Aug 06 2009

Midnight in Nigeria

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:16 PM

The recent protests in northern Nigeria, centered in the city of Maiduguri deserve much reflection and serious responses. Nigeria is alone among the nations of the world in having a large  population equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Tensions over religion have always been high in Nigeria, yet the country has contained them much better than outsiders recognize. Maiduguri is itself something of a cosmopolitan city, brimming with diversity; the range of Islamic views is even wide. Nigerian’s are correct when they say (rather defensively now) that Boko Haram is atypical. Indeed, even Islamicists usually have a friendly face in Nigeria.

Continent-wide, Islam in Africa has long roots and maintains a distinctive (and Africanized) character. And yet despite its authenticity in an African context, Islam faces renewed challenges to its legitimacy from an aggressive, mobilized evangelical Christianity. In Nigeria, some “muscular” Christians have demonized Muslims in their midst, adding to their sense of grievance. To begin with, Muslims are among the least educated and poorest segments of Nigerian society (this is also true in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and other Anglophone countries where Muslims are a significant minority). Economic marginalization thus co-evolves with religious marginalization. This is the context with which to view the anti-Western grassroots Islamic opposition to a secular, “modern,” pro-Western Nigeria.

One further thought: the execution in police custody of the leader of the fundamentalist  Boko Haram sect  (“Education is prohibited”) should be deplored. Yet police executions are routine in Nigeria (as they are in Kenya). The failures of police are socially-constructed; during the dark decades of dictatorial rule in Nigeria, the police were systematically weakened in order to give the armed forces greater sway over civil society. Improving the quality of policing should be a major goal of Nigeria’s government, yet the police continue to be treated as a “poor step-child” to Nigeria’s military.

The issue of civil control of course bedevils any discussion about Nigeria’s “potential.” The country is home to enormously talented people, yet the apparatus of the state remains weak and maybe weakening. The Islamic rebellion in Maiduguri provoked such a ferocious counter-attack from the capital of Abuja in part because the government had just made an “amnesty” offer to rebels in the Niger Delta. Perhaps the government is trying to send a message to other restive regions: don’t expect the same “generous” treatment as the Delta dissenters are receiving.

The problem of the Delta, where the rebels come chiefly from a single ethnic group, shares little on the surface with the challenge of restive Islam. Yet on the eve of a visit to Nigeria by Secretary of State Clinton, questions about the capacity for Nigeria to prevent deepening civil unrest ring louder than any time since the early 1970s, when following a bloody war to half an Igbo seccession Abuja created a new federal system that largely in place today.

The drums of civil war are beating again in Nigeria, and the time for bold action on behalf of peace is now.

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