September Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 4 years ago

Mike Smith, a foreign correspondent for AFP (Agence France Presse), was the bureau chief for part of West Africa from 2010 to 2013 and has extensively covered the insurgency inside Nigeria, since his tenure corresponded with the period Boko Haram was at the height of its militancy.

Smith delves into the historical causes which gave birth to extremism. Boko Haram began to take shape in Nigeria when the followers of a radical cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, retreated to a remote area of Yobe state and clashed with the government authorities. In 2009, Mohammed Yusuf launched an uprising in Maiduguri in which around 800 people were killed in five days of brutal violence. The police finally captured Yusuf, and he was shot dead.

Boko Haram emerged in 2010, when Yusuf’s deputy, Abubakar Shekau, and his militants carried out a series of assassinations and a prison raid. Next, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack on the United Nation’s headquarters in Abuja, killing 23 people. Militancy continued and there were a series of coordinated assaults and bomb attacks in Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, leaving at least 185 people dead. The violence shook Nigeria. Smith writes, “I think the worst has happened.” He reports that young men were blowing themselves up in bomb-laden cars, hurling drink cans packed with explosives in crowded areas and gunning down officers with AK-47s. All this happened with frightening speed. And in 2013, after Boko Haram seized territory in the remote areas of the region, emergency was declared by the then president, Goodluck Jonathan, in three north-eastern states. In 2014, Boko Haram raided the north eastern town of Chibok and kidnapped 276 girls from a college dormitory, which sparked world outrage and was extensively covered by the international news media. Smith reports on this incident extensively, substantiating it with the interviews of the girls’ parents, other witnesses and the girls who courageously escaped. Smith also goes deeper, analysing and criticising the President’s stance on the Boko Haram raid, who labelled it as an opposition move to downgrade his government before the upcoming general elections. The issue still persists, as all the girls have not been brought back so far.

Though Smith’s book is mainly about the horrors that rocked Nigeria, it is not just pure reportage. It is also an in-depth study of the history of Nigeria, which tells us not only about the pre-Islamic  period of the country, but also about the beginning of Islam in Nigeria in 1085, when the Kanem-Bornu Empire officially became a Muslim State under Mai Hummay. Then, after a period of nearly 250 years, Kano became the first state in Hausaland to have a Muslim king. (Boko Haram in Hausa roughly means “western education is forbidden.”) After a period of nearly 500 years Usman Dan Fodio, a reformist, started jihad in Hausaland, which led to the creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria.

When the Europeans started penetrating Nigeria, a tussle for power ensued between them and the caliphate, and finally a military conquest by the British Empire resulted in the demise of the Sokoto Caliphate. Nigeria was turned into a colony. Smith briefly describes the colonial period, its politics and economics. In 1914, the British amalgamated Northern and Southern Nigeria into a single entity, creating present-day Nigeria.

In 1956, the Nigerian economy was given a boost when oil was discovered in commercial quantity in the Niger Delta in the south.

In 1960, Nigeria received its independence, ending colonial rule. Between 1967 to 1970, when the south east declared itself the Independent Republic of Biafra, there was civil war in the country. But this was quelled thereafter.

That notwithstanding, peace has been a remote dream for the Nigerians. In 1980, Kano became the site of deadly riots involving a radical Islamist Movement known as Maitatsine.

Again in 1999, the politicians from northern Nigeria pushed to enforce Shariah Law for criminal cases, which was adopted by some 12 northern states. And in 2003 came the Boko Haram.

Smith, in his book, elaborates the social, political and economic patterns that define today’s Nigeria. Nigeria is a country of diversity due to its ethnicity, but the major division within is on the basis of religion. The north is a Muslim majority area, while the south has a Christian majority. This is not a political issue, and Goodluck  Jonathan, the former president, was a Christian. But glaring economic disparity is obvious between the North and the South. The northern economy is based on agriculture, while the economy in the south is mainly oil-based and industrial. The legacy of the colonial past is obvious, especially in the south. After 1914, when Nigeria came under British rule, it was westernised, becoming a full-fledged colony. Large sections of the Nigerian elite travelled abroad to receive a western education. In the south east, missionary-established schools dotted the humid landscape, while the north lagged behind. The Independence Movement itself was led mainly by the educated elite from Lagos, the largest Nigerian city in the south. Even after the withdrawal of British rule, the system of government continued in the traditional way, power still remaining in the hands of emirs, the country’s most affluent section.

Though today Nigeria is the biggest oil producer in Africa, with an economy that has surpassed that of South Africa, and it has the largest natural gas reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, there is great disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Sixty-one per cent of Nigeria lives below the poverty line, earning less than $US 1 a day. It faces security issues because of the militancy of the Boko Haram. Rampant corruption and mismanagement create huge obstacles in the area of energy production. And there is great political instability in the country. Smith’s book, Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War, is chillingly reminiscent of the havoc unleashed by the Taliban in Pakistan. Readers at home will certainly be interested in the matter — and perhaps need to take a few lessons from it.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.