mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Nigerian President: This Crisis Worse Than Biafra

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan told a church audience today that the country’s current crisis is worse than the Biafran secession crisis that plunged Nigeria into a bitter civil war in the last century.

He warned his audience that Boko Haram, the pseudo-Islamic fanatical sect that believes all modern knowledge should be banned, has sympathizers within the Nigerian government itself, including the military and the police. The sect has stunned Nigeria by demanding that all Christians leave the historically Muslim north, killing hundreds of people to back up its threats.

President Jonathan has his own reasons to play up the threat. The government’s decision to drop fuel subsidies has Muslims and Christians enraged across the country; for many ordinary people, cheap gas is the only benefit they ever see out of the country’s vast oil wealth. Many believe that generations of Nigerian politicians, not excluding the current rulers, have grown rich on oil money and corruption. President Jonathan would just as soon Nigerians change the subject, and civil war is even more interesting than the price of gas.

Also, as a Christian whose succession to the presidency is seen by many Muslim northerners as a violation of the compromise by which Christians and Muslims rotate the presidency (Jonathan’s Muslim predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua died before completing his term and many Muslims think Jonathan, vice president at the time, should not have run for a full term on his own), Jonathan needs to keep the base happy.  Boko Haram’s attacks have frightened and enraged Christians across the divided country; Jonathan needs to show that he cares or the reaction could get out of control.

Yet it would be wrong to dismiss President Jonathan as an alarmist. There are Muslims in Nigeria who have nothing but contempt for Boko Haram’s ignorance and fanaticism, but who are genuinely worried that power is slipping out of the north’s hands. Since the Biafran War the Christian population of Nigeria has exploded, with many practitioners of traditional African religions embracing Christianity.  (At independence there were about twice as many Muslims as Christians in Nigeria. Today the numbers are roughly even.) Meanwhile, the oil rich south has developed faster than the north, and the more entrepreneurial and globally savvy southern Nigerians are moving ahead faster than the more conservative north.

For most of its history, Nigeria has been dominated by the north. That era may be ending, and this is what makes Boko Haram such a problem. Many northerners who care nothing about Boko Haram’s eccentric theology feel threatened by the power shift to the increasingly Christian south. Poorly educated young men with a sense of grievance and few economic prospects are the fuel for civil war; both northern and southern Nigeria are rich in this combustible human material. Mix ethnic and religious tensions in with economic competition, and you get a situation where a small match can set off a huge fire.

Boko Haram aims to be that match. In Nigeria today, religion is hot.

Features Icon
show comments
  • jeffrey Cronheim

    Mr. Meade,

    Many thanks for this and other postings. Two questions, though:

    1. Why do you refer to Boko Haram as “pseudo-Islamic”?
    2. What, precisely, is “eccentric” about Boko Haram’s theology?

    Best regards,

    Jeff Cronheim

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Jeffrey Cronheim: Boko Haram bears about the same relationship to orthodox Sunni Islam as cults like the Waco cult do to ordinary Protestant Christianity. I’ve met many Muslims in Nigeria and elsewhere who think groups like this live out on the far edges of lala land. The cult uses an Islamic vocabulary and tries to capitalize on Islamic themes in various ways, but traditional Nigerian Islam doesn’t look much like this. That’s not to say that there aren’t some problematic elements in more mainstream Islamic discourse, or that there aren’t some commonalities between these and some of what Boko Haram talks about, but your ordinary Nigerian Muslim has roughly zero interest in precipitating an apocalyptic religious war.

  • Kris

    There is proof that Islam and Christianity can coexist in Nigeria. From Wikipedia: “50.4% of Nigeria’s population were Muslims, 50.8% were Christian.”

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The backward Islamic culture does a very poor job providing for growth and success of its adherents. In Nigeria we see a clear contrast between the rump of a Christian western culture and Islamic culture. This supports my thesis of cultural evolution, that when a superior culture meets an inferior culture, the inferior culture must change and adapt, or die.
    Mankind is now evolving thousands of times faster culturally than it is genetically, and cultures change with glacial speed.
    It seems to me that Islamic culture is mostly refusing to change and adapt, and has chosen to die. It’s like the form of suicide called “Death by Policeman”, where the suicide fires on the police and they shoot him dead. The Islamic culture is attacking every other culture on Earth, and they know they will be killed for doing so, “Death by Superior Culture”.

  • Toni

    “Poorly educated young men with a sense of grievance and few economic prospects are the fuel for” lots of trouble in this country, too.

  • ari

    Jeffrey is exactly right. WRM makes the same mistake as the main stream media who does not understand radical Islamic groups. Who is mead to tell the thousands or millions that support radical Islamic groups that they are not real Muslims!? Are the Muslim Brotherhood real Muslims? If you are to claim that jihadi Salafists are not Muslims you are making a large claim that needs to be backed up by facts.

