The Silence Is Deafening: Terrorism In Northern Nigeria


“What is going on in Nigeria?” is the cry of everyone who is born there, who was from there, who identifies with the diaspora. Nigeria has always had a lot of problems—drastic socio-economic disparity, corruption, ethnicism and ethnic conflict, and of course, religious tensions to some extent. To many people who grow up with Western constructions, Nigeria, and in fact Africa, is often viewed as a monolithic place. A monolithic place that is ravaged with tribal wars, poverty, and AIDS.

Being a daughter of the African soil, I have never been amused by any of these stereotypes, to put it mildly. Africa and its countries are easily the most diverse, and by far. And I always find it rather convenient that the West talks about Africa’s shortcomings without talking about the role it played, and continue to play in it. But of all of Africa’s shortcomings, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, terrorism, in the way it’s come to be globally defined and contextualized, is not something we foresaw dealing with. So as a Nigerian and as an African, the last few years of Boko Haram have been many things, including heartbreaking and confusing. “What is going on in Nigeria?” is something we’ve been crying too often. We need answers, and we need solutions.

The world watched and continues to watch the complete and total ineffectiveness of Nigeria’s strategy against Boko Haram. Most of the time, there is a feeling of helplessness. Where are the Chibok girls? Where is the justice for the thousands of bodies that have fallen, died, and been taken into captivity at the hands of mad men? Where is Abubakar Shekau—the face of Boko Haram who continues his reign of terror in the states of the northeast of Nigeria? But perhaps—above all—why is there so much silence in all the spaces and places that matter?

Joseph Stalin is quoted as saying, “When one man dies it’s a tragedy, when millions die, it is a statistic.” I think that is true in many ways, but I think it is especially true when we talk about the African continent. From war in Darfur to ethnic cleansing in central Africa, to ebola outbreaks, and now, terrorism in Africa’s most populous country—it just sounds like statistics. It is not surprising to those of us who understand whose bodies are valued in the world, as constructed by history and experienced over time, including the present. But it doesn’t make it any less shameful. 

But Africa and Nigeria should be able to solve their problems, shouldn’t they? For one thing, the respect of the Nigerian military, which in theory is supposed to have one of the strongest militaries on the continent, has been found wanting. The Nigerian politicians are more concerned with getting re-elected than with keeping their citizens safe. They have been some of the worst culprits of silencing thus far. Indeed, even Nigeria’s media has been atrocious in its coverage. The entire situation and the people who have the most power to change it, leaves much to be desired. 

In trying to understand how terrorism came to Northern Nigeria, how it continues to persist, I interviewed experts, scholars, and protesters who all appear to have a similar understanding of the situation. In the first place, there is the notion that Islamic extremism and terrorism is not a Nigerian problem, but a global phenomenon that occurs at varying levels where there is a substantial Muslim population. So to quote one scholar, “the Boko Haram insurgency is not unique to Nigeria; it is merely a local expression of an international problem.”

Unique to Nigeria, however, is that there are rumours on the ground that politicians—including the current sitting president, Goodluck Jonathan— are somehow implicated in Boko Haram’s presence. But to many, that is only a conspiracy theory. To others, the more likely theory is that politicians who are enemies of President Jonathan, including General Buhari, who is a presidential candidate for the opposition party, APC,  are attempting to bring down his government through weakening support for him, and are directly involved in funding and supporting Boko Haram. To those who are unfamiliar with African politics and particular politics in Nigeria, it all sounds like old wives’ tales. To those who know how deep and insidious the corruption goes, it is quite possible.

As to why Nigeria’s military has not been effective in this situation, high military ranking sources claim that Barack Obama and the United States has specifically refused to sell military hardware to the Nigerian military, which has weakened their position. And thus the military has actually been forced to seek aid from China, Russia, Israel, and South Africa, which goes against prior agreements and traditions. (I have the personal position that since Obama became president, he has shown a lack of concern with regard to socio-political and economic relations with African countries, but perhaps that’s neither here nor there. Although I suspect were Nigeria’s problems to be affecting its oil exports to the West, there might be a different response.) Anyhow, because of America’s refusal, NATO countries also have apparently followed suit. Moreover, as one journalist mentioned in our conversations, “It has largely been forgotten that although Nigeria’s military is strong, it has done well on its foreign peacekeeping missions. The military has not fought a war since the civil war ended 45 years ago. Besides that, terrorism is not conventional war.”

The reality of Boko Haram, I think, is that it complicates the narrative of terrorism for many people who live in the West. In the Western imagination, a terrorist looks a certain way, and he has certain victims. Fill in the blanks how you like. But in Nigeria’s current construction, the terrorists and the victims are people who look like each other. It is also the truth in many parts of the MIddle East. We don’t talk about it enough because of how we talk about Islam and its relation to the West, but the majority of the victims of Islamic extremism are people of the same faith. In Nigeria, that is especially clear.

Some choose to talk about poverty and ethnic conflict, the divide between the Muslim north and Christian south, and corruption of the Nigerian government as the root causes for Boko Haram. But perhaps the root cause is all of those things, plus the reality that global terrorism exports itself from one place to the next through the transportation of ideology. One day it is Paris, the next it is the northeast of Nigeria, the next it is in Iraq. It almost appears to be like the Lernaean Hydra: you think you kill it, but then it grows two more heads.

What I do know is that the global community will reap what it sows in how it responds to terrorism in any place where it rears its ugly head. And we are better off looking for long-term solutions rather than living in short-term fear. Those solutions are from people with far more knowledge than I, about these issues. But perhaps I propose a terrifying truth as well: That those who we fear in the name of terror, we fight—but we do so from a place of love and justice, and not revenge. And perhaps this fight must begin with how we talk; this fight must begin with us talking, and not just in moments of specific pain to specific bodies. But to all bodies that suffer. Because currently with regard to the situation of terrorism in northern Nigeria, the silence is deafening.

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