It is no longer news that Northern Nigeria has been and continues to be ravaged by terrorism and, to a large extent anarchy in many parts. The Boko Haram terrorist group has held the region hostage and caused loss of lives and led to serious decline in economic activities. Cities such as Damaturu and Maiduguri have largely emptied, and any journey across the North is done with great caution.
But in the midst of all this crisis and confusion, what has the North as a geopolitical entity and a society learnt from this? One thing I believe is that one should never waste a crisis; it is an excellent opportunity for reform. The question now remains: in what aspects should the North reform itself?
- Economic Reforms: One of the many factors that have allowed the North to become a fertile ground for terrorism is the abject poverty that is in the region. Northern Nigeria holds the unenviable status of being among the poorest regions in the world. Unemployment is sky-high, incomes are very low, education rates are abysmal, and jobs are non-existent. The focus of governments in the region should be to create and implement programs that will bring economic relief to the region, especially on the long run. With the large amounts of fertile land across the region, agriculture should be the number one priority of governments. There is an urgent need to improve the agricultural productivity of the region not just for food self-sufficiency, but also as a form of economic empowerment.
Next to agriculture, education should be high on the priority list. The North East and the North West have the lowest school enrolment rates in the country, at all levels of education. This very low education rate can be linked directly to the security situation in the region. Governments must start by increasing access to primary and secondary education and their quality too. Then and only then should the romance with establishing state universities start. Sadly, many a state government in the North still consider establishment of state universities to be more important than making sure every child has a minimum of quality secondary school education.
- Political Reforms: One issue that the present crisis has laid out bare is how lopsided the Northern society is, especially with regards to equal opportunity for everyone. A society where the government openly favours one segment either in appointments, opportunities or even in the freedom to exercise their right to worship sends the message to the favoured segment that it is superior to the other(s). It is saddening that Bayero University Kano, a federal university of over 20 years, is without a chapel for its Christian community; or that there has been no official land allocation to churches in Maiduguri since 1979, but that all church buildings are built on personal lands. It was Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio who said, “A nation can thrive on unbelief but never on injustice”. These words have never been truer.
Additionally, governments have to work with all stakeholders concerned to end the scourge of almajiranci. Allowing the presence of millions of kids on our streets, begging and scavenging for scraps of food, is simply setting ourselves up for another security crisis in years to come. This is because it is kids like these that grow up to become frustrated young men, and can become fodder for use in the hands of people with evil intent. All hands must be on deck now to reform the almajiri system and take these kids off the streets and into homes: from governments to clerics to community leaders.
- Response to Security Breaches: It is no secret that the Boko Haram terrorist group has financial backers, as the weapons and methods which they use are not cheap. Also, the North has always been a hotbed of religious crises and religiously-motivated security breaches. However, the government response to these crises has been very weak. Every religious crisis is blamed on ‘hoodlums’, even when these hoodlums obviously attacked only one religious faith. Panels of inquiry are set up, whose reports never see daylight. All is forgotten until the next crisis, and the cycle repeats itself. There is hardly any conviction for the carnage that accompanies these crises.
A friend working in an intelligence agency once told me that no crisis in Nigeria is spontaneous; every single one is premeditated, planned and sponsored. How come there has never been an arrest of these sponsors? Will it be too big a jump to speculate that the sponsors of the religious crises of old, having been emboldened by the fact that governments will never go after them, have gone a little bit further to sponsor wholesale terrorism?
Governments need to send out clear messages when religious crises occur. Start by calling a religious crisis a ‘religious crisis’, not a riot by a bunch of faceless hoodlums. There is no point hiding heads in the sand when the reality is staring us in the face. Also, there should be conclusive investigations and inquiries into these crises; and not just that those who are involved in actual destruction should be arrested and punished, but those who instigated, planned and sponsored them should be made to face the wrath of the law.
- Socio-Cultural Reforms: Undoubtedly, Northern Nigeria has some of the most pious Muslims the world has ever known. Islam for Northerners is not just a faith; it has come to define every facet of life. Unfortunately, Islam in the North has also become politicized, and used as a tool by politicians and their religious conspirators to gain and control power. One of the biggest tools employed in using the religion to exercise control is how adherents have been made to believe anything in the name of religion is not to be criticized or condemned. They have refused to allow candid debates in the aspects of religion, and some go as far as to view any criticism of a religious figure or sect as an attack on the religion.
However, there is something that the Northern Muslim society fails to comprehend: even though religion comes from God, it is always prone to misinterpretation by man. Every religious faith has extremists who misinterpret the teachings of the religion, or subvert it for their selfish aims. Christianity had the Crusades, and still has Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Revolutionary Army; Judaism has the Jewish Defense League; Buddhism has Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang. The existence of these extremist groups doesn’t negate the original message of the faiths. Rather, they stand as evidence as to how divine messages can be twisted by men.
The Northern Muslim society would not stand as an exception to such situations. Therefore, whenever people come with new doctrines of the religion, it should be open to debate by Muslims. Unfortunately, when the Boko Haram came with its extreme views, it was opposed only in hushed tones. Even when they resorted to violence, it took the Northern Muslim society a long time to be able to clearly distance itself from the senselessness of the group. Inasmuch the group does not enjoy support in the majority, the silence of that majority came from the fact that it is not used to criticizing publicly matters that involve religion.
Additionally, the Northern society in general has slowly become divided based on religion. Cities such as Kaduna and Jos now have Muslim-only and Christian-only areas, and in other cities, some schools are predominantly Muslim or Christian. This has led to walls being built between the two religious faiths, which in turn encourage mutual distrust and suspicion. The presence of these walls and the lack of interaction between the two religions has made it easy for extremism to grow on both sides. Interacting with people of diverse religions and backgrounds enables to be more balanced in our views, as well as encourages not just tolerance but acceptance too. This is one area where the Northern society needs to work on: the need to build bridges across the religious divide in order to know about each other more and more.
My belief and hope is that one day, we shall put this present crisis behind us. However, we should not waste this golden opportunity to reform our society in every way imaginable.
May God help us all.