On June 17th Nigeria experienced its first ever suicide bomb attack. Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group that seeks the imposition of Sharia Law in all of northern Nigeria, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Although the group’s principal aim – at least according to its press releases – is the imposition of Sharia Law, its motivating factors include economic, social and governance issues that the Nigeria’s infamously kleptocratic elite have so far chosen to ignore. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
The “nationalization” of the Boko Haram problem will intensify pressure on elected leaders and security forces to deal decisively with the group and prevent further attacks. Nigerian officials have proposed solutions ranging from crackdowns to outreach programs to amnesty offers. The government has to some extent pursued all of these options. Yesterday former Kano State GovernorIbrahim Shekarauproposed a hybrid approach of sorts, which would rely on intelligence gathering to defeat the group while advancing employment programs to deal with social and political grievances in Northern society.
Whatever course the government pursues, the Boko Haram problem has already led several Northern leaders, including the newly elected Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State, to speak quite bluntly about the North’s serious problems of economic stagnation and political isolation. Northerners have been voicing such concerns for some time, but perhaps now these concerns will reach a broader audience and stimulate a debate that goes beyond just the issue of Boko Haram.
Since the unification of Nigeria in 1914, the north has continued to lag the south in a number of socio-economic indicators. Years of military rule by northern generals did not make things any better. Most of the country’s oil revenue wound up in Swiss bank accounts and as investments in properties in European cities – even as regular folk in Kano, Katsina and Maiduguri, and in the wider northern region, continued to wallow in poverty.
In a sense Boko Haram and its ghastly attacks on civilians and government installations is as much a rejection of Western/Christian education (its name loosely translates to non-Islamic education is a sin) as it is an indictment of northern Nigeria’s leadership. Even by Nigerian standards, the north is doing very badly.
Recently, the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, chastised the northern elite by noting that the “high and persisting level of poverty in the country is a northern phenomenon.” Nearly all northern states in Nigeria have poverty rates higher than 60%, with some at 90%. Prof. Soludo further added that “if you look at all the indications of development, what constitutes today the North seems to be lagging far behind that the gaps seem to have even widened.”
It is hard to ignore the fact that regular southerners are inching ahead of their northern counterparts despite the generous revenue sharing arrangements among Nigeria’s 36 states.
What does this mean for national politics and governance in Nigeria?
Well, for one we know that the apparent north-south political divide in the last election was merely an artifact of presidential politics. Gubernatorial elections revealed that northern elites are also aboard Goodluck Jonathan’s gravy train.
Northern Nigerian elites are as much a problem in the north’s underdevelopment as the historical north-south divide.
In light of this, groups like Boko Haram show that the northern elite in Nigeria can no longer play the north-south card while keeping all the money from the national treasury to themselves. The men and women on the streets and in northern rural areas also want their cut.
I hope Abuja will not bury its head in the sand and pretend that Boko Haram is purely a security problem.
Kenya tried doing the same with the Mungiki group (with extra-judicial executions and all) without much success.
To Abuja I say: you must try to solve the problem you have, not the one you wish you had.