Nigeria’s northern challenge

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:41 pm IST

Published - March 15, 2014 12:38 am IST

Even for a country which has seen much violence by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, the faction’s February 25 attack on sleeping schoolchildren in Buni Yadi, 70 km from Yobe state capital Damaturu, was shocking. The attackers set alight the administration block and then locked the pupils in before firebombing the hostels. Up to 59 children were killed; a teacher said they died either in the blaze or at the hands of the attackers, who shot them as they tried to climb out of the windows or caught them and cut their throats. All of Nigeria was stunned, and in Abuja the national parliament observed a minute’s silence for the victims; Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal made an emotional speech, and the House suspended proceedings for the day. Boko Haram means “western education is sinful” in Hausa, and since the school murders, the federal government has closed five federal secondary schools in three northern states; the pupils have been offered alternatives. The violence continues, with at least 650 already killed this year; northeastern Nigeria is in a state of civil war.

It is, however, far from clear whether the federal government has done all it can. The Nigerian military, consistently a large presence in African Union (AU) operations, has had little impact; locals accuse the army of serious abuses of power, including summary executions, and of delaying interventions when terrorists attack villages. Secondly, rampant corruption has severely weakened most public institutions; the Central Bank head, Lamido Sanusi, was suspended after accusing the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) of failing to account for $20 billion in oil revenues. Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has called for an audit of NNPC’s accounts, but wider issues arise, as only a small proportion of Nigeria’s 170 million people have seen the benefits of a decade-long 7 per cent growth rate. Furthermore, the country’s northeastern regions have been badly neglected, and Boko Haram sees the Muslim majority there as being ripe for indoctrination. Yet Abuja seems not to be using all available resources, such as AU leverage; neighbouring Chad says Nigeria has not asked it for help over Boko Haram groups apparently based there. Most tragically, the federal government is wasting genuine political capital; Nigerians have never voted on communal lines, and in 2011 the voters themselves ensured a peaceful general election. It is imperative that, despite all the problems, President Goodluck Jonathan and his government address northern Nigerians’ concerns – and that means reducing the corruption that stops them benefiting from many of Nigeria’s undoubted advantages.

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