Once Peaceful Nigeria Erupting in Violence says RPCV Donal Brown

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Once Peaceful Nigeria Erupting in Violence says RPCV Donal Brown

Once Peaceful Nigeria Erupting in Violence says RPCV Donal Brown

March 3, 2000

Once Peaceful Nigeria Erupting in Violence NCMonline, Feb. 28, 2000 By Donal Brown

EDITOR'S NOTE: Despite the replacement of military rule by a civilian government, once-promising Nigeria seems to be sinking in a whirlpool of violence. NCMonline reporter Donal Brown, once a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, traces the roots of the social breakdown.

With thousands in Kaduna fleeing riots that have left 400 dead, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's new, freely elected president, has the onerous task of restoring civil order and keeping democracy alive.

Christian residents of Kaduna are upset at Muslim demands for Islamic law (sharia) in the state. Islamic law bans prostitution and the sale of alcohol and calls for draconian punishments such as cutting off an arm for certain offenses. The governor of an adjoining state of Zamfara declared Islamic law for Muslim residents in October of last year. Christian minorities in the north were further shaken in December when Kano state said it would adopt sharia.

The violence in Kaduna recalls the 1966 assassination of Sir Amadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and northern premier, by predominantly Christian Igbo military officers. In the ensuing violence, between 10,000 to 30,000 Igbos were massacred in the Northern Region, leading to the secession of the Igbo homeland of Biafra and to the Nigerian civil war.

Civil disorder took root during the civil war from 1967-70. My wife and I served in the Peace Corps from 1963-65 when Nigeria, despite ethnic tensions, was one of the most secure and peaceful places anywhere in the world. Although most Nigerians were poor, the people were friendly and helpful. Nigerian students were among the best in Africa. There was little thievery outside the urban centers.

We traveled all over the country without fear. We even hitched a ride on a lorry carrying peanut cakes from Kano to Ibadan. The trip took a day and a night across vast stretches of sparsely populated, semi-arid land. Such a trip today would be highly risky. Although travelers are no longer subject to the notorious airport extortion, the U.S. State Department has posted a well-earned travel warning for Nigeria.

One might expect be less violence, with civilian rule having displaced military rule. Under military rule, the secret police and military instigated much thuggery, including the murder of dissidents. Under Obasanjo, however, violence has actually increased, with 1,000 dead in ethnic clashes since he took office. Some blame the military for clamping down at any sign of civil unrest.

With this pattern of violence, questions persist. Can Obasanjo's government keep the military in a subordinate role and establish security for minorities? Can it reduce ethnic conflict, restore faith in government by eliminating official corruption, and harness oil production to enrich the people and fuel economic renewal? For now the government has established a curfew in Kaduna and passed the ball to the Supreme Court to decide the legality of Islamic law.

Obasanjo understands how habits of violence are deeply entrenched. When he was head of the military government in 1977, he said that Nigeria was "a place where people are prepared to destroy anything, to cover up any crime, if doing so promotes their economic interest or might." Then in 1987 his own wife, stuck in a traffic jam, was killed for her Peugeot.

Obasanjo was eloquent in appealing for peace in Kaduna. He said that both Christianity and Islam were religions of peace and love. He said nothing was gained by the horrors of Kaduna. Let us hope that Obasanjo¹s call for peace is backed by honesty and competence, tht Nigeria finally has a chance to achieve stable nationhood and live up to its vast economic potential. But if Obasanjo is to succeed, he will need a giant assist from Nigerian citizens, Christian and Muslim alike.

FLASH: After what government officials characterized as "stormy discussions," the northern governors agreed Feb. 29 to suspend sharia in states already enforcing it and table it in states considering its adoption.

This followed retaliatory attacks in the eastern city of Aba killing 30. The suspension of Muslim rule is an attempt to stem the tide of violence sweeping the country with each outbreak feeding a retaliation elsewhere.

The killings in Aba began when the bodies of Aba natives killed in Kaduna arrived home for burial, and Igbos attacked Muslim Hausa and burned the mosque. The army was called in to stop the attacks.

Summit on Africa Spotlights Need for Workable U.S. Policy NCMonline, Mar. 1, 2000

EDITOR'S NOTE: Cobie Kwasi Harris, professor of African American Studies at Cal State San Jose attended the National Summit on Africa last Feb. 16-20 in Washington, DC. The summit was in the planning for more than three years as landmark effort to direct from below the United States' policies on Africa so that these would benefit the people of the continent. Professor Harris explains the summit's significance and shares his impressions of its accomplishments:

There is no coherent U.S. policy on Africa, which comprises 53 countries divided into Sub-Saharan Africa or Black Africa, and North Africa which is Arab Africa. The summit focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, in what was perhaps one of the most significant attempts to involve the American public in a dialogue on how we construct foreign policy.

Generally, foreign policy is made by the elites, and the people don't even know what's going on until their children come home in body bags. If people debated foreign policy instead of relying on the President"s "just trust me," perhaps there would be fewer wars.

The summit was organized by nongovernmental organizations concerned about the future of Africa. It was meant to influence debate on what U.S. policy should be. This is what makes it unique. Of course, it was also a mixed bag. There were people protesting the policies of multinational corporations in Africa, but at the same time the corporations that sponsored it included Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Chevron.

Some 5,000 people from all over the country discussed Africa for four days. Presidential candidates, both parties and members of Congress, were there, C-SPAN covered it. It was on the radar screen.

Blacks, whites, immigrant Africans, some Asians came voluntarily to really help construct foreign policy. There were regional conferences last year and this was to bring together those conferences and their proposals.

The major policy areas of concern were education and culture, sustainable development, peace and security, democracy and human rights. Each area had flashpoint issues that needed discussion. For example, sustainable development conflicts with U.S. trade and corporate policies.

There was a call for more monetary aid, attention and trade opportunities from the United States. There was popular criticism of the Africa trade President Bill Clinton advocated, which gives more control and penetration of Africa to multinational corporations.

President Clinton and Secretary of State Madelyne Albright spoke at the summit, and the irony is, they were partly responsible for the bloodshed in Rwanda because they did not do anything. In fact, after 18 American soldiers were killed in Somalia, the United States became gun-shy in Africa. All Washington had to do was not prevent U.N. troops from stopping the genocide, but it directly stopped the UN from intervening.

Summit participants would like Africa to be treated like other hot spots where the U.N. stepped in, like East Timor and Kosovo. They want the same attention.

A lot of the wars are due to colonial boundaries--so there's a call for a moratorium on arms sales, for the United States to support the landmine ban, for peacekeeping forces. And more help on AIDS. But it should all be based on respect for Africa; not on unilateral decisions by Clinton and Albright.

This event has taken the Sub-Saharan issue out of the ghetto. The follow-up is the million dollar question--how the monitoring of policy development, how the lobbying for the summit's recommendations is done. There's also a need to bring in more grassroots organizations, so that the process isn't dominated by national security people and policy.

The important thing is that the summit has set a new paradigm for how a democracy should conduct foreign policy -- to make it democratic by rallying the main interest groups in educating the public and engage it in a discussion of policy.

It's important because the American public is probably the most illiterate of any superpower in modern history, because we are so big and so self-contained that we just let the officials do what they want so long as they don't kill our children.

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