The War Nerd: Nigeria's Inevitable Mess

By Gary Brecher , written on May 17, 2014

From The War Desk

Editor's note: With Nigeria and Boko Haram back in the headlines, this seemed like an appropriate time to republish Gary Brecher's essay on "Nigeria's Inevitable Mess" which first appeared in NSFWCORP in March 2013, before it was acquired by Pando.

A few days ago, a suicide bomber got on a luxury commuter bus in Northern Nigeria and blew himself up, along with 60 people who were heading home from work.

It didn’t get much publicity. African casualties rarely do, especially when there’s a depressing religious angle. The suicide bomber came from the Northern Nigerian Islamist group "Boko Haram." The name is interesting: "Boko" comes from the English word "book," as pronounced by the Hausa, the biggest northern ethnic group. "Haram" ("forbidden") is an Arabic word, the Wahhabis’ favorite word of all. When people talk about "Northern Nigeria" they mean "Muslim Nigeria." There are three big divisions in the country: The Muslim/Hausa North, the Christian/Igbo South, and the Yoruba West. (The Yoruba are the only big group that’s mixed, with Christians and Muslims). Boko Haram blew up those buses because the people on them were going to an Igbo/Christian neighborhood of Kano, a Muslim/Northern city.

That’s already more than most squeamish Westerners want to know. "Ah, it’s religious…" is about all they need to hear before settling back into their comfy stances. Conservatives figure it’s just one more proof that all Muslims are crazy. The left mumbles "Islamophobia" and tries to change the subject to Palestine. So from left to right on your radio dial, there’s not a lot of what my social-studies teacher called "hunger for knowledge."

It’s too bad, because what’s going on in Nigeria is part of one of the biggest stories in the world: the fight for the Sahel. All the wars along the southern edge of the Sahara are really one huge war that stretches from Senegal to Sudan (from Senegal to Burma, actually — but we’re sticking with Africa), veering north or south along the way. If you’ve ever seen the edge of a brush fire, you know the way it flares up in places, smokes in others, seems dead in patches? That’s how this war looks, heating up and cooling off at different points along a line about 10 degrees north of the Equator.

Northern Nigeria is one of the oldest and longest burns on the line. It’s been going longer than a peat fire in the Sacramento Delta. And it may be the most important of all the flare-ups along the line, because Nigeria is by far the most important country straddling that line. Mali, Mauritania, the Central African Republic—none of those places will ever matter much. Nigeria does. It has a huge population, over 160 million people, huge oil reserves, and at one time looked set to become one of the big world powers. The reason it didn’t "reach its potential," to borrow another phrase I used to hear a lot at school, has everything to do with what’s going on now in Northern Nigeria.

And there’s an even more urgent reason to care what’s happening in Northern Nigeria: what’s going on there may decide whether or not millions of poor kids around the world end up paralyzed. That’s because that religious war in Northern Nigeria now provides one of the few safe havens for the polio virus that used to leave millions of kids in wheelchairs or lying in an iron lung. Polio made cripples of kids and young adults all over Africa, until Nelson Mandela started the "Kick Polio out of Africa" campaign in 1996. It worked so well that by 2003, the virus was wiped out in most of the continent. That year they planned the final campaign to wipe it out of Nigeria, which produced 80% of all the polio cases in Africa. Volunteers fanned out, and managed to vaccinate the Western and South/Eastern regions successfully, but when they got to the north, things got weird. The spokesman for the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria said that the vaccine was created by "evildoers from the West" to make Muslim women infertile and give Muslim men AIDS.

Islamist fighters started killing vaccine workers and haven’t stopped yet. On March 8, 2013, killed nine vaccine workers in Kano — nine female workers. Thanks to these quick-draw dudes on motorbikes defending family values in the local style, the virus is coming back. There were 122 reported cases in Nigeria last year, and 58 in Pakistan, where the Taliban has killed at least 16 polio volunteers, focusing on women in particular.

If you live in a rich country, with your own doctor, you don’t have to care, because your kids will be immunized quickly. But if you live in a country like Nigeria, where it takes a huge continent-wide effort like the one Mandela fronted for in 1996, you’re out of luck. Your kids will have to take their chance. Maybe that’s why people in the media-rich countries don’t seem to care much about this story.

