[Archives] Osama, Anini and other Wars on Terror

Originally appeared in NEXT on May 12, 2011


Osama, Anini and other Wars on Terror

By Tolu Ogunlesi

The killing of Osama bin Laden has shown just how obsessed Nigerians are with generating conspiracy theories about matters that do not concern them.

When the citizens of a country that consistently fails to correctly identify its own terrorists feel no sense of irony or shame in challenging one that takes its internal and external security seriously, you know it’s time to change the channel.

Do you find it hard to believe Nigerians were actually loving the sounds of their own voices as they issued all sorts of messages calling on President Obama to release visual evidence of the death of Osama bin Laden? 

I’m appealing to all newly-elected governors to please add mass payment of Blackberry/DSTV/HITV subscription fees to their annual WAEC/JAMB fee payments – we urgently need to find stimulating distractions for Nigerians, so they can keep their irritating opinions to themselves next time Serious Nations of the World are discussing law enforcement matters.

The videos that apply to us, and that we’ve already seen – e.g. of that woman who, during the recent elections, was busy thumb-printing ballot papers like she was running a race against an approaching apocalypse – what have we done with them? Instead we forward those in chain emails (“Come and see INEC wonder!”) and then sit back to tie wrapper and postulate from chewing-stick-stuffed mouths: “Eh, unless Obama show us video, me I no dey believe say Osama don die o.” “Aha now, why the man no wan show us video sef?”

I continue to be baffled by our genius for failing to see the obvious indictments screaming at us in all of these. To evade detection by his technologically-sophisticated pursuers Osama bin Laden lived for years in a compound without internet or telephone lines. MEND’s Jomo Gbomo on the other hand, is in regular email contact with the Nigerian authorities and the media. I can imagine the National Security Adviser hissing and clicking on ‘SEND TO SPAM’ every time an email appears from Mr. Gbomo.

The last time we heard said from the office of that Adviser it was to issue unnecessary warnings to ordinary citizens regarding their conduct at polling units. When columnist and professor Okey Ndibe was invited for questioning early this year, the story (correct me if I’m wrong) was that his name featured on an SSS watch-list that had not been updated in a while.

We are the tail-less cow who has to depend on God for relief from flies. Frankly I think we’d be better off entrusting our national security to a joint committee of Divine Powers drawn from all our local and imported religions.

Now ask yourself: when was the last time Nigerians had any cause to be proud of efficiency of their law enforcement agencies? Anini’s era?

As an Armed Forces Ruling Council meeting drew to a close in October 1986, President Ibrahim Babangida reportedly turned to the Inspector General of Police, Etim Inyang, and snarled: “My friend, where is Anini?”

Three months later Anini was in the can, sealed and ready for execution. I don’t know if IBB watched the capture live from the “Situation Room” of Dodan Barracks. Neither do I know if he gave a triumphant televised speech to the nation. (One person I do know who was prevented from giving his own triumphant speech was Muhammadu Buhari, whose boys bungled the Umaru Dikko operation twenty-seven years ago.)

Ten years after Anini, one imagines Sani Abacha turning to Sgt. Rogers, his bloodshot eyes concealed behind his trademark dark glasses: “My friend, where is Wole Soyinka?” Thankfully, they never found Kongi.

But it continues to be a tragedy when a country’s intelligence agencies find their fullest expression in the oppression of ordinary, innocent citizens; as opposed to the criminals who daily wage war against the country.

I keep imagining that someday soon, President Jonathan will pleasantly surprise the nation with a midnight broadcast (a day or two after releasing the long-form / unabridged version of his PhD thesis, to quell Sahara Reporters rumours that he submitted a children’s story as dissertation):

“Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the Nigerian people and to the world that Nigeria has conducted a series of operations that disabled the largest generator-manufacturing factories on the planet. Today, at my direction, Nigeria launched a targeted operation against compounds in the cities of Guangzhou, Zhongshan and Shanghai in China. A small team of Nigerians carried out the operations with extraordinary courage and capability. No Nigerians were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they dealt what we believe is a significant blow to the manufacture of generators in China, thus guaranteeing that the end is in sight for power failure in Nigeria.”

Oh that will be the day. Imagine the rejoicing across the land; inebriated Nigerians trooping to the streets to celebrate a turning point in the War on the Terror of Darkness.

