Middle Eastern and African Unrest and Oppression:
SOC 332: Block 4 Written Assignment
Middle Eastern and African Unrest and Oppression:
Chapters 7 & 8 of Cities of the World describes in detail the Middle Eastern and African cities of Cairo, Jerusalem, Dubai, Mecca, Istanbul, Kinshasa, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, Dakar, and Johannesburg. Please see the maps at the beginning of both chapters. Note that the textbook does not include Afghanistan or Pakistan with the Middle Eastern countries (see Chapter 9 for further discussion).
In Chapter 7, the author states, “On December 10, 2010, a wave of democratic uprisings was born. It began in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid and quickly spread to the capital, Tunis, then to the cities of other Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. These revolts aimed to engender political and economic reform by overthrowing dictatorial leaders who had been in power for decades. They began as affirmations of people’s struggles for freedom, democracy, and social justice… Often called youth revolutions, these movements showed how peaceful protests could oust dictators, as in Egypt and Tunisia, [and] how powerful presidents might lead their countries to civil wars to stay in power, as in Libya and Syria… Most dangerous to the region has been the ISIS, a violent extremist group that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq. ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate now controls, from its capital at Raqqa, large amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq. The ensuing strife has caused a massive humanitarian crisis, as millions of Syrian civilians have been displaced.”
Kano, Nigeria is another city suffering with violence resulting from citizens who feel oppressed; and Lagos, Nigeria, though rich in comparison to Kano, has its own deep rooted problems. Let’s take a look…
A. Go to the National Geographic website at: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/northern-nigeria/verini-text and read the article entitled: “The War for Nigeria”. I have copied the article onto the end of this assignment sheet for your convenience.
The photo gallery associated with this article can be viewed at:
A. Also, go to the National Geographic website at: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/lagos/draper-text and read the article entitled: “Africa’s First City”. I have copied the article onto the end of this assignment sheet for your convenience.
A short video associated with this article can be viewed at: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/lagos/my-lagos-video.
B. Using the given sources, write a 5-paragraph paper (3 pages maximum; points will be deducted for not following instructions) answering the following questions:
1. According to the Nigerian government, what is Boko Haram? According to the Hausa and Arabic languages, what is Boko Haram? According to the collective consciousness of the Nigerian people, what is Boko Haram? What do individual Nigerians suggest that Boko Haram is? (4 points)
2. Since 2009, more than 16,000 people have dies violent deaths in Nigeria. What atrocities does the author attribute to Boko Haram? (5 points)
3. Who else besides Boko Haram has recently committed violent acts in Nigeria? (3 points)
4. Why is the northern city of Kano particularly susceptible to such violence? (6 points)
5. Nigeria’s richest city, Lagos, has its own problems, specifically a huge gap between the rich and poor. How does Lagos prosper when upper Nigeria roils in chaos? Is this governmental oppression or is it something else? (5 points)
Cite the National Geographic articles. (2 points)
You may use any citation format that you are comfortable with, however, be certain that all sources are cited inside the text of your paper and at the end. At the end of your paper, give the full bibliographic listing of each source, including videos.
If you do not have a preference, you may use the format listed here… To cite a source within the text of your paper, you can simply place in parenthesis the name of the author, website or organization plus the date published (for example: Mark Maslin, 2009) at the end of the borrowed material. Then at the end of your paper, give the full bibliographic listing of the source, including: author, title, publisher, and copy write date or date information was accessed.
The War for Nigeria
By James Verini, National Geographic, Nov 2013
The ticket taker, who worked at Kano’s bus station, had his back to the blast. Before he heard it, it knocked him to the ground, and flame licked his head. He lay face down, dazed, his ears ringing, blood streaming from a shrapnel wound in his leg, but still he knew instinctively what had happened: There was a bomb in the car.
The driver of the Volkswagen had acted strangely. After pulling into the dirt lot of the station, he and the man in the passenger seat had been approached by touts—ticket salesmen who compete for fares—and had told them, “We don’t know where we’re going.” But when the ticket taker went up to the car, the driver said, “We already bought tickets.” Not thinking much of it, the ticket taker walked away.
As his ears stopped ringing, the screaming grew louder. He got up, and through the thickening black smoke he saw people staggering away from the buses. Burning bodies hung from what had been their windows. Moments before, they had been sleek, new 60-seaters waiting to head to points south. Now they were a pyre, like some awful ancient ritual offering. On the ground around him the ticket taker saw the corpses and remains of passengers, of the touts, his colleagues, the women who sold boiled cassava and roasted fish from plastic tubs carried on their heads. Friends he saw every day were now “separate people parts,” as he put it to me.
He looked down at his leg and saw that he too was on fire. Frantically, he pulled off his clothing. Then he made his way out of the lot, one in a crowd of unclothed people stumbling out of the clouds of black smoke billowing from the station. “I walked naked to the hospital,” he said. He lost consciousness along the way. Someone, he doesn’t know who, carried him on.
