This was how I knew Jos from childhood – the ecumenical heart of Nigerian humanity. It was this distinct, all-embracing character that family and friends rhapsodized about the city and her laid-back disposition, as they returned home for periodic family reunions, trading sorties, and seasonal festivals.
There were no strangers in Jos: that was the summative, unstated ethos. It was in this condition that I reconnected with Jos at the end of my studies abroad half a century ago – traders, teachers and students, tailors, carpenters, petty contractors, long distance drivers, railway workers, photographers and of course, expatriates. This was the city of open arms that I crisscrossed as I toured the nation (and West Africa) in pursuit of indigenous theater traditions. Only Kaduna came a close second. Jos was the pre-eminent choice for extended school excursions and casual retreats, its lush hills, its temperate weather, shimmering plateau, but above all, its benign, neighborhood humanity drew all towards her like a mystic magnet.
Today, so soon after Nyanya, Jos has turned into yet another national abattoir, the current fate of so many of our towns, villages and other once thriving habitations across northern parts of the nation. Perhaps at long last, the government and political leaders will FULLY accept what many have been declaiming for upwards of two, even three years: the nation is at war. There can be no further evasion, indeed it is criminal folly to attempt to disguise or fudge this reality. We are at that point in a people’s survival where there is no choice but to mobilize in an unprecedented manner, to place the entirety of the population on a national alert and on invitation to sacrifice. This is a pressing undertaking for President, governors, local governments, institutions of every shade and purpose, businesses and individuals. This requires an inculcation into citizen mentality of the plain fact that nowhere now should we accommodate the tranquilizing mode of ‘business as usual’. It is time even for that drastic, unpalatable creation of: A War Council!
The non-partisan mandate that many have called for, to combat the menace of Boko Haram, must ingested and manifested both in pronouncement and deed, calling for an unaccustomed discipline and a level of public morality that does not make a mockery of the innocent dead, maimed and bereaved. It is that kind of state of peril where the illegal appropriation of public resources should translate as nothing less than an act of treachery against the people, treason against the state. Derelections of the past in the sphere of public responsibility in all fields must now count as hostile engagement and, above all, a security consciousness at all levels as instructional undertaking, not as incidentally imbibed or trickle-down awareness into citizen mind, should be a priority of ministries and parastatals, and voluntary organizations. That private sanctuary, the individual homes should take the lead. One waits in vain for an accentuated discipline of watchfulness to be inculcated, energized through a public education process on young and old, so that every individual becomes alert to any unusual event in his or her neighborhood. Let it be understood that I am not advocating meaningless and banal slogans, or regimentation, but the imaginative development of citizen structures – work places, clubs, trade unions, schools and colleges, religious bodies, sports fields etc. etc. – in enhancing security sensibilities and educating the population on the now unarguable nature of the enemy.
We have warned. Now even the pores of the most calloused skin have been forcefully opened for listening, and absorbing reality. This is no time for recriminations. At the same time however, it will be foolhardy to fail to recall today some signal failures of the past, missteps, complacencies, evasions and denials, if we accept that re-building a nation should come sooner than later. Confronted especially with the resident nightmare of the abducted school girls, that insolent and brutal climax of the serial targeting of the female gender under theocratic misteachings, and given the context of an ongoing National dialogue, let it be acknowledged as imperative that we commence the process of internal questioning and cleansing. This cannot be done with avoidance of contributive factors to the present crisis wherever relevant, else we carry into the future the same destructive seed whose burgeoning deservedly threatens to wrap the nation in a seamless shroud of mourning and lamentations.
I shall quote from a warning that I issued about two years ago, after yet another spate of signal declarations of Boko Haram’s ultimate destination that many preferred to believe were mere rumbles of transient discontent. Death and mutilation, at the time, were still counted in single, then lower double digits. This was during those lulling pauses, when the arrest of two or three malefactors was guaranteed to encourage sighs of relief. The crude home-made, yet even then deadly devices were considered to be finite. A senior military officer, rank of general I seem to recall, was sufficiently dismissive as to urge the nation to relax, because the faceless enemy would soon run out of those devices! Even if that were true, does a temporary shortage of weaponry necessarily spell the end of any insurgency?