Until then, dream on, I tell myself. Meanwhile there are more important tasks to be done, like wondering if I should be concerned that a Diesel King is my president’s new best friend. Or checking to see if Jomo Gbomo has replied my latest email…

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi 2015


Originally appeared in NEXT in October 2010, after President Jonathan tried to absolve MEND of responsibility for the October 1 (Independence Day) bombings in Abuja.



By Tolu Ogunlesi

In 1939, at the beginning of the 2nd World War, the British Ministry of Information printed more than 2 million copies of a poster that bore the words KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, as one of a set of three posters designed to inspire a weary British public in the event of a German invasion. Today those words are famous – in Britain at least – despite the fact that the posters were never eventually distributed to the public.

Today, those words are sorely needed on the other side of the Atlantic. Over the weekend, the man we assumed was our President, who only a few weeks ago moved us with lofty words of hope, and a vision of transformation, shot himself in the foot and then put the bloody foot in his mouth.

When, in the aftermath of the October 1 blasts the President insisted on absolving the alleged perpetrators of responsibility, in that instant he ceased to be the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and became something much smaller.

In April, after an ailing President Yar’Adua played host to Islamic clerics in Aso Rock, I wrote (in this column): “When a man [who’s] supposed to be the president of a multi-religious country chooses to secretly reveal himself only to Islamic clerics, five weeks after being smuggled into the country, one begins to wonder if he’s actually the president,  or merely the overrated leader of a shadowy Islamic sect.

Today, sadly, I am compelled to apply a modified version of those words to Mr. Yar’Adua’s successor.

“When a man [who’s] supposed to be the president of a multi-ethnic country chooses to transform himself into the spokesperson of a regional militant group with an incontrovertible reputation for violence, one begins to wonder if perhaps it isn’t time to acknowledge the fact that there is indeed a vacancy in the Presidential Palace.

Mr. Jonathan was quoted as saying: “What happened yesterday was a terrorist act and MEND was just used as a straw; MEND is not a terrorist group… It is erroneous to think that my people who have been agitating for good living will deliberately blow up the opportunity they have now.”

With those embarrassing words Mr. President missed out on an amazing opportunity to use the tragedy to send a powerful message to the Nigerian people; a message of comfort, a rallying cry to unite against shedders of blood and enemies of progress.

Imagine if the President had gone on air immediately (his speech accompanied by translations into all major Nigerian languages) and paid tribute to all the lives sacrificed in the name of Nigeria since 1960: including, but not limited to, Biafra’s war dead; the thousands who have died in religious crises in the last three decades; even the five persons who died when MEND attacked the Atlas Cove jetty in July 2009 (the same MEND that the President would like us to believe are meek as lambs and innocent as babies). Imagine if the President had sought to weave a sober narrative of hope and unity and righteous anger from the sorrow, tears and blood.

But no, instead of rising to the demands of the moment, Mr. Jonathan panicked, and sank, dragging the entire nation with him. The incident momentarily stripped him of his presidential garb and wrapped him in the gaudy garments of a ‘tribal’ chieftain.

Now I will leave the in-depth debate about ‘whether it was MEND or not’ for another time. My concern in this piece is less with ‘whodunit?’, than with ‘whatcanwelearn?’ You and I know that blowing Abuja up is hardly the most challenging task in a country where whole ships are liable to go missing, and where the original copy of the report of a probe into the disappearance of $12 billion can vanish without trace.

And for those who, like the President, insist that it was impostors using the name of MEND, I say ‘what have you been smoking?’ MEND has never been known to be silent. Jomo Gbomo – whoever he/she/they/it might be – may be guilty of many things, but tongue-biting is certainly not one of them.

If MEND is indeed being ‘impersonated’, why isn’t the real MEND proclaiming its innocence to the highest heavens. Shaped as my generation has been by conspiracy series like ‘24’ and movies like ‘Salt’, perhaps we should be willing to concede to the possibility that the entire senior hierarchy of the real MEND has been kidnapped, is being held incommunicado, and is hence unable to defend itself. Anything is indeed possible in a country whose President panics in the most public of ways.

The first victory of Friday’s attackers was to blow Abuja up. The second victory was to cause Mr. Jonathan to blow himself up (Words as WMDs?) – in panic, I insist – and to severely damage our confidence in his ability to be the strong leader Nigeria needs.

