A rejoinder to Yomi Ogunsanya’s Jos and Maiduguri Attacks: If not ethno-religious, then what?
Well Yomi, I believe that there is more going on in different parts of the north than a neat struggle between Muslims and Christians, or between ‘indigenes’ and ‘settlers’. In some parts of the north, ethnicity overrides religion. (E.g. Yoruba Muslims are not safe when the violence starts in these places. Sometimes what we have is violence against ‘southerners’ perpetrated by ‘northerners’ of all manner of religious persuasions, but usually with Muslims as ringleaders and majority of the attackers. In Jos, southerners, especially the Igbo, have willy-nilly been lumped into the same category as the Berom in a struggle that is supposed to be between the latter and the Hausa-Fulani. And please note that there are Hausa Christians and Berom Muslims in Jos, no matter what is the predominant religion in either group.) In other parts of the north, fundamentalism overrides ethnicity: i.e., Islamic moderates of whatever ethnicity are not safe; in point of fact, they may be the principal targets of enactments by fundamentalists and radicals. Sheik Gumi was the scourge of the Sufi brotherhoods of the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya.
But let me point out that ethnic purism and religious fundamentalism do not necessarily lead to pogroms. There are Jews, for instance, who are purists in terms of ethnicity and religion. They will not marry Gentiles or break bread with them or even enter a Gentile home. But that doesn’t mean that they are committed to killing off every Gentile they come across in their society. The ultra-fundamentalist Jew does not mingle with moderate Jews as well as with Gentiles. But the fundamentalist Jew is not committed to a policy of pogrom. So it boils down to what people decide to do with their ethnic purism and religious fundamentalism. I think that the ‘will to dominate’, that is, to forcibly have the upper hand in power relations, or politics if you like, plays a role in how people parlay ethnic and religious differences into material for building a formidable architecture of violence against the Other. I don’t have firsthand ethnographic data and details on the north. But I have thought and read about these things at length, and have considered them in light of what I have learnt about other societies. My friend Asabe Johnson-Ali (she is a Christian but her family on both sides is made up of people who hold different religious views, plus she is Chibok/Fulani) recently lost an uncle and a cousin to the Boko Haram in Maiduguri. It is not the first time she will be losing members of her family to this kind of stupidity. She says that the Boko Haram are targeting prominent Muslims and police officers more than they attack Christians. The Muslims who give in to ‘western’ education seem to be more despicable in the sight of the Boko Haram. The way I see it is that Christian extermination is the ultimate goal of the Boko Haram; but first they must deal with the traitors in their own fold.
Why are the Boko Haram against ‘western’ innovation? I don’t think it is as a result of something inherent in the Muslim faith. There was a time when the Muslim world was the custodian of ‘western’ thought. They preserved the traditions of Plato and Aristotle, and even based their innovations in mathematics and science on what they took from the ancient Greeks. They must have seen that the dichotomy between the west and the east was not helpful. Didn’t Solon, Plato, Herodotus, etc., etc., acknowledge the Egyptian springboard of Greek philosophy and science? And didn’t Egypt derive some of the ingredients of its civilization from Mesopotamia? The ecumenical spirit was very strong in Muslim societies. In some Muslim societies today, the ecumenical spirit is on the rise. I look to such forums as the Doha Debates hosted by the BBC’s Tim Sebastian in Qatar. The Doha Debates shows that the religion of Islam does not stop Muslims from exercising their human capacities of intellection and ratiocination. Many Muslims in the audience of the Doha Debates display an intellectual horizon that stretches to the frontiers of critical thought beyond the delimited spaces of their immediate societies and religion. They are not afraid to speak of the political reasons for the suppression of freedom of speech and thought in much of the Muslim world. The reasons are never simply religious. They are political and cultural. Religion is used to achieve ends that are political and cultural. The hatred of innovations in much of the Muslim world is a politico-cultural reaction.
