Nigerians say (#) BringBackOurNation
(Published in the Iowa City Press Citizen, May 19, 2014)
I follow news of Nigeria with a slightly more jaundiced eye than the average American because I once lived and worked there. In five years of problem solving, I learned that in Nigeria what appears to be a “problem” is almost always a reflection of someone else’s “opportunity.“
For example, on travel duty I once came across burned-out hulks of overturned tanker trucks by a hairpin turn on a highway. My colleagues interrupted my proposals for ingenious engineering and law enforcement solutions to such road accidents by explaining that the truck drivers had purposely overturned the rigs and set the tanks on fire. They’d already sold the gasoline to black marketers in Ilorin. Very likely, the owners of the trucks had hired these drivers precisely for their skill in overturning trucks, and would collect insurance plus a kickback on the black market sale. Officers inside the oil and insurance companies got kickbacks, too. The State would bear the loss.
I suspect such layers of complication in the matter of “Boko Haram,” the Nigerian movement whose actions have of late sparked a storm of commentary on Twitter and global news feeds under the hashtag “BRING BACK OUR GIRLS.”
Since 2011 Boko Haram attacks may have killed as many as 4000 civilians across northern Nigeria, with little expression of international interest before last month’s kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls. Now Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram who recently released two rambling “selfie” videos, is basking in newfound attention.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan had sought to deny Shekau this kind of publicity. He always downplayed the Boko Haram attacks, which many of his supporters believed were a conspiracy of his political enemies.
One does have to wonder, in fact: is such a jackass as Abubakar Shekau really capable of holding to ransom a remarkably creative and economically dynamic country of over 170 million people?
Power in Northern Nigeria is hidden under several layers of centuries’ old traditional and religious structures whose influence reaches deep into the communities. Many Nigerians assume that Boko Haram could never do what it is doing without support from elements within that power structure.
Goodluck Jonathan’s election in 2011 broke an informal agreement within the ruling People’s Democratic Party to alternate the Nigerian Presidency between that northern power structure and southern interests. Jonathan, a southern vice-President chosen to provide balance to the Presidency of Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua, was suddenly thrust into the Presidency when Yar’Adua died in 2010, just three years into an expected eight-year “turn” for the north. Jonathan refused to step aside in 2011, using his powers of incumbency to win his party nomination and the election. He plans to run again in 2015.
In a country where the Minister of Petroleum refuses to account for $20 billion of oil revenues that failed to reach their destination in the accounts at the Central Bank, missing a turn at the trough is bound to make some people unhappy. Al Qaeda may be helping Boko Haram get access to training and arms, but what is happening in Nigeria is very likely about something else.
The kidnapped girls were no more than pawns in this sophisticated game, at least until the attention of women all over Nigeria and the world turned those pawns into queens.
Now for the first time since Nigeria’s 1950s Independence movement, women and the middle classes are standing up together, across the country, to say enough is enough. Nigeria has millions of remarkable and hard-working citizens, both in the villages and in the professional middle classes of the cities. But they’ve always been powerless in the face of the Kleptocracy that for so long has been the only system holding together Nigeria.
To see common people and the middle classes standing up together now — and reaching out to each other across boundaries of geography, tribe and religion — is potentially a remarkable development. In this scenario, “Bring Back Our Girls” is equally a rallying cry for all Nigerians: “#Bring Back Our Nation”.
Writer’s Group member Alan Brody worked in Nigeria from 1984-88. He currently lives and writes in Iowa City, Iowa, USA.