Reports are trickling through that indicate Boko Haram have struck yet again with impunity. Over the weekend another bomb was detonated, killing 2 and injuring 48. Next, news came that between 60-80 people had been kidnapped in neighbouring Cameroon. Radio 4’s Mishal Husain, speaking to one of Cameroon’s ministers, reported that he feared that the children who were kidnapped would be forced by Boko Haram to be human bombs. Only last week, three pre-teen girls were sent to meet this fate in crowded markets.
So it’s as a diasporan I must speak. I can only bring my own experiences to help give a further perspective on the context in which these events have happened. As a diasporan, I find there are times one becomes almost numb to the continuous to and fro between defending one’s culture and demanding better of it. We regularly steel ourselves to critique the oppressor; it requires a different mindset to critique the oppressed.
We ask ourselves why the President didn’t see fit to make any comment on these atrocities – as though we could expect much more from a man who took two weeks to respond to the kidnap of 200 schoolgirls and has never made any sort of condemnatory statement about the waves of horrific slaughter and terrorist attacks, beyond the expected rote blanket response which does nothing but arouse hostilities.
In a way, Goodluck is simply an actor of the established theatrical tradition that is Nigerian politics. Indeed, sometimes one could be forgiven for thinking that the average voter and the politician were of completely different species. The latter is constantly aware of and constantly talking about the corruption within Nigerian society, but when have we heard any consistent, honest discussion on the subject from a Nigerian politician?
Furthermore, the President’s attitude is reminiscent of the attitudes all to many southerners have towards the North. Even for me, brought up in the UK and well aware that a perception of any country or people or culture formed only by outsiders is hardly likely to be entirely true. When talking to other Igbos, the North was always represented as a sort of badlands. You see, that was where Igbos had been massacred at the start of the Civil War, and it was their leaders who had been instrumental in the oppression of the south, maintaining an anti-southerner bias long after the war was over which impacted the allocation of wealth and opportunities.
The perception of many southerners seemed to be that with the arrival of sharia law in some northern states and an increasingly contradictory acceptance of neo-liberalism, uncomfortably nestled amidst a warped conservative and Christianised southern identity, the relative cultural allegiances had been well established. The fact that so many Nigerians from north and south rallied behind #BringBackOurGirls was truly wonderful to me, because it represented an awareness amongst southerners that in spite of a cultural alienation, the fate of ordinary people, regardless of region, religion or culture, is the same, tied up in the machinations of a corrupt ruling elite. Even as we maintain our prejudices, we were also aware they are a flawed response to the behaviour of those in power that claim to represent a particular group when actually they represent their own interests.
“You southerners,” a young woman from Kaduna laughed at me over an evening meal the University Chaplaincy. We had just been introduced and when asked, I had told her I was Igbo. “You southerners think you are the only ones who are educated; the only ones who get to see the world! We live in cities too, you know!”
We had both been lightly mocking our people’s tendency to talk as though we were the only nation that mattered, but I recognised the trace of irritation, it being all too familiar. It shamed me to think that she had experienced face to face that casual condescension, an assumed superiority from other southern Nigerians in the UK. I felt disgusted to think that the silly jokes and hyperbole made behind closed doors, at umunna gatherings and parties were all contributing to her erasure from the narrative of national progress. There is a feeling amongst southerners that the north is a region in trouble, unwilling to move forward; the same impression – ironically enough – that many Westerners have of Africa in general.
A friend of mine, another Igbo though raised in Lagos, told me of his plan to set up an NGO in the north, his language every bit as problematic as that of a middle class white sixth former from Fulham expressing their earnest desire to go to “Africa” and do some good. Similarly, his reasoning was based on the experience he had of the north during his national service, where he witnessed aid and medicine being dumped (“He was probably already paid,” he said of the guilty courier) or sold on in dubious circumstances. I remember how he kept describing the north as under developed, so much worse than any other part of Nigeria. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. If he’d been white, it would have been easy to call it out as the racism it was.
With such divisions, it is no surprise that Boko Haram have been difficult to root out. Not only do ordinary Nigerian citizens contend with an ineffective and badly trained military – which can perpetrate its own violence against the people they’re meant to protect – but the cultural divisions result in a lack of camaraderie and support which is easily exploited by groups like Boko Haram. Particularly disturbing is the way they capitalised on local anxieties about vaccinations being distributed by aid agencies throughout northern regions. Instead of the federal government and the aid agencies working together to adequately address the concerns, it was sold as a hysteria on the part of uneducated, over-religious natives. It struck me as curious how even southern Nigerians, Igbos like my parents, equally skeptical of foreign interference and aid, would tend to agree it was mostly a case of superstitious backwards northerners complaining yet again instead of embracing science and moving forwards.
Boko Haram has been active since 2004, six years before Goodluck first became president in a controversial move. He himself has been under attack, with militants destroying a house in Otu-Eke. The resistance to his office has been interpreted by southerners as evidence of the northern factions wanting to maintain dominance within the political sphere of Nigeria and an important factor in the perceived lack of cooperation within the northern states. Even now, his unsuccessful and lackluster fight against terrorism in the north gets attributed as much to their own political resistance, in spite of the fact that it is the common people who experience the brunt of the attacks and that the President has himself frequently demonstrated a lack of ability – if not the will – to actually tackle corruption as he promised. It is especially ironic that many of the top posts within Goodluck’s government are occupied by northerners, Muslim and Christian and even Boko Haram have made public statements to the effect that their contention is towards the government in general (previously led by the Muslim Muhammed Yar’Adua) and not specifically President Goodluck as a Christian southerner. The context demonstrates, as ever, that the issue goes beyond the easy categorisations of sectarian and/or tribal.
This leads to questions about how Boko Haram has been able to be as effective as it has. It seems that they have been able to infiltrate, or at least intimidate, every level of society. For the decade they have been active, there have always been questions about their funding which seems to give them access to better resources and training than that granted to the national army. Whether channels maintained by northern cultural and political leaders have allowed funding to be funnelled from agitators in countries like Saudi Arabia is a question yet to be comprehensively answered, but the rumours abound as do the implications from third party investigators.
Beyond bringing a scale of violence and cruelty that was thought would never return to Nigeria following the travesty of the Civil War and a military dictatorship, Boko Haram have brought to light the magnitude of the task that Nigerians need to shoulder. To me as an in-outsider, Nigeria is not united and has never been. It never will be until a concentrated effort is made, but if it’s only diasporan voices that get heard, this necessity is easily warped by those who benefit from the current state of the nation, turned into a childish luxury demanded by soft-hearted overseas idealists.
I personally do think there is opportunity for real change, especially as I see more Nigerians educated overseas but returning to their home country with their skills, experience and education, determined to overcome divisions brought about by religion, ethnic group and political affiliation. I can only hope that the Nigeria they get will not be one that is further traumatised and scarred from the travesty of previous failures.
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Florence Okoye is an aspiring Igbo-British speculative fiction writer with a passion for History of Science and Technology, dead languages, programming and comics. Much of her writing and research deals with the intersection of technology and society, particularly religion, gender and sexuality. Her ongoing projects include a recovery of Igbo histories and an investigation into the pre-colonial technologies of Nigeria but she is always on the look out for new ways of communicating research and local activism to the wider community. She currently organises the MancsterCon indie sequential art convention. She tweets @FINOkoye. Her work is at F.Okoye