Al-Qaeda in Nigeria: Grazing in the Sahara

By Ademola Bello

As a Nigerian who was born a Muslim and who was once attacked by militants who held a gun to my head and accused me of abandoning the faith because my play Bondage criticized Sharia law, I am saddened that a Nigerian man is now accused of trying to bring down a U.S bound airliner on Christmas day.

However, it is not surprising to me that Mr. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab claims to have ties to Al-Qaeda in Yemen or that he was indoctrinated in violent extremists' views.

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Since a majority of states in Northern Nigeria adopted Islamic Sharia law in the mid 1990's, fundamentalists in the region have had adequate reason to be further radicalized. They first gained impetus in the 1980's when the country's ruling military junta secretly made the most populous African nation a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The militants in Nigeria wanted a return to an Islamic caliphate in which a Sultan or an Emir ruled the entire region as a monolithic Islamic empire. They also imagined a day when all of Nigeria would be brought under the rule of Sharia law. It did not matter to them that Nigeria is a homogenous society, nor that the population is split between Muslims in the core North, Christians and moderate Muslims in the South and Middle Belt, and a sizeable number of traditional worshipers across the country.

In Northern Nigeria there is an unregulated Madrasa where Muslim youths called Almajiris and other pupils across neighboring West African nations studied the Quran and Hadith under the seclusion of radical clerics. Corrupt elected politicians channeled money and resources to some of these Madrasas.

The illiteracy level is very high in Northern Nigeria. Violent extremism thrives under this atmosphere. While a few privileged, educated elites in the region assume the titular roles of "Muslim Warriors," they are detached from reality and obsess themselves with global issues involving Muslims like the Israel and Palestine conflict and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is a mistake to assume that radical messages or acts of terror can only resonate with impoverished, uncouth and uneducated Muslim youths. Anyone who has either listened to radical clerics sermons or gone to a Madrasa where hatred is being taught, can easily been brainwashed.

There had been signs about the danger militants posed in the past but no concrete actions were taken. For example, there was sectarian religious violence as a result of opposition to the Miss World pageant in which thousands of people lost their lives in the city of Kaduna, where terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutaliab grew up.

Similarly, there was an incident that occurred in the region three years ago, in which Muslim youths in a secondary school were caught cheating during an examination and beat their teacher, a young lady from Southern Nigeria, to death. They falsely accused her of insulting Islam. The boys walked away free.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Nigerian government to confront the threats posed by Islamic extremists because of sympathizers within the government and security agencies. Even though Nigerian police have battled militants in the past, the militants are very resistant.

There has been ongoing violence across the region by two Islamic sects called Boko Haram and Kalo Kola. A jihad could engulf the whole country if not properly nipped in the bud. These two Islamic sects are loosely modeled on Afghanistan's Taliban Movement. They want Sharia law and their rigid ideology to be adopted across Nigeria.

Other aims of the militants are to turn Nigeria into a failed State like Somalia or carve out their own autonomous tribal region as seen in Pakistan.

Similarly, Salafist insurgents from Algeria, Tablighi clerics from Pakistan and Wahabist missionaries from Saudi Arabia, all seen as potential threats by Western intelligence agencies, have tried to gain a foothold in Nigeria in recent years.

There are a lot of uncertainties that should concern the West.

Mr. Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, Nigeria's President has become incapacitated as a result of his constant ailments and lack of leadership skills. The electoral reforms that need to be put in place to checkmate rigging and pork barrel politics ahead of the 2011 election have been stalled. The news about Mr. Yar'Adua's poor health has given rise to abnormalities in the governing of Nigeria, as well as the resumption of hostilities by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta in the oil rich Southern region.

Nigeria is a major power house in Africa that must not be allowed to fail. A failed Nigeria would be disastrous to the entire continent.

The Obama administration should monitor the Nigeria situation closely and should urge Nigeria's sickly president to resign from office or at least not to seek a second term. This would create re-assurance and help strengthen Nigeria's democracy.

At a certain point, Mr. Obama would need to speak directly to black Muslims and Africans at large who are still aggrieved for other reasons, including slavery and colonialism. I believe he should deliver the two speeches in Nigeria and South Africa respectively. His Ghana visit was good, but he missed an opportunity to grab the attention of Africa through his speech that was perceived to be condescending.

The fight against al-Qaeda and radical Islam is a war that can only be won by moderate Muslims themselves. They need to show the world the true essence of Islam, the religion of peace.

Ademola Bello a Playwright is the author of The Black Cockerel currently being developed for production by the New York Theatre Workshop.

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