Four days of violence in Nigeria have left hundreds dead, destroyed towns and villages across the north, brought the cold-blooded police shooting of an Islamist rabble-rouser and left the outside world horrified. Nigeria, with 140 million people, is Africa’s largest country. It is also one of the most corrupt, unstable, unequal and fissiparous: in half a century of independence it has seen civil wars, separatist rebellions, military coups, ethnic vendettas and a terrible descent into virtual ungovernability. What happens in Nigeria matters not only to Africa: it affects the huge diaspora in Britain, distorts the oil market, drives international criminality and opens the gates to extremism and terrorism.
The latest violence comes after an uprising by a bizarre Islamist sect, Boko Haram, that urged followers in several northern states to attack police stations, prisons and churches and burn down schools in an attempt to enforce extreme Sharia and rid the country of all Western education. This is not the first such uprising in the north or the only time that militants, who model themselves on the Afghan Taleban, have clashed with federal authority. At least 10,000 people have been killed in sectarian clashes since the Government, attempting to appease the growing current of Islamic extremism after years of military dictatorship, allowed 12 of the northern states to proclaim Sharia. But President Yar’Adua now sees the very unity of Nigeria at stake. After a warning this week that the sect was preparing to unleash “holy war”, he ordered troops to eradicate Boko Haram once and for all.
The order has been carried out with indiscriminate brutality. House-to-house searches, gun battles and helicopter searches have killed sect members in scores. Their leader, a university dropout with a violent agenda and views so benighted that he asserted the world was flat and rain was not caused by evaporation but by Allah, was caught in a goats’ pen, and shot dead by police after begging for mercy. It is not only his followers who are outraged: many Nigerians and human rights activists have warned of inevitable reprisals and exacerbation of the nation’s religious divide.
The uprising, however, is just a symptom of the social breakdown that has made Nigeria so prone to violence. Rampant corruption has undermined even the feeble central government efforts to tackle social inequality, failing health and education systems, the stinking detritus burying most big cities and widespread unemployment. The oil boom has only exacerbated corruption and inequality, and the dreadful conditions in the Niger Delta have spawned an endemic rebellion, regular kidnappings and crime syndicates that siphon off so much oil that total production is running at millions of barrels below capacity.
Into this maelstrom have stepped Islamist extremists. Al-Qaeda has identified Nigeria as fertile ground for its nihilist message, just as it saw Somalia, another failing African state, as a new base for its operations. It is swiftly spreading the jihadist message, exploiting the unease over Sharia by pushing for the most extremist interpretation and recruiting Nigerians as new agents to infiltrate Western society. This is extremely alarming. There is a large Nigerian community in most European countries, and an especially big one in Britain. Already there are fears that organised crime is exploiting the link to racketeering. If al-Qaeda can recruit sleepers among still largely moderate Muslims living in the West, the security services have a nightmare on their hands.
Nigerians are desperate to see better government in Abuja. The onus is now on President Yar’Adua to overcome doubts about his democratic legitimacy, grasp the urgency of Nigeria’s situation and save a failing state before he is swept away by violence, despair or another coup.