Let me warn him: he will be tested again. The least he can do in preparation is to learn from this incident. The buck will stop, as always, at his table. Nigeria needs a Commander-in-chief, not a Panicker-in-power.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi 2015

[Archives] 2011 Elections: The battle continues

This originally appeared in NEXT newspaper on June 29, 2011


2011 Elections: The battle continues

By Tolu Ogunlesi

Muhammadu Buhari, Tunde Bakare and Nasir El-Rufai were at Chatham House, London, on Monday, to speak at an event, “Nigeria’s 2011 Elections: Reflections on the process and prospects for Nigeria.”

A member of the audience asked Buhari why he cried at his final campaign event, days to the presidential election.

“I don’t remember ever coming to tears in public, until then,” the retired General said. Then he told a story.

As a teenager in 1961, he was selected by the shipping line, Elder Dempster, for an expenses-paid holiday trip to the United Kingdom. By the standards of today’s Nigeria he wasn’t the likeliest of candidates – he was an ethnic minority (Fulani origins in Daura, a Hausa Emirate), and classmates with persons who had influence-wielding parents (like the late Shehu Yar’Adua, whose father was a Federal Minister).

But Buhari, the orphan, got the single slot allocated to the Northern region that year.

“That was when there was social justice [in Nigeria],” Buhari told the Chatham House audience

Back in April the media made a big deal out of the crying-General incident. No one seemed to notice that it was actually – according to Bakare – a CPC weepfest.

“It wasn’t the General alone who wept that day,” the pastor confessed. “I did [too], and I rarely weep in public. I turned around and saw my friend El-Rufai weeping. We were not weeping for ourselves, we were weeping for a nation called a giant, but which has remained in a coma.”

The story of Nigeria is no doubt a tragic, tear-deserving one. The future that awaited the orphaned Buhariand the shoeless Jonathan is far brighter than that which awaits today’s un-privileged hordes.

There is no doubt that there is a link between that tragic state of affairs, and the quality of our electoral process. Flawed elections throw up the sort of candidates who go on to pave, with utmost dedication, a country’s road to perdition.

“The 2011 election, on the surface, appears to have been free and fair until you begin to dig in and discover that a lot more happened than meets the eye,” Bakare said. According to him, the accreditation of voters, voting proper, and counting of votes were largely “free”.

“But that’s about where it ended,” he said. The CPC’s view is that from then on the devil took charge of the collating.

And so, in protest, the party has hired forensics experts, and gone to the election petition tribunal.

It will be Buhari’s third presidential election tribunal journey, after 2003 and 2007.

The CPC accuses the PDP of recklessly manipulating (inflating) electoral results, and using violence to intimidate its supporters during the presidential elections. It is also holding INEC responsible for a software error (during the collation of votes) that caused CPC votes to be “short-changed” by forty percent. It says INEC, while acknowledging the error, has refused to correct it.

Two messages seemed to crystallise from what Buhari and Bakare were saying: One, the PDP massively rigged that election, and Goodluck Jonathan is an illegal occupier of Aso Rock. Two, this is not merely about getting the flawed elections overturned; it is also a quest for true electoral reform.

“Our concern is not with winning [the] election, but with the future of our country,” Bakare said.

Both goals are admirable, and connected. Proving allegations of rigging against the PDP (as the ACN successfully did in Ekiti, Edo and Osun states) will certainly go a long way towards serving the overall quest for electoral reform.

And the CPC does indeed have a case when it argues that PDP voting patterns raise eyebrows in many instances – especially in the South-South, long notorious for its logic-defying voter turnout numbers, and its ‘landslide’ allegiance to the PDP.

But in its shrill cry for justice it does often seem though that the CPC is imputing a form of sainthood – blameless electoral conduct – to itself, something not in any way borne out by the facts on ground. 

For instance, the famous ‘last words’ of youth corper Ukeoma Ikechukwu, murdered while on INEC assignment in Bauchi:

“Na wao! This CPC suporters would hv killed me yesterday, no see threat oooo. Even after forcing underaged voters on me they wanted me to give them the remaining ballot paper to thiumb print,” he posted on Facebook the day after the elections.

A few days later, he was dead. Those who sought to kill him eventually succeeded.