The ticket taker came to in a nearby hospital. Then he was transferred to Kano’s National Orthopaedic Hospital, where, the following week, I met him. (The hospital’s director would not allow me to ask his name.) His ward and two more were filled with victims of the bombing, and their wounds were eerily repetitive. For those lucky enough to have escaped the worst, faces were singed, and skin was missing from arms and waists, stripped off with burning clothing. Those not as lucky were no longer visibly African; the outer layer of flesh had been burned from their bodies, leaving them looking—as some joked to each other, when it wasn’t too painful to move their mouths—like beke, the Igbo word for a white man. It was as though their identities had been taken.
One such man sat on his bed staring at the wall in an effort to withstand the pain, while nurses wrapped him in gauze. He turned and looked at me with an expression of such kindness that I smiled. I asked—the stupidity of my question apparent immediately—“Are you OK?”
“No,” he said calmly, and returned to staring.
When the car exploded, the same two words occurred to him, and to the ticket taker, and to every other person who saw or heard the blast, which could be heard on the other side of Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city: Boko Haram. That neither they, nor practically anyone else in Nigeria, knew what Boko Haram was exactly or why it would want to bomb a bus station was beside the point.
Officially, according to the Nigerian government, Boko Haram is a terrorist group. It began life as a separatist movement led by a northern Nigerian Muslim preacher, Mohammed Yusuf, who decried the country’s misrule. “Boko Haram” is a combination of the Hausa language and Arabic, understood to mean that Western, or un-Islamic, learning is forbidden. In 2009, after Yusuf was killed—executed, it’s all but certain, by Nigerian police—his followers vowed revenge.
The world is coming to the unwelcome realization that, 12 years after 9/11, violent Islamist extremism and the conflicts it ignites aren’t going away. Accompanying that is the equally unwelcome realization that these conflicts afflict, more than ever, Africa, a continent still unequal to the challenges of the 20th century, never mind this one. In the Sahel, home to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and to the jihadists who until recently controlled northern Mali, Boko Haram has emerged as the nastiest of a nasty new breed. Calling for, among other things, an Islamic government, a war on Christians, and the death of Muslims it sees as traitors, the group has been connected with upwards of 4,700 deaths in Nigeria since 2009. And although Nigeria, with 170 million inhabitants, is the continent’s most populous country (one in six Africans is Nigerian) and has sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest economy, even by its immense standards the carnage attributed to Boko Haram is immense.
So much so that unofficially, in the national collective consciousness, Boko Haram has become something more than a terrorist group, more even than a movement. Its name has taken on an incantatory power. Fearing they will be heard and then killed by Boko Haram, Nigerians refuse to say the group’s name aloud, referring instead to “the crisis” or “the insecurity.” “People don’t trust their neighbors anymore,” a civil society activist in Kano told me. “Anybody can be Boko Haram.” The president, Goodluck Jonathan, an evangelical Christian, wonders openly if the insurgency is a sign of the end times.
After the bus station bombing I twice traveled to Atakar, a hilly area in Kaduna state, where mass killings had been reported. Before the first visit I consulted officials. They hadn’t gone to Atakar and wouldn’t, because they believed Boko Haram was behind the killings. Everyone killed had been Christians, they assured me. “It’s not unconnected with the quest for the Islamization of the north,” one official said. “They want as much as possible to annihilate the Christians.”
In the first village I visited, I met a family huddled by their roofless, charred homes. They were, in fact, Fulani Muslims, and they claimed they’d been attacked by marauders from the other side of Atakar—Christians, they presumed. Some of them said the attack had been ethnically motivated, others religiously. A young man told me that the original incitement had to do with a poisoned cow. “We were attacked because we are Fulani—and because of the cow that died,” he said. He wasn’t being facetious: Northern Nigeria has endured decades of ethno-religious slaughter, often enough touched off by peccadilloes. In 2002, after a journalist remarked that the Prophet Muhammad would have approved of a beauty contest, riots left hundreds dead.
Later I traveled to the other side of Atakar and found that villagers there, Christians from the indigenous Ataka tribe, had also been attacked. They’d assembled in a refugee camp in a schoolyard. One man told me that he was in his home when he heard gunfire. He went outside and saw men dressed in black shooting “powerful guns.” He barely escaped with his life, he said. He was certain the attackers were Fulani, as was a neighbor who joined our conversation. When I asked the neighbor why, he said, “My people don’t wear black.” Both suspected the attackers were also Boko Haram, though why that group would want to assail this remote place they couldn’t say.
“We want to believe it’s Boko Haram,” a local aid worker told me, in such a way as to denote that life had become so incomprehensibly frightful in northern Nigeria that wanting to believe Boko Haram was involved was enough to make it so. “We don’t have any other information,” he said, expanding on the thought, “so we want to believe it’s Boko Haram.”
In his autobiography Ken Saro-Wiwa, the son of the Nigerian activist of the same name who was executed by the state on trumped-up charges in 1995, writes that “Nigeria should be God’s own country in Africa.” This could be dismissed as just more of Nigeria’s famous nativist braggadocio if its neighbors and its despairing partners in the West didn’t agree. That braggadocio—and a fierce ambition—are matched by the country’s resources, among them gas, minerals, good harbors, and fecund soil that once helped propel the British Empire. Nigeria boasts an educated middle class, industrious cities, a rowdy, if not exactly free, press.
