Nigeria’s Rulers Reap Rewards of Corruption with Sudden Descent Into Chaos

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Aminu Abubakar / AFP / Getty Images

A rescue worker inspects the burnt-out wreckage of cars and motorcycles destroyed by multiple explosions and armed assailants in Kano, Nigeria on January 21, 2012.

The killing of more than 178 people by Islamic militants in a series of attacks on state buildings in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, underlines how one of Africa’s most corrupt nations is reaping the rewards of decades of misrule with a sudden and deep descent into violent chaos. A series of explosions ripped through police stations and other government offices in Kano on Friday though full details of the attacks – and the toll of dead – only started to emerge a day later. Some reports put the number of victims at more than 200. Hospitals are said to be struggling to cope with hundreds of injured.

A spokesman for northern Nigeria’s Islamist rebels said they carried out the attacks because the authorities failed to release captured militants as they had demanded. Hence one attack on a Kano police station in which 50 jailed fighters were able to escape. Nigeria’s interior minister described the Kano assaults as a declaration of war. President Goodluck Jonathan said the militants would “face the full wrath of the law.” “As a responsible government, we will not fold our hands and watch enemies of democracy, for that is what these mindless killers are, perpetrate unprecedented evil in our land.” But since, in the past few months, the attacks have escalated to become an almost daily occurrence, ever more Nigerians are complaining that is precisely what is happening.

The Islamists call themselves Jamaatu Ahlisunnah Lidawati wal Jihad, Arabic for People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” They are better known as Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is sacrilege,” which was one of the main contentions of their former leader, a preacher called Mohamed Yusuf who was murdered by Nigeria’s police in custody in 2009. Yusuf would also rail about how the government, under Western influence, displayed breath-taking incompetence and self-serving venality. Last November in Maiduguri, where Yusuf founded the group around a decade ago, local elders told TIME that while they did not approve of Boko Haram’s methods, it was nevertheless built on well-founded and widely shared grievances against an uncaring, criminal and predatory state. Though Nigeria has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and abundant land and seas, little of that wealth has found its way to the parched, Muslim north, where levels of poverty, health and education are among the worst in the world.  Meanwhile politicians, bureaucrats, policemen and soldiers showily enrich themselves.  Last April’s election of Jonathan, a southern Christian, only increased the north’s sense of marginalization. The government’s response – unleashing its army on the north, where they quickly became known for a heavy-handed and indiscriminate violence against the general population – has only poured yet more fuel on the fire.

Today there are several loosely connected branches of Boko Haram and at least one of these has developed international ambitions. In August a Boko Haram group drove a 150kg car bomb into the ground floor of the U.N. headquarters in the capital Abuja and detonated it, killing 24 people and injuring 115. Boko Haram is also taking advice and training from other like-minded groups. The U.S. says Boko Haram has well established connections with another African Islamist group, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which kidnaps and kills foreigners to the north in Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Algeria. Nigeria’s top security official, General Andrew Owoeye Azazi, has also told TIME of links between Boko Haram and al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda franchise to the east in Somalia.

Jonathan, less than a year into his presidency, finds himself embattled in another front too. Only a week ago he was battling nationwide protests after he eliminated subsidies on petroleum, causing its price to more than double overnight. Jonathan eventually restored part of the subsidy but the demonstrations are continuing. Ironically, though Jonathan’s axing of the subsidy had an immediately impoverishing effect on all Nigerians, it was actually intended to address one of the main founts of corruption that so infuriates them. Last year, around a total of $8 billion was paid in fuel subsidies, most of it going to members of the country’s elite who are well enough politically connected to have a license to import fuel. At least in that case, Jonathan can claim to be on the right track.