From your own argument, the case of Sokoto serves as an example of how politics and culture are very relevant as frames for viewing the situation. The Muslim establishment in Sokoto feels no threat of rivalry from the Christians because the latter make up an insignificant minority in that state. This is the ‘politics window’ on the situation. But suppose the Christians became a significant minority in Sokoto: what would result? Violence? If violence is the customary reaction of the northern Muslim establishment to the rise of significant minorities, then I think that we must always keep the cultural window on this situation open. It is the encompassing window because it makes us see how that Muslim establishment treats minorities in the political arena, whatever the strength of the latter’s significance. So the politics window is but one shutter in the culture window. You seem to be arguing that there is a mentality, indeed, a culture, of violent mistreatment of significant minorities/the Other among the northern Muslim establishment. When these minorities/the Other are not significant, they are not treated violently; when they grow into significance, then violence becomes their portion. If this is the established modus operandi, and if the institutions of society in the north facilitate the execution of this modus operandi, then what we have is a system of doing things adopted by an important section of Muslims in northern Nigerian.
A system of doing things is also known as a culture. And cultures are made by people; people also manufacture their praxis of religion and ethnicity, and not the other way round. Ethnicity and religion do not manufacture people. I don’t think we can safely say that mere ethno-religious differences have led to the present shape of things in the north. These differences are to be found in any society, but they do not eventuate in the same results and consequences everywhere. These differences become violent factors when they are embedded in a framework of troubled power relations. From there, things can degenerate to a level where, sorry for my reversal of the common feminist maxim, the political becomes the personal. As positions harden and ossify in public discourse and the rhetoric of violent mobilization saturates the social atmosphere and consciousness, neighbour comes to detest neighbour and to prepare for that day of bloody reckoning. I don’t think we can easily divorce the political from the religious in social crises of this nature. Reports in the media tell us of how people of this or that religious and/or ethnic affiliation are responsible for disparate and concerted acts of violence. They are acting out their religious and/or ethnic hatred of the Other. Yet they can think up and execute these actions only because of the structure of violent power relations within their society. They can say they are advancing their ethnic and/or religious positions through these acts of violence only because their formations are engaged in a political fight to the finish with the Other. They are using religion for purposes that are ultimately political.
As the political becomes the personal in ethnic and religious violence in the north, people draw upon savage recesses in the human imagination to inflict grim horror on one another. Eye-witness accounts and media reports are replete with details of the variety of terror being enacted in these places. Neighbour pelts neighbour with stones and rotten tomatoes. Wells are poisoned. Wedding parties are attacked. Villages are stormed in the middle of their nightly sleep. Busloads of commuters are offered up as burnt offerings to this or that deity. Foetuses are captured from wombs and executed. Etc., etc., etc. In Borno state, moderate Muslims, law enforcement officers, Christians avoid public spaces and even their own verandahs. Asabe tells me she feels safe only indoors. But she must go to work and go to church and go to the market. She must personally run the gauntlet of violence every day in Maiduguri. She says she saw the governor on TV and he was visibly shaken; she says many of the Boko Haram foot soldiers are youth, lumpenproletariat, who used to do ‘election work’ for the big politicians.
It is important to factor in the recruitment of foot soldiers for the purpose of doing this violence. It has always largely been among the poor and the underclasses. Mutallab, whom you cite, is the exception that proves the rule about the recruitment of actual fighters in the north. And Mutallab did not risk his life in a Nigerian fight, even though that point is not relevant to this argument. The pattern in the recruitment of people to carry out acts of violence reveals an economic angle that must not be ignored. From the days of the Maitatsine, this pattern has been a constant source of concern, for it points up the sorry fact that so long as there is a vast army of people who have nothing to lose in a life of abject poverty and deprivation, the task of recruitment is made easier for the political entrepreneurs of ethno-religious violence in the north. But a new pattern of recruitment is unfolding before us. I refer to the sophistication of the weapons used by these new ‘Islamists’, especially in Jos. I refer to numerous eye-witness accounts that the attackers come attired in military fatigues. The new recruitment is done among people who have good knowledge of the use of assault rifles and bombs. They show mastery of military precision and ample field experience in scorched-earth policy. There is somebody investing in these new fighters. These are no mere Fulani herdsmen armed with bows and arrows, amulets and incantations. There is plenty of evidence that the power game has entered a new phase.