The most lucrative of its resources, however, since its discovery in the 1950s, is crude oil. Nigeria is the world’s fifth largest exporter; yet nearly two-thirds of its citizens live in absolute poverty, meaning that they have just enough to not die. Oil has made government the best business venture in Nigeria, and because oil, and not taxes, accounts for most of the state’s revenue, it also makes politicians unanswerable. A newspaper last year estimated that since President Jonathan entered office in 2010, $31 billion have disappeared. “There’s been a failure of government at all levels historically in Nigeria,” a Western diplomat working there told me.
This failure is everywhere apparent, but nowhere as much as in Kano, once one of the great cities of Africa and of the Muslim world. Islam arrived with merchants and clerics in the 11th century (giving it a much longer history there than Christianity); the Hausa king of Kano adopted it in 1370. In 1804 a caliphate was established. The British toppled it in 1903 but retained its pliant emirs. Kano, the heart of regional trade since antiquity, became an industrial and agricultural hub. So well was the arrangement working for him, the Emir of Kano opposed Nigeria’s independence, gained in 1960. A half century later roughly half of Nigerians are Muslims, the vast majority living in the north.
The emir and the British kept out Western education and other advances but allowed in Christians from the south. Kano’s fortunes began to slide in the 1970s, and as they did, its lack of development—and the lack of oil in the north—grew more apparent. Current statistics are unnerving: More than half of children under five in northern Nigeria are stunted from malnutrition. In the northeast, where Boko Haram started, only a quarter of homes have access to electricity, which would be a bigger problem if more than 23 percent of women could read. In the 1980s, 1990s, and again in the early 2000s ethno-religious conflicts killed thousands. Then Boko Haram came in.
Today Kano feels like a weary garrison. Approaching it, you come to checkpoints every few hundred yards. Between them you pass farms left fallow by neglect and desertification and through the half-alive villages they used to support. In the city, urban desertification: streets, parks, plazas empty. Signs are gone from any place deemed vulnerable to attack, which, since the bus station bombing, is any place. At police headquarters the only notice, spray-painted on an exterior wall, instructs, “Do Not Urinate Here.”
The most visible figures of authority in the city, the only visible figures of authority, are the Joint Task Force units (JTFs)—paramilitary teams made up of police, soldiers, and agents from the State Security Service, Nigeria’s equivalent of the FBI, who patrol in reptilian armored vehicles and canopied pickups. They’re known for their brutality and venality and have become as feared as the insurgents in some quarters, particularly in poor Muslim districts.
The real power in Kano is hidden, conspicuously. Behind tall walls in the city center is the state government’s sprawling seat. In his office there, the governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, greeted me from an archipelago of leather sofas. On one wall was a life-size painting of Kwankwaso; against another, a life-size stand-up cardboard cutout of him. In both he was wearing exactly what he had on when I met him: a white babbanriga robe and red brimless cap, emblems of his Kano revitalization campaign, which he calls the Red Cap Revolution.
“I have no doubt in my mind that one day Nigeria will overcome it,” Kwankwaso told me, referring to Boko Haram. “How it will happen, it is difficult to say now.” A trio of aides nodded. “This is the time to listen even to foolish people, to hear what they are saying, because we don’t have answers.” Kano hasn’t upgraded its power grid in years, and as he talked, the lights went out. They came back on, and he continued. “You have to prevent violence. On the other hand, government has to do so many other things. What we are seeing is just a symptom of what has happened in the past.” After Kwankwaso’s first term in the governor’s office ended in 2003, he was indicted for embezzling $7.5 million in state funds. He was not prosecuted and in 2011 was elected again.
In Kano’s old walled city is the emir’s palace. Amid the poverty of his subjects, the emir, now 83, still lives very much like an emir. I wasn’t granted an audience with him, but one morning I was invited to look around the palace, a rumpus of alcoves and anterooms. I arrived alongside a busload of Gulf-state visitors filing in with gifts in duty-free bags. After convening with them, the emir emerged in a meringue of robes, mounted a horse, attendants shielding him with a giant, tasseled umbrella, and rode to his mosque. It used to be that anyone could come and watch these rituals. That ended in January, when men drove up alongside the emir’s Rolls-Royce, pulled out guns, and opened fire. Two of his sons were shot, several of his entourage killed.
The assurance of violence hangs in the air. While I was in Kano, there were near-daily reports of shootings and a series of botched bombings, including one at the palace. On Sunday mornings police park water-cannon trucks outside churches, and preachers inside talk about the “Lord’s battle” against Boko Haram; in nearby mosques clerics condemn Goodluck Jonathan’s “war on Islam.” On Easter a TV reporter friend of mine got a call. JTFs had raided a suspected Boko Haram hideout. He returned a few hours later with familiar footage: an orderly array of guns, bullets, and homemade bombs, and near it an orderly array of bodies of slain “militants.” Among the dead on this day I could see at least one woman and a child. The position of the bodies suggested that the people had either been piled together after being shot or were killed en masse.