Asked if the CPC can vow that it didn’t use underaged voters in its strongholds, Bakare said: “To be honest with you, I don’t know.”

He went on to insist that underage voting, whether by the PDP or the CPC, is “illegal”, and that it raises disturbing questions about the integrity of INEC. “If underage voters voted, who registered them?”

Buhari sought to cast doubt on the PDP’s counter-allegations of widespread underage voting by the CPC. “The forces of coercion are at the disposal of the ruling party,” he said.

For what seemed to be an opposition-party event, the Jonathan camp was well represented. Presidential aides Oronto Douglas, Ken Wiwa, and Von Kemedi attended.

After the event, Jonathan campaign consultant, Reno Omokri, enthusiastically handed out hardback copies of collections of Goodluck Jonathan quotes and campaign photos. 

I wonder if he made any offers to the CPC chieftains.

What’s a hairstyle got to do with freedom?

I’ve known about J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere‘s (died February 2014, aged 83) endlessly fascinating hairstyles documentary work for years.

Now the BBC World Service brings us a short piece highlighting one of the most iconic of those hairstyles. The one featured here is called “Onile gogoro”, which, in the Yoruba language of South Western Nigeria, literally means “tall house”, or more loosely, “high-rising.”

Art curator Bisi Silva explains that it was popular at the time of Nigeria’s Independence from Britain (1960), for the way it captured “the aspirations of a new nation.” 

It’s a reminder (in a somewhat sad way) that Nigeria has always been a nation of tall dreams. 

Now I’m wondering, fifty years on, what hairstyle would most fully capture contemporary Nigerian aspirations?


VISIT: An ongoing exhibition of Ojeikere’s hairstyle oeuvre, in London

Lessons from Durban

This piece originally appeared in NEXT in September 2009

By Tolu Ogunlesi

“Usually planning in cities is [done] around the egos of city managers who have [only] five years in office.” Those were the words of Dr. Mike Sutcliffe, City Manager, eThekwini Municipality, speaking in July in Durban, South Africa, at a recent media briefing on the challenges of preparing a city to host the biggest soccer event in the world. “Whatever we have to do in our city has to be sustainable… we really are looking at a strategy way beyond the Fifa World Cup next year.” Durban, South Africa’s second largest city, and part of the eThekwini Municipality, is currently developing 60 – 70 year city plans.

Nigeria, a country that builds for the present but never the future, would do well to replicate Durban’s foresight. It is worthy of note that the only airport in Lagos, the most populous city in Africa, was built thirty years ago, and has not been upgraded or expanded since then. “No rail project has been done in Lagos since I was born,” said Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, in a recent television interview.

The story is the same with bridges; the last ambitious bridge project in the state is now almost twenty years old.

Durban, self-acclaimed “Africa’s sporting and events capital” and first South African city to introduce free “basic services” as water and electricity, is using the World Cup opportunity to justify a long-term, city-wide infrastructure upgrade.

According to Sutcliffe, fibre optic cabling is being laid throughout the city; revenue generated from renting it out will be used to upgrade the bandwidth. The cabling is being laid along the sewerage system to enable it reach every part of the city. Similarly the city is experimenting with using the existing electricity cables to transmit voice. The principle of long-term thinking also extends to the ports. Durban is Africa’s busiest port city; there is a 30 to 40-year plan in place.

Further evidence of a long-term city vision: “This will be the only stadium in Africa that can host the Olympics,” said Dr. Sutcliffe. The stadium referred to is the US$370 million Moses Mabhida stadium, newly constructed for the World Cup. He added that the stadium is being built to be much more than a football stadium, that the plan is to ensure that “365 days a year, people will come here… for leisure sports.” Regarding the new lanes being planned for the city’s roads, Sutcliffe said “all of the future lanes are going to be for public transport” – the idea being to discourage private transport.

All of these developmental projects are providing new jobs. Thirty-thousand residents of Durban are currently employed to manage and maintain roads – mostly involving pothole-fixing; for 500 rand a month (approximately 9,891 naira) Durban is also putting in place a BRT system, as well as integrating all its transport systems – bus, rail, taxi. “In the next 5 – 10 years we want a single ticket that you can use to travel anywhere within the city,” Sutcliffe disclosed.

Faced with resistance from taxi drivers who think that the planned BRT system will negatively affect their business, the city took 30 of the “toughest and roughest” drivers to Colombia to see how an integrated transport system works.