I can speak of political Islam in Nigeria because not even Uthman dan Fodio’s movement and jihad were simply religious events. The most important motivation and outcome of the jihad led by Sheik Uthman was political and not religious reform. Just consider that some his generals even tried to take control of Borno, a Muslim state. And today, the Sokoto Caliphate is a crypto-state within Nigeria. You make mention of local and international conspiracies to ‘institute a theocratic order in Nigeria’. That puts me in mind of the statement that the aim of the jihad started by Sheik Uthman was to dip the Koran in the Atlantic Ocean down south in Nigeria. Really, it is noteworthy that you say that establishing a theocracy in Nigeria seems to be the aim of those who sponsor the present wave of terror in the north. What is a theocracy? It is a political system in which religion is used to manufacture and underwrite the authority of a power formation. In a theocracy strict control of religious beliefs subserves the agenda of the political authorities. So you see, even you admit that politics is the issue. In any case, although I characterize the Sokoto Caliphate as a crypto-state within the Nigerian system, I am not willing to say that it stands to gain anything from the kind of political Islam that is on the rampage in many parts of northern Nigeria. Its fate is that of Frankenstein. The monster, having come to realize the strength of its capacity for violence is now berserk, and Frankenstein is even more threatened than the rest of us by the aggressive indiscipline of an agency that ought to be under its control.
But what about the Nigerian state? Its culpability cannot be doubted for one moment. The Nigerian state and its agent have always acted in the most inept manner, treating wrong symptoms and only serving to generate even more resentment at the end of the day. The other time in Maiduguri, the armed forces and police moved into a certain district of the city after one episode of Boko Haram carnage. They went from house to house culling adult males in varying states of physical health, youthful and aged, able and disabled, all of them unarmed and ferreted from behind closed doors in their homes. These men were made to lie down in batches in the street, and then shot dead in the open. The supposed leader of the sect was apprehended in that police action, and also shot dead. It wasn’t that the agents of the Nigerian state did not know that they ought to have kept the man for interrogation in order to get useful intelligence from him. No. They knew what they were doing; I mean they did the same thing to the leader of the Maitatsine during the Yan Izala uprising in the early 1980s in Kano. Their modus operandi in such situations is not to get useful intelligence. They don’t need anybody to tell them what they already know, namely, that powerful people are complicit in the savagery; indeed, that powerful people are the sponsors of the savagery. To have kept the man for interrogation would have been to expose the puppet masters and the inner structure of political Islam in northern Nigeria. The state and its agents do not want that because the state and its agents are complicit. The state and its agents will never act on any of the findings and recommendations made by panels of inquiry set up to look into every episode of pogrom because the state and its agents are not willing to punish friends, allies and associates. Or the state is too weak and fragile and thus is afraid of confronting powerful individuals and formations? I see politics in these things; not just ethnicity and religion. The political situation looms large.
Of course, we must also look at such cases as when Muslims and Christians lock horns violently over, say, the open display of a convert from Islam to Christianity at a Christian convention, as happened in Kafanchan in the 1980s. These are very stupid acts and frightening events, but their stupidity and capacity to frighten derive from their being the epiphenomena of something deeper: something I see as the violence in the power relations between adherents of these two religions, a violence that ultimately emerges from the quest for or the fear of domination.
My view is that, if the line of reasoning outlined above is right, then religion is an instrument of power relations in the north, and that the power relations play out in culturally ‘approved’ ways, with violence against significant minorities or the Other being the way approved by certain formations in the north. We must not lose sight of the fact that many, indeed, most, northern Muslims do not at all operate along these lines. But the practices of these ones do not achieve much saliency and do not determine outcomes when decisions are taken to teach the Other and/or the traitors a lesson. I believe that the fundamentalists are the minority. But their acts are very salient and their rhetoric vociferous because they have opted for naked, unmistakable violence.
Although I will never be caught advocating full belief in and adherence to Holy Scriptures, I would recommend moderate Muslim toleration of Jahiliyya to any fanatical idiot any day. The moderates know that ‘There is no other god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet’. They know that the true Muslim, which is what they aspire to be, can only live under sharia. And many Nigerian moderate Muslims are not willing openly to rank the secular constitution above sharia. For these ones, there can only be toleration of the secular constitution, until such a time when things can be done in the proper way. But in actual fact, one feels that the hopes of moderate Muslims in the south that sharia will one day be established as the supreme law in Nigeria have been postponed to the Greek Calends. I remember reading somewhere that some Yoruba Muslims were opposed to the establishment of the sharia court during the constitutional debates in the late 1970s (while some Yoruba Christians supported the idea). This is the attitude I will recommend that the Boko Haram and the Caliphate alike respect if not adopt.
