Understanding Nigeria: Boko Haram, joy, corruption, Egusi soup and the racism of #BringBackOurGirls

When Kim Kardashian takes up your cause, you know  you’ve hit rock bottom.

“Hmmm, the website is, excuse me, my Oga at the top knows the website.”

Mr Shem Obafaye, by the grace of political favour, Lagos State Commandant of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps — the paramilitary NSCDC — was on the spot on Channels Television’s live breakfast show, Sunrise.

The probing, penetrating, unforgiving investigative journalism continued in the full light of the public gaze. “What is the official website of the NSCDC?”

“My Oga at the top is working on the website and I don’t have them.”

Mr Shem writhed in his seat. What were these tame journalists doing? How could he be expected to know this? To give away a state secret like this? Eventually, tamed by transparency, he yielded.

“ww.nscdc,” a long pause. “That is all.”

One of the journalists blinked. “That’s it?”


“That’s amazing!”

Immediately, an issue that the Nigerian government had been paying scant attention to, became a national embarrassment. Youtube mashups of the Azonto dance craze mixed with “My Oga at the top” were seen by millions. T-shirts, mugs and posters were printed.

As I was arriving in Nigeria to kick-off a government open data project in Edo State, “My Oga at the top” was putting transparency at risk. The government was clamming up.

“My Oga at the top” was becoming a pass-phrase to explain all that was wrong with Nigeria’s broken infrastructure, mass corruption and the never-ending deployment of those in favour to critical jobs they lacked any skills to deliver on.

Shem Obafaye was on morning television to discuss an all-too-typical Nigerian problem: corruption and fraud. This time, though, not by the government.

The “NSCDC is a para-military agency of the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that is commissioned to provide measures against threat and any form of attack or disaster against the nation and its citizenry.” Falling inconsequentially between the courts, the police and the army, the NSCDC is really just a way for government to buy favour and create jobs for pals.

Things fall apart

Portuguese traders, traveling south down the coast of Africa in 1485, came across the Kingdom of Benin, under their Oba (or king) Ovonramwen Nogbaisi. The kingdom’s capital, Ubinu, sat on the coast of an empire that spanned from the western Ibo tribes on the shores of the Niger river, through parts of present day Ondo State and Lagos Island, and south along the coast to Lagos State; all are part of modern Nigeria.

The city the Europeans found was an astonishingly modern and populous trading hub. The Portuguese traded for ivory, pepper and palm oil in exchange for manila and guns. Manila are heavy bronze armlets, shaped like a horse-shoe but slipped over the arm. They became an early form of currency across West Africa. Sadly, they are also closely associated with the slave trade as they became the principle means of exchange.

Benin had a tremendous culture of artistry and the export of carved ivory tusks became a lucrative industry for the Kingdom. One craft, however, was never to be made for anyone other than the Oba and these were bronze and brass plaques made by smelting the manilas and pouring the metal into hand-crafted moulds.

The Oba presented these much as the Kings of Europe hung tapestries at their palaces. The Benin Bronzes were hung on the walls of the Oba’s palace reflecting a view of Benin’s history and impressing guests.

Benin Bronze in the British Museum [Record: 1898,0115.42]

Benin Bronze in the British Museum [Record: 1898,0115.42]

The bronzes consist of high-relief characters, including animals, fish, humans and scenes of court life. The plaque shown left represents the Oba being supported by two court ministers. The rings around their necks are made from coral, which is also imported, and the number of necklaces represents their level of authority.

They certainly impressed European visitors, including Dutch and English traders who soon followed the Portuguese.

“The king’s court is square. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam. From top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean,” noted one Dutch trader.

The trade was incredibly lucrative. In 1548 alone, just one German merchant provided Portugal with 432 tons of brass manilas for trade with West Africa. The value of Benin would lead to tragedy.

In 1892, Henry Gallwey, then the British Vice-Consul of Oil Rivers Protectorate, visited Ubinu (now called Benin City) in order to secure a signed “treaty of friendship.” Under the guise of ending slavery, the treaty would actually annex Benin and turn it into a British colony. The Oba refused to endorse the treaty and issued an edict banning all British officials and traders from the Benin territories.

Over the next five years, Benin would increase the trade embargo on the British. In 1897, James Philips, the acting Consul-General in the Protectorate, decided he needed to visit the Oba to express his displeasure. Whether he intended his visit as an invasion or not is still unclear.

