JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. In Nigeria, long-held tensions between Christians and Muslims are flaring again. An Islamist sect called Boko Haram, suspected of having links to al-Qaeda, killed at least 185 people in the past week with coordinated bombings in the northern city of Kano.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is promising to crack down. He's fired his police chief and six deputies. Nearly 200 people have been arrested. But the president faces criticism for his handling of the conflict. NPR correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us in a moment.
If you have questions about what's happening in Nigeria, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a practical wedding. But first, Nigeria. NPR foreign correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is based in West Africa, and she's been reporting from Kano this week and joins us from there. Ofeibea, hello.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings from Kano, Kano which is a historic, ancient city. And I must say right from the start, Jennifer, that Muslims and Christians here in Kano have lived together side by side for generations with very little trouble. So the communities here are very troubled by what has happened over the past week.
LUDDEN: And can you give us a sense, Ofeibea - is it mostly Muslim there? What's the share of the population?
QUIST-ARCTON: In Kano, in Nigeria (technical difficulties) Africa's most populous nation, and we're talking of a nation of 140 million-plus. You have Muslims living in all parts, Christians living in all parts. You have Christians who come from the south, (unintelligible) Christians. You have Muslims. You have Christians who come from the north. So this is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.
Here in Kano, all the communities have lived, as I've said, side by side for generations. So this city is reeling in shock because of what has happened. The bombings claimed by Boko Haram, whose name in Hausa, which is the lingua Franca, Hausa - the lingua franca here in northern Nigeria, means Western education, is haram, which means forbidden, sinful, according to Islam. So that already tells you that this is an anti-Western group that has especially been an anti-government group since its inception.
It's very much in recent times that it seems to be targeting more and more churches, for example, places where Christians gather. But Muslims also have targeted, as have the security forces and state institutions, especially the federal government of Nigeria.
LUDDEN: Now, President Goodluck Jonathan has traveled up to Kano and said that these kind of bombings that Boko Haram has carried out are a new thing for them, and there have been accusations, as we've said, of ties to al-Qaeda and so forth.
Today in an interview with Reuters, the president called on Boko Haram to come forward and explain themselves. What's he hoping here?
QUIST-ARCTON: Well, he says that they should identify themselves and say why they're resisting, why they're confronting the government, why they're destroying property and especially innocent people. And he said only then will there be a basis for dialogue, and that's in quotations, we will dialogue. Let us know your problems, he's saying to Boko Haram, and we will solve your problem. But if they don't identify themselves, who will we dialogue with?
And you have many in Nigeria who are saying that dialogue is the only way forward. The fact that there is now this menace, this threat that is so violent and is so deadly - just in the first month this year we're talking more than 250 people - that talking is the only way forward, that a security crackdown, and that from the government has been the way up till now, to clamp down on people that they suspect of being militants, that is not going to work.
You need to deal with the root problems here in Nigeria, and that's not between Christians and Muslims. It's about poverty. It's about people who feel marginalized, isolated, not protected in any way by the government, not able to get jobs, not having opportunity, especially unemployed young men who are able to be manipulated by either unscrupulous politicians or unscrupulous religious leaders, be they Muslim or Christian.
That, many Nigerians will tell you, is the real problem here, that Boko Haram, whether they're assisted by al-Qaeda or other, in inverted commas, terrorist groups in the region, that's why they have taken up arms against the state, that they feel that they've got nothing to lose.
LUDDEN: And didn't President Jonathan also allude to that today in his interview with Reuters and suggesting some kind of program to help unemployed youth?
QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed, but people are saying, you know, before we get to that, deal with the issues. Meet these people first. President Jonathan has talked about the current crisis in Nigeria. He's likened it to the Biafran civil war here in Nigeria when a million - or is it three million, I'm not quite sure - people lost their lives at the end of the '60s and the early '70s.
It was a brutal, brutal period in Nigeria's history. More recently also, Nigeria has suffered from the conflict in the oil-producing area. This is a country that produces crude oil, that supplies the U.S. with about an eighth of its crude oil imports.
We had militants there, heavily armed, as are the Islamist militants here in Nigeria, who literally waged a war, a campaign of sabotage against the government, against the oil industry. It was only when they came to the negotiating table, and an amnesty was offered to the militant leaders, that that particular problem stopped, or at least it was drastically reduced.
That's why people are saying whoever these people are in Boko Haram (technical difficulties) you must sit down and talk to them. It's the only way this problem can be resolved in Nigeria.
LUDDEN: All right, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joining us from a touchy line there, from Kano, Nigeria. We're getting the best line we can. We're also joined by former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell here in Studio 3A. Welcome to you.
JOHN CAMPBELL: Thank you very much, it's good to be here.