There are lessons for the giant of Africa to learn from Durban. The cheering news is that the Lagos State Government, to cite the rare example, seems eager to genuinely transform the city. Governor Fashola, during a TV interview said “We are already looking beyond 2015… that’s why we have 15 – 20 – 25-year plans.” According to him, the population of Lagos is projected to be 25 million by 2025. He described the city as being “18 million people by the seaside; an underserved economy populated by people with a very high taste.” He also admitted that Lagos is in dire need of “a new airport, a new seaport, more roads and new bridges.”

That is not exactly rocket science; it is a given that every urban area will continually be in need of new infrastructure to match its growth rate. But perhaps we need to be thankful that at least one “state manager” has started by publicly diagnosing the problem, whilst many others are busy awarding contracts that hold maximum ‘self-enrichment’ possibilities, but no developmental value.

And as the Under-17 World Cup (to be hosted by Nigeria) approaches, we need our governments and LOCs to look beyond November 2009, as South Africa proudly proclaims its “2010 and Beyond” vision.

Sadly, amid the din of the disgraceful MRI test results, and the controversies regarding the NTA’s broadcast equipment upgrade, one imagines it will be hard to pass any message across at this time.

South Africa-Nigeria Relations: Game of Throes

By Tolu Ogunlesi

On a per-person basis, South Africans drink more four times as much beer as Nigerians. As a country, South Africa enjoys ten times as much electricity as thrice-as-populated Nigeria.

Even before leaving the starting blocks, that’s already two goals to nil, against Nigeria.

South Africa’s Universities are also better regarded, and are home to large numbers of young Nigerians on a quest for decent education.

And then this: at any point in time there’s a horde of Nigerians trooping to South Africa to shoot music videos and commercials. Nigerian talkshow host Mo Abudu says most of Nigeria’s multi-million-dollar annual TV advertising spend ends up in South Africa.

On to sports, for the blow-of-all-blows: in 2010 South Africa became the first African country to host the World Cup. And they did a damn good job, better than Nigeria did when she hosted the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship, and the FIFA Under 17 World Cup in 2009.

But you shouldn’t then assume that Nigeria has always had to play second fiddle. In the beginning it was not so. For a long time Nigeria was big brother to swaths of the continent. One example: In 1972 Nigerian Akinola Aguda was appointed as Botswana’s first African Chief Justice. During the fight against apartheid Nigerian scholarships went to thousands of South Africans.

The Nigerian Government was a key supporter of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s; and for a certain generation of Nigerian musicians, composing an anti-apartheid song was a rite of passage of sorts. No doubt Nigerians were very concerned about the predicament of their South African brothers and sisters. In the late 1980s former Nigerian President Obasanjo suggested employing voodoo in the battle for the liberation of South Africa.

But in 1994, the tables turned. South Africa emerged into democracy, and cast off its decades-old pariah status, while Nigeria started a descent from darkness into deeper darkness, supervised by a dark-goggled dictator called Sani Abacha. Incensed by Mandela’s role in the international campaign to save the lives of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, Abacha ordered Nigeria’s boycott of the 1996 Nations Cup hosted by South Africa.

It wasn’t until Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999 that tensions thawed, and Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki (who both took office that year) forged a friendship that underpinned the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

In the thirteen years since then South African businesses have invaded Nigeria with the same aplomb with which we have invaded Ghana: MTN (which makes more money from Nigeria than anywhere else), Multichoice, Standard Bank, Shoprite. (Nandos and Nu-metro didn’t survive their Nigeria incursions, both have packed up and left).

Nigerians haven’t quite reciprocated on a similar scale; but worthy of mention is the historic 2005 listing of Nigerian oil company Oando on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

And of course the October 2003 launch of a South African edition of Nduka Obaigbena’s ThisDay newspaper, which, sadly, soon ran out of advertisers’ confidence, and money, and shut down in October 2004. According to Eno Bassey in a 2006 Wits University Masters dissertation on the “rise and fall” of the newspaper, “ThisDay represented the first major financial investment from Nigeria to South Africa as opposed to the huge influx of South African investment into Nigeria…”

In May 2008, South African citizens turned against immigrants, including but not limited to Nigerians, in a series of violent attacks. They complained that the foreigners were stealing jobs and diminishing economic opportunity. In the case of Nigerians the allegations were more to do with running criminal gangs of drug-dealers and fraudsters.

