The tragic snatching of the Chibok school girls appears to be the tipping point in Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram. What started as a river of national rage has grown into one massive ocean of international outrage, escalating Boko Haram overnight from a band of local insurgents terrorising Nigeria to a truly global menace. I have a strong feeling that the days of Boko Haram can now be counted.
However, as we work hard and pray even harder for the girls’ safe return home, I believe now is the time for us to also start thinking beyond Boko Haram. We have to start now to put together a comprehensive development plan and a robust social reform package that would ensure that never again would any part of Nigeria serve as an ideological breeding ground for terrorist activities of any form.
Some years ago, an American organisation was reported to have said that Nigeria could be a failed state in no distant future. Characteristically, we all rose in patriotic indignation. But if the Americans had spoken with us with an accent back then, now Boko Haram has spoken with us in a very clear language. There are two very important lessons here. One is that Nigeria is not immune to any affliction that has visited other countries. What used to be distant tales of terror only a few years ago has become our lived reality. Two is that if it could happen now, then it can happen again. Therefore, even as the rest of the world joins us in terminating this terrible affliction, we must start now to address some fundamental issues that contributed, albeit remotely, in bringing us to this mortal season.
Successive generations of Northern political elite have been blamed for the mind-boggling backwardness that makes the region the sick man of Nigeria. In the arid North, poverty and disease are conspicuously worn by the majority like some kind of tribal marks, making one to wonder if development was ever part of the political agenda here. We all know this, but we have continued to pretend that it is a Northern problem. Now that the chicken has come home to roost, no one is spared the tragedy. A special development programme that targets the North would therefore not be an act of charity, but enlightened self interest. If we do not give people something to live for, someone would always give them something to die for.
Now that the rest of the world is willing to assist us in combating terrorism, we must include a purposely targeted development intervention as part of the package. Israelis have shown the world that the desert needs not be a wasteland. With their assistance, we can bring hundreds of thousands of hectares under irrigation farming and turn the desert of Borno and Yobe to one massive agricultural zone with the Lake Chad as natural asset. Guaranteed high quality food production would eventually attract the agro-allied industry and create further employment. On the back of this would be built critical infrastructure, health facilities and education. What we need is a robust plan that is clearly benchmarked to give hope to the people.
The recently concluded World Economic Forum for Africa concluded that education must be at the heart of Africa’s growth strategy. Many other commentators have argued along similar lines. But in the context of this challenge, education clearly holds the key to the twin and possibly symbiotic challenge of poverty and religious fundamentalism in the north. And this is no longer about just getting every child in school or multiplying admission places.
Anyone who is even casually familiar with the tragic failure of our education, where children completing 10 years of schooling cannot read, would understand why it was so easy for Mohammed Yusuf, the late leader of Boko Haram, to convince impressionable youths to leave school and join his ‘jihadist’ train. We have an urgent need to ‘rephilosophise’ our entire education system. We need to ask and answer a most important question: what should be the purpose of education in the Nigeria of 21st century? But this is for another day.
The immediate challenge in the context of this discussion is the need for us to recognise Islamic or Islamiyya education as another formal system of education into which millions of our children are funnelled. All across northern cities and villages, we have Madrassas or schools where children spend years learning Islamic religious disciplines. Historically, these kinds of schools were a means of progressing to other variety of disciplines, which formed the basis of the Islamic civilisation that produced great scientists and mathematicians with strong ethical foundation and from which Western civilisation benefited immensely.
Over the years however, these schools have degenerated into centres for mere rote learning of the Qur’an and some fixed and limited aspects of religious doctrines. Millions of Nigerian children passing through these schools are not prepared to partake of the boundless opportunities that the modern world presents. The ossification of Islamiyya education is therefore a danger to all of us. As long as we continue to breed an army of young people who feel excluded from the ‘enjoyment’ of this world, vision of a happier hereafter would always be a goal worth dying for.
Reform of Islamiyya education should be at the heart of any post-Boko Haram plan. These schools have to be repackaged as credible pathways to pursuing professional and other careers of economic values. This is not about promoting Islam; it is about recognising the fact that we are equally imperiled by the failure of a system that provides a recruitment ground for any lunatic that comes along in the name of religion.
The third challenge is that of redefinition. As a Muslim, I feel personally embarrassed by the kind of evil that Boko Haram has perpetrated in the name of my religion. It is good to see that the condemnation of Boko Haram has come from both Saudia Arabia and Egypt, the epicentres of Islamic theology and scholarship respectively.
However, it appears that over the years we Muslims have surrendered the task of defining our religion to pathologically sadistic, self-assigned custodians of the Islamic faith in whose warped understanding, as Ziauddin Sardar noted, Shari’a has only one rule: “kill everybody who disagrees with you, or is seen by you as deviant, or breaks your rule.” The Holy Qur’an says there is no compulsion in religion, yet the Shari’a of these self-appointed custodians prescribes death penalty for “apostasy.” Nowhere in the Qur’an is there anything even remotely related to stoning. Yet, their Shari’a prescribes death by stoning for adultery while making no distinction between adultery and rape.
The big question therefore is what should be the goal of Muslim politics in a multi-cultural and complex country like Nigeria? We Muslims must have the courage to acknowledge that some aspects of the Islamic law were socially constructed and were intended to serve sundry purposes for a different era. We therefore need to update these laws and bring them in sync with the reality of modern existence and in consonant with Qur’anic principles of social justice, equity, peace, forgiveness and mercy. Unless those who have the moral and intellectual credentials to define Islam speak up now, we would continue to have depraved people like the leaders of Boko Haram doing dirt to the name of Islam and a compassionate and loving God reduced to a coercive one that is oppressive of women.
Members of the Christian elite also have a crucial role to play. From what I have seen as responses to Boko Haram, it appears that a major section of the Christian elite is driven more by the emotionalism of Nigeria’s identity politics than by a genuine concern to help bring peace to our country. Scare-mongering about some Islamic conspiracy somewhere would always stand in the way of clear thinking on the true nature of the problem that we are faced with. This is why we must salute Bishop Mathew Kukah for his usual lucidity on this matter. This is not about Muslim versus Christians. This is about a band of anarchists waging a war against all of us, and we stand a better chance of defeating them if we stand together and resist paranoid reaction to anything labelled Islamic.
* Abdullahi is a former Minister of Sports/Chairman National Sports Commission and former Minister of Youth Development.