By Salisu Suleiman
It is said that when you notice a neighbour’s beard on fire, sprinkle water on yours; in other words, when you detect trouble from afar, try to resolve it even if it doesn’t affect you directly, because left to spread, it may engulf everyone.
When reports of disturbances between an obscure sect and the police first came to light a few years ago, northern elders turned a blind eye; it was someone else’s beard on fire, not theirs. When the clashes grew more violent and the name of the sect surfaced, they still paid no heed, though the fire was spreading. And when the confrontation became a virtual war, they kept mute when government ordered the sect to be ‘crushed’.
The security forces went in with a sledgehammer, killing and destroying indiscriminately. Grenades, mortar and artillery were reportedly used to pulverize even residential areas. The leaders of the sect were caught and executed in cold blood. The air in Maiduguri and its environs had the stench of decomposing bodies for weeks.
What the ‘elders’ didn’t realise was that the fire had spread beyond beards or even villages; the entire land was ablaze. But because only the poor and powerless were dying, the northern establishment did not intervene. So the fire spread from Borno and Yobe to Bauchi, Gombe, Kano, Kaduna, Adamawa, Niger and the FCT. Soon, the targets were no longer just security operatives; anyone and everyone was fair game.
Today, that obscure sect has grown to become one of the most violent terrorist groups in Africa. We call them Boko Haram. Initially, they simply wanted to live on the fringes of society to practice their peculiar interpretation of Islam, however warped. The transformation began when their leaders were executed in cold blood, prompting revenge attacks on security agents. When neither the government nor ‘elders’ acted responsibly, the group progressed to indiscriminate killings and bombings.
In other words, the fire of Boko Haram is now burning everyone. Which explains why, after years of inactivity bordering on imperious contempt, a group of ‘elders’ from the north finally realized that their beards, too, was on fire. Perhaps, it was the Emir of Kano’s close shave with death that sent a clear message, though before him, at least two other emirs had narrowly escaped death at the hands of terrorists who have no comprehension of the concept of collateral damage.
Having to failed to sprinkle water on their beards when that of the poor masses were on fire, the northern elders are now responding in panic; not only are they sprinkling water on their beards, they are jumping into the well. Yes, jumping into the well, more than anything else, describes the too little, too late reaction by the northern elders to the crises that has killed thousands of people in the last four years.
Do they even understand the import of amnesty, or the terms under which amnesties can be granted? How can you offer amnesty to someone who has a gun to you head? Expectedly, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shakau retorted, “Boko Haram has not committed any wrong to deserve amnesty. Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you (government) pardon”.
How can there be talk of amnesty without negotiations or even a ceasefire? The appeal and subsequent offer of amnesty to Boko Haram was a panic reaction and a wrong approach to a long-festering problem. In essence, it is an attempt to sidestep the fundamental issues of poverty, exploitation, mismanagement and injustice by northern political leadership that watered the ground for the rise of Boko Haram.
To compound matters, the 26 member amnesty panel announced by Jonathan is akin to sending the wrong emissaries with the wrong message at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons: the violence we see today is a reaction to decades poverty, inequality, illiteracy and hopelessness among large swathes of the North’s population – problems that were created and nurtured by the same elders now clamoring for amnesty. It is instructive that the two persons known to have had direct contact with Boko Haram – Shehu Sani and Datti Ahmed declined to serve on the panel.
That Jonathan even accepted the amnesty idea shows he is yet to understand the socio-economic dynamics of northern Nigeria, unless the crisis is serving his not-so-hidden reelection agenda. If he wasn’t doing the same thing to Nigerians, he would have told the elders: “Stop looting public funds, stop rigging elections to impose unpopular leaders, run transparent governments, do not deny ordinary folks justice, stop using religion to defraud your people, end endemic corruption, poverty and inequality ….”
Ultimately, whether we accept it or not, and whether the group even realises it or not, Boko Haram is not about Islamizing Nigeria, nor even about Islam: The activities of a few thousand hopelessly brainwashed young men do not define Nigeria’s tens of millions of Muslims. But then, that is what happens if you pretend not to notice when your neighbors beard is on fire.
A version of this article was originally published on the author's blog