The following year, ‘District 9’ appeared, featuring as one of its main characters a paraplegic Nigerian weapons dealer and gang-leader named Obesandjo. (One is assuming it is only coincidental that a former Nigerian President is called “Obasanjo.”)

Nigerians protested. No less a person than our then Minister for Information, Dora Akunyili, protested (the movie was eventually banned). The film, she insisted, was a gross misrepresentation of Nigeria, and Nigerians. One of her complaints was that it portrayed Nigerians as people who “believe in the powers of ritual and voodoo.” It seemed that the Minister’s point was that only Nollywood – currently busy on a continent-wide cultural colonisation project – is allowed to portray Nigerians in a dim light.

District 9 will always stand as incontrovertible evidence of the way Nigerians are generally perceived in South Africa. As South Africa’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, Kingsley Mamabola, told Nigerian paper, NEXT, last year: “The perception South Africans have about Nigerians is not good at all. Those Nigerians of a very tiny percentage – I will say just about one percent – engage in crimes that are generally seen by all and which overshadow the good works of the majority of Nigerians.”

That perception might explain the treatment meted out to Nigerians at the dysfunctional South African embassy in Lagos, until recently, when the visa process was outsourced to the same firm that handles UK visa applications).

On March 2, 2012, the South Africans almost succeeded in launching World War 3, by turning back 125 Nigerians — an entire plane-load — at Oliver Tambo airport, allegedly for possessing fake yellow fever cards. An angry Nigerian government immediately triggered its emergency response system. Within days Nigeria equalised – and then some. 136 South Africans shown the way back to their beloved country, ostensibly to protect them from contracting the yellow fever that is responsible for Nigeria’s dysfunctional state. One of the most hilarious news reports from that time was the one that said 67 “South African prostitutes” were being deported from Nigeria. Until then few had any idea that South African business interests in Nigeria extended to the sex trade.

That contentious state of affairs ended as it should, with a South African apology to Big Brother Nigeria. “We wish to humbly apologise to [Nigeria], and we have,” South African deputy foreign Minister Ibrahim Ibrahim is quoted as saying, at a press conference called for that purpose.

Barely three months later the two countries were back in the trenches, this time over the bid of South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the chairpersonship of the African Union Commission. Citing a previous gentlemanly agreement between the five leading countries in the AU, agreeing to not put forward their nationals for the position, Nigeria campaigned for the incumbent Jean Ping, from Gabon. This time, however, it was Nigeria’s turn to capitulate. Dlamini-Zuma emerged the winner of the election in October 2012.

But no one should assume that the battle is over. As history has shown, there are only shaky ceasefires between Africa’s two largest economies; no lasting peace accords.

“Since the demise of apartheid, South Africans have not shown the kind of reciprocity one would expect of a brother,” Nigerian Wole Olaoye lamented in an editorial published in the Nigerian paper, Daily Trust, last August.

Nigerians who share his view of South Africans as lacking brotherly goodwill will point mockingly at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg, world-leader in luggage theft. My friend, A, survived a robbery attempt in Johannesburg last December. A gun to his head, and a casual quip reminding him that his Nigerian-ness was, at that moment, likely to count against his survival chances. I recently had a Nigerian tell me that the difference between Nigerian and South African robbers was this: Nigerians asked questions and weren’t likely to shoot; South Africans concerned themselves with shooting alone.

I’m sure South Africa has its own lines of defence. These might or might not include the suggestion that the O.R. Tambo luggage thieves are actually Nigerians, or that the robbers at Lagos’ Murtala Mohammed Airport actually wear government-approved uniforms.

The truth is that at the moment South Africa remains a safer (yes!) and saner place to do business in, offering better infrastructure, and less confusion – and corruption! – than Nigeria.

What Nigeria offers are freakish investment returns, obeying no known or unknown economic theories, and guaranteed only to a fortunate, super-risk-taking few (which in the recent past has included South Africans).

It’d definitely be hard to find any Nigerian who can argue that South Africa, even with its several challenges, isn’t miles ahead of us. If we had any doubts, the World Cup hosting feat silenced them all.

