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Update: This article was posted before Nigerian election authorities postponed the polls until March 28, 2015.
As Nigeria’s 14 February general election approaches, the menace of Boko Haram has intensified. Attacks are more frequent and brutal. No Nigerian is entirely safe.
In Baga, a community in Borno state in Nigeria’s north-east, over 2000 people were reportedly killed in a single attack in January. Boko Haram is easily one of the world’s deadliest terror groups — a group that slit 61 school boys’ throats in a raid; that straps bombs on 10 year-olds; that has kept 276 school girls abducted for almost a year and is abducting more; that has killed over 30,000 Nigerians and left over 3 million displaced.
The group now controls a land mass the size of Costa Rica, collects taxes, has its own emirs and has declared a caliphate incorporating parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. On 25 January 2014, the group, in a very daring move, made efforts to seize Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.
Boko Haram’s activities are not restricted to the north-eastern part of Nigeria as generally believed. The attacks on the UN headquarters and police headquarters in Abuja, the federal capital city, and several other deadly assaults occurred in Nigeria’s north central states.
The group’s attacks have stagnated economic growth in the north east and weakened diplomatic relations between Nigeria and neighbouring countries. In an escalation, Chadian troops have attacked Boko Haram positions in Nigeria, the BBC reported on 3 Feb.
While the group has consistently reiterated that it is out to Islamise Nigeria, a good number of Nigerians — Muslims and Christians alike — find this implausible.
Initially it was a convincing strategy because the group targeted mostly Christian places of worship and a few government institutions. Over time, however, the attacks became more random and less deliberate. Individuals of different ethnic groups and religious convictions were dragged off buses and killed in vile operations in broad daylight, typically lasting several hours with no interruption from security agencies. Entire villages have been ransacked regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Some Nigerian Christians however, opt to stick with Boko Haram’s initial script, pointing out that the group’s attacks bear a close resemblance to those of ISIS, known to have a very low tolerance for people of other faiths and liberal Muslims. A handful of northern Muslims agree with this line of thought.
There are also those who believe the group is being funded by some members of the northern Islamic political elite for selfish gain. Such theories appear to have basis in fact. At least one sitting senator and a former governor of Borno state, have been closely linked at various times to the group. Why none of them have been investigated leaves most Nigerians baffled.
There are other theories about the rise of Boko Haram that pin the blame on the government. This line of reasoning cites the president’s southern heritage for a lack of interest with the violence in the north. Southerners are seen to be taking vengeance for the loss of lives and property suffered at the hands of northerners during the Biafran War of 1967. Boko Haram also presents another route for siphoning Nigeria’s funds into private accounts.
The accusations of a self-acclaimed Australian “negotiator”, Stephen Davies, that Nigeria’s former Chief of Defence Staff, Major General Azubuike Ihejirika, a southern Christian, was actively involved in funding Boko Haram activities while working to undermine Nigeria’s army, resonated with many Nigerians of northern extraction who believe the current administration is out to cripple the region. Some southerners, on the other hand, say the northerners brought Boko Haram upon themselves and should therefore reap the fruits of their folly. Such people neither see Boko Haram as a national threat nor believe there is any truth to some of the harrowing stories coming out of the north, viewing them simply as an attempt to frustrate President Goodluck Jonathan, himself a southern Christian, out of office.
The media in Nigeria, despite their seeming independence, are divided along political lines depending on ownership. Government media are biased in favour of the government while the private media lean towards the political loyalty of the owner. Accountability to the citizens is low.
Investigative reporting on the situation in the north by local media is limited. Local journalists are quick to point out that they lack the support of their respective organizations to report these stories. The lack of insurance, social benefits or recognition in the event of death is also cited as reasons for this reluctance. Indeed several media houses have been attacked without any response from the authorities.
Nigerians will often quote foreign press in authenticating their stories, since other local sources are generally viewed as suspect. For instance, while authorities put the deaths in Baga at 150–based primarily on guess work, foreign media reported 2,000 deaths based on satellite imagery and interviews with some who escaped the carnage.
The military appears helpless. Stories are told of soldiers who trade their arms for mufti from the locals or wear civilian clothes under their uniforms in order to enhance escape in the event of an attack. Boko Haram is considered more brutal to soldiers.
In a recent interview with CNN anonymous soldiers said that supplies and incentives are low, morale is lacking and wounded soldiers are made to pay for their treatment. A spokesperson for the military has since denied these allegations, labelling the claims “satanic”. There has been at least one incident of mutiny among the troops in the north.