If you do want to understand why Northern Nigeria would do something as weird as turning down vaccines, you have to look coldly at the way ethnic and religious politics play out up there. Nigeria is a mess, but it’s an inevitable mess, a mess with deep roots and plenty of blame to go around.

Nigeria’s three parts were simply nailed together by the British for their Imperial convenience: The North is a Muslim theocracy dominated by the Hausa and Fulani; the West, where the Yoruba kings (Oba) ruled city-states; and the East, where the Igbo operated on something a lot like ancient Greek assemblies, with every freeborn man entitled to a voice.

There are about 240 other ethnic groups, like the Niger Delta people, the Ijaw. Jonathan Goodluck, the current president—dude with the cool black hat?—he’s an Ijaw. But for most of Nigeria’s history, it’s been a three-sided fight: Yoruba vs. Igbo vs. Hausa-Fulani.

The Yoruba were the first to meet the whites and take up Western education. They dealt with the British town by town; to the Yoruba, your town was more important than the broader ethnic identity. The Igbo came late to British rule but took to education very quickly. The Igbo get called "the Jews of Africa" because they’re good at book-learning and business.

And then there were the Northerners, the Hausa-dominated Muslims of the dry inland territory. In a way, you wouldn’t be far off thinking of the great Nigerian divide in California terms: the coasts vs. the hot inland redneck zone. The North, in Nigerian terms, is usually called "Hausa," or "Hausa-Fulani," but it includes the Kanuri of the Northeast, who are the most remote from the coast and the fiercest opponents of anything coastal, Christian, or modern. These were all war-forged Sahel caliphates, with no tradition of local loyalties like the Yoruba, or egalitarianism like the Igbo. They had the traditional Sahel-Muslim organization, top-down all the way: Sultan gives orders to Omda, Omda gives orders to Sheikh, Sheikh gives orders to commoners. And commoners obey.

That style can be adapted to warmer, more moderate people like the Zaghawa, but among the Hausa and Kanuri it was Sultan and Jihad all the way. Even between Muslims, Jihad was the norm, with the Hausa northwest and Kanuri/Fulani Northeast fighting for the caliphate right through the Fulani War in the early 1800s. The wars often started with disgruntled Islamic scholars being kicked out of one sultanate, then declaring jihad against the ruler who booted them. The jihad would usually feed into an ethnic grudge, usually Hausa farmers vs. Fulani herders—the old Cain ’n’ Abel war. But all the jihads and dynastic struggles had one feature in common: It was always total war for control of the whole Western Sahel, with one man on top. That made for a huge cultural gap between the north and the coastal people, the localist Yoruba and the populist Igbo.

The British crushed the Northern caliphates early in the 20th Century, but found that they liked the North best of the three heads this Nigerian monster had. The second sons who were booted out of England to run the colonies always got on best with aristocratic, warlike desert people. They took to the Hausa-Fulani, with their cataphracts and caste system, like they were an unguarded tray of cucumber sandwiches. Most of all, the Empire appreciated the ease with which all of Northern Nigeria could be bought. Thanks to the strict, militarized hierarchy of the North, all the local British agent had to do was buy the Sultan and the whole people would fall into line.

It was a very different matter when they tried to tell the argumentative Igbo and localist Yoruba what to do. If you remember Chinua Achebe’s great novel "Things Fall Apart," you’ll get an idea of what it was like when the Brits met the Igbo. And in a way, you can get a sense of what the Brit-Yoruba encounter was like from Amos Tutuola’s amazingly weird, cool books: "The Palm Wine Drunkard" and "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." There weren’t any novels like that from the north, because the North didn’t take to Western education and books. The Hausa had walled off their world from the corrupt coasts. Come to think of it, the Saudis felt the same way; Riyadh was their place, right in the middle of the ugliest desert you ever saw. They called Jeddah, the port city, "decadent"—I swear to God, when I was out there a Saudi cop once said that to me, "Jeddah is decadent." At the time, I was mainly awed that he knew the English word "decadent" when I was still figuring out whether "Yameen" meant "Go left" or "Go right." But actually, if you’re a Saudi cop, "decadent" is probably one of the commonest words in your English kit—and it always seemed to be applied to coastal areas. Take Dammam —another coastal region, on the Persian (or Arab) Gulf. To the Wahhabi, Dammam is "decadent" too, full of Shi’ite traitors in the pay of Iran. I wonder if you could argue that extremely conservative theocracies do better in isolated inland areas. It works for the Pashtun, the Saudis’ only rivals. No Pashtun saw the sea til they started moving to Karachi a couple generations ago.

