Tuesday, May 20, 2014 12:42 pm
Boko Haram, the Nigerian terror outfit, has a field day reaping foot soldiers made available by a variety of social problems
The UK Bello Arts Theatre in the heart of Minna, Niger State is one of the few events centres preferred by urbane residents of the city. Naturally, you would expect that urchins should never be on sight, especially if a gathering is not for feasting and merriment. But the story is otherwise; they lurk in every corner, once the gates are open. This reporter and his colleagues attended a literary event held in that edifice about a year ago. As the programme dragged on, we excused ourselves to eat in a nearby makeshift restaurant. As the stewards served the food, young boys of about 5-11 years suddenly rushed in and began to mill around, clad in threadbare and torn clothes. A friend who hadn’t been to that part of the country became apprehensive. On our prodding, he stayed on, albeit, uncomfortably. As the stranger among us left his food to request for water across the counter, his plate became the cause of a scuffle between the uninvited guests. We felt pity and relieved comically watching the boys feast on the leftovers on our plates. Across the northern region of Nigeria, this is how almajiri or young Islamic students, generation after generation fend for themselves – scavenging.
Poverty and opulence thrive in northern Nigeria on parallel lines. Wretchedness compounded by lack of information degrades majority of the populace. And because the need to meet daily existential needs exists, such people engage in all sorts of things to stay afloat. There are communities where schools and health care facilities are absent. Bill Clinton, the former president of the USA, was choking with disgust when he decried entrenched poverty in the North, linking it to the religious intolerance ravaging that part of the nation. “You have to somehow bring economic opportunity to the people who don’t have it. You have all these political problems – and now violence problems – that appear to be rooted in religious differences and all the rhetoric of the Boko Haram and others. But the truth is the poverty rate in the North is three times of what it is in Lagos,” he told an audience at an award ceremony in Abeokuta last year.
Earlier this month, American Secretary of State, John Kerry also underlined poverty as fodder for the Boko Haram insurgence. Addressing a conference, Kerry noted that rapacity of want has got to a level where young people in the affected region prefer to embrace belligerent means of making their voices heard to the belated opportunities to eradicate poverty. The envoy was quoted as saying “They all talked about poverty and the need to alleviate poverty, and that much of this challenge comes out of this poverty. Their minds [Boko Haram] are bended, and then the money doesn’t matter anymore. They’ve got the minds, and they begin to direct them to these very extreme endeavours,” Kerry told a conference in Washington DC.
The recruitment drive of the Islamists is enhanced by the prevalent poverty in the zone. At its cradle, Boko Haram recruited foot soldiers from idle young people who were extremely enthralled with the prospects of Islamisation of the region. But, as the need for expansion grew, the prospective and eventual targets were peasant farmers, unemployed youths, disenchanted adults forsaken by the society. A national daily recently quoted a Maiduguri Borno State-based Islamic preacher as saying that the outlawed group forcibly recruits young men from the villages to fight. With the coercion of farmers to join in the jihad train, “Poverty and deprivation increased”. Last year, the International Crisis Group arrived at a premise that “many youths in the North lack education, have few or no skills and are hardly employable. Idle, they are easily recruited by anti-state militia groups”, the ICG said in a report.
Boko Haram is fertilised by interconnecting factors. Besides poverty and want, a misrepresentation of the teachings of Islam drives the sect wild. While adherents portray Islam as a religion of peace, Boko Haram and other splinter groups approach their belief with so much ferocity and consider unbelievers as infidels who deserve to be exterminated. This is despite of the fact that Nigeria is a secular state. Popular Islamic scholar, Abumazeedah AbdulRauf like many scholars, repudiates Boko Haram’s abhorrence of western education. At a recent book exhibition, AbdulRauf noted that “Prophet Mohammed never postulated mathematical theory but those who came after him developed a technique of mathematics and today, it is beneficial to the world. So, to assume that western education is a sin is indeed a thought of the misguided mind, it’s not part of Islamic thinking.” Sheik Sani Yahaya Jingir, national chairman of the Jama’atul izalatul Sunnah, another prominent sect in Nigeria, believes that Boko Haram is a tool in the hands of some people who want to tarnish the reputation of Islam. “These security challenges in the country and in the North-east in particular have left the zone as worst-hit due to the current activities of Boko Haram and they are sponsored to spoil the image of Islam,” the clergyman alleged. The thread that Islam promotes peaceful cohabitation is glaring in countries like Turkey and Senegal which have largely Muslim populations practising secularism.
Contrary to subtle approach to Islamic evangelisation enshrined in the Quran, extremists pursue their deadly crusade with a maddening vigour. Thus, groups exploit the religious fault lines in the country to the hilt. With a low literacy ratio in the North-east, its operational base, Boko Haram extends its toxic doctrine to the public yielding multitudes of undiscerning followers in the process.
The appreciable quotient in terms of recruitment drive recorded by Boko Haram is blamed on the sparse literacy ratio in the north. The almajiri system of education [which is just being reformed] for example, was based exclusively on Islamic education. The young students were sent away from home at tender ages to itinerant clerics, the majority of whom were incapable of providing the basic needs of their trainees. This model of education bred young people who grew to be dependent. And without a skill to eke a living, such youths constitute a ready-mob waiting to be exploited by a violence-inclined non-conformist. Sometimes the young minds end up in the net of an extremist who indoctrinates them with sermons that have no respect for life or laws of the society.
Drug abuse among youths in the North is a factor in the spiralling crime wave in the area, and preparing an army of recruits for Boko Haram. Last year, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency published a list of drug-prone states. Kano topped the list. This was at a time when terrorist attacks in Kano were a daily routine. Some of the substances commonly abused include; codeine, marijuana, gum. Some culprits seek to satisfy their appetite by sniffing lavatories and gutters, despite the health hazards. The harmony between drug abuse and violence is not difficult to find. Garba Ahmadu, NDLEA Commandant in Kano, expressed dismay at the rate of drug abuse by Kano youths: “It is a painful fact that Kano tops the drug use chart in Nigeria, a trend that all hands must be on deck to change if we are to save our upcoming generation from ruin.” Besides the menace of substance use, unemployment and broken homes are other variables that have led to a collapse of the value system in the region, with Boko Haram the biggest beneficiary.
It is the recognition of the havoc wrought by long-term negligence that is nudging the current crop of state governors in the region to reverse some of the enduring abnormalities. Attempts are being made by many states to reform the educational system by combing western and Arabic methods of instruction. Craft-making and skill centres are springing up to augment theoretical lessons. It is hoped that with a new curriculum that propagates rounded education of students, some of the myths that Boko Haram embedded in its lethal messages will be unraveled and checkmated.