But for many in the north, hopes of living under the sharia of koboko and sword, of maimed limbs and imprisoned womanhood, have not been postponed. It is constantly rekindled by acts of violence launched against Kafirs. This recrudescence is the thing we are concerned about. It is fuelled by something beyond being a Muslim. Islam is not the religion of peace; but it is not the religion of violence as well. Islam is but what Muslims make of it. It has the potential, like any other ideology, to be what it is made to be in real terms. In northern Nigeria, a certain Jihad Complex was inaugurated by Uthman dan Fodio more than two centuries ago. The Jihad Complex is political, as we know from the history of Islam down the ages. Mohammed’s jihad brought the Muslims to power in Mecca. Wars brought the Muslims to power in The Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. But, as we know, war and conquest are not the only means by which Islam can spread. Its earliest penetration into West Africa was by the mechanisms of trade, travel, and learning. And it is not as if Islam has historically displayed an inordinate penchant for aggression compared with other so-called world religions. This is the reason why I think that we cannot overlook the political situation which is informed by a cultural complex that sees violence as the road to power and domination. I fear for our country, and the world too.
For me, the thing to do is pay attention to the political and cultural situation, after having taken into account the historical and material conditions of social life, in order to find out how affairs between people of different ethnic and religious affiliations in the north can be made better. We should not throw our arms up in the air in face of adverse material and historical and even ideational conditions and constraints. Things were not always this way in the north. Things are not always this way wherever we find people of different ethnic and religious affiliations living within the same space. They do not have to contend for this space in such violent ways. They might as well share the same space. Otherwise, we would be saying that ethnic and religious differences can only eventuate in one and only one outcome: violence. I don’t for one moment think that that is Yomi’s intention, but it is a conclusion that can be derived from his argument. Religious texts, the Bible, the Koran, the Ifa Corpus, etc., etc., are marked by violent passages. They are also elevating in their musings on the higher ideals; sometimes they even get cloying for a person like me. In their day-to-day preachments, religious teachers decide on what passages to cite. They make such decisions on the basis of the effect they wish to produce in their audience. If they want violence, they select the right chapters and verses. Same thing with ethnic myths of origin and manifest destiny: they are malleable charters, never static in content and interpretation. Therefore, it is not the religion and the ethnicity. As I have said, it is what we do with them.
You are concerned with the ‘facts of our differences as a heterogeneous socio-political entity’. The cautionary tale is Somalia. Somalia today is mired in chaos and violence. This is a country mainly made up of Muslims (Shafirite Sunni) who are largely nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists, with the Somali language spoken throughout the length and breadth of the land. Homogeneity of religious and ethnic affiliation in Somalia is high. But the Somali are engaged in internecine disagreements; and in the clan-structure of their society they have found a basis for mobilizing the forces of violence. When people are determined to disagree, they find or manufacture the social means of mobilization. Nuruddin Farah describes the Somali as engaged in ‘a war on all and everyone, Somali killing Somali’. The war there has gone on for decades, and Farah adds: ‘You could say that we have more of a penchant for obsessing about each other’s family origins than for building a viable, modern, democratic society… Our faith in the family-based ideology, which once determined all, is no longer supreme. Nor are there any longer certainties when it comes to identifying our enemies or friends based on clan affiliations.’ This is Somalia, a largely homogeneous society in terms of the parameters of ethnic and religious belonging, and now it is so fragmented that nobody knows who is who any more.
With its current culture of violent power relations, I don’t think that things would be different in the north if everybody was a Muslim or a Christian or an Animist, Pantheist or Atheist. People who want a fight will create one, no matter what they share in religion and ethnicity and language. If things continue this way in the north, very soon the certainties of identification, to paraphrase Farah, will be eroded and deleted. In these crises in northern Nigeria the variables of religion and ethnicity are interpenetrating and cancelling out one another. Soon, all that will be left as social residuum is the commitment to do battle on one side against all others. In this connection, I think the Caliphate has already read the auguries for the future and is afraid for its own safety and continuity. There is much to be afraid about what with the Boko Haram and Islamists dressed in army uniform sacking police stations and razing villages, throwing bombs all over the place, and storming military installations with confidence and impunity. And it could get much bloodier—people could get much blinder—as the political completely insinuates itself into the personal. Yomi, may the day never arrive when somebody gets it into their head to charge you with being a Muslim fundamentalist or an apostate from Islam simply on account of your admitting to have once slung a slate around your neck to attend a makarantar islamiyya. I fear for you and for all of us.