Where Nigerians will instead find solace is in the recent declarations of economic prophets, who say we will displace South Africa as Africa’s largest economy very soon. Standard Chartered says that magic year, when South Africa will begin to eat the dust thrown up by Nigeria’s speeding economy, is 2018. Morgan Stanley says 2025.

We will patiently wait for that moment when BRICS will fall into inevitable disuse, to be replaced by BRI-N-C. Headlines like “Africa on the BRINC of Global Domination” will remind the world that, were the continent to be re-imagined as a pistol, Nigeria, not South Africa, lies where the trigger would be.

(Originally appeared in Chimurenga in 2013, before Nigeria displaced South Africa as Africa’s largest economy).

How Nigeria created Boko Haram

By Tolu Ogunlesi

How the failings of the Nigerian state, over the years, have conspired to create the conditions for the transformation of Boko Haram into the irredeemably violent organization it is today; one that now appears to lie well beyond the capacity of the country to confront and defeat.

Police and military abuses

The turning point in the drawn-out evolution of Boko Haram was the 2009 killing, by Nigerian police, of Boko Haram founder Yusuf Mohammed, hours after soldiers arrested and handed him over. His capture followed five days of clashes between sect members and the military, ordered in by the President when it became clear that the police could not contain it.

The group’s first violent uprising occurred long before then, in December 2003. Like the game-changing 2009 incident, it had retaliatory undertones. About 200 armed youth who styled themselves Al Sunna Wal Jamma (“Followers of the Prophet”) attacked police stations in two border towns in Yobe State, near Nigeria’s border with Yobe.

The attack on the police stations is now believed to have been planned as revenge for what the group – an early and short-lived splinter group of Boko Haram – perceived as mistreatment of its members by the police. For the next six years there were no other attacks on the scale of the 2003 uprisings, until the events of July 2009, in which the sect launched a series of brazen, coordinated attacks on police stations and government buildings in four states, in retaliation for an encounter weeks earlier with a team of security officers under the control of the Governor.

That incident, in which sect members were reportedly challenged by law enforcement agents for defying a state law and riding motorcycles without helmets, resulted in gunshot injuries to several sect members. After that incident, Yusuf reportedly wrote and circulated a letter to President Yar’Adua (hinted at in another letter attributed to Boko Haram two years later, shortly before another major attack).

The deaths of Yusuf, his father-in-law (who provided the land on which his mosque in Maiduguri was built), and alleged financier Buji Foi in controversial circumstances at the hands of the police, and after the violence had already subsided, marked the beginning of a new phase of the campaign waged by Boko Haram.

At that time local media reported that Muslim men were shaving their beards to avoid being rounded up for summary execution by the military. Also around the time of the clampdown, articles emerged in the media alleging that Boko Haram had received far more repressive treatment from the Nigerian media than the militants in the Niger delta, wondering if some Animals weren’t more equal than others. That sense of injustice appears to have been amplified among members of the sect, and spurred its re-emergence in a more virulent form, in 2011.

In an audio message released to the media in April 2013, following reports that the government was planning to extend amnesty to repentant militants, sect leader Abu Shekau is reported as saying: “We are the one to grant them pardon. Have you forgotten their atrocities against us?”

Human rights groups have continued to document accounts of abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian military, which end up alienating local communities and further radicalizing Boko Haram sympathizers.


The first hint of politics can be found in the rush by Northern State Governors to implement Sharia (Islamic law), as soon as democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, after sixteen years of military dictatorships. President Olusegun Obasanjo downplayed the concerns voiced by Christians regarding the rollout of Sharia laws in a secular country. “What we have now is what I call political Sharia. I am not afraid of it because I believe it will fizzle out,” he said in September 2000, after eight states had adopted the law.

He was right about the political impetus for the adoption; but there was an unforeseen and troubling implication: the political edge to the adoption of Sharia – manifesting in half-hearted commitment from most of the Governors after the initial thrill – ended up causing disillusionment which proselytizers like Yusuf capitalized on to burnish their credentials.

Politics also crops up as a possible explanation for the extrajudicial murder of Boko Haram leader Yusuf Mohammed – sect members appear to believe the police were pressured into murdering him by powerful politicians who did not want the truth regarding their connections to Boko Haram to come out. Mohammed, his championing of the poor and downtrodden in the face of elite corruption and decadence aside, presumably had the support of wealthy and influential citizens across Northern Nigeria where he operated.

