The Butchers of Nigeria

By Soyinka, Wole | Newsweek, January 23, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Butchers of Nigeria


Soyinka, Wole, Newsweek


Byline: Wole Soyinka

How a corrupt nation bred Boko Haram, the Islamic sect terrorizing the country's Christians.

Over the past year, Nigeria's homegrown terror group Boko Haram has escalated its deadly attacks against Christian and government targets, with the aim of establishing a Sharia state in the country's north.

Nearly 30 years ago, in the largely Christian heartland of a multireligious Nigerian nation, and at that nation's pioneer institution--the University of Ibadan--a minister of education summoned the vice chancellor and ordered him to remove a cross from a site dedicated to religious worship. Some Muslims had complained, he claimed, that the cross offended their sight when they turned east to pray.

The don's response was: "Mr. Minister, it would be much easier to remove me as vice chancellor than to have me remove that cross." Christians mobilized. A religious war was barely averted on campus. Today the Christian cross occupies that same spot, with the Islamic star and crescent raised only a few meters away. As I observed at a lecture several years later, there has been no earthquake beneath, no convulsions of the firmament above that space, no blight traceable to the cohabitation of that spot by Christian and Muslim symbols.

I evoked that occurrence when the latest torch bearers of fanaticism--a group called Boko Haram--emerged. I did so to draw attention to the fact that religious zealotry is not new in the nation, nor is it limited to the "unwashed masses" who have been programmed into killing, at the slightest provocation or none, in the name of faith. Unfortunately, far too many have succumbed to the belligerent face of fanaticism, believing that any form of excess is divinely sanctioned and nationally privileged.

Sectarian killings--numbered in the thousands--preceded Boko Haram, much organized butch-ery, sometimes announced in advance, always tacitly endorsed by silence and inaction, escalating in intensity and impunity. It was consciousness of the geographical expansion and the increasingly organized nature of the fanatic surge and its international linkages that compelled me to warn on three public occasions since 2009 that "the agencies of Boko Haram, its promulgators both in evangelical and violent forms, are everywhere. Even here, right here in this throbbing commercial city of Lagos, there are, in all probability, what are known as 'sleepers' waiting for the word to be given. If that word were given this moment, those sleepers would swarm over the walls of this college compound and inundate us."

Much play is given, and rightly so, to economic factors--unemployment, misgovernment, wasted resources, social marginalization, massive corruption--in the nurturing of the current season of violent discontent. To limit oneself to these factors alone is, however, an evasion, no less than intellectual and moral cowardice, a fear of offending the ruthless caucuses that have unleashed terror on society, a refusal to stare the irrational in the face and give it its proper name--and response. That minister was not one of the "unwashed masses." He was, quite simply, the polished face of fanaticism. His prolonged career as secretary of the Universities Commission and minister of education inflicted on the nation a number of other policies of educational separatism that left a huge swath of Nigeria open to fanatic indoctrination.

Yes, indeed, economic factors have facilitated the mass production of these foot soldiers, but they have been deliberately bred, nurtured, sheltered, rendered pliant, obedient to only one line of command, ready to be unleashed at the rest of society. They were bred in madrassas and are generally known as the almajiris. From knives and machetes, bows and poisoned arrows they have graduated to AK-47s, homemade bombs, and explosive-packed vehicles. Only the mechanism of inflicting death has changed, nothing else.

This horde has remained available to political opportunists and criminal leaders desperate to stave off the day of reckoning.

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