Columns / Discourse / November 7, 2012

Daraja kwa demokrasia: Jihadism, democracy at large

The modern country of Nigeria is one of intense paradoxes; it contains both the world’s worst traffic jams and the (possibly) largest presidential convoy, and while the largest ethnic group is a composite of two (Hausa and Fulani) and is only 29 percent of the population, the national language is English. While these are, in many ways, very typical qualities of post-colonial African countries, its size distinguishes it.

Nigeria’s annual population and GDP growth rates are stunning. Since 2006, Nigeria’s population has gone from 140 to 170 million, and its GDP from $146 to $235 billion. Over this same period, this rampant growth has been aided by an increase in bilateral trade with China, from $3 to $7.8 billion, as Nigerian oil goes East and Chinese loans come West. Much of this money and growth is offset by a corruption rating of 143 out of 183 by Transparency International.

But externalities and statistics only go so far in understanding Nigeria’s democratization. Politically, Nigeria’s executive branch reflects a Muslim North/Christian South divide by switching off between Muslim and Christian presidents while the vice-presidential role goes to the religion “out of power.”

All of these factors and more must be considered in order to understand the conflict that has arisen over the past few years between a global jihadist group, named Boko Haram, and the Nigerian state. Boko Haram translates literally from Hausa as “western education is sinful,” and has been responsible for over 2,000 deaths since its uprising.

Many of these deaths occurred during its insurrection in July of 2009, when tensions between the group and the police in the northeast erupted, killing over 780 in the city of Maidugari alone and leading to the detention and death of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammad Yusuf. Ever since, violence has occurred in spurts after Boko Haram’s revitalization last year — including several horrific church bombings that killed over a hundred last Christmas.

The Nigerian State Security Services, however, has not been without blame and Amnesty International has recently released a damning report detailing the conflict:

“The security operations targeting Boko Haram have been conducted with little regard for the rule of law or human rights. Hundreds of people accused of having link with Boko Haram have been arbitrarily detained by a combination of the Joint Task Force — a combined force group commissioned by the president to restore law and order in areas affected by Boko Haram — the State Security Service, SSS, and the police…”

In many ways, the SSS is a primary culprit: their handling of Yusuf, which led to his death in detention, was a major factor in Boko Haram’s resurgence, and their continued mishandling of the situation has meant more Nigerians dissatisfied with the status quo of corrupt growth, a boon to Boko Haram. Economic inequality has long been a driver of extremist politics, and Boko Haram was first cracked down upon a year after their 2001 founding when their social services arm was cracked down upon by a paranoid regional government.

But what does Boko Haram really mean for Nigerian democracy? Most worryingly, it accentuates the polarization of the electorate, as some Nigerians insist President Jonathon Goodluck is too weak and soft-handed, while others cast his crackdown as being Christian Government vs. Muslim Poor, thus realizing the dichotomy.

From 2002 until the current criticism of “soft treatment” by the SSS has fed their reckless behavior, encouraging them to “stop Boko Haram at all costs.” This has led to the recent massacre of young men in Maidugari by the military, the city that hosted Boko Haram’s initial mass violence in 2009.

What to do? I think the easiest case to make is for a stronger civil society in Nigeria, that has a louder voice in calling out the military’s excesses and governmental corruption, to break down the cycle of violence. However, this will require years of work. In the meantime, keep reading the news, and next week, Daraja Kwa Demokrasia will examine the issue of global jihadism and democracy in Africa at large.

Tags:  Boko Haram democracy Jihadism Nigeria

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Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

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