Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, blames government inaction and political corruption in Nigeria for the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Soyinka said the recent attack, as well as other violence perpetrated by the Islamist movement, was known about in advance, and blamed politicians for failing to act, directing particular anger at the President Goodluck Jonathan.
“I have spoken to a number of security, really top security officers, and there’s no question at all that information has always been available and passed on to governance. But you see, when powerful people are involved in a situation of social anomie of this kind, and one… set of power brokers is seeking support from another then there’s a tendency to paper over, to pretend that the virus that is being grown is really of a very negligible kind,” said Soyinka, Nigeria’s most important living novelist.
Soyinka was himself inadvertently responsible for starting the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls that has been heard around the world. Last year, Soyinka joined an initiative by Jonathan to encourage reading. In a speech last month, Soyinka spun his support for that program into a highly vocal call for action on behalf of the missing school girls, about whom at the time very little was being said.
“I wanted Jonathan to get off his butt and stop treating this episode in a perfunctory manner,” said Soyinka.
He took the name of Jonathan’s reading campaign — “Bring Back the Book” — and turned it into a personalized call to arms. “Bring back the pupils,” Soyinka told the crowd at the end of his speech. But he was, he told BuzzFeed, speaking directly to Jonathan.
“It was addressed to him in fact, to say look, yes, we were together on a platform, ‘bring back the book,’ and now you’ve got to stop playing around with this crisis. We want the pupils back,” Soyinka said by telephone from Los Angeles.
Soyinka is incensed at the way the kidnapping has been handled. The Nigerian military initially said it had rescued the girls, a claim it retracted the next day. Nearly three weeks after the abduction of more than 300 teenage girls from their dormitory in Chibok, a village in the north, on April 15, Jonathan’s wife, Patience, claimed the kidnapping was a hoax. And this week, Amnesty International reported that the security forces had several hours’ warning about the attack but did not or could not organize a greater security presence in the village.
Nigerians who come from or have family in the north, where Boko Haram operates, told BuzzFeed it’s common for letters to be sent advising that an attack may happen, and at a press conference this week the governor of Borno State, where the kidnapped girls had been living, recounted two instances where kidnappings had been averted thanks to a rapid response to such notifications.
But Soyinka believes there is something more serious underlying the current problems besetting Nigeria. A quick read of the country’s history, he argues, would suggest a much deeper problem: that whatever its distinct aims as a group, Boko Haram is not the first violent Islamist extremist movement to take hold in Nigeria.
“We had at one stage also an extreme Islamic movement called the Maitatsine, which was another deviant movement from Islam,” he said, referring to a violent Islamist insurrection led by Muhammadu Marwa, nicknamed Maitatsine (“he who curses others”), that killed thousands of Nigerians in the northern area in the early 1980s.
The Maitatsine have something else in common with Boko Haram: Standard security responses didn’t make much of a dent in their violence.
“Eventually Maitatsine had to be taken out by the combined forces of the military. First the police came, but the police retreated in defeat. Then the military came in, and they didn’t make too much progress, and they had to be taken out by the air force,” Soyinka said.
Soyinka sees other similarities between Maitatsine and Boko Haram. “They had a stockade, they kidnapped, killed, took wives — they just kidnapped and turned people into concubines and so on. And they grew powerful also, very similar to Boko Haram. Just as Boko Haram was sponsored by a number of politicians, the Maitatsine used to be courted at the time of elections by some other politicians in the stockade,” he said.
So Boko Haram is “not exactly a new phenomenon,” he said. “This time, of course, Boko Haram has been complicated by international alliances with external terrorists groups,” including Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and Al Shabaab, the Somali-based terrorist group behind last year’s attack that killed 67 people in an upmarket Nairobi shopping mall.
Like Islamist separatism in Nigeria, the political sponsorship of these activities also has a history, he said. When politicians “were struggling for power in the north… it was convenient to activate the religious sentiment of these brainwashed youth and actually use it against one another. That’s a fact,” Soyinka said.