There are various creation stories for Boko Haram. The most common I heard in Nigeria is this: In the early 2000s in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, Mohammed Ali, a preacher fed up with poverty and disorder, embarked on a hegira, a Muhammadan withdrawal from society. He and his followers created a commune and practiced sharia. After a dispute with authorities, the Nigerian Taliban, as they’d become known, attacked a police station. The army laid siege, and Ali was killed.
Survivors regrouped around a promising contemporary of Ali’s, Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf built a bigger commune, described in a report as a “state within a state, with a cabinet, its own religious police, and a large farm.” He called his group Jamaa Ahl al Sunna li al Dawa wa al Jihad, or People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. Possibly deriding Yusuf ’s religiosity, someone called it Boko Haram. Yusuf was carrying out forced conversions to Islam, according to reports, and likely ordered the murder of a rival. Nonetheless he gained sympathizers around Nigeria, not all of them Muslim. “Boko Haram is a resistance movement against misrule rather than a purely Islamic group,” one bishop said. Yusuf, a Maiduguri reporter told me, “was so charismatic. He could talk to people very gently, very simply,” but “when he preached, he acted. Overacted.”
In 2009 Yusuf’s followers clashed with security forces. The army shelled the commune. Yusuf had predicted that if he was ever arrested, he would be killed without trial, and that’s exactly what happened. Surviving devotees went into hiding. Some traveled abroad for training with other militants, and some regrouped in Kano around Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf ’s deputy. They set out to “liberate ourselves and our religion from the hands of infidels and the Nigerian government.” Northern Nigeria was overtaken by bombings, arsons, and shootings—at police stations and government offices, then at churches, mosques, schools, and universities—and by assassinations of officials, politicians, clerics, and others. The federal police headquarters in Abuja was suicide-bombed, then the UN compound. A residence of the vice president’s was shot up.
A deadly attack hit Kano on January 20, 2012. Waves of gunmen set upon police stations and State Security Service offices. The official estimate of the dead was 185, but according to Kano residents I spoke with, the real number was much larger. I was also told that some people risked their lives to gather outside police stations to cheer on the attackers, so despised are the authorities in Kano.
The resentment that impelled those residents is summed up in a favorite saying of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s, which his son likes to quote: “To live a day in Nigeria is to die many times.” The smallest tasks in Nigeria sap one’s dignity. En route to Kano, I flew through the Lagos airport, where the guard at the bag scanner shook me down for a bribe in front of his expressionless superiors. I refused. He negotiated: “Money for water?” I told him that if he really was thirsty, he could meet me in the snack bar. A half hour later he arrived, uniform gone, now in natty denim, two mobile phones in hand, and leaped into a chair with a “Here you are!” We talked for an hour. I ended up buying him water and lunch. He in turn called a friend who picked me up at the Abuja airport. “Anything you need,” the guard said as we parted, and he meant it.
Such is the polyphony of interaction in Nigeria—“affectionate extortion,” I heard it called. In a country that’s endured a civil war, six military coups, two assassinations of heads of state, and at least three crippling domestic insurgencies in just over 50 years of existence, and where contempt for leadership has hardened into a perverse kind of civic responsibility, this mixture of menace and generosity, officiousness and humor—the attitude that allows a man whose skin has been burned off to joke that he’s been turned white—is indicative of a certain flippancy, part of that Nigerian braggadocio. It’s also a way of keeping sane. And to that end it orders Nigerians’ complex perspective on sedition. They condemn Boko Haram and see its hypocrisy. As one soldier, a Muslim, said to me while guarding a church on Palm Sunday, “They say Western education is wrong. But that book you’re reading, how was it made? That pen you’re using, how was it made? That gun you have, where was it made?” But they pay Boko Haram a grudging deference too. They know well the frustration that would drive someone to take up arms against the state.
This deference takes subtle forms. On Kano street corners vendors sell DVDs of insurgent attacks downloaded from the Internet. Saying Boko Haram aloud is discouraged, but you can refer to the Boko Boys, or BH, as though it were some hot rap act.
The extent of the insurgency’s strange effects on the Nigerian psyche became apparent as I looked into the bombing at the bus station. Unlike Boko Haram’s signature attacks, this one was indiscriminate, meant to kill as many as possible, whoever they were. But theories about its meaning vary. Kano is majority Hausa and Fulani, but Sabon Gari, the district where the station is located, is home to many Igbo. They tend to be Christian, and they operate the bus lines. So the most widespread theory is that the bombing was an attack on Igbo Christians. “To me it’s an extension of killing Christians in their churches,” a security officer in Abuja told me. A traditional Igbo leader in Sabon Gari who goes by Chief Tobias said, “Igbos were the target.”
But this theory goes only so far. The bus operators are Igbo, yes, as were many of the passengers and station workers who died. But many others were not. Some were Hausa or Fulani, some, possibly, Kanuri, the majority ethnicity of Boko Haram’s originators. Sabon Gari is home to most of Kano’s churches, but it also has many mosques. It is the most diverse part of Kano, a throwback to the city’s old cosmopolitanism, and on a given day any number of the 250 or so ethnic groups that make up Nigeria might be represented there.