You might think that when the British grabbed Nigeria, they’d force the North to deal with a scary new world, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the British agents, always understaffed and eager to use local proxies, took a look at the Hausa system and, with their usual flexibility, decided they’d rule the North indirectly, through the Sultans. And if those Sultans wanted their realms insulated from outside influences, the British were happy to agree. So while Christian missionaries were embedded in every Yoruba and Igbo town, no Christian missionaries were permitted to operate in the North. No visitors of any kind were encouraged. In return for allegiance to the Crown, the Sultans’ hierarchy was untouched.

That’s why the North was the only part of Nigeria that wanted to stay British. The demand for independence was confined to "the coastal elites," as they say in Bakersfield. When Nigeria got its independence in 1960, the Igbo and Yoruba were excited and eager. From the North there was only wary silence.

The Igbo and Yoruba started moving out of their traditional areas. Soon there were thousands of Igbo in the Northern cities like Kano and Maiguduri, buy and selling, making the locals feel that they were being played for suckers by these infidels.

The Muslim proletariat dealt with their resentment the way the Russians used to, before the Revolution: pogroms. Every few weeks Hausa mobs would get stirred up by the usual mix of envy and religious paranoia and chop up a few Igbo.

Independent, three-headed Nigeria only lasted seven years before exploding. In 1967, after coup and counter-coup, the Hausa decided, as they always do, that it was all the Igbos’ fault, and launched a huge pogrom, like the ones the Russians launched in 1905, targeting Igbo living in the Northern cities. In a few days, 30,000 Igbo trying to make a living in the North had been panga’d — or beaten or burned to death — and the Igbo had had enough. The survivors fled home, making sure everybody heard their horror stories. On May 30, 1967, Igbo officers declared the Southeast region an independent country to be called Biafra.

Most people don’t remember Biafra now, except as the second name of that spoken-word asshole Jello Biafra. It’s a shame; the Igbo deserve to have their heroic war remembered and honored. But like I said, nobody much cares about African casualties, and when they do, it’s always Africans as helpless victims—never, ever Africans as brave and well-organized armies. I’ve noticed that, over years of doing this column. When Africans are threatening to form a strong, united country, like the Igbo, the Tutsi or the Eritreans, they come in for some weirdly intense hate, and a lot of times it comes from the bloodiest bleeding hearts around. Creeps me out, actually, and I’m not easily crept.

The Igbo had the morale and the technical know-how; the Nigerian Army had the numbers and the weapons and a whole lot of ethnic hate going for them, along with consistent support from Britain and the USSR. The small, badly-supplied Biafran Army smashed the Nigerian Army in most stand-up fights, but thanks to numbers, foreign support and logistics, the Nigerian Army was able to isolate the Igbo in a little enclave of southeastern forest. Then they proceeded to starve the Igbo to death. Not by accident, not as an unfortunate consequence, but as military policy: avoid battle, starve the Igbo civilians to death.

And of course, you know who dies first in a siege: children. By 1970 two million Igbo were dead, nearly all of starvation, and the Southeast was part of Nigeria again.

Two million people. Don’t hear much about them, do you? Nobody minded much. The French helped the Igbo a little, and the Israelis, a few old-school Catholics, but nobody who mattered. Polite opinion from commies to GOP was unanimous that it was just one of those things.

If Biafra had survived, it would be the tech capital of Africa by now, and a serious competitor for the West. Maybe that explains why the West was so eager to crush the Igbo. Harold Wilson’s government in the UK went all-out to help the Nigerian Army, even as British people were donating millions of dollars to send food to the starving Biafrans. As Achebe wrote, "Wilson personally accused [Biafran leader] Ojukwu of attempting to garner sympathy by exploiting the casualties of a war to which his government was supplying arms!"

The US was neutral, too busy with the idiotic distraction in Vietnam to pay any attention…or maybe the US was also in favor of keeping Africa a continent full of coups and poverty. All I know is that the more I look at the recent history of Africa, the more I see unanimous opposition to the strong peoples like the Igbo and the Tutsi. Seems like we like our Africans hungry and corrupt.

That’s exactly what we got in Nigeria, after the Igbo were destroyed. A whole generation of Igbo children had grown up in starvation, and studies show that starvation is a real good way of crippling somebody for life, even if they feed well later on.

The Hausa have ruled Nigeria since 1970. When oil was found in the Niger Delta, far away on the coast, it was Hausa governors and generals who took more than 80% of the profits. Just think Oklahoma: When you’ve got enough religious hysteria going, the locals will reelect you as long as you say the right prayers, loud enough and public enough and often enough, no matter how much you steal and no matter how many people you kill. The Northern Islamists have had things their way, in legal terms; 12 Northern provinces now use Sharia law, which ensures nobody shoplifts more than twice unless they’ve got prehensile toes.

But the North isn’t happy. Boko Haram wants the people of the North to withdraw completely from the tech world. They say it’s all haram: getting the vaccination, studying computers, learning English, working in an office. It’s all part of a big corrosive scheme.

And in a way they’re right. When women start learning to read and write, like they’re doing now in parts of Northern Nigeria, they have a different value in the local economy: higher as potential office workers, lower as docile baby-makers. There’s an excellent survey from back in 1989 showing that parents from the countryside don’t want their daughters getting an education, but city parents are for it.

And if you’re a Hausa man who expects to have a couple of wives producing kids and doing what they’re told, the notion that they’ll work in an office and make more than you do is, you know — haram.

Of course there are millions of women in countries like Iran who are not just literate but hyperliterate, and still consider themselves strict Muslims. But Iran has always had an urban civilization; Northern Nigeria hasn’t. Take the nastiest, most violent city of all: Maiguduri, capital of Borno Province, the most northeasterly, remote province in Nigeria and the birthplace of Boko Haram. Maiguduri has a population of 1.2 million people.

Maiguduri didn’t even exist until 1907. That was when the British set up an outpost there. It’s hard even imagining the rate of change you’ve had to live through if you’re from a place like that. And if you’re a Kanuri, Hausa or Fulani male—a northern Nigerian male—it’s obvious to you that all these changes are against Islam, because "Islam" always comes to mean local norms, like "Christianity" means guns and private property in the South.

In a strange way, Boko Haram’s take on the place of religion in a culture is closer to the truth than the moderate view you get from progressive, urban Islamic intellectuals. There’s something very rigorous about Boko’s view: This is all of a piece, this world of ours, and any change to any part of it will bring the whole thing down. That’s the way it actually does work, and that’s something that’s understood by a lot of sullen, inarticulate conservatives all over the world, from Bakersfield to Kano. That’s what’s behind the rage of the silent majority in every country, the knowledge that new money will reverberate in unexpected directions, and is almost guaranteed to destroy the world you feel comfortable with, even if the changes seem innocent and totally devoid of religious significance. So any change is evil. Not just unveiled women or booze or churches, but all books, all education, and even those women going around vaccinating kids. Strange to think that, in understanding that much at least, the dumb thugs in Boko Haram understand social change better than the professors…or at least better than the professors are willing to say, in public.

And that’s the hope for Achebe’s people, the Igbo, the ones who get burned and chopped and shot to death in the Boko Haram attacks: They win, long-term, as the faster people, the corrosive element. One Igbo politician, Orji Uzor Kalu, said "The Igbo are the salt of Nigeria." He’s echoing the Bible there, but I’d put it a little differently: The Igbo are the solvent. Boko Haram is a defensive movement, and the Igbo, forced to push out of their half-ruined home territory, have no choice but to move north and squirm their way into the rigid old Sultanates. These small merchants and schoolteachers who migrate north won’t see themselves as agents of change; they’ll have their own agendas. But they’ll bring it down anyway.

The funny thing is, if Biafra hadn’t been crushed, it would be rich now, and would draw migrants. By crushing the Igbo’s country, the Hausa made it inevitable that desperate Igbo would migrate north and start chewing away at the walls of their mud castles.

Postscript: Chinua Achebe died while I was writing this article. Achebe was Igbo. He lived through a terrible time for his people, and fought for them to the end of his life. This is from his last book, There Was A Country, published in 2012: "For over half a century the Federal [Nigerian] Government has turned a blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its citizens — mainly Christian southerners, mostly Igbo."

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for NSFWCORP/Pando]