EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Devitt, formerly of Billings, works in Nigeria.
By STEVE DEVITT - Special to The Outpost
“What this?” the burly Nigerian sergeant demanded, pointing at the Nikon camera that lay between me and the driver.
“It’s my camera?” I said.
“What do you do with it?” he yelled.
“I take pictures,” I said, “but not of you.”
“This is Nigeria!” he shouted. “If you use it, you will be apprehended!”
|Violence in Abaja|
YOLA — On Nov.5, Muslims throughout Nigeria were celebrating Eid al-Kabir Sallah, and Islamic holiday which is celebrating by feasting – some locals call “it is the day to eat lamb.”
On Saturday, information started coming out about bomb and gun attacks, mostly located in the northern Nigerian communities of Damituru and Maiduguri.
The focus of the attacks was police. By the end of the day, the body count was 63, and the US Embassy announced the Boko Haram, the Islamic sect that claimed responsibility for the violence, had specifically threatened attacks against the Hilton and Sheraton hotels in Abuja.
These are the two expensive hotels ($400 a night and up) where ex-pats and wealthy Nigerians congregate.
By midnight, the death toll had risen to 150.
The incidents brought international headlines, which will be forgotten in about three days.
The Associated Press reported the Boko Haram has splinter into three groups: one that wants to negotiate; one that wants some kind of buy-out like the one offered the militants in the Niger Delta region two years ago and one that has aligned itself with Al Quaida.
The only certainty is that the random violence will continue until the country falls completely apart or the country begins to move toward some kind of income equity.
I put the camera in the glove compartment and we went on our way. At the next roadblock, a much happier sergeant tried to get money. We did not comply.
It is only 246 miles from Yola to Jos, but the trip takes about seven hours, partly because of bad roads, but also because of the 27 military or police road blocks.
I was going to Jos for medical, not journalistic reasons, and traveling in a car with a driver, both provided by the American University of Nigeria, and the AUN health coordinator, a American-trained registered nurse who grew up in Jos and who has her two children enrolled in school there.
Jos is easily the most famous city in Nigeria internationally, and for all the wrong reasons. In October 2008, hundreds died in the ethnic conflict in and around Jos. There were major attacks in the area by both Christians and Muslims, in March and January of 2011, with a death toll that surpassed 600.
The major battles took place at villages outside of Jos, but the city itself has seen the bombings of churches, mosques and beer parlors.
Jos (some contend the name comes from “Jesus Our Savior”) has a population of about one million (900,000 in the 2006 census) and is the capital of Plateau state, which has a population of 3.5 million – most of whom live in the much smaller villages, and it is in the villages where the highest body counts have occurred. Whether being perpetuated by Christians or Muslims, the MO is pretty much the same: a few shots are fired, people run outside to see what is going on and the attackers fall upon them with machetes. There have been some reports of the killers being dressed in military or police uniforms.
It is said that military found a Muslim training camp, thought to be connected with the Boko Haram – a Muslim sect who want Sharia (Islamic) law adopted throughout Nigeria. Boko Haram is Hausa, and is roughly translated as “Western Education is sin.”
The violence in and around Jos is often portrayed as religious conflict, but the real issues go beyond religion and into money and power.
“When I was growing up,” the nurse told me, “Jos was thought of as a public servants town and it was very quiet.”
It was also something of a major tourist attraction for both Nigerians and foreigners because it has the most reasonable temperatures in Nigeria – often the city, which is 4,000 feet above sea level, has day time temperatures in the 70s, as opposed to Yola, where it can and does top 100 degrees on a daily basis for three months at a time.
About 30years ago, that climate and the desertification in northern Nigeria also attracted Fulani herdsmen, who were Muslims, to the area.
What brought people into the area under British rule were tin mines. The British ruled southern Nigeria directly, but ruled the northern part of the country indirectly through religious leaders – hence the British unknowingly created to groups of people who felt entitled when independence came in 1960: The Christian bureaucrats of the south and the religious leaders of the north.
In the beginning, Jos was populated by Igbos and Yorubas from the south, who were mostly Christian. There was a growing resentment between the Christians and the Fulani, which exploded in 1994, then in 2000, again in 2008, and then twice in 2010.
There is, of course, a heavy police and military presence in Jos, although the governor of Plateau State, Jonah David Jang, recently told reporters, “Only God can stop the violence in Plateau State.”
In Jos, I saw a cop beating a man with a stick – this is not uncommon in Nigeria either – I seen that particular activity on three different occasions.
The basic problem for the Muslims, is the Christians do not believe them to be indigenous to the area, and therefore not entitled to social services or election. The latter is a very sore point, because in Nigeria, politics is the road to wealth.
Ninety-five percent of the government revenues come directly from the sale of crude oil – The United States buys more crude from Nigeria than Saudi Arabia and that money is divided among the politicians. A member of the Nigerian House of Representatives is paid $1.4 million a year (compared to President Obama’s $400,000 salary) and that does not count the money that simply disappears. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out recently that since independence in 1960, Nigerian politicians have stolen more than $400 billion.
With a population of 150 million, Nigeria has more people living under the international poverty line ($2 a day or less) than does China, but a capital flight that is approximately ten times higher.
The end result: poor roads, a health care delivery system that is actually dangerous and crumbling schools with under paid or no teachers at all.
The estimated 18,000 families who divide up the oil money don’t mind. They go abroad for medical care and send their children to very expensive private schools, or send them abroad. Many rich Nigerians have dual citizenship because when a rich mother gets pregnant, she heads for California.
President Good Luck Jonathan promised to change at least some of that. He got the legislature to pass a Freedom of Information Act – but it is still unclear whether it will negate the country’s National Secrets Act, which makes it unlawful to publish government revenues or expenditures.
He also got the legislature to pass an 18,000 Naira a month minimum wage – at the current exchange rate, that is $112.50 (USD), but the governors refused to pay it, saying they weren’t getting enough oil money to meet payroll. State workers in several states went on strike, but not too much notice was taken because state workers don’t do much anyway – since there is no money to do anything with, there isn’t much they can do.
The largest political firecracker is yet to come: the end of the “fuel subsidy.” Gasoline prices are set by the government at 65 Naira a liter, or approximately $1.60 a gallon. Although Nigeria is one of the world top ten producers of crude oil, it imports all of its gasoline and diesel because none of the country’s four refineries is functioning. The idea is to take that money and refurbish the refineries so gasoline could be produced even cheaper.
Proponents of the measure point out that literally trillions of Naira has gone into the fuel subsidy program and nobody is quite sure, exactly, where the money went. Opponents of the program point out that the Nigerian government has been trying to fix those same refineries for as long as they have existed.
The fact remains that life for the average Nigerian is worse now than it was before their 1960 independence, and worse since the oil boom began in the 1973.
During a recent trip to Abuja, I read four different newspaper columnists pointing out that financially, most Nigerians are worse off than any of the citizens of the nations involved in the Arab Spring movement.
On the road back from Jos, I picked up a newspaper and found an item on Page 2. It seems a policewoman paid a man 2,000 Naira to fix her television set. He couldn’t and returned 1,800 Naira to her, saying he would repay the other 200 Naira later (that is $1.25 (USD). She disagreed and shot and killed the man. Police denied the story and are investigating the man’s untimely demise.
This kind of story is not uncommon in the “free-wheeling and rowdy” Nigerian press – those words coming from an Associated Press story that failed to mention that most papers run on a system of bribes or are controlled by political factions. But somebody with either wealth or power can literally get away with murder in Nigeria.
It makes me wonder if the current display of men with AK 47s are really there “to protect and serve,” of if it is just a reminder to the public to know its place.