A prominent former Kano parliamentarian, Junaid Muhammad, a Muslim, told me that Chief Tobias’s claim was ridiculous. “You cannot tell your bullet or your bomb, ‘Go and hit an Igbo man’ or ‘Go and hit a Hausa man.’” I went to see Boniface Ibekwe, the supreme leader of the Igbo in Kano and a Christian, and was surprised to find he agreed. “It’s not a direct attack on Igbos,” he said. “Boko Haram’s objective is to get where people are gathered together and destroy it.”
Some people believe the bus station was bombed because it is a center of commerce. It represents the influx of foreign goods, foreign ideas, impious ideas. Others wonder if the bombing was meant to protest the economic dominance of the south over the north. Perhaps what Boko Haram really wants, one theory holds, is regional equity or a new northern nation. Among northern politicians, secession is an oft talked about, if impracticable, idea.
One thing everyone seems to agree on is that when the authorities got involved, the confusion increased. Take what ought to be the most basic fact: how many died. I spoke to one reporter who put the total around 30; another said around 40. Chief Tobias said 75. The real number will never be known, because no official account of the incident has been given. The government’s tally—22 dead—is a fiction.
The government won’t say who it suspects the bombers were, aside from Boko Haram; how the car bomb was made; or even whether there was only one bomb. Some witnesses claim there were two. Most people agree the car was a Volkswagen, but some—including the ticket taker—say it was an Opel. Some witnesses claim there were two people in the car, others three. According to local journalists, security forces removed corpses from the station as quickly as possible and moved survivors from one hospital to another in an effort to keep reporters away from them. The authorities “don’t want the public to know what is actually happening,” Nasir Zango, a Kano reporter, said.
Why? There are varying theories about that too. To head off reprisal attacks. To protect their jobs. Because they deceive a lot. The most common explanation offered to me, and the most troubling, is that security forces didn’t properly investigate the bombing because they can’t. They don’t have the training or the experience, not to mention the interest. They don’t have the equipment to analyze bomb fragments or the intelligence networks to lead them to the bombers. Often police don’t even bother taking statements from witnesses after attacks, I was told.
Still, the government and the press are equally quick to pin any violence in the north on Boko Haram. For the former, it distracts from mendacity and ineptitude. For the latter, it provides copy. Privately many people agree that criminals have found in Boko Haram a perfect cover. The result of all this no longer stops at confusion. “You begin to think it’s as though someone’s hellbent on seeing these problems continue,” Lawan Adamu, another Kano reporter, said. “The conflict, the crisis, is taking a very big dimension that is really making many of us start thinking or believing that there is a conspiracy. Many people have said this before, and I didn’t want to believe, but now I’m starting to.”
Ken Saro-Wiwa the younger, who now is (in a perfect Nigerian irony) an adviser to President Jonathan, told me that Boko Haram is “typically Nigerian, in that it started as an ideological movement. Then it was co-opted by political opportunists. Then it was mixed with economic issues. And now it’s muddied, so that you can’t tell what it’s about.”
When I asked a local community leader in Atakar why no state officials had come to the attacked villages there, he said, “Why would they come? They are the sponsors of these things.” And was Boko Haram involved? “Why not?” he said. “What is the difference?”
It was a sentiment I heard again and again. Almost no Nigerian I spoke with believes Boko Haram is just Boko Haram. Some claim it’s the creation of Wahhabis from the Gulf states; others, of “the West.” Still others believe Boko Haram is backed by northern politicians vying for power; or by southern politicians who want to destabilize the north; or by people in President Jonathan’s party who want to unseat him; or by Jonathan himself, in an effort to cancel elections in the north; or, if not by him, by the people around him. In fact, Jonathan apparently believes the last. In a moment of unbuttoned paranoia at a church service last year he said, “Some [Boko Haram] are in the executive arm of government, some of them are in the parliamentary/legislative arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary. Some are also in the armed forces, the police, and other security agencies.”
And some Nigerians say that Boko Haram doesn’t exist at all. “We believe Boko Haram is a political expression,” Chief Tobias said. “We don’t believe there is an organization Boko Haram.”
As I continued reporting, it became apparent that the insurgency’s gravest toll on Nigeria isn’t physical. It’s existential. Boko Haram has become a kind of national synonym for fear, a repository for Nigerians’ worst anxieties about their society and where it’s headed. Those anxieties touch on the most elemental aspects of Nigerian life—ethnicity, religion, regional inequities, the legacy of colonialism—and not least is the anxiety that Nigerian leaders are wholly incapable of facing this insurgency, indeed unwilling to face it, much less the social fissures beneath it. Or worse, that the leaders are no better than the insurgents. That the state is Boko Haram.
It’s not an entirely unreasonable supposition. Of the more than 4,700 killings associated with Boko Haram to date, almost half have been at the hands of security forces, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of those killed have been civilians who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the insurgency gets more vicious, so does the government. In July suspected Boko Haram militants set fire to a boarding school in Mamudo, killing 42 students and teachers. In April the military assaulted the village of Baga, claiming militants were hiding there. At least 200 were killed. Witnesses described soldiers gunning down people as they ran from their homes.