The activities of Boko Haram certainly required funding. At the height of his influence in the mid-to-late 2000s Yusuf ran a mosque complex, a farm and micro-finance scheme – what one observer referred to as “a state within a state.”

Yusuf’s charismatic preaching and his philanthropy soon ensured that he was in control of a large and deeply devoted youth population, drawn to his attacks on secular Western education and on a decadent political system whose legacy was corruption and poverty. Multitudes left their families or quit education to follow him. And these were not always poor youth, it has been reported that many of his followers were from wealthy families.

With this youth army it is easy to see the attraction it held for politicians on a desperate quest to gain or retain political office. It is a pattern across Nigeria that politicians cultivate, for the purposes of winning elections, armies of youth whose job it is to intimidate opponents, and create the kind of chaos that makes rigging easy on election days.

Also alleged to be a member and major financier of Boko Haram was an influential politician called Buji Foi, who at one time served a Commissioner for Religious Affairs in Borno State – a powerful position that oversaw the implementation of Sharia Law in the State.

Since 2009 politicians across the political divide in Borno State have regularly exchanged accusations of Boko Haram sympathy and support. More recently, following the declaration of a state of emergency by the President in May 2013, the politicking has assumed a national dimension.

The ruling Peoples Democratic Party and the President’s advisers have long struggled to portray the opposition All Progressives Congress as a Muslim Brotherhood look-alike bent on “Islamising” Nigeria, while the APC suspects that the reluctance of the Federal Government to clamp down decisively on the insurgency is connected to its plan to keep the region – an APC stronghold – unstable and undermine chances of elections holding there in 2015. Amid the frenzy of accusations and counter-accusations, the protection of hapless citizens, like the students in Chibok, is not a priority.

Foreign arms and funding

One noticeable trend in Nigeria from the early 2000s was the proliferation of arms in the country, smuggled in across Nigeria’s porous four-thousand-mile-stretch of borders with Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

In response, Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 set up a Presidential Action Committee on Control of Violent Crimes and Illegal Weapons, which reportedly raised fears that extremist sects were gaining ground in the country. There is no evidence any actions were taken at that time, to address the very credible threats.

It is now also known that funds have flowed into Northern Nigeria from abroad, to support an array of disruptive Muslim sects, since the turn of the century. Writing in 2011, Mai Yamani, author of Cradle of Islam noted that “despite the decade of the West’s war on terror, and Saudi Arabia’s longer-term alliance with the US, the Kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment has continued to bankroll Islamic extremist ideologies around the world.”

In 2002, a Nigerian associate of Osama Bin Laden reportedly received 300m naira (US$3m at that time) from him to donate to several Islamist sects across Northern Nigeria, including Boko Haram. Osama had himself broadcast a message around that time in which he cited Nigeria as one of six countries “ready for liberation.”

Investigations by Nigerian authorities after the December 2003 uprising led to the arrest of a Sudanese national alleged to be funding the sect (at that time an incarnation of it known as ‘Nigerian Taliban’) with monies received from wealthy Saudi backers. And then in December 2006 Yusuf was arrested on charges of trafficking in foreign currency. It apparently wasn’t the only time he spent time in custody. But every time he did he soon after emerged a free man. It has been reported that his powerful local backers always managed to secure his freedom.

Corruption and state apathy

If the authorities got any warnings about the July 2009 uprising – and there are suggestions they did – nothing pre-emptive was done, until the sect struck. Five years after the events of July 2009 not much seems to have changed; regarding the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok Amnesty International says: “Nigerian security forces knew about Boko Haram’s impending raid, but failed to take the immediate action needed to stop it.”

A culture of corruption deprives fighting personnel of weapons, equipment and welfare, resulting in a demoralized force. Rumours abound of Nigerian soldiers stealing and selling arms to criminals.

There have also been suggestions that Nigeria’s military bosses are interested in preserving the stalemate with Boko Haram to justify the continued allocation of billions of dollars to security in the Federal budget.

In February the Governor of Nigeria’s Borno State told journalists that “Boko Haram are better armed and are better motivated than our own troops.” The recent mutiny by soldiers on the frontlines against Boko Haram provides strong evidence of the levels of frustration within the military.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi