Terrorist’s escape pushes Nigeria to the brink

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest country, by population. Analysts have long been warning of civil war. And now the escape of a suspected Islamist bomber has dramatically escalated the threat.

Kabiru Sokoto is among the most wanted men in Africa. Suspected of planning the vicious, Christmas Day bombing of a church that left 38 dead and many more wounded, he was arrested last Saturday in a hideout near the capital, Abuja.

But he did not stay captive for long. After an armed ambush the next day, he fled his police guards. At the time of writing, he remains on the run.

The incident has raised tensions in the country – already high – to boiling point. Sokoto was accused of being a member of the radical Islamic group Boko Haram, which has carried out multiple terrorist murders since 2010. The apparent ease of his escape now raises the disturbing possibility of collusion between state police and the Islamic rebel faction.

These allegations could seriously undermine President Goodluck Jonathan‘s ability to keep the peace between the oil-rich, Christian South and the economically worse-off, Muslim North. Recent weeks have seen an exodus of southerners from the northern states and vice-versa, as families flee a rising tide of religious and ethnic persecution.

Southern and coastal areas across the whole of West Africa have always had a denser Christian population than the Northern territories. This religious split caused the devastating Nigerian civil war of 1967 that left more than one million dead. It can also be partly blamed for the conflict that ripped apart the nearby Ivory Coast between 2000 and 2004.

In Nigeria, the rift is much more than just spiritual. The country is Africa’s largest producer of oil and gas, but all of these natural resources are located in the South, and it is the southern areas that benefit most from the wealth it creates. This economic imbalance adds an extra layer to the religious fracture.

Boko Haram may not represent the majority of Muslims in the country, but analysts fear that its growing power is a sign of a growing split that could tear the country apart.

Where to draw the line?

From Yugoslavia to the Sudan, conflicts have often been caused by the joining of different ethnic or religious groups into one nation. Some thinkers say the solution is to allow countries like Nigeria to separate and form two countries made up of just one ethnicity each, which would then be much less prone to civil war.

But experts in West African politics argue that it is not as simple as re-drawing national boundaries. How do you divide the economic power, for example, that comes with the huge oil reserves in the Niger delta? And there is a deeper principle at stake: the world should not be trying to split nations apart; it should be working to bring peoples together.

You Decide

  1. Should ethnically divided countries like Nigeria be split in two?
  2. What makes different religious groups and ethnicities within some countries fail to get along?

Activities

  1. Discuss in a group what measures you would take to encourage the integration of different ethnic minorities into one society.
  2. Do some extra research into another similar situation such as the break up of the Sudan, the civil war in the Ivory Coast, or the Yugoslavian civil wars in the 90s. Draw up a list of similarities and differences between that example and the current situation in Nigeria.

Some People Say...

“Colonialism is to blame for all conflict in modern Africa.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What are the origins of the ethnic and religious divide in Nigeria?
The Christian influence on the coastal and southern areas of this West African region is largely due to the European colonialists of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The region was later divided into countries depending on the nationality of the colonialists in any given area, regardless of the ethnicity or religion of the local population. Nigeria was under British colonial rule until it gained independence in 1960.
Are there broader lessons we can learn from this crisis?
We are constantly learning about the impact colonialism has had, not just in Africa, but also in the Middle East and South Asia. Managing the divides and conflicts it has created has been a global issue since the Second World War.

Word Watch

Boko Haram
A radical Islamist group, based in the city of Maiduguri, in the North East of the country. They have claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including the bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja in November 2011.
President Goodluck Jonathan
A Christian from the oil-producing Delta region, Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party was elected in April 2011 with a comfortable majority.
Yugoslavia
A nation that was set up in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Soviet Union. Consecutive civil wars throughout the 90s and early 00s saw it broken down into several smaller states, each defined by one cultural ethnicity.
Sudan
Following a civil war in 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, to end years of ethnic persecution.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.