What is clear is that the expedition was massacred.

The British couldn’t accept such an act on their own people and the army was dispatched. On 9 February 1897 a Punitive Expedition landed in Benin. The British sacked Benin City and the ancient kingdom was destroyed with Oba Ovonramwen sent into exile.

Over 3,000 brass and bronze plaques were amongst the spoils sent back to Europe and sold to cover the costs of the war.

Charles Hercules Read, curator of the British Museum in 1897, was the first to recognise the craft of the Bronzes:

“It need scarcely be said that at the first sight of these remarkable works of art we were at once astounded at such an unexpected find, and puzzled to account for so highly developed an art among a race so entirely barbarous.”

The tragedy is that, as the Europeans realised just how sophisticated the West Africans were and that their culture was both rich and unique, they had destroyed it.

Racism and loathing and the White Man’s Burden

Samantha Cameron really cares about America - #PrayForSandyHook

Samantha Cameron really cares about America – #PrayForSandyHook

I’m trying to imagine under what circumstances it would be acceptable for Samantha Cameron, the wife of British Prime Minister David Cameron, to appear on the front page of every major news service holding a cardboard sign saying #PrayforSandyHook.

Americans would — rightly — regard this as a gross international violation of their sovereignty. Anti-British feeling would be high.

Yet, somehow, it’s noble when Michelle Obama holds up a sign saying #BringBackOurGirls? That’s crass racism right there.

Maybe you think, “But Michelle Obama is black, how could she be racist about other blacks?” In this instance, she is not black, she’s an American disregarding the independence and personal authority of Nigerians. That’s patronising and culturally arrogant.

It is not — under any circumstances — acceptable for the international community to unilaterally demand intervention in Nigeria.

The “White Man’s Burden” is exactly that, racism.

As Jumoke Balogun writes in The Guardian:

“Simple question. Are you Nigerian? Do you have constitutional rights accorded to Nigerians to participate in their democratic process? If not, I have news for you. You can’t do anything about the girls missing in Nigeria. You can’t. Your insistence on urging American power, specifically American military power, to address this issue will ultimately hurt the people of Nigeria.”

You are deliberately continuing the long-standing international approach of undermining democratic legitimacy and ensuring that Africans continue to expect little from their own leaders.

For Africa to advance, we must stay out and Africans must figure out for themselves how to fix their own problems. They certainly have the ability and resources.

If it never occurred to you to ask “What is the Nigerian government doing to #BringBackOurGirls?” before demanding something of Europe or the US, you’re very likely a racist.

Could Do Better

Could Do Better

The war for the spoils of state

“Underlying the conflict are several key issues that fuel the violence, including: the manipulation of frustrated youth by political leaders, traditional elites, and organized crime syndicates involved in oil theft; the impact of oil money on community politics; crushing poverty and youth unemployment; and the widespread availability of small arms and other lethal weapons. Human Rights Watch found strong evidence to suggest that senior members of the state government at one time gave financial or logistical support to Asari and Tom, laying the foundations for a later conflict that would spin out of control. Both the leaders of armed groups and their backers have been emboldened in their acts of brutal violence by the prevailing culture of impunity. Across the Niger Delta, as throughout Nigeria, impunity from prosecution for individuals responsible for serious human rights abuses has created a devastating cycle of increasing conflict and violence.”

This is not a description of Boko Haram, the brutal and breathtakingly vicious group terrorising Northern Nigeria, the one responsible for a string of bombings and kidnappings.

Rather it is from a 2005 Human Rights Watch paper titled “Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State.”

Starting in the 1990s, with the booming oil industry in Rivers State and Ogoniland, local activists started demanding their share of the oil revenue. Cash was being hoovered up by the political elites, who — at the time — were all Northerners.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, a globally recognised Ogoni playwright, rose to prominence leading the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The government responded with astonishing violence, razing 30 villages and leading to some 2,000 civilian deaths and displacement of 100,000 refugees.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others were arrested in 1994 on the instruction of General Sani Abacha — the then military dictator — and quickly executed.

The situation in the region quickly spun out of control. Even after return to civilian leadership in 1999, the area around Port Harcourt — a sleepy port town in the South — was a hotbed of insurrection. Both army and local militants would regularly hijack oil pipelines and smash them open to extract oil, bunker it, and then sell it over the border.