Indeed, there are many echoes of Nigerian history in the Boko Haram crisis, and not only among violent Islamist movements. Nigeria’s oil-rich south has long had its own terrorist separatist group, known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a group whose kidnapping tactics Soyinka sees as a precursor to Boko Haram’s strategy.
“I’m afraid one of the problems we have in Nigeria, in the character that has evolved from different historical circumstances, maybe even economic circumstances, is the Nigerian propensity for imitation, for mimicry. Have you heard of the 419 Internet scam?” he asked, referring to an email scam offering people a hefty sum for sending a little bit of money up front to help move property, release an inheritance, or other wild promises. The scam was so common in Nigeria that it’s been named “419,” after the law it violates.
“The moment somebody embarks on some errant negative action, you may be sure it will just spread like wildfire, everybody becomes an acolyte of that negative,” he said.
“Once kidnapping began in the Delta region it spread to the rest of the country. You have students involved in kidnapping fellow students for ransom, even arranging their own kidnapping in order to extort money from their parents. It’s just — how that nation is going to recover from this proliferation of not just criminalism, but anti-humanity which seems to become embraced as a way of life, I’m not really sure.”
But Boko Haram isn’t just a copy-cat terror group, Soyinka said. The group wants to lead a breakaway Islamist state, and its message capitalizes on precedents “to structure and legitimize theocracy in Nigeria”. Those include separatism by legal means: Soyinka pointed to a governor, Ahmed Yerima, who installed sharia law in his Zamfara state, followed in quick succession by nine other Nigerian states
“Because [Yerima] was seeking power and he wanted to appeal to religious emotionalism, he … was able to rise to power by promising the sharia system in Nigeria,” Soyinka said. “This was clearly unconstitutional because Nigeria is a multi-religious country — or secular, whichever expression you prefer.
“Now, you’ll ask why did the [then] president of the nation not put a stop to it at once? Just simply say this is unconstitutional and if necessary, go and test it in court? He couldn’t do that because he was seeking political support from them in his endeavor to obtain an unconstitutional third term in office,” he said.
“That president was warned: He was warned by commentators within the nation, he was warned by external interests, by diplomats, by some countries, ‘Don’t let this happen’.” But he was “so busy wooing the support of these deviant states that he allowed it to pass,” said Soyinka, meaning that it became entrenched in those states. This caused a kind of domino effect, leading one state to follow another, eventually meaning that there were effectively two systems of law in the country.
“As the politicians used the extremists on their behalf, it just grew out of control, and then we had people actually demanding an Islamic state — and Boko Haram evolving from this toxic mixture of religion and politics until it became a force in itself,” he said. Once Boko Haram had enough power of its own, it could then turn on the political forces that once sponsored them, becoming a “plague on all the houses,” said Soyinka.
It’s also not the first time fundamentalist violence has gripped the national consciousness. “You remember what happened in the beauty queen episode [in 2002]? When the extreme Islamists said a beauty queen contest cannot hold in Abuja, and they went on a rampage and killed close to 300 people? Massive swaths of Abuja destroyed, private business destroyed, simply because a section of the people didn’t want a beauty contest? They couldn’t turn their heads away if they don’t like to see beauty,” Soyinka said, a note of sadness in his voice.
But he thinks Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping of female teenage students is different — different from past violence and different even for Boko Haram. The mass hostage taking is not their usual approach to attacks, and the last time Boko Haram assaulted a large group of school students, in February, the group killed them all on the spot.
“They’re just killers. They prefer to kill. This thing which has just happened about these girls is a shift in tactics,” he says. But like most people inside and outside Nigeria, Soyinka didn’t know if that makes it any more likely the girls will come home safe.
A group led by women in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, has been sitting in a public park daily, coordinating marches and rallies to keep pressure on the government to speed up a rescue, hoping that haste will help find them alive. They’ve met every day for nearly three weeks, and faced down police, to keep up the pressure.
That, Soyinka said, is also important, not just for the kidnapped girls, but for the state of Nigerian society.
“Nigerians, and that’s the way we are, everybody rallies around things. Okay, whatever the negligences of the past, now we have a common enemy. Let’s move against this enemy in a united manner,” he said. “And that also is one of the virtues of Nigerians.”