    See Pipes and Rubin on this, among others – these groups have valid interpretations of the texts and quote directly from Islamic sources.

  • ari

    On Mead’s response to jeffrey Cronheim:
    Just because you talked to a Muslim in Nigeria or that there exist ‘traditional Sunni Muslims’ does not have any bearing on the matter at hand – weather Boko Haram is an Islamic movement. In that case we can also ask if al-Qaida, Iran, Hizballah, and Muslim Brotherhood movements are Islamic? According to Mead’s logic, they are not because I can go find a regular Muslim in the street in all of these locations who say they are against the violence.

    And what makes you think that a Muslim will tell you in English what they really think about the attacks? Taqiyya (dissimulation) is justified in the Quran. Show me how these groups are unIslamic.

    Quran quote calling for terror:
    Arberry Translation: “Make ready for them whatever force and strings of horses you can, to terrify thereby the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them that you know not; God knows them. And whatsoever you expend in the way of God shall be repaid you in full; you will not be wronged.”

    [47:4]: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them…”

    [8:67]: “It is not for any Prophet to have prisoners until he make wide slaughter in the land,…”

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ari: you can find lots of very violent things in the Jewish (and therefore Christian) scriptures as well — and you can find many violent deeds in Christian and Jewish history.

  • ari

    Arberry quote from Quran above is from 8:60.

  • ari

    Also this sorry attempt at cultural relativism is absurd. Toni claims that poor and uneducated youths lead to the crisis. If so then why were the 9/11 hijackers upper middle-class educated people? why are many radicals involved in Islamist groups also not poor but professionals.

    Mead’s comparison to Waco is also a non-starter. From the little I know about the Koresh cult, he claimed himself to be a prophet of some sort and obviously went against Christian doctrine. In the Islamists case, their interpretation can be supported by the texts.

  • ari

    It seems you have swallowed hook, line and sinker the Esposito narrative of radical Islam.

    According to Pew, around 50% of Muslims in Nigeria support Bin Laden and thus put them in the camp of al-Qaida. If this is so then you are going to say that all of these people are ‘pseudo Muslims’?

    You are falling in the the Obama trap of calling things not by their names in order to be politically correct. Terms such as ‘violent extremism’ instead of Islamic terrorism.

    You still have not countered the point about radical Islam being a valid interpretation. You basically grant this point in your last comment by saying, so, all religions have violence in them.

    As far as I am aware Jewish tradition does not call for killing gentiles and the New Testament does not either. Many of the stories in the Torah are events that happened but are not necessarily precedent setting events. In the Torah there are 613 Mitzvot, and none of them relate to doing the kind of things that Muslim terrorists are doing today. If you take into account the oral Torah and the Talmud and Rabbanical Judaism we see that there is no equivalence here.

    I know less about the Christian tradition, though have learned about it here from you. From what I gather one of the main messages of Christianity is to love your enemy. It does not mean that Christians have behaved this way throughout history or that there are not violent parts from its texts but that Christianity as a religion does not condone the behavior that the al-Qaida is perpetrating.

    Raymond Ibrahim writes about this issue:

    He writes that the relativistic narrative is based on the conquering of Canaan by the Jews and acts such as the Crusades by the Christians.

    “But is that really the case? Is the analogy with other scriptures legitimate? Does Hebrew violence in the ancient era, and Christian violence in the medieval era, compare to or explain away the tenacity of Muslim violence in the modern era?”

    “…all the historic violence committed by the Hebrews and recorded in the Old Testament is just that—history. It happened; God commanded it. But it revolved around a specific time and place and was directed against a specific people. At no time did such violence go on to become standardized or codified into Jewish law. In short, biblical accounts of violence are descriptive, not prescriptive.”

    “As for Christianity, much of the Old Testament law was abrogated or fulfilled—depending on one’s perspective—by Jesus. “Eye for an eye” gave way to “turn the other cheek.” Totally loving God and one’s neighbor became supreme law.[23] Furthermore, Jesus’ sunna—as in “What would Jesus do?”—is characterized by passivity and altruism. The New Testament contains absolutely no exhortations to violence.”

  • wersy

    But, if Western Education is Forbidden, how exactly do you construct a bomb?:p

    Don’t see them suceed in the long run.

  • califer

    The Almighty God I know and worship does not like violence instead you love your friends and enemies both believers and unbelievers. If you are an unbeliever we can only preach. Even when you destroy the Bible we leave it for God coz vengeance is for God and not man. God loves Peace so as a Christian you have to love and not kill

  • califer

    I am a christian and I’m not happy whenever peace is disturbed by religious extremist. I don’t sleep where I stay coz of everyday bombing by the sect. God is love so let’s love

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service