In 2004, the government — under Olusegon Abasanjo — launched a major offensive triggering a response from the two local militant organisations, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force led by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and the Niger Delta Vigilante, led by Ateke Tom. They threatened the country and the oil companies directly.

You may remember a few oil executives being kidnapped? That was this.

To cut a long story short, it wasn’t until 2009 that this area was brought under control with unconditional amnesty extended to all militants if they handed in their weapons.

About the only thing different with Boko Haram is that they have a much more punchy name than the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force. Although, to be fair, Boko Haram is just a nickname. They’re actually called The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.

Much more Nigerian.

They’ve been around since 2002. However, they became militant only in 2009 and launched their first attacks in 2011. The same time that the Southern states negotiated themselves a greater share of the oil wealth coming out of Nigeria.

That isn’t a coincidence.

Everything in Nigeria comes down to the violence and corruption of the state.

Looting the state and failing to serve

Local government elections across Edo State in Nigeria happen in June 2013, days late, amidst accusations by the People’s Democratic Party that the delay favours Adams Oshiomhole’s Action Congress Party.

This election pits the ruling PDP against a united and invigorated opposition.

Nigerians are philosophical about the whole thing. “The best rigger will win and opposition will now come and cry as usual,” says one online commenter.

There are a remarkable number of Nigeria state governors who have been arrested and jailed in the UK. In 2005 Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, then governor of Bayelsa State, was arrested in the UK on charges of money laundering. He owned real-estate in London of about £10 million and unexplained bundles of cash.

He jumped bail and, disguised as a woman, fled back to Nigeria. He was officially pardoned by current Nigerian president, Goodluck Johnson, in March 2013.

Similarly, career criminal James Ibori, became Delta State’s governor from 1999 to 2007. According to Reuters, during his trial for — what else, money laundering — the courts were shown a film of his palace featuring

“a monumental facade with white marble columns two storeys high. Inside were vast reception rooms adorned with crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors and marble-topped tables. The property also boasted a large private gym with a treadmill, cross-trainer and other fitness equipment. A close-up shot inside one of several marble bathrooms showed a power shower with electronic control panels.”

The level of looting in Nigeria is surreal.

Nigerian politicians will spend absolutely no money on their place of work — sitting in broken-down buildings or clapboard prefabricated rooms — to ensure that every last scrap of cash can go into their own homes and bank accounts.

In exchange for that largesse, they do as little as possible for the people and as much as possible to maintain a sense of inferiority in them.

Take Sanitation Day, a compulsory curfew from 06h00 till 10h00 on the last Saturday of every month. Introduced by the Military while in “government” back in the 1970s, no-one may leave their home for fear of arrest and imprisonment. They must scrub their homes and the street outside.

“We are a dirty people,” laughs a dinner companion. “That’s what they told us.” The military made a lot of arbitrary rules; about who could own what in the economy, who could live where, and declared that Nigerians were too “immature” for democracy. Those who protested… well, let’s say they wouldn’t be joining anyone for dinner.

Okey Ndibe, writing in The Guardian:

“It’s a cruel, but true, joke that Nigeria is the most “privatised” country in the world. If a citizen wants water, s/he digs a borehole. If s/he wants sound medical treatment, then s/he must travel abroad to get it. Want electric power? Buy yourself a generator and fuel it. How about security? Pay off the local police chief to acquire two or three police officers — or, better still, hire your own private security. If you want good schools for your children, make/steal enough money to put them in a private school or send them abroad.”

“For the most part, the Nigerian state abjures all responsibilities to the citizenry. The state exists to empower a tiny few to hijack the country’s resources, and to enjoy perpetual immunity from prosecution for their crimes.”

“The police are adept at confronting and beating back citizens who gather to stage peaceful protests, but they will never see a corrupt public official, even when s/he’s stealing before the very eyes of law enforcement agents. The State Security Service are quick to seize and interrogate critics of the government, but have found no answers for the ravaging Boko Haram or a way to identify, unmask and prosecute the group’s financiers and sponsors.”

A change is gonna come

“I asked the salesman, how many pirated copies of Ije have you sold? He said, about a thousand. And I got so angry! That’s my money!”

The director of Ije, Nigeria’s most successful movie, Chineze Anyaene, is an unexpectedly young, unexpectedly bleach-blonde young woman dressed elegantly and indiscreetly. She is describing how she took on Nigeria’s film distribution cartel in order to sell her movie.