We must not allow ourselves to forget that the diligence of security agencies did net some high-profile individuals who even occupied governmental and elective posts. They were caught in flagrante as collaborators of Boko Haram and were duly charged to court. How many still recollect or can assess the significance for a nation, when a number of their regional colleagues rallied round to demand that the charges against them be dropped, even as a mere foot soldier in the same terrorist ring was successfully tried and gaoled. Do we have to be reminded of an occasion when, after a lull in attacks ended and attacks resumed, some “Elders” figuratively shrugged their shoulders and declared, “We told the government to drop the trial of that legislator, but they didn’t listen, so let them go and solve the problem by themselves”. If ever there was a blatant demand for the enthronement of impunity, or arrogant pronouncement of self-indictment, that, and allied forms of conduct were sufficient warnings of the remorseless march of the looming, orchestrated menace. There were, of course, hundreds of other signs, but I repeat – post-mortems can wait. Even those whose culpability in the present predicament is no longer matter for speculation – active or merely complaisant at the onset – now stand under threat of a common fate: to be consumed by the sightless scourge they brought into being. Thus we have no choice but to pull together. Only let no one dare deny that there were stern warnings of the consequences of dining with the devil, or sleeping soundly while the devil came swaggering down the streets in cloven, iron-clad hooves!
“Boko Haram has been here and gone – yes indeed” I admonished close to two years ago, “this is what we would all want to believe. The reality – and recollection of historic antecedents – demonstrates however that this is self-delusion. Boko Haram has been here, obviously, but it is anything but gone. To understand why, and before we proceed further, let us clarify in our minds exactly what is the essence of Boko Haram? What does it represent? How did it originate? What are the immediate triggers to the eruption of such phenomena, and what the long-receded causes? Confronting such questions, even within the context of the ritual, often sterile ‘commissions of enquiries’ requires self-caution against an easy and cosseting pre-disposition to accepted theories. Text-book theories are especially attractive to intellectuals, they are our meat and drink, nonetheless, they often constitute a real and present danger in the form of willful blindness to material life as we experience it. This is where it is necessary to repudiate a misplacement of emphasis by those who are inclined to submerge the violence of religious movements under class incantations.
“The class implication is only a fraction, admittedly a significant fraction of the totality of causative factors, but it is extremely dangerous for society to concede to it an exclusive role. It sounds nicely radical, but it merely indulges such aberrant movements and their willfully enclosed mental armory with analytical devices that they, in turn, despise. To state less, is to concede too much. We know that stirring claims have been made, and that the highlighted social ills are justly excoriated – corruption, neglect, ostentatious living juxtaposed with abject impoverishment, marginalization – all that is not to be denied. Evocation of such social anomalies is an enabling cry that is as old as history, and thus, while we take note of them, we dare not be blinded by them, not if we call ourselves holistic analysts of any social disorder. To address the most obvious feature of a ream of contradictions – here is a supposed corrective manifesto against an exploitative order that nonetheless ‘de-classifies’ half of humanity – the women – that is, designates that half as subservient, excluded from social opportunity, theologized as mere disposable objects for the other half – and empowers its followers to kill and maim them in order to preserve a decadent status quo. This, in my dictionary, and going by the history of the world, does not constitute a radical, or revolutionary manifesto, but a deep immersion in the pool of retrogression. It manifests itself in policies of exclusion, in human division. To order, for example, two hundred buses in order to enforce the segregation of men and women in public transportation, as the governor of Zamfara state has just done, is Boko Haramism in creed and deed – let us state this reality with brutal frankness.” End of quote.
From a splurge of two hundred buses for the enforcement of human division to the abduction of two hundred female students into a forest fastness is one easy and predictable slide into the abyss. The same mentality is at work. We could and should go further, but right now, the priority of the nation is to survive physically so as to be able to address questions of the mind. A National Dialogue that sits in session at this same time must not avoid such rigorous questions, otherwise it has taken the side of the right of abduction – and enslavement – of one division of our humanity, and approved the right of arbitrary decimation of dissenting humanity in any form. The word is: dictatorship.
Priority, for now, however, is survival, the recovery of the abducted, and destruction of the enemies of humanity. Over and over we have stated that the boundaries of insulation have long been erased, and every soul in the nation is exposed. At that same lecture in King’s College Lagos, I warned:
“The agents of Boko Haram, their promulgators both in evangelical and practical forms, are everywhere. Even here, right here in this throbbing commercial city of Lagos, there are, in all probability, what are known as ‘sleepers’ waiting for the word to be given. If that word were given this moment, those sleepers would swarm over the walls of this compound and inundate us here as primary targets, for we are gathered in celebration of a structure of education that they detest – a philosophy of education that says the mind must be open, not closed, a principle that subjects all claims of human discovery or certitudes to empirical scrutiny and establishes in the mind of the young the foundation of equity under one law as the sine qua non of civilized society and the creation of social man and woman”.
