For Nigeria, recently hailed as Africa’s biggest economy, its failure to rescue 200 girls from their Boko Haram kidnappers before the full glare of an outraged global media is a huge embarrassment. For the west, it is an opportunity to step up its military presence in Africa on the pretext that Boko Haram is part of a world-wide terrorist threat.
It is probably true that it has benefited in terms of arms and logistics from the collapse of Libya, a country now completely overrun by Islamic extremists following the Nato-backed overthrow of Gaddafi. But in reality the sect is a home-grown phenomenon, which is rumoured to be financed by renegade local politicians in an attempt to destabilise the government
The abducted schoolgirls are the latest victims of the unholy war it has been waging for more than a decade from its Borno State heartland. Nowadays the state capital, Maiduguri, is in a perpetual state of emergency. Packed churches have been bombed and pedestrians shot dead by gun men on motor bikes.
When I spent time there in 1983 it couldn’t have been more different, a sleepy, one-horse town where nothing really happened. After arriving from the chaos and noise of Lagos, its sheer peace and quiet were beguiling.
I had been sent there by Nigeria’s Concord magazine to do a feature on the prolonged drought that had hit this remote northeast corner of the country. Lack of rainfall coupled with poor land management had seen agricultural and grazing lands turn into desert, deepening the poverty of an already dirt poor state. The part of Lake Chad that lay in Borno had completely dried up, depriving villagers of another source of food and livelihood.
Although desert encroachment was a cause of great official concern, not enough was being done to prevent or alleviate it and nowadays the desert is said to be advancing by as much as 15km a year. As Bob Marley said, a hungry man is an angry man. Disaffected out-of-work youngsters became the backbone of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad – aka Boko Haram – which itself was influenced by the puritanical Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia that had implanted itself in the neglected dust bowls of northern Nigeria by way of schools and scholarships. The rumour is, a former of governor of Borno state and other northern ‘big men’ bankrolled the sect in return for support during the election campaigns of 2003 and 2007 – in effect, hired thugs with a religious bent.
Out of this emerged a Frankenstein monster that is now being used by President Goodluck Jonathan’s enemies to make Nigeria ungovernable. As the 2015 presidential election draws nearer, it is no surprise that Boko Haram is multiplying its attacks and becoming more daring.
Thanks to the topsy turvy dispensation inherited from the British colonialists, the backward and predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria remains the dominant political force, since independence providing the majority of the country’s heads of state. Jonathan, a southern Christian, has well and truly upset the political apple cart, especially as he only became president by default when Umarau Yar’Adua, for whom he served as vice-president, died in office in 2010.
Jonathan’s failure to rein in the insurgency owes as much to Nigeria’s clumsy ‘kill and go’ security forces as it does to Nigeria’s murky politics. Claims about Boko Haram’s political backers are bandied about in the local press all the time, but they remain allegations and the accused go about their business unmolested by the law. Therefore, it is in Jonathan’s interests to support the western view that Boko Haram is an al-Qaeda offshoot operating in west and central Africa.
Having launched military operations in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Mali, Central African Republic and Somalia, this is music to the ears of the west and its mission to re-colonise Africa by the back door. When Jonathan and the leaders of Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin travel all the way to Paris to attend a summit hosted by President François Hollande to discuss the security situation in West Africa, you know it is half way there.