge followings.  


The activities of Boko Haram have now come under international scrutiny. US officials have been saying for some time that the Boko Haram has become an affiliate of al Qaeda in the Sahel. A US Congressional Report released in November 2011 warned that the group “was an emerging threat” to the US and its interests in the region. Since last year, Boko Haram has ominously started using the strategy of suicide bombing. A suicide bomber had rammed his car into the UN building in Abuja in August killing 24 people. Security cameras showed the driver of the car calmly detonating his suicide vest. It was the first Boko Haram attack on a foreign target. A statement by the group at the time claimed that 100 of its members were preparing for more suicide missions. “More attacks are on the way and by the will of Allah we will have unfettered access to wherever we want to attack”, the statement said. In Kano, two suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) were used to target police facilities. In comparison, Boko Haram’s initial forays into terrorism were amateur affairs. The weapons that were used were mainly machetes, clubs and small arms. The radical Islamist group killed more than 500 people in 2011 and more than 250 in the first month of this year. There is fear in the West that the Boko Haram could start posing a serious challenge, like al Shabab in Somalia and the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).




If the Boko Haram’s activities are not checked, Nigeria’s fragile unity could be put to test. The fault lines between the North and the South have become more exacerbated in recent years. Sections of the northern political elite are still unhappy with what they consider as the breaking of a sacrosanct rule in Nigerian politics by president Jonathan. Whenever civilians are at the helm, power used to rotate between the Northern and Southern politicians. The presidency was with a Southerner, Olusegun Obasanjo for two terms after the end of military rule in 1999. His successor, Umaru Yar’adua, from the North died without completing his first term in office. He was succeeded by Jonathan, who was then the vice president. Politicians from the North expected Jonathan to stand aside and make way for another politician from the North to step into the presidency. This did not happen as the ruling Peoples Democratic Party nominated Jonathan for the post. Now there are allegations that the Boko Haram has the secret support of some disgruntled politicians from the North though the government has not provided any proof.


The government may have to adopt a more flexible policy towards Boko Haram. Observers of the Nigerian scene give the example of the rebels in the Niger Delta who had created havoc in the petroleum sector by staging hit and run raids. The government finally bought peace with them by offering them generous financial packages and promised a bigger cake from the oil revenues for Delta State. The North, which is more arid and has no oil resources, would also like a bigger share from the oil revenues. Economic indicators show that the people in the South are doing much better than their northern compatriots.


Prominent Nigerians like the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, have started drawing parallels between the situation now and that of 1967, when Nigeria plunged into a four year long bloody civil war. More than a million people perished in that conflict that was sparked by killings of prominent politicians and ethnic pogroms. President Jonathan while visiting Kano stated that the situation at hand is “more complicated than the civil war we fought”. He even alleged that members of Boko Haram have infiltrated the government. In response to the alarming spurt in Boko Haram attacks, president Jonathan has announced the launch of “Operation Restore Order”. The Nigerian government has signalled the start of its own war on terror with army and police units launching attacks on neighbourhoods allegedly harbouring Boko Haram members and sympathisers. According to reports, many innocent people have been killed in operations in cities like Kano and Maiduguri.     


At the same time, the Nigerian president has said that he is prepared to open a dialogue with the group, provided the Boko Haram leadership identifies itself. “We will dialogue, let us know your problems and we will solve your problems, but if they don’t identify themselves, who will you dialogue with?”, Jonathan said. Abubakar Shekau, who speaks on behalf of Boko Haram, posted an audio message, which said that the Kano attacks were in retaliation to the torture of its members by the security forces. Shekau threatened to carry out attacks against universities and schools in the country unless security forces stopped, what he claimed, were attacks on “madrassas” in Maiduguri. It looks like the bloody cycle of violence is going to continue for some more time to come as the government tries to crush the shadowy group that has risen to challenge Nigerian national unity.