Although Boko Haram’s terror campaign hit the world headlines with its kidnapping of school girls, this group’s hatred of education is not new.
Earlier this year, they attacked a boy’s school killing the children in their beds and burning down the school. What conditions have given rise to the Islamist group?
Boko Haram are based in the northern Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa, Kaduna, Bauchi, Yobe and Kano. They want to end all secular education, and their name roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden”. They also want to impose a stricter sharia law on the people of Nigeria. A majority of the nine northern states have introduced sharia law, which supports the stoning of women for adultery and other barbaric punishments and restrictions on human rights.
The group’s origins go back to 1990, but its military campaign against the security forces started in 2009. Since then thousands have been killed, including the founder who was beaten to death by the police. The group have now retreated into isolated rural areas from which they run a terror campaign against civilian targets as well as the security forces.
In the year when economists have gushed about the MINT economies (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) it seems strange that the north of Nigeria is being thrown into crisis by a medievalist religious insurgency. One reason often sighted is the desperate poverty of this part of Nigeria, but this is only part of the picture.
A rich source of raw materials, the area that is now Nigeria was exploited by The Royal Niger Company (founded 1879). After defeating the ancient state of Benin and other states colonial Nigeria was created under British rule at the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the north had a long history of caste-based Muslim rule. The south with a majority of Christians had the biggest urban centres.
The British were keen to keep Nigerians divided especially as a radical movement for independence grew across Africa. The British favoured the Muslim rulers in the north and in the run up to independence (1960) lined them up to run the Nigerian state and military. Since independence Nigeria has suffered from military rule — 1966-1979 and 1983-1998.
In Nigeria access to wealth and power is through the state. In the south a capitalist class has developed rapidly however the massive oil revenues of Africa’s biggest oil producer remain a magnet for corruption within the state. Getting elected is the way to get your nose in the trough; often it involves ballot rigging and getting your ethnic or religious group to vote for you.
Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan suspended the central bank governor Lamido Sanusi earlier this year in what many saw as revenge. Lamido Sanusi had raised concerns about 10-20 billion dollars going missing from the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Despite massive exports of oil and petrol (35% of GDP, 70% of exports) little of the income makes its way to the wider population.
The last military junta gave way to civilian rule following a movement for democracy that included oil workers’ strikes.
The leaders of all the oil unions, even those set up by the government, were locked up. The leading opposition politician M K O Abiola, a southern millionaire who credibly claimed he had won the Presidential election in 1993, was arrested and kept in solitary confinement until 1998 when he died in suspicious circumstances.
In 1999, in a widely criticised election Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military head of state was elected president. Obasanjo won in another “unfree and unfair” election in 2003. In 2007 Umaru Yar’Adua of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won another flawed election. When he died in 2010 his Vice President Goodluck Jonathan became President.
The sharing of the spoils of the state between the ruling classes of the south and the north, has now been formalised in an agreement within the PDP. The “zoning policy” rotates the presidency — eight years to a leader from the south and eight years to someone from the north. However although Umaru Yar’Aaua was a northerner and the zoning policy demanded another northern Muslim PDP candidate for President after he died, Jonathan, is a southerner.
In 2012, Jonathan decided to remove fuel subsidies. After five days of national protests and strikes Jonathan announced that the pump price of petroleum would be 97 naira per litre as against the 147 naira he planned.
Jonathan is a homophobe. In January 2014 he signed a Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act into law.
The workers movement in Nigeria has a proud history of uniting across the divisions of region and religion. In 1945 a nation-wide general strike held out for 52 days and won a major victory. The union movement also united in a successful national strike in 1964. In 1994 oil unions united in a strike for democracy and struck again in 2012 against austerity.
The organised working class has often led other sections of the population in national mobilisations especially in the growing cities of the south. But still the ruling class can stoke divisions to stay in power.
Northern states are more rural and poorer than those in the south. Agriculture (60% of the economy) has progressed little, but changes have led to greater unemployment in the northern states. The theft and corruption that has taken most of the oil wealth and left little to be used for development has created a political space for those who hate modernity. The ruling class in the north has used traditional Islamic structures to impose sharia law and further oppress women and minorities in the north.
Zamfara state in the north was the first to reintroduce sharia law and as Lola Shoneyin a Nigerian novelist and poet wrote in the Guardian “...in Zamfara state, only 5% of the girls between five and 16 could read and write. This is the state governed for eight years by Ahmed Yerima, a member of the All Nigeria People’s Party, after which he became a senator. As a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Yerima replaced his fourth wife (herself a teenager) with a 13-year-old Egyptian child. The ceremony was held at the central mosque in Abuja attended by several of his senate colleagues.”
It is not difficult to imagine that those looking for more power for the northern religious elite and a more religiously fundamentalist future for Nigeria quietly cheer on or even help Boko Haram. Buba Galadima from Congress for Progressive Change lost to Goodluck Jonathan in the 2011 elections sparking riots and 100 deaths in Northen Nigeria.
With politics dominated by all sorts of ruling class sectarianism only the Nigerian working class can provide an answer. That must end the mass theft of oil revenues and the poisonous medieval agenda of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria. A first step would be to put the oil industry under workers’ control.