I interviewed people in Kano who claimed they’d been harassed, beaten, or shot by security forces. In my last days in Nigeria I went to Abuja, where I recounted their stories to a general, one of the main architects of the campaign against Boko Haram. He wasn’t moved. In fact he wouldn’t concede that there had been any abuses. When I pressed the point, he began yelling and pounding his desk. He said such stories were invented by journalists sympathetic to Boko Haram, including, he intimated, me. “We know there are some journalists deliberately siding with Boko Haram in this war!” said the general, who did not want to be named. “I have found some journalists, and they confessed to me they were deliberately siding with certain sides. Deliberately! Some based in Western countries.”
Calming down, he went on, “Look, it’s a shadowy war we are fighting.” To prove how shadowy, he showed me a video found in a raid. It showed Abubakar Shekau. Bushy-bearded, muscular, with a bit of a gut and a limp, the Boko Haram leader is training three young men to wield an AK-47. They’re in the closed courtyard of a residential building somewhere, maybe Kano. Children can be heard playing inside. Suddenly there’s a knock at the gate. Shekau lurches to a wall, as one young man lifts the rifle unsteadily, ready to fire. A man comes in, carrying a shopping bag. They know him. Everyone laughs with relief.
“You see, they could be anywhere, anywhere!”the general said. “Not only in the north—in the whole of the country! [Nigerians] still don’t understand the challenge—the real challenge—we’re facing, the seriousness of the situation. They don’t understand.”
As he said this, I thought back to the hospital in Kano and to a woman I met there. She’d been selling water in the bus station the day of the bombing. Her young daughter had been helping her. When the car exploded, the girl vanished. In the darkness the woman called out for her. When her daughter didn’t respond, she began looking for a body. When she couldn’t find a body, she looked for an arm, a leg, clothing, a shoe, anything. She found nothing. She told the police what had happened, but they didn’t care and ordered her to leave. The woman’s husband went to every hospital in Kano, to no avail.
“I never saw my daughter since that day,” she said. Dominant in her cracking voice as she said this were grief and confusion. But when she spoke of the police, another note took over. It was anger.
Africa’s First City
Bursting with a get-rich spirit that has made Nigeria’s economy the continent’s largest, Lagos is Africa’s first city.
By Robert Draper
Photographs by Robin Hammond
When he was 15 years old, David Adeoti worked in an Internet café in blue-collar Satellite Town, where it was almost possible to see the gleaming towers of Lagos Island less than ten miles to the east.
Satellite Town was a step up for Adeoti. His birthplace was off to the north in Orile, a wretched village of flooded streets and collapsing buildings. Technology had provided his way out. The Internet café in Satellite Town was run as a side business by a banker, who saw that the boy had a natural facility for computers—even the shop’s ancient desktops, which operated at lurching speeds. The banker paid Adeoti a little more than $200 a month to run the place. Adeoti spent his money on courses at a technical institute, determined that the Internet café would not be the end of the line for him.
One day in 2010 the shop’s customers looked up from the computers to see who had just walked in the door with the mannered British accent. His name was Jason Njoku, a bespectacled 30-year-old Londoner who had relocated to his ancestral homeland of Nigeria. Njoku asked Adeoti if he could scan some documents. While Adeoti operated the scanner, the genteel visitor mentioned that he was trying to find investors for a new business venture and asked the Internet café manager if he enjoyed his job. They exchanged cell phone numbers. A few months later Adeoti inquired about a job and was invited to Njoku’s apartment. Adeoti walked inside to find six young men wedged behind desks with computer cables snaked around their feet as they typed. This, Njoku informed Adeoti, was his new business: an indigenous version of Netflix that would stream movies to Nigerian computers and bring Nigerian movies to the world. Njoku needed someone like Adeoti to convert “Nollywood” DVDs into a YouTube format. As was evident by the cramped environs, the project was perilously low on money. Adeoti signed on anyway, thinking, It’s going to sell itself.
When I met David Adeoti in spring 2014, he was 24 and wearing an elegant knit shirt and designer jeans while sitting behind a Mac laptop in the sleek three-story office that now houses iROKOtv in Lagos. Njoku’s company has about 80 employees, with additional offices in Johannesburg, London, and New York City. Adeoti makes twice the salary he made as the manager at the Internet café. But all this exposure to money and movies had whetted his appetite for more of both. “I plan on starting my own business—something in the film industry,” he told me. He was saving money to travel to Hollywood. He wants to be a cinematographer—and perhaps one day, a Nollywood studio executive.
“It’s a very far distance from middle class to being rich,” Adeoti said. With a widening grin, he added, “But the middle class, we strive. Everyone is very desperate to be very rich these days.”
Almost anywhere else in the developing world, such a sentiment would seem pitiably delusional. In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, “Be Very Rich” has all but become the city’s motto. The country recently recalculated its gross domestic product to take into account sectors of the economy that barely existed two decades ago. As a result, Nigeria determined that its GDP surpassed South Africa’s in 2012 to become the continent’s largest economy. About 15,700 millionaires and a handful of billionaires live in Nigeria, more than 60 percent of them in Lagos.
