Boko Haram and the ethnicity narrative

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LAST week, a suspected ‘operational commander’ of Boko Haram was allegedly arrested in the Farawa Quarter of the city of Kano. If it was an indication of ‘success’ by the under fire Nigerian security forces, the preferred manner of reportage and one which most Nigerian newspapers sensationalised, was that this ‘operational commander’, Suleiman Muhammed, was a Yoruba man! In an immediate riposte, couched in the necessary anger  that befitted the ethnic disgust (and denial) reserved for such an occasion, THE NATION newspaper of Sunday, May 13th, 2012, led with a report that the Yoruba (race?) had disowned the alleged commander: “A group of concerned natives of Ogbomosho dismissed the reports as ‘suspicious and lacking in clarity’”

A spokesman, Mr. Afolabi Omotoso, responded that: “we are saying with all emphasis that there is no Ogbomosho indigene bearing that name (Suleiman Muhammed)”. Even a source from the palace of the traditional ruler of Ogbomosho, the Soun, was quoted as saying “we’ll want to know more about the suspect. Who is his father and from which compound or adugbo(ward) does he come from”.

The former secretary of the Yoruba community in Kano added that the arrested individual was not known to the community, because “the Yoruba in the metropolis network very well”. The ‘ethnic’ denial goes on and on! Unfortunately, the mystification about a Yoruba man, not being a member of Boko Haram, or the denial of the origins of the alleged ‘operational commander’, merely shows the depth of sickness which the ethnicity narrative represents in the Nigerian national space today.

Those who deny Suleiman Muhammed’s ‘Yoruba’ origin, operate from some mistaken assumptions which have made it difficult for many of our compatriots, especially from the South, to understand the depth of the crisis associated with the Boko Haram insurgency. One of these assumptions is that because Boko Haram was allegedly some form of Northern conspiracy, a Southerner or a Yoruba person could not have been a member.

But the fact that in recent months we have heard of Igbo, Igala and Yoruba members, has defeated the ethnic and regionalist arguments. The Yoruba terrorist organisation, the OPC, had also warned severally of retaliatory attacks, if Boko Haram ever operated Yorubaland. Again, the basis of its posturing must be located in the fixation with an ethnic understanding of the complex dynamics of social breakdown and insurgency, especially the Boko Haram insurgency.

Many others reduce analysis to the more outlandish statements allegedly from spokespersons of the group. But why should we be surprised that Nigerians from all parts of the country, or of different ethnic origins can be members of the Boko Haram organisation? Social dynamics are far richer than the simplistic frames of ethnic jingoism, the preferred mode of understanding Nigeria, amongst sections of the political and media elite.

Fundamentally, Boko Haram is both religious and ideological. A cursory understanding of the history of Islam, reminds that it was not and never was a racist religion. One of the earliest companions of the Prophet Muhammad was Bilal, of Ethiopian origin, who was in fact, the first Muezzin in Islamic history.

There were outstanding black war commanders and diplomats in those early years of Islamic consolidation. Given this background, it shouldn’t surprise that a Suleiman Muhammed from Ogbomosho, can be arrested as ‘operational commander’ of Boko Haram.

The ideological element must also not be discounted! I went to work in the Nigerian Socialist movement from the age of 16. We were driven by a strong ideological commitment, with comrades from all over Nigeria and even beyond, because of the internationalist basis of Marxism. The ethnic origins or religious confessions of comrades were secondary to the commitments we had to the struggle. Whoever has been forged in an ideological crucible, will understand how ideological commitment can and does trounce ethnicity.

Besides, those playing the ethnic card have also conveniently forgotten the migrations of peoples around Nigeria and their absorption into the host cultures all over the country. This is a process which takes place every day, in ways that most of us do not seem to appreciate in a nuanced manner. However, in the ethnic narrative, history froze and peoples can be simplistically separated into unchanging ‘tribes’, ‘ethnicities’ or even ‘races’, which ethnic entrepreneurs can ride on for political advantages.

This inadequate platform has for too long been used to negotiate advantage by groups of the elite in Nigeria. The narrative becomes more strident, fascistic and threatening in moments of national crisis, as we now have in the country.

I think the fact that Nigerians from other ethnic backgrounds have been discovered to belong to Boko Haram, other than the simplistic assumptions about ‘Northerners’, ‘Hausa-Fulani’ (whatever that means anyway!) or ‘Kanuri’, culprits, who are allegedly a part of a ‘conspiracy’ against the Jonathan administration, has exploded the narrative of the Nigerian ethnic jingoists and ethnic entrepreneurs. It does not matter that Suleiman Muhammed was Yoruba, from Ogbomosho. His origins do not vitiate the fact that a combination of social circumstances has led some Nigerians to take up arms against the Nigerian state.

Our country’s ruling elite must find the means to locate the roots of the problem in order to solve them. The ethnic narrative is far too simplistic and often too reactionary, to be of any meaningful assistance. It obscures understanding of complex social phenomena! Just last week, even the National Security Advicer, Oweye Andrew Azazi, told a Northern Impact Summit in Kaduna, that failure to address economic hardship and lack of economic opportunity have “opened a fertile ground for recruitment, indoctrination, brainwashing and training of terrorists and other insurgents in the country”.

If that was the case, how could a Suleiman Muhammed from Ogbomosho, but resident and perhaps born in Kano, have escaped ‘the failure to address economic hardship and lack of economic opportunity’, that Azazi  spoke of? From the ethnic narrative, the fact that he was Yoruba must automatically have given him such ‘immunity’, apparently. That is the absurd cul-de-sac that the ethnic narrative can lead to!

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