LUDDEN: You're also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and you've been writing about this situation this week, kind of with a pretty depressing take on affairs. How do you see this latest flare-up of this longtime strife here?
CAMPBELL: Part of the difficulty is that Boko Haram is not an organization in the traditional sense of the word. It does not have a charismatic leader. It doesn't have a politburo. It doesn't have an agreed-upon manifesto. It appears to be highly diffuse. It has many different strands.
In some respects it resembles a movement more than almost anything else.
LUDDEN: Does it have popular support in Nigeria? I mean, we've just seen a U.N. report recently, says there's evidence that it has employed mercenaries from Chad. I mean, is this an outside group, an inside group?
CAMPBELL: I'd be very careful. Boundaries in northern Nigeria are extremely fluid. Does it have support? Movements like this normally have relatively few activists, a larger number of sympathizers, and a larger number still of those who acquiesce to what is being done.
And in fact, when the focus is on attacks on the police, who are nearly universally hated in Nigeria, the military, and the federal government, none of these institutions enjoy any great popularity. Your correspondent made, I think, an extremely important point when she was talking about the general sense of alienation, the general sense of problems, huge problems that are not being addressed.
This, as it were, is the kind of oxygen that fuels something like Boko Haram. The government's approach has been to treat Boko Haram as a security issue. More police, more soldiers. The police in many cases are poorly trained. Police in Nigeria are a national institution, which means that the actual policeman on the ground is almost certainly not from that particular area.
LUDDEN: Which you've written is done on purpose so they are seen as impartial, but there's a double-edged sword there.
CAMPBELL: There's a double-edged sword there, that they don't really understand sometimes the nature of the people that they're policing. And according to human rights organizations, the police and the military have in fact been responsible for a significant number of killings in the north.
What of course this does is it even further alienates a population that is already feeling marginalized.
LUDDEN: Let me ask Ofeibea, before we go to the break here, Ofeibea, the - I understand the new police chief has now taken position. Is that right? And how is he being received?
QUIST-ARCTON: It was with immediate effect, and we'll see (technical difficulties) come in for huge criticism, masses of criticism that it is not protecting the people. The ambassador has spoken about how the government has been throwing security at this problem rather than dialogue at the problem, and many Nigerians, and we were at a truck park, at a bus park yesterday when literally dozens of frightened people were fleeing Kano.
One woman we spoke to has lived here all her life. She was born here, married here, has children here. She said I'm going. I don't feel safe. You know, the ground was shaking when we heard those bombs. We don't feel safe here anymore, we don't feel that the government can protect us. Our only way is to leave, to go somewhere else in this country. Kano is no longer safe.
LUDDEN: We are talking about the tensions and violence in Nigeria. We'll have more with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton from Nigeria, and also former Ambassador John Campbell coming up. We'll also talk with an activist from Nigeria. If you have questions, call us at 800-989-8255. Or email us email@example.com. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Nigeria has long faced challenges from corruption, an economy that relies on oil exports and simmering ethnic and religious tensions, tensions made evident in the recent series of bombings by Boko Haram, the militant Islamist sect whose name translates roughly to Western education is sinful.
It's the latest crisis for President Goodluck Jonathan. We're talking today with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's foreign correspondent, now in Kano, Nigeria; and John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador and political counselor to Nigeria. He's now a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
If you have questions about what's happening in Nigeria, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's take a phone call from Alasakomi(ph) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Hi there.
ALASAKOMI: Hi, how are you Jennifer?
LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead.
ALASAKOMI: Ofeibea, I was going to ask you, the way you're looking at the situation right now in Nigeria, would you characterize Boko Haram as being a local terrorist or a local gang who has an international agenda on their mind? That's my first question.
QUIST-ARCTON: I missed your name, I'm sorry, but I would say that it's very hard to characterize Boko Haram. They started in 2002(ph) as a homegrown outfit that targeted especially Nigeria's security forces. It was the army and the police. It was the places where the security forces take their leisure, beer taverns, parlors where alcohol is served.
And it was almost exclusively in Madugli, which is a remote northeastern town, and that is where we believe Boko Haram was born. Now, when its leader, Yusuf Mohammed, was killed in police custody in 2009, that is when Boko Haram - and I say that in inverted commas because that is what we're calling them. They have a much longer name, and sometimes people speak for them, but often not.
That is when they stepped up their campaign and included all sorts of targets, still the security, still the government, but especially since the inauguration of President Goodluck Jonathan last year, after the election, the campaign has intensified. And in the past few months and weeks, we have seen even churches targeted.
But in August, the U.N. headquarters in the capital, Abuja, were bombed, deadly killings, and that was a suicide bomber. We've also seen police headquarters, the federal police headquarters in the capital, Abuja, attacked also, this time by a suicide bomber in a car.