As with other African metropolises, oil-enriched Lagos has long nurtured an elite class only marginally inconvenienced by the squalor enveloping the city as a whole. Now the upper class is expanding, and despite persistent income inequality, so is the middle class. The growth of the latter in Nigeria, according to a 2013 survey by Ciuci Consulting, a strategy and marketing firm in Lagos, is driven by the expanding banking, telecommunications, and services sectors, particularly in Lagos. Nigeria’s middle class grew from 480,000 in 1990 to 4.1 million in 2014, or 11 percent of households. Seemingly overnight, Lagos has transformed itself into a city of Davids clamoring to become Goliaths.
This is a great African success story. And how lovely it would be to tell this bright, uplifting tale while ignoring altogether the dark and demoralizing saga of Nigeria’s grotesque terrorists, which has blocked the boomtown narrative from the world’s consciousness like a lunar eclipse. But Lagos does not exist in a parallel universe, any more than the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram does. Both are indigenous to Nigeria, a vast West African nation teeming with industrious strivers like Adeoti but also with poverty, despair, and violence. If anything, the miracle of Lagos is that its economy gallops onward even when fettered by the same federal incompetence that allows terrorism to go unchecked. A lesser city would be crippled. Then again, in a sense so is Lagos.
*GDP REVISED FROM 2010 ONWARD TO REFLECT IMPROVED DATA SOURCES AND METHODOLOGY
RYAN MORRIS, NGM STAFF. SOURCES: STANDARD BANK GROUP; WORLD BANK
“Nigeria’s problem and Lagos’s problem is its image. That’s the chief problem. You’d think you were in a war zone in Afghanistan when you read what you read about here! But tell me: Have you felt any threat?”
No, I confessed to Kola Karim, the dashing 45-year-old multimillionaire and CEO of Shoreline Energy International, a food/energy/telecommunications/construction conglomerate with more than 3,000 employees. I felt quite safe in Lagos—a pleasant surprise, given that I had boarded my flight to the city on the same day that dozens were killed in a bomb blast at a bus depot in the capital city of Abuja. It was the latest in a string of terrorist episodes for which Boko Haram had taken credit. But Lagos had been spared from such incidents, so far. The violence felt a country away—like a bad dream washed from memory after a morning’s shower.
“Look, I was invited to the White House a few weeks ago,” Karim went on, his British-educated diction edged with exasperation. “There were 21 of us—young global leaders of the World Economic Forum. I told them, ‘You’re always viewing things from a national security angle rather than commercial viability. You invite African businessmen over, and all you want to know about is al Qaeda. Why are you wasting my time to come all the way here to listen to the same old gibberish?’ ”
Karim makes it his business to evangelize about the Lagos miracle in which he has played a notable role. Later in the day a French TV station would be filming Karim playing polo as a way of showcasing the city’s prosperity. The following week he would be at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, giving a speech about Africa’s power sector. Karim has delivered similar talks at Harvard and Yale, part of what he refers to as his “moral duty to promote Nigeria and Lagos.” When I joked that he could be making big money on the speaking circuit, the Lagos entrepreneur solemnly replied, “I will start charging money when the world has heard our story.”
Here is the story, in brief. Following centuries of tribal rule by territorial kings and emperors and 99 years of British colonial rule, Nigeria achieved independence in 1960 and was intermittently ruled by military heads of state until 1999, when it at last achieved a rickety state of democracy. Among its 36 states, Lagos—which includes the sprawling port city of the same name—was ever the country’s center of power, even when the federal capital was relocated in 1991 to Abuja, a 450-mile drive away. Still, Lagos deteriorated under decades of military rule. Its schools, roads, and hospitals went to seed. Western investors kept their distance. When Karim returned from England to his birthplace in 1996 to build on the family cocoa business, there were very few of his kind, “because,” he told me, “it wasn’t an open economy, and financial services were few. Back then the total capital of a bank was maybe two million dollars. Imagine you want to do business in Lagos. How much can a bank like that possibly lend you? Fast-forward to today—they’ll lend you up to $500 million!”
What happened to Lagos stemmed from a convergence of two phenomena. First, after knowing only political incompetence, the newly democratized Lagosians elected a pair of remarkably consequential state governors: former accountant Bola Tinubu in 1999, and in 2007 his handpicked successor, Babatunde Fashola, who has been credited with helping quash an Ebola outbreak in Lagos. The two executives restored some fiscal sanity to Lagos while investing in bridges and expressways. Meanwhile a reverse diaspora transpired as native Nigerians began to return home. When the worldwide recession foreclosed opportunity in Europe and America, Lagos offered itself as a new frontier for ambitious entrepreneurs. One of them, Lanre Akinlagun, told me, “Back in the U.K., all of my friends started moving back to Lagos. When they’d return to visit, we’d meet in a bar, and they’d buy a round of shots. But then later they’d come back and order up bottles of the most expensive stuff. I told myself, OK, something’s going on here.”
On the Atlantic coast and consisting of a slab of mainland around a lagoon and several islands, Lagos today is an ad hoc ecosystem thrashing with wealth seekers. Tourism is largely absent here—one comes to Lagos strictly to do business—and yet at the same time it is a strangely inviting place, a city of optimists.