Gathered at Social Media Week 2013 in Lagos, Africa’s second most populous city, are the country’s brightest young minds sharing ideas on how to promote arts, culture and business opportunities. Their accents reflect university educations from the US, Europe and Asia.

Outside, traffic snarls and chases along roads no worse than Johannesburg and filled with no less a range of the super-rich and super-poor.

A 20-minute drive through the city reveals a nation determinedly getting on with things. Uncountable bank brands, seemingly endless mobile phone competitors, and a mish-mash of wrecked buildings.

Over the past five years, foreign direct investment into Nigeria has averaged about $6-9 billion a year. Most foreigners arriving at the airport are there to invest, but so are the Nigerians. Conversations are a hubbub of Nigerians declaring why they’re moving their money home.

A similar collection of South Africans are usually talking about how to get their money out. Foreign Direct Investment in South Africa has plunged from its peak of $9 billion in 2008 to about $6 billion now. Growth is an anemic 2.5% while Nigeria’s surges ahead at 8%.

Here’s the thing: Nigeria is a dangerous, chaotic, exhausting country. A sort-of well-armed, super-aggressive, high-speed India.

Yet there is also a refreshing honesty in dealing with problems. Corruption is just corruption. Problems are just problems. Regular power failures are power failures.

There is no attempt to wash away responsibility by blaming colonial legacy or some historical precedent.

The revaluation of Nigeria’s economy merely revealed what is immediately obvious to anyone who visits. This isn’t a purely agrarian and oil-extractive economy.

The creative professionals gathered at Social Media Week are ambitious and confident, adapting American brands such as Facebook, Twitter and Apple to fit Nigerian cultural requirements. There is no compromise. The customs, slang and approach are all distinctly Nigerian.

Nigeria becomes Africa’s biggest economy

Many scoffed at the accounting fudge that magically made Nigeria’s economy so much larger.

You’re right to scoff. Nigeria isn’t China. It isn’t about to lift 100 million people out of poverty in a decade.

I’m completely against state-planned economies like China’s, but Nigeria doesn’t even have a semblance of state-managed anything.

The investment and growth happening is simply what happens when a large group of ambitious and dynamic people cluster together in one place. Lagos is home to 8 million people.

Six of Nigeria’s cities have over 1 million people. And their names are so rich with flavour: Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, Kaduna, Port Harcourt, Benin City.

Whether Nigeria plans for it or not — and planning in this case is simply to get the state-owned energy sector to provide sufficient electricity (instead of “outsourcing” supply to messy generator sellers) — economic growth is coming.

And, on 14 April some 200 girls were abducted by Boko Haram to be sold as slaves for the “crime” of pursuing an education. The number of girls is in dispute. A point astutely hammered by both Ikhide Ikheloa and Okey Ndibe is that the Nigerian government can’t even be bothered to present an accurate number of girls, let alone mount any sort of response to bring them home.

This time is different, though.

The attention of the world has shifted for a moment. Boko Haram’s actions, and the Nigerian government’s indifference, come just as Western citizens have been digesting the entertaining notion of Nigeria’s existence.

Kidnapping young girls just won’t do. All over North America and Europe the concerned people took up their White Man’s Burden and took to Twitter.

The US government offered Special Forces and the UK government, the SAS. Or, as they’re known on vacation, “special advisory services.”

Maybe this means something. Maybe Nigerians will take the opportunity — now that their politicians are listening — to make some meaningful change of their own. Hopefully the West stays out and doesn’t destabilise the situation.

When Kim Kardashian has taken up your cause, you really know that you’ve hit rock bottom.

Over Syria and Ukraine, Western notions of justice and fair-play have amounted to very little beyond a bit of tut-tutting. If the results in Iraq, Egypt or Libya are anything to go by, whether outsiders get involved or not, it is citizens who really influence what happens next. If they don’t know what to ask for, then they usually don’t get anything useful back.

Eating out in Lagos

Egusi soup is a spicy and deeply flavourful soup, thickened with ground egusi seeds. There are an almost infinite variety of such soups, containing spinach, okra, chili peppers and seasoned with powdered shrimp or prawns. Native to West Africa, the dish achieves transcendence in Nigeria.

