With the dreaded Islamist terrorist organization, Boko Haram, ravaging parts of the north and with ethnic tensions and sectarian strife simmering all over the country, there is no gainsaying the fact that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and its fastest growing economy, is a nation at the crossroads.
The presidential and gubernatorial elections will take in February next year engulfed in what will undoubtedly be an atmosphere of tension, fear and deep concern for many.
The country has a population of 160 million people roughly divided between a predominantly Muslim north where approximately 50 per cent of the people reside and a predominantly Christian south where the other 50 per cent hail from.
Nigeria has a higher population of Christians and Muslims than any other nation on the African continent. Ever since she gained her independence from the British in 1960, there have been varying degrees of friction between the two groups.
This led to a brutal civil war, which was as ethnic as it was religious in nature, between the predominantly Christian Igbo tribe from the south-east and the rest of Nigeria from 1967 till 1970 in which over 2 million people lost their lives.
The basic challenge and fundamental problem that Nigeria faces is the fact that the north, which is dominated by the Muslim Hausa-Fulani tribe and ruling elite and which, either directly or through carefully selected fellow northern surrogates, has ruled Nigeria for close to 40 of it’s 54 years of existence, believe that they have lost out in the administration of power.
They believe that President Goodluck Jonathan, who is a southern Christian from the minority Ijaw tribe in the oil-producing Niger Delta area, must not be allowed to return to power next year under any circumstances on the simple basis that he is not a northerner and that he is not a Muslim.
They also believe that under Mr. Jonathan leadership, the Muslim north has lost out badly in terms of the sharing of government patronage. The reaction to this ‘’power must return to the north’’ mindset of the Muslim north from the Christian south is one of utter defiance.
They seek to send a clear message to the north in next year’s Presidential election that they are not second-class citizens, that they are not slaves, that Jonathan has the right to seek a fresh mandate and that the Muslim north was not somehow inherently ”born to rule”.
Boko Haram has added a new and horrendous dimension to the unfolding script of Nigeria by slaughtering no less than 20,000 innocent civilians in Nigeria in the last three years alone. They behead, bomb, burn and mutilate their victims, many of whom are children, in the most ruthless, brazen and chilling fashion.
They have also abducted thousands of young girls, subjected them to rape, forced them to convert to Islam, ”married” them off and sold them into slavery in distant foreign lands. This includes the ”Chibok girls”, a group of 300 young girls that were callously abducted from their school dormitories in the dead of the night.
Boko Haram’s objective is to establish a Muslim fundamentalist state, in the ISIS mold, in the whole of northern Nigeria. They seek to establish a new caliphate where 6th century Islamic sharia law is practiced, where Christianity and all other faiths are banned, where Christians and non-Muslims are compelled to convert to Islam or are killed and where the most radical and extreme form of Islam is practiced.
In this respect they can be compared to the dreaded Taliban government that held sway in Afghanistan from 1996 till 2001. They are the quintessential jihadists, indulging in the most extreme forms of violence, including both male and female suicide bombings.
Like the Al Nusra Front in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, ISIS in Iraq and Al Shabbab in East Africa, they wholeheartedly espouse the most radical form of salifist and wahabbi philosophies.
They are backed and funded by Al Qaeda in the north African Maghreb and they are covertly supported by high-ranking elements within the northern Muslim political ruling elite who see them as a useful tool to fight President Jonathan and to give him sleepless nights.Boko Haram has managed to capture some northern Nigerian towns, including Gwoza, in the last few weeks.
They have also seized a number of Nigerian villages and communities in the far northeastern part of the country where they now fly their flag and administer the territory.
They are no longer just a bunch of ruthless terrorists but they are now a well-trained, well-funded, well-motivated and fully committed rebel army that is giving the Nigerian military a very hard fight.
Whether next year’s Presidential election in Nigeria will result in chaos and degenerate into the break-up of the country into two or whether they manage to pull back from the brink, conduct a free and fair election and stay together as one nation remains to be seen. There is little doubt that Nigeria is a nation that has reached the proverbial crossroads, in every sense of its meaning.
She will either remain a united, secular, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic modern pluralistic state where human rights, civil liberties and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are guaranteed by the constitution, or she will explode, breaking up and plunging into fratricidal butchery along ethnic and religious lines, presenting the world with the most horrific civil war that Africa has ever witnessed.
Whatever the outcome, Nigeria needs the support, dare I say, the prayers, of the international community more than ever.