In Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram, the truth about terrorism is often obscured by Western liberal narratives of “terror”—who commits it, who is victimized by it, and what it looks like. While Boko Haram is certainly a terrorist group, the lived experience of terror in Nigeria is not uniform. Many suffer from this particular group’s attacks, but many more also suffer at the hands of the government, other pseudo-terrorist groups, or simply at the hands of someone from a rival community. As Tolstoy might put it, every Nigerian is terrorized in his own way.
A significant factor contributing to the climate of terror in Nigeria is the opaque nature of Boko Haram. According to Martin Ewi, a researcher who focuses on Boko Haram, the widespread mistrust about any news surrounding the group is well founded in Nigeria. “Families are afraid to talk about Boko Haram. They don’t know who’s Boko Haram and who’s not.” Videos purporting to show members of Boko Haram savagely attacking civilians are just as often thought to be members of the military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) or the vigilante Civilian JTF attacking civilians they believe support Boko Haram.
In the Middle Belt of Nigeria, average citizens from rival ethnic groups terrorize each other in decades-old sectarian battles that have tallied more total deaths over the years than the actions of Boko Haram. Terrorist groups in Nigeria often threaten each other as well, although civilians are the ones who suffer the brunt of the assaults. For example, in response to Boko Haram’s attacks on Christians in the north in 2012, the Igbo group Ogbunigwe Ndigbo gave all northern Muslims living in the south an ultimatum—leave in the next two weeks or face death.
It’s a confusing saga, and it became more so in early 2013 when the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) announced that they would launch “Operation Barbarossa,” attacks on northern mosques and assassinations of Muslim clerics in response to Boko Haram’s attacks on Christians. One former warlord who goes by the name Boyloaf explained the rationale behind attacking civilians in the north by equivocating that “We are Nigerians, but not one Nigeria.”
Boyloaf’s quip gets to the heart of a crucial issue that drives the rampant violence in all corners of the country—as many academics and observers have noted, Nigeria is “one of the most deeply divided states in Africa.” As one newspaper columnist phrased it, “Nigerian citizenship is often not worth the piece of paper that word is written on.” He continued on to say that “[i]n most parts of the world, xenophobia is often aimed at foreigners… But in Nigeria, the fear and hatred is more intensely aimed at fellow Nigerians than foreigners!”
The sad fact is that people simply don’t care about what happens to those living elsewhere in the country. But then again, why should they? The “country” of Nigeria was the making of British colonialists, not the people within its borders. The more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria never wanted to be citizens of the same country, and have no reason to concern themselves with acts of terror against other groups.
President Goodluck Jonathan certainly does not even attempt to feign concern. In early 2014, he bragged that he had pushed Boko Haram to the “fringes” of the country, implying that as long as they remained there, in the rural northern reaches, they were no longer his problem. Indeed, the day after the Chibok girls were kidnapped, Jonathan displayed his indifference by attending a party in Kano.
The girls are still gone, and more have joined them since. Just last October, 40 women were kidnapped in Adamawa. In early December, Boko Haram kidnapped 20 girls in Lassa, Borno state. A few weeks later, they kidnapped 172 women and children in Gumsuri, and killed 35 more. In early January, Boko Haram abducted 40 boys from the Malari village in Yobe. And just this week, reports have come from the town of Damasak in Borno that Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 500 children while fleeing attacks from the military. According to a columnist for the Daily Beast, the reason such events go unnoticed by the press is because they are perceived as normal in the context of Nigeria. This type of thinking is “something worse than apathy; it’s acceptance.” Ambassador John Campbell likewise notes that the topic of Boko Haram “hardly dominates Nigerian national life.”
I witnessed this acceptance first-hand during the morning of the first Abuja bombing (and the morning after the Chibok girls were kidnapped) on April 15, 2014. I learned about the attack while getting morning coffee at the office with a Nigerian colleague of mine who had driven through the Nyanya car park just twenty minutes after the bomb went off, killing 150 people. He mentioned it as casually, as if he was talking about the weather forecast. It was only after he saw the shocked look on my face that he remembered that he was supposed to act the same way, dismayed and upset at this heinous act of terror.
Another colleague of mine in Nigeria told me those Chibok girls might just be better off with Boko Haram. Surprised, I asked him about the stories of rape, or forced servitude, of them being married off to Boko Haram members. He shrugged and replied “Do you really think their lives would have been much different had they not been kidnapped? That their husbands would not have raped them, that they would not have led a life of servitude? The only difference is that Boko Haram fighters likely have more money than men in their own villages, so they might be living more comfortably now.” What about them being denied an education, I asked. He huffed, and said “the education in that place is horrendous. Those girls were never going to be doctors and lawyers.”
When Boko Haram captured the hometown of the Chief of the Defense Staff, Alex Badeh, the group told people there to carry on their normal lives, insisting that they would provide better security for the town and its people than the military ever could. Given that Alex Badeh responded by saying the capture of his town was “immaterial,” perhaps the people of Mubi had good reason to believe Boko Haram was actually a better choice.
When Martin Ewi was asked why the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, is so violent, he replied “I think because Shekau was almost killed… He was in the mouth of the crocodile, now he’s coming back to kill the crocodile.” Nigerian citizens have been in the mouth of the crocodile for years, but they are uncertain whether the crocodile is Boko Haram, the Nigerian government, or simply a rival clan. Indeed, as difficult as it is to admit, the type of terror exhibited by Boko Haram is something many Nigerian citizens inflict upon other ethnicities without batting an eye. Everyone is both a crocodile and a victim of crocodiles.
Nigerians are experiencing what anthropologist Ashley Montague calls “psychosclerosis”: the hardening of attitudes that prevent people from recognizing opportunities for change. Nigeria is also experiencing a kind of narrative sclerosis, wherein the ossification of storylines that describe terror lead to a collective attitude (perhaps one of the only collective attitudes in Nigeria) that there will always be someone else to fear. Everyone will always be in the mouth of one crocodile or another, and sooner or later the jaws will inevitably snap shut.