Nigerian writer, poet, playwright; Nobel Prize in Literature, 1986.
On November 16, 2002, a wannabe Ayatollah called Mamuda Aliyu Shinkafi, then Deputy governor of a newly created state in Nigeria — Zamfara — made the following public call:
“Like Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed. It is binding on all muslims, wherever they are, to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty.”
Who was Daniel? A young journalist who had reacted to a religious riot in the Nigerian capital Abuja, but ended up starting another of her own. A World Beauty contest was to take place in that city, but a handful of religious zealots demanded its cancellation — it supposedly offended their religious belief.
The ensuing riot was anything but spontaneous. At the end of some four hours of mayhem, the killers vanished, leaving in their wake over two hundred dead. In castigating the rioters, the young journalist had commented that, had the Prophet Mohammed been alive, he would most likely have married one of them. This was considered a supreme insult to the prophet. The President, vote hungry for a renewal of his tenure, raced to the largely moslem north on a mission of appeasement. Not a word against the killers, not a consoling nod to the victims, not one word of reprimand against a deputy governor for his open incitement to murder.
The name ‘Boko Haram’ had not been heard of at the time, and a cleric called Mohammed Yusuf had yet to actualize his jihadist cry of “Convert or Die.” Yusuf would later meet his end at the hands of the police. His extra-judicial killing is sometimes blamed for the violent transformation of a “peaceful” religious movement. This is one of those falsehoods — of the appeasement order — that fuelled the rise and rise of Boko Haram. Soon, it was no longer the ‘infidels’ that were deemed fit for slaughter. It was simply: The Rest, the “insufficiently or impurely Islamic.” Nigeria remains the deadly paradigm for the wages of appeasement.
Here comes another name — any random choice will do. Unlike Isioma Daniel, spirited out of Nigeria to a life in exile, Oluwatoyin Oluwaseesin, school teacher, did not escape. She perished miserably at the hands of her students at the Government Day Secondary School Gandu, in Gombe State, falsely accused of insulting the Koran. It was merely one of such killings that provoked a media headline: “Killing is Believing?” Boko Haram transcends detestation of Western or other forms of ‘unislamic’ education. It is the ultimate expression of a malignant outcrop of fanaticism in any cause. It involves, above all, the phenomenon of Power, the will to dominate, to control, to enforce conformity. Its facilitation is not limited to religion.
Class theories, the meat and drink of the radical intellectual class, are no less culpable. It is sad to state this, but this class often constitutes a deadly danger in the form of willful blindness to the material life as society — and indeed humanity — experience it. Nigeria is not alone in its early misplacement of emphasis by those who attempt to submerge the violence of religious fanatics under a class doctrine. Those undeniable realities — affluence versus poverty, social marginalization etc. — are contributory factors, but they constitute only an — albeit significant — fraction of the totality of causative factors. I refer specifically to glib propositions that the root cause of social upheavals will be found largely in social inequality. It sounds nicely progressive, but reconcile this who will, with a movement whose corrective manifesto against any exploitative order nonetheless relegates half of its humanity, its women, to a subservient, invisible role — and with violence if need be. This simply does not constitute a radical, or revolutionary manifesto, but immersion in the sump of retrogression — in creed and deed.
At least a year before the public naming of ‘Boko Haram,’ during a Lagos symposium, I posed this question, in relation to that other victim, the school teacher:
What manner of education is it that makes it possible for a group of secondary school pupils to consider it their right, their duty, indeed their solemn obligation to set upon their Teacher while invigilating their examination, put her to flight, pursue her into the home of the school principal where she has sought sanctuary, drag her out, strip her naked, beat her near senseless, place a tyre around her neck and set her on fire still breathing? This question awaits an urgent, clear-cut answer from sociologists, ideologues, psychiatrists, theologians, and the supposed agencies of Law.
It is clearly untenable to suggest that those assailants were victims of social deprivation, that they were imbued with the consciousness of social inequality that could only find expression by infliction of the most degrading kind of violence on a teacher, and one engaged on the duties of her profession. These were not ragged, malnourished schoolchildren. They were not part of the notorious almajari, the ever-accessible ‘foot soldiers’ who sometimes appear to have been named for their social place at the feet of mullahs, readied for the command to beg or — kill. On the contrary, they were well nourished, and the question is, what kind of nourishment had they imbibed? We speak now, not of the stomach, but of the mind.
The current travail of the Nigerian nation is neither unique, nor unpredicted. The virus of intolerance, injected from childhood, soon graduates into a deadly impulse towards the elimination of the designated outsider, wherever intolerance is permitted the status of the sacrosanct, and privileged over other component units of society. This has often proved the destiny of theocracies, even of the putative, wishful kind. Sooner or later it becomes a killing machine over which the erstwhile banner that reads ‘Killing is Believing’ is replaced with ‘Not Killing is Damnation.’