Most Nigerians see BH as a threat to Nigeria’s development and would want an end to the menace. Life is now altered. Roads that were four lanes in the past are now narrowed to a lane or two in areas with a heavy government presence. The roads in the country are heavily guarded, and a general sense of unease and fear rules especially in northern Nigeria.
Will Nigerians speak to the situation in the coming presidential elections? Tough question. Ordinarily yes, Nigerians will respond by voting out a government that has shown a complete lack of determination, political will or focus to counter Boko Haram.
But this is Nigeria. The political elite have successfully used religion and ethnicity to divide the populace, wherein voting, even if it counts, will be coloured by ethnicity and religion. Even so, for the first time in the annals of Nigeria’s history, the president’s campaign convoy has been repeatedly stoned.
February 14, Valentine’s day, Nigeria’s Presidential elections day, will tell where the love truly lies.
The wording of Nigeria’s recent anti-gay marriage law is misleading and has provoked a spike in hate crime towards the homosexual community, according to leading human rights lawyer Rommy Mom. The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act 2013, which is yet to be published since it was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in January, outlaws gay marriage and relationships. It also makes it illegal for gay people to hold meetings, and outlaws the registration of homosexual clubs, organisations and associations. Those found to be participating in such acts face up to 14 years in jail.
Mom, who was nominated for the Index Freedom of Expression Advocacy Award for his work with Lawyers Alert, visited the Index office to speak about the current situation in Nigeria and the problems facing the LGBT community. “When the title is ‘Same Sex Marriage’ it’s not something many people are able to wrap their heads around…what it has done is to stir up some hate crimes against persons of different sexual preferences,” explained Mom. At the same time, the public are failing to take note of the other implications of the law to homosexuals hidden behind the title.
Mom referred to an attack on a group of at least half a dozen young men in a village on the outskirts of capital Abuja recently after the law was passed. The men, dragged from their homes in the middle of the night by villagers, were assaulted and battered, before the local police detained them. “We have a constitution where people are innocent until proven guilty,” Mom told Index, but that wasn’t the case here, and hasn’t been in many other recent cases.
But why has one word — “marriage” — resulted in an increase in violent crimes against the LGBT community? As Mom explained, the idea of same-sex marriage is a very Western notion (although, as he pointed out, only 19 states in America have legalised the act of civil unions) and is something the Nigerian people are uncomfortable with.
While same-sex marriage was not legal prior to the law coming into force, in some Nigerian cultures, including that of the Igbo people, women have been marrying other women for centuries for the benefit of their husbands — be it for economic or reproductive reasons. “It’s a situation that before now wasn’t there. Sexual differences have always been with us in Nigeria, we’ve lived with it and we’ve accepted it. It might come with some social stigma but people were not going out of their way to want to harm [homosexuals] or to incite hate,” Mom said.
“People have died because someone has labelled them a lesbian or a gay. But that’s what the law has cost in Nigeria.”
Rommy Mom is Nigeria’s David fighting the Goliath of a dysfunctional government. Mom, president of Lawyers Alert leads the campaign for human rights in Benue despite severe intimidation and threats for his life. Mom has not allowed circumstance to stagnate his vision for vocal and expressive liberation. In an interview with Index, the Index Awards nominee talked about his work in Nigeria and what motivates him to keep battling censorship inn his home country.
In mid-2012, floods led to casualties and loss of homes and livelihoods across Nigeria, with the Benue State one of the worst hit. Though some 500 million Nigerian naira of federal money were allegedly allocated to the people of Benue, the victims did not receive it. This prompted Mom to make use of Freedom of Information legislation to take Benue State Emergency Agency, the authority in charge of disbursing funds, to court.
He was subsequently attacked on a radio show by state governor Gabriel Torwua Suswam, and received phone calls from people close to the governor advising him to leave Benue or risk his life. According to local NGO Media Rights Agenda (MRA), “Benue state has a politically tense environment, so such a statement from a leader is an invitation for an attack on Rommy Mom.” The threats have gone uninvestigated, making it too risky for him to return home.
“Since the threat to my life, I have been forced to carry out my work from outside of Benue. This has not been easy, but it is part of the sacrifices and challenges of making accountability and transparency a currency in governance. The Freedom of Information Act is a critical starting point”, said Mom.
Mom has been nominated in the advocacy category for the Index Freedom of Expression Awards.