So definitely Boko Haram's tactics have become more sophisticated as the campaign has intensified, and there are those who say is it because a Christian southerner, President Goodluck Jonathan, is now in charge, that perhaps disgruntled politicians in the North who feel that their candidate, who died, should have been replaced by another candidate from the North, are they the ones behind Boko Haram?
President Jonathan himself has said that he feels that members of his administration across government and in the security forces are backers and sympathizers of Boko Haram. So there are many, many unanswered questions.
LUDDEN: All right, thank you for that call. Ambassador Campbell, you've suggested that a political settlement is needed here but that anyone would require a restructuring that may not be possible.
CAMPBELL: Well, all things are possible. It simply may be extremely difficult and extremely difficult for the people who traditionally have run Nigeria. There are some things that could be done in the short term. One is to reduce the - either reduce the security presence in the north or greatly improve its quality.
Secondly, there could be a campaign of reaching out to the North, more frequent speeches by the president, an indication that the deep-seated grievances the North has are being heard and that they will be addressed. And then I think it would be extremely useful at this point if some kind of dramatic development initiative were to be announced, focused on a place with a large population like Kano.
It's easy for us sitting here in Washington to forget just how immense northern Nigeria is. Kano has at least seven million people. We're talking enormous numbers of people in a part of the world which suffers from desertification as the Sahara moves down, under-investment in agriculture, the collapse of the railway network, traditional agriculture exports - cotton and ground nuts largely gone, the manufacturing sector based on textiles also largely gone.
As rural impoverishment increases, more and more people flee into the towns, essentially looking for work. Very often, these are in fact children. These are people who can be eight, nine, 10 years old, and you see them - you see them on the streets of Kano begging.
So when we're talking about deep-seated grievances, we are talking about something that has multiple causes. Yes, the political dimension is very important, and the sense particularly amongst northern political figures that somehow or another the presidency ought to be theirs and it is not, that is certainly a very important factor.
But there is also a much deeper factor that looks at the increasing marginalization of northern Nigeria, as well as its impoverishment. The differences in level of development between the North and the South now are really quite dramatic.
LUDDEN: And Ofeibea, this sense of economic deprivation really came to fore in recent weeks. The president tried to eliminate a longtime subsidy for fuel in this country that produces oil but has to import its own. Tell us what happened then.
QUIST-ARCTON: Bedlam. It was absolute mayhem. Nigerians almost unanimously said absolutely not, hell no - excuse my language, Jennifer - and they were down on those streets in the tens of thousands: Muslims, Christians, Northerners, Southerners, Easterners, Westerners, those from the center of the country, except of course the immediate supporters of President Goodluck Jonathan, saying, hey, look at you fat cats in Abuja, in the government, in the national assembly, in all the official positions, getting huge salaries from the oil wealth of Nigeria whilst this country's 140 million, most of the people are impoverished.
And now you get rid of the fuel subsidy, which means that not only gasoline goes up, but food, transportation, everything. How can you do this to us and overnight, on New Year's Day? The government's argument is that Nigeria can't afford $9 billion on food(ph) subsidies. Nigerians are saying we can't afford corruption, institutional corruption in government. Deal with that first before you punish us. Punish yourselves first. Bring your salaries down.
Make sure that the ordinary Nigerian is able to send his and her child to school and put food on the table. Don't just decide overnight that you are going to make our lives even more impossible. So there was - it was Nigeria in unity saying no to its leaders.
And I think that was a big shock for President Goodluck Jonathan and his government, although of course they have a point. Subsidies cost money. They say they were going to use the money for development. Nigerians say no, prove to us that you would do that. That's not what we've seen is the reality in the past.
LUDDEN: Let's hear from another caller here. Brian is on the line in Salt Lake City. Hi there, Brian.
BRIAN: Hi, my roommate actually just returned from Nigeria. He's a Nigerian refugee. And he was in the Southern region of Ogoni, and he was attacked, and someone that was with him was kidnapped, one of his relatives. And I was just wondering how the instability in general in Nigeria has led to greater unrest and the rise of (unintelligible) criminals taking the opportunity of the instability (unintelligible).
LUDDEN: All right, let's see. Ambassador Campbell, do you want to address that? Thank you, John - thank you, Brian.
CAMPBELL: It is true that there's a good deal of that. And it is to be found in all parts of the country. I would like to return to a very important point that your Kano correspondent made. She made the point early in the conversation to the effect that Christians and Muslims have lived next to each other in Kano for 1,000 years, and this is perfectly correct. It is also perfectly correct that in some parts of the country, religious tension between Christians and Muslims has been high.
