Goodluck Jonathan’s perfect storm – By Richard Dowden
Nigeria could never be described as a quiet country, but terrorist group Boko Haram’s bombing campaign combined with a national strike over a fuel price increase is quite unlike anything the country has ever faced before. President Goodluck Jonathan is caught in a perfect storm. With a death toll rising above 160 from Saturday’s bombs in Kano, the credibility of the security forces, the government and the state itself has been profoundly undermined.
At first, Boko Haram looked like another messianic Islamic sect emerging from north east Nigeria that would, like others before it, burn out with its very ferocity. The biggest of those movements, Maitatsine, in the 1970s, also believed in killing infidels, and its suppression in Kano in 1980 resulted in the deaths of some 4000 people. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram calls for an Islamic Caliphate in northern Nigeria under strict Islamic law where non-Muslims will not be allowed to live. In 2009 police attacked the movement’s headquarters in Maiduguri, seized its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and executed him. Boko Haram declared war on the state and the police in particular. Already deeply despised by the population, the police became Boko’s chief target.
Nigeria’s police are generally held in contempt for their brutality and corruption. I once watched a pitched battle between police and soldiers which ended in a senior police officer being arrested, bound and taken away by the men in khaki. The crowd cheered. The police had been forcing street traders and motorists to pay fictitious fines. More recently, during the national election last year, I watched voters openly defying and jeering the police, but when a soldier appeared on the scene they were fearful and backed off.
No wonder then that the movement’s new leader, Kabiru Umar, sometimes called Kabiru Sokoto, managed to escape from police custody recently. He was arrested and accused of organising the bombing of St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla on Christmas Day, killing 40 people. According to one reliable account a large but unarmed crowd marched on the police station demanding his release and the police handed him over. One eye witness was quoted as saying: “… some people came from nowhere and swooped on the police… surprisingly they [the crowd] overpowered them and captured Kabiru in handcuffs from the police. After [the police] lost him they started shooting and arresting innocent people”.
Last year Boko Haram blew up the national police headquarters and the UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja. It also bombs packed churches. Thousands of southerners, many of whom had lived peacefully in the north for decades, have fled. Ominously, the last time southerners – particularly Igbo people from the south east – were targeted by northerners Nigeria was plunged into civil war. All over Nigeria there are reports of Christian and Muslim communities beginning to arm themselves and create self defence groups. Nigeria – roughly divided between the Christian south and the Muslim north – is not yet close to that catastrophe, but there is nation-wide unease. More optimistically, in some places they are actually protecting each other. Matthew Kukah, the Bishop of Sokoto, the capital of the 19th Century Islamic Caliphate, called on people to be brave last week and said that in many places Christians and Muslims were trying to protect each other. In Kano, he said, “amidst fears and threats of further attacks on Christians, a group of Muslims gathered round to protect Christians as they worshipped. In Minna and recently in Lagos, the same thing repeated itself as Christians joined hands to protect Muslims as they prayed. In the last week, Christians and Muslims together in solidarity are protesting against bad governance and corruption.”
Nigerians in senior positions have assured me that Boko Haram is just another creation of Nigeria’s mercenary politics and can be “settled” with bags of cash – the Nigerian way. But right now the politicians do not know who to pay or even who to talk to. Although security was tightened after the bombings in Abuja, the attacks at the weekend demonstrate that Boko Haram is in complete control of where and when they plant their bombs.
The local driver of Boko Haram is the loss of political power by the north. Under British rule the northern Islamic leaders were favoured and left in charge of Nigeria at independence, and they have retained significant political and military power ever since. With the return of democracy in 1999 many of the most powerful and richest Nigerians, north and south, formed the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and agreed informally that the presidency should rotate between north and south. But with the death in office of the northern president Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, assumed power. He then ran for and won the presidency last April, facing down northerners who claimed they had not had a full term in office.
When Jonathan won, angry crowds trashed the homes of his northern Muslim allies in the PDP. These were prominent traditional emirs and sultans, with religious as well as political power. Not only has the north lost political power but its traditional rulers have lost the trust of their people. Boko Haram is bidding to fill that vacuum. It is this element that is more worrying than the assumed links between Boko Hamam and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) or Al Shabaab in Somalia.
The anger and fear created by Boko Haram’s random and deadly bombings are being superheated by the demoralising inflation caused by the removal of the petrol price subsidy. President Jonathan’s lacklustre government had not prepared people for this and mistimed the removal of the subsidy. The price of fuel shot up and so therefore did every commodity that needed to be transported. Overnight the price of a litre of fuel rose from 65N (26p) to 150 a litre (60p). The trade unions immediately came out on a nationwide strike and President Jonathan was forced to back down and agree to a compromise at 97N a litre (39p).
If it was a democratic country Nigeria would have an oil refinery that worked, but Nigeria refines almost none of the 2.2 million barrels a day it produces. The importers are so powerful – particularly in the ruling PDP – that they can ensure that the refineries do not function. Nor does the electricity supply, so these Big Men make fortunes out of importing generators and diesel fuel. A House of Representatives Committee found that Nigeria imports 59 million barrels of refined fuel but consumes only 35 million. Companies owned by powerful members of the PDP ship the surplus illicitly to neighbouring countries, depriving Nigeria of some £2.67 billion a year. In a real democracy the President could have turned the national outcry over the price rises against these fuel importers. But he said nothing about that. Many of them bankroll his party.
Taking on the thieves and the terrorists at the same time would stretch the capability of most governments. Has President Jonathan the political strength and clarity of vision to address the causes?
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.