Let there be no mistake, this is the primal cause that animates the destroyers called Boko Haram, and that is why all humanity must rally across national borders and terminate their existence wherever they rear their heads. The resolve of West African states to reinforce the Nigerian war of containment with their troops has been urged from the beginning, it is so belated that it hurts. All over widening swathes of the Northern part of the nation, and right in the heart of Abuja, ever since Somalia, and most lately Mali, the early and obvious signs of anti-humanistic rampage of an extreme minority have been fulfilled again and again, and in such a gory manner that the mind nearly refuses to function. Our youths – the female most especially – have been brutalized beyond imagining, and remain abnormally exposed as front-line victims. There is danger however in thinking that the ambitions of this perverted sect are limited to any one corner of the nation. Never was watchfulness more than a mere watchword. We are borne on an evil tide must be contained, and staunched at source – but not merely through force of arms.
When we say a nation is at war, when we call on a nation to thereby mobilize, we do no more than urge that the various arms of warfare must be activated – among them, the psychological. The girls of Chibok are scattered in the forest of Sambisa, inhibiting frontal assault in parts and aerial bombardment generally. But what inhibits bombardment with leaflets, undermining the will of some members within that sect, some of them unwilling recruits, others teetering on the edge of conviction, and yet others with a deep hatred for their captors. After all, there is hardly anyone who does not know of several escapees, and the testimonies of coercion and brutality that have left a deep hatred in the hearts of many. Leaflets of aggressive detoxification that weakens the perverted reading of islam by these apostates should be dropped in likely occupied zones, denunciations of all Boko Haram followers as defilers of the very faith of Islam and the laudable ends, and practices of genuine faith. This is the time to put to positive use the often sweeping and opportunistic evocation of the fatwa – this time collectively pronounced against Boko Haram by authoritative Islamic prelates and scholars, rather than against easy prey who may have offended their often contrived theocratic sensibilities. Preachers across all faiths should sign and jointly issue calls to the mixed bag of insurgents to abandon a damnable cause, itemizing the common grounds that bind all faiths together and isolating Boko Haram as outside those basic tenets, and therefore fit only for the company of the mindless brutes whose habitation they have intruded upon. Let the forest of Sambisa – and whatever areas they have left their mark be inundated with such tracts – Boko Haram is – Haram – in all relevant languages, including the Arabic. If ever there was a time for a call to jihad, this is such a time, and Boko Haram is the self-proclaimed enemy of all faiths.
There is now, inevitably, a recruitment drive by the army. I have myself made that call, not for front-line action necessarily, but for the performance of backup tasks for an overstretched military – overstretched, no matter how large such an army is – since this is not what is referred to as classic or orthodox warfare but a conflict whose frontline potentially stretches in a meandering manner across a nation and beyond, is fluid, its battles erupt suddenly and are directed at civilians. But now let me call attention to a more generalized battle going on outside this nation – in Europe and America especially – where that oft marginalized sector of society – the women – are fighting for the right to serve, even in combat. There is something psychologically intriguing about the primary designation of this group as front-line adversaries by Boko Haram and allied deviants, this phobia that is obsessively directed at womanhood. It is a loathing that is worth exploring. The Nigerian army of course already admits women in its ranks, but I believe that this should now be made an open, declared policy, one of the many ways of taking the battle to such an enemy. It can only diminish them in their own self-conceiving as super-beings, compelling them to engage their worst, despised humanity in combat – even if only sporadically. Let me go even further: create a special unit of women fighters to confront their tormentors. Ideally, such a force should have an international character, though centred on the West African sub-region in its formation.
The women have borne the brunt of Boko Haram hatred, disdain, dehumanization and primordial viciousness. Survivors of their onslaught, and even those who have not undergone any baptism of fire, but have the “fire in their belly” should be encouraged to teach Boko Haram some gender-free truths of human commitment at the war front and the even more primordial call of human liberation, even at the risk of life. Africa, and especially West Africa is not without a tradition of women warriors – Dahomey with her so-called ‘Amazons’. Even the late Qaddafi refused to trust his most intimate safety net to any but a female praetorian guard. Nor should we forget that female combatants were recorded on both sides during the Nigerian civil war. Nigeria is awash today with the equivalents of the so-called “white widows” whose internal motivation is, alas, part of the lethal assets of global “Boko Haram”. Nothing unique therefore is proposed here, and of course we are speaking of strict volunteering only, not conscription. The door should be cast open even wider to the gender peers of those whose very presence within the army, even in auxiliary roles, already punctures the warped theology of Boko Haram.
We denounce the perpetrators of the ongoing crimes against our humanity – it is both just and humane to take arms against them. The only betrayal would be to do this half-heartedly, desultorily, with less that total commitment. We mourn with the stricken, and condole with our soldiers and their families for their losses. At such a time, in such a cause, the army deserves a people’s moral, practical and material support.
If the army fails, we fall.
Professor Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright and poet. He is the first African to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature (1986).
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.