What was really significant about the fuel subsidy strike and also about the demonstrations that went on parallel to those strikes, what was really striking was the way Nigerians united across religious and ethnic lines, so that in the city of Kano, for example, the informal Muslim police were protecting Christian churches during the strike. Christians in Kaduna were protecting Muslims during prayer time. Nigerians can pull together across religious and ethnic lines.
LUDDEN: John Campbell is a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. He's now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he's joined us here in Studio 3A. Thank you so much.
CAMPBELL: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And we're joined now by Shehu Sani, a writer and activist in Nigeria. He's also the president of Civil Rights Congress, a coalition of 34 human rights groups based in Kaduna, Nigeria, and he joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Welcome.
SHEHU SANI: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Two months ago, you tried to broker a cease-fire between Boko Haram and the government. It did not happen. Tell us what happened instead.
SANI: Why I tried to broker a cease-fire simply has to do with the very fact that since 2009, when the police crackdown on the Boko Haram as a group, it has been a cycle of violence and killings and murders and arson, and it has become very clear that the government of Nigeria is incapable of crushing the Boko Haram armed insurgency. Rather, it has led to the loss of innocent lives of Nigerians, particularly in the northeastern part of Nigeria. As a human rights activist, I thought a good or right (unintelligible) an idea of serving as a bridge.
And I reached out to the group, and I presented myself as an activist and someone who spoke against the massacre against the group in 2009, when the late President Umaru Yar'Adua ordered that group, the group shall be crushed. And then I asked them if they will attune to the idea of meeting the former President Olusegun Obasanjo. And my choice of Obasanjo was simply because he is the chairman of the board of trustees of the ruling party in Nigeria, and he's someone whom I knew when I was a political prisoner, and he was also together with me in the cell.
And then I reached out to him and gave him this idea, and he also agreed. And then that was set. The group gave out their conditions that they can sit down and talk with Obasanjo without the presence of security men, and then, there shall be free conversation, and the meeting should take place in their den, in Maiduguri. And then, I - Obasanjo agreed, and then a date was set. We went there and sat down. Now there was someone called Babakura Fugu who happened to be the guardian of most of the families of Boko Haram members who have either been killed or they are now on their own. So he offered to serve as an intercessor.
LUDDEN: You know what, I think we may have to jump ahead here, because we only have a few minutes left. I understand that actually one of the hosts for Boko Haram was killed, and those talks never happened. Is that right? But I'm curious, whether - are you still trying - and actually, before your answer, let me just say that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
LUDDEN: Shehu Sani, you're still trying to get these talks together?
SANI: Yes. The - Fugu, the one I was telling you, he was the one that was killed. And when he had the meeting with the Boko Haram, they gave us some possible way out of this violence, one of which is that there must be the release of all their - of their members who are currently spread in prisons and police cells across the country. And there's a need for the government to rebuild their houses, their mosques, their schools that was demolished in 2009. And then there must be a comprehensive program of rehabilitating the families of their members that were killed, over 1,000 of them in 2009.
And the suggestions was - the advice was given to President Obasanjo, and then he gave it to President Goodluck. And since then, nothing has been heard about, because the government believe that it can crush the group with the use of force, and then we just step aside and watch the government use the force. And it has not been able to work.
LUDDEN: But you - do you think there is a common ground here that Muslims and Christians can agree on some common things? Very quickly, please.
SANI: Yeah. I think there's a need to suppress the problem of Muslims and Christians, and then that of the Boko Haram. The violence and all the hostility between Muslims and Christians has been there, even before the formation of Boko Haram. And Boko Haram's getting into it by attacking churches simply escalated the problem. And I think there is a possibility of a solution if we have the involvement of a third country, like Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, that can serve as a mediator between the group and the government. But for now, I don't think the group can talk one-to-one with the government.
LUDDEN: All right. Shehu Sani is a writer and president of the Nigerian human rights coalition Civil Rights Congress. He joined us from the studios of the BBC in London. Thank you so much.
SANI: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, a final quick question to you. You're staying there in Kano for a few more days. What are you looking out for?
QUIST-ARCTON: Also, it's what Shehu Sani has spoken about, whether there's any room for negotiation, and then just talking to the residents of the city who are still in shock, finding out what they feel the solutions are, speaking to those who are leaving the city because they feel unsafe, and especially speaking to religious leaders and others who want to see unity. We heard that Muslims and Christians protected each other as they were worshiping in the mosques, in the churches. Most Nigerians will say to you that's how we are. This is a fantastic country. This is a dynamic country. This is a country where we can get along. Just because there are a few bad apples doesn't mean that everybody has to suffer.
LUDDEN: NPR foreign correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Nigeria. Thank you so much.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.