A new generation of politicians and educated professionals are driving Nigeria forward. The investment in services and infrastructure is shifting an economy still far too dependent on oil extraction. The country is changing from a place you’d never visit, to an exciting and culturally confident destination.

It’s only a six hour flight from Europe. It’s a nation of 170 million.

All it takes is one break-out Nigerian movie or band for the world to notice the giant in the centre of the continent that is Africa’s future.

9 replies »

  1. Wonderful piece, Gavin. At different points I was hearing the voices of Neil Postman and Chinua Achebe. Perhaps an odd pairing – but, given the event that has precipitated so much pointless comment from outsiders, Postman’s hypothesis of the “information/action” ratio is certainly in play; and given your pungent and detailed descriptions of Nigerian government corruption (and colonial power interference), the echoes of Achebe’s work are clear and strong. Great stuff, my friend.

    • I was thinking about Achebe, as well. This is an excellent tour through the complex dynamics shaping Nigeria, Gavin, and is much appreciated right about now. For the most part all Americans know about the place is KIDNAPPED GIRLS! and MUSLIM TERRISTS! Also, our grasp of geography being what it is, I’m sure many are sure this is where the president was born and raised.

      • Thanks chaps 😉 Not sure what Obama’s genetic antecedents are, but given that Nigeria was the source of a vast number of the slaves heading to the Americas, chances are he may be distantly related to people in the region.

  2. First, thanks for connecting the many dots that I have missed–it’s very helpful.

    I’m a little confused at the contradictions. Is it not racist to write about Nigeria’s violence, corruption, and other problems and HOPE for change from within out of shame, need, frustration but racist to offer to help? To even Tweet support? I didn’t read much in this that would constitute “democratic legitimacy” that could even be undermined.

    As to Samantha Cameron “holding a cardboard sign saying #PrayforSandyHook” being a sign of “gross international violation of their sovereignty,” I don’t recall hearing any of that in the US news after Sandy Hook.

    I always find it ironic to read about “the widespread availability of small arms and other lethal weapons” being a a serious problem in countries outside of the USA when so many here claim personal arsenals as a their right.

    And, finally, “The investment and growth happening is simply what happens when a large group of ambitious and dynamic people cluster together in one place.” That statement makes it sound like a GOOD THING. And the corruption and violence are just downsides that if Nigerians wanted to fix, they could fix (which, I get, they have to do for themselves). I must be missing something because I don’t see a whole lot of upsides in what you’ve described.

    Of course the sense of contradiction and confusion may BE the point.

    • Contradiction and confusion sounds about right for Nigerian politics. Offering help is one thing, but what I’m seeing from folks like Kardashian is a demand that the US solve the problem directly. That’s not an offer of help.

      Samantha Cameron never appeared anywhere demanding change in the US on Sandy Hook. Neither did any other European politician. Imagine, however, that it had happened?

      As far as widespread availability of weaponry in Nigeria vs the US … I’m not going to get into the US’ problems with guns, but I’d say that at least the US does have legitimate rule of law which does mean that the majority of US citizens don’t consider it normal to set up a militia and attack their countrymen.

      And investment and growth is the only thing that will bring Nigerians out of absolute poverty. Rule of law and democratic representation would ensure that this growth happens in a way that doesn’t result in a new set of brutal rent-seeking elites replacing the ones already in charge.

      Is it racist to observe and comment? Not if my expectation is that the Nigerians will solve this themselves if they put their minds to it, but certainly if my belief is that this is “normal” for Africa and can’t change without outside intervention.

  3. Obviously, this idea that America should just step in whenever and where ever we like, sovreignity be damned, is at least in part the natural follow on from the “american exceptionalism” doctrine. It’s stupid, naive, racist (white man’s burden and all that,) etc, etc.

    Aside from the question of whether we should, though, is the matter of whether we actually could without getting everyone killed.

    Our confidence been aggravated by a constant stream of movies that show us dropping into Paris (Taken,) Istanbul (Taken 2,) Moscow (Die Hard 20 or whatever,) etc, etc and just shooting our way through stupid, slow foreigners to rescue our women unscratched.

    We now believe we can order up a drone strike or drop in a commando team and just fix anything. Of course the reality is that it’s unbelievably hard to mount raids of that type and the success rate is low. Entebbe was 50 years ago. bin Laden was the exception, not the norm. Iran in the seventies and Blackhawk Down are more typical.