Monday, 27 July 2009

Nigeria in crisis… and the band played on

One of Nigeria’s biggest banks announced this morning that it wants to raise US$3 billion on the local stock market, my old friend Nduka Obaigbena has hosted the glitterati of Lagos in a characteristically grand birthday party and the Lagos go-slow was as bad as ever this morning.

So much for Nigerian normality; elsewhere in the country, bands of fighters have been taking up arms in the name of revolution, a campaign that has cost the governments tens of billions in lost oil revenues.

This month, the government announced an amnesty for militants who have been attacking oil installations and battling it out with government forces in the Niger Delta. The deal has started shakily with several state governors from oil-rich Delta questioning the central government’s commitment to implementing reforms that would deal with the environmental destruction and mass unemployment that is at the heart of this long running crisis.

Now another band of militants – claiming an Islamist ideology – have sprung into action, attacking schools, churches and police stations in northern Nigeria and proselytising against secularist education and for stricter sharia law. This group call themselves Boko Haram (prohibit education). Over the weekend, at least 50 people were killed in clashes with police in the Northern city of Bauchi. Today it seems this group’s operations have spread to other northern towns in Yobe, Kano and Borno states.

Another week in Nigeria, with its heady mix of extremities, some inspiring, some threatening but none mundane. Wiser Nigerian friends counsel caution in moments such as these – where it looks as though someone with a grudge against the government of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua is trying to create as much mayhem as possible in as many different places all at the same. That might be the case but Nigeria has never lacked for conspiracy theories in search of a vaguely plausible plot line.

It is certainly true that Yar’Adua has enemies and a few conspirators ranged against him, although probably not as many as his predecessors. Conspiracy or not, the effect will be equally as destabilising in Nigeria: the proselytising militants in the north are targeting secular or Christian institutions, with the almost certain result that they will spark widespread communal clashes. Christians remain a substantial minority in the middle belt and north, and fight back hard when they see themselves as under attack.

There are no established links between the militants and the Delta and the Islamists in the north; indeed, some militants in the Delta have been campaigning to end the occupation of their region by Northern Muslims. However, there are doubts that the Yar’Adua government could hold a military line against militants in the Delta and Islamists in the North, should both groups choose to attack simultaneously.

For many Nigerians, this should be the moment that the Yar’Adua governments starts to address convincingly the causes of these crises on the ground. Both the Delta and North have extended areas of grinding poverty, unrelenting with few government-backed or any other social services; unemployment is widespread and there are few opportunities in education and training.

After much delay, Yar’Adua has put together an impressive team of technocrats at the central bank, and the ministries of finance and energy. They have already produced their blueprints for much needed reforms in the banking and oil industry.

But none of this will matter much unless the government shows a determination to tackle the growing crisis on the ground, to start a dialogue with the people suffering the brunt of economic breakdown and political violence. And it will have to find a way to talk to the militants, sooner rather than later. The band may plan on but the music will get harsher.

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