Nnaziri Ihejirika: Boko Haram - A Threat to Occupying Africa

In my post last week, I hinted at the ethno-religious faultline that threatens the total permeation of the #OccupyNigeria movement in the minds of the Nigerian polity. Some have asked me to expand on that idea, while others have forced my hand with their total avoidance of the issue. I'm interested in expantiating further in order to explain why #OccupyNigeria faces greater risks to its success than similar demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain; countries which have more homogenous populations. The lessons learned from #OccupyNigeria - whether it succeeds or fails - will be important for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, where tribal and religious faults and the perceptions that come with those go hand in hand with politics. Kenya, South Africa and Uganda are some countries to watch on this front.

If there's one thing we learn growing up as children, it is that hiding that broken lamp or chipped china can only delay its eventual discovery by your parents and your subsequent punishment. As great as it would be to sweep dividing issues under the carpet and pretend they don't exist, every so often the carpet edge will be lifted and the dust laid bare for all to see.

Boko Haram has made a show since 2009 of targeting security installations and security personnel. Most Nigerians were unaffected by these random attacks which did not display any coherence in pattern or targets. Recently however, their attacks have been focused on a combination of Christian or Southern Nigerian targets in the north. The turn of these attacks towards the sectarian has attracted the attention and concern of everyone, understandable given Nigeria's history with civil war, ethnic conflicts and the causes thereof. 

In particular, the questions being asked are - are the attacks political but designed to create tribal-religious tensions or are they religious to the full extent of Boko Haram's stated objectives of eliminating Western influences, including Christianity? Who is behind them if they are political? If they are religious, what does that say about the tolerance of Nigerians for different religions, creeds and tribes?

While politicians dance around the Boko Haram issue and the intellectuals and 'progressives' in social media close ranks to prevent any discussion of these senstive issues, the truth is that South-Easterners and South-Southerners cannot continue to bear the brunt of any flare-up in the north, attacked whenever the passions and ire of some northern youth are stoked by selfish leaders intent on causing destabilization in the country. This identity and security issue could explain the "fence" position of Ohaneze in the recent mass protest and the overt support for the government by South-southerners, even those who oppose him on matters of policy. Their positions are not defensible, considering the ineptitude of Mr. Jonathan's government, but how do we bring the masses of these two geo-political zones into the #OccupyNigeria fold? 

The intellectuals may not want to address the root causes of the Boko Haram concern, lest they annoy the valiant northern youths who have so far been one of the two major prongs of the #OccupyNigeria movement (the other prong being the Lagos-based twitterati) but the fact that not all Nigerians are safe in every part of Nigeria is a concern. I believe however, that northern youths who are desirous of genuine change want to eliminate Boko Haram as much any other Nigerian, so why not address the pink elephant in the room and be forever rid of it?

Until #OccupyNigeria brings the Boko Haram (and general security) debate to the table, it will be seen by those who have been attacked and told to keep quiet out of national unity as a movement which is "anti-government of the day" as opposed to a movement which is "pro-Nigerians". The differences between those two images are subtle but powerful. It is the difference between a nationwide movement and a movement whose biggest winners are opposition figures (some of dubious reputation) rather than the Nigerian people. 

The rest of Africa is watching and waiting.

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