I bumped into an old friend at a book launch in London recently. She used to be a senior British diplomat, and is still involved in African affairs. The conversation quickly turned to Nigeria, a country that we are both passionate about, and that we visit regularly.
“I get the feeling that people in Lagos have been reacting to the violence in Northern Nigeria like we Londoners used to react to news from Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s”, she said.
I knew what she meant. I was in Lagos in April last year, when violence erupted in the North after the presidential elections. Many hundreds of people died. My Lagosian friends were concerned and saddened, naturally, but I also felt they were somewhat detached. They didn’t see events in the North as a direct threat to their own livelihood or safety. Their own city was doing well economically. I had the sense then that Nigeria was a country diverging, with a relatively prosperous South impatient for more progress, and a North still mired in deep poverty.
Last month, I returned to Lagos, Nigeria’s financial capital. I sensed that the worsening situation in the North was starting to have an impact. Expatriate friends, adventurous types who had always loved to explore Nigeria, told me they felt that much of the North was now out of bounds for them. And judging from the many messages of dismay I received from Lagos and the capital Abuja, in the wake of the latest atrocities in Nigeria’s second largest city Kano, most Nigerians recognise that their country is now in grave danger.
Wherever you are in Nigeria, it is no longer possible to feel detached from events in the North. Evidently the people behind this violence are doing their utmost to fuel regional and religious tensions. There is no more room for complacency because Nigeria is a notoriously combustible place. Even if much of the talk of it being “on the brink” or “close to civil war” is lazy and simplistic, what we are already seeing is bad enough and there is the threat of much worse to come.
Last week I went to a discussion about the Nigerian crisis at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. A well-informed Nigerian said she felt that social media was exacerbating ethnic and religious divisions. She described outpourings of hatred and prejudice on sites Facebook and Twitter, leading her to fear the country really is in danger of falling apart.
I’m not so sure. In part, I think she may be exaggerating the impact of new media in, say, rural Northern Nigeria, where the vast majority still rely on the radio for news. But there’s another reason I feel she may be overestimating the harmful impact of social media.
All over the world, all sorts of people hide behind the relative anonymity of the internet to say the most dreadful things. Republicans and Democrats, Greeks and Turks, Arsenal and Spurs fans, you name it, they can spew bile and poison. It doesn’t mean they are actually going to go out and kill each other.
Social media is a double-edged sword. It can spread prejudice, but as we saw during the recent fuel protests, it can also empower people, make them think more about issues, and demand greater accountability from their leaders. All of which is good for Nigeria. Perhaps it has helped encourage the many decent people in the north and south of the country who have come out to protect respective minorities whilst they pray in churches and mosques.
There’s an urgent need for Nigerians, and outsiders, to understand what drives Boko Haram, if it is to be defeated.
It’s easy to characterise it as part of a “global jihadist threat”, with connections to similar Islamic extremist groups elsewhere. This analysis seems overly simplified, (although it is perhaps convenient to those with an interest in bloated security contracts). Yes, the attack on the UN building in Abuja fitted this pattern, but the rest of Boko Haram’s activities are taking place firmly in the context of Nigeria’s troubled internal dynamics.
These are two of the more nuanced articles I’ve read about Boko Haram recently. The first is from the African Arguments series published here in London Boko Haram: The Answer to Terror Lies In Providing More Meaningul Human Security, whilst the other appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times newspaper In Nigeria, Boko Haram Is Not the Problem.
In Lagos, and other cities in the South, it’s possible to imagine that Nigeria is going to be the next Brazil, an emerging giant. In the North, blighted by environmental degradation, struggling agriculture and collapsed industry, life is no better than in neighbouring Chad, Niger or Mali.
As long as that gulf exists, Boko Haram, and groups like it, will not struggle to find recruits for their vile acts.