That is not to suggest that life in Lagos is a smooth ride. As with all boomtowns, the city is at pains to keep up with itself. Lagos’s population is growing so fast and is so transient that it’s impossible to estimate the number of inhabitants more precisely than between 13 million and 18 million. The hubs of commerce are the two small islands of Lagos and Victoria, and only the very wealthy can afford to live there. While developers swoop down on every last sliver of marshland, forest, and landfill (and in the case of the ultra-elite planned city of Eko Atlantic, 3.5 square miles of land recovered from the ocean), ambitious Lagosians struggle to reconcile their status consciousness with the absurd price of central housing and the 20 percent interest that banks commonly charge for mortgage loans. Invariably, Lagosians settle on a flat somewhere on the mainland, which means enduring commutes through grinding traffic that can exceed two hours each way. Or it means waiting out the gridlock over beers and cigars with fellow young Turks at a bar somewhere on the islands—a fraternal spectacle as endemic to Lagos as the traffic snarls themselves.
I sat one late afternoon in one of those bars with a half dozen well-dressed bankers in their 30s, a daily congregation of gentlemen who have perfected the art of boozy time-wasting. One of them, an especially talkative fellow, told me that a flat on the island would cost four times the amount he had paid for his house on the mainland. “If I had the right kind of income, of course I’d live on the island,” he said. “If I lived on the island, I’d go home, check my boys’ homework assignments, play some computer games with them, maybe take my wife out for dinner. During the week I can’t do that.”
The young banker then laughed off his predicament and called out for another round.
A recent survey of middle-class Nigerians conducted by Renaissance Capital, an investment bank, found that 76 percent of them are optimistic about the country’s future. Sunniness of outlook has deep roots in Nigeria, particularly so in Lagos, a land of traders and settlers, and thus of industrious disposition. Lagosians believe themselves to be pluckier than the average West African. This is, if anything, a modest self-assessment. The man I hired to drive me around during my three weeks in Lagos, Daniel Sunday, took me one day to the neighborhood where he was born and raised: Makoko, a fetid shantytown on stilts in Lagos Lagoon that is mordantly referred to as the “Venice of Africa.” Sunday told me that he left the shabby family home when he was a teenager and found work as a bus conductor. He slept on his boss’s floor and after a few years had accumulated enough money to buy his first car. Now he was married, with a residence on the mainland, and for two hours each morning he uncomplainingly chauffeured customers like me around the commercial districts. The motto on Sunday’s business card was “In God I Trust.”
“If you give a Nigerian an opportunity, he will do his best,” a 36-year-old man named Onyekachi Chiagozie proclaimed one hot afternoon as he proudly showed me his mobile electrician’s workshop. In truth, the hollowed-out van with the cracked windshield wasn’t much to look at. Chiagozie had bought the used van for about $4,300, and with it he could drive his tools all over the city, an enabler and beneficiary of Lagos’s construction boom.
All of this was an improbable outcome for a young man who, at 18, became an unpaid apprentice to an electrician and worked odd jobs to survive. For a time he slept in a bus stop. He owned what he was wearing and nothing else. After about four years Chiagozie scraped together enough money to rent a tiny house in the mixed-income neighborhood of Ojota, where he had apprenticed. “Save, save, save: I’ve made the sacrifice, and it’s started to pay off,” he recalled. “I registered my company. People in the area knew me. I’d fix this socket or see why that light wasn’t turning on. The customers grew to trust me. Then they started getting me good jobs. Wiring whole houses. Fixing ATMs and air conditioners. And because in Lagos it’s very expensive to have an office, I decided to have the first mobile workshop in the country.”
The owner of the whimsically named Varied Pace Enterprises, Chiagozie beamed as he told me that he was now married, with a three-bedroom house in Ojota and a tract of land outside the city that he deemed a prudent investment. He shepherded me through the neighborhood, pointing out the houses that he and his two apprentices were currently wiring. The slum child had broken through. Another Lagos success story—but an unfinished one, for this was not nearly enough. “I’ve been making money,” the electrician told me, “but the money is better across the bridge, on the island. And I don’t know the right people there yet.”
Banke Meshida Lawal knows the right people. When I visited her at her beauty salon, BM Pro, on Lagos Island, the young makeup artist was applying a full makeover to a wealthy client who would soon be attending a wedding in Chicago. Because Lawal herself could not break away from her business to fly over for the event, a colleague was videotaping the procedure, and a copy would be sent to one of Lawal’s beauty reps in the United States, who would replicate the makeover on the wedding day. Lawal’s onetime fee was more than what it had cost Chiagozie to buy his mobile electrician’s workshop.
The makeup artist shares with the electrician a fierce entrepreneurial motor, though she began with a leg up on the ladder. Lawal’s father was a university lecturer, her mother a radiologist. While studying English at the University of Lagos, she began doing other students’ makeup for a small fee. “There was nothing like makeup artistry back then—it was unheard of,” she told me. “But when I was traveling to the U.K. on holiday, I’d buy all sorts of makeup, and I was addicted to the girlie teenage magazines like Marie Claire and Cosmo. My background was in fine arts, and that helped me to put together colors and draw lines.” During her postcollegiate year of youth service mandated by the Nigerian government, Lawal decided to open a little cubicle in the affluent neighborhood of Ikoyi. In 2000 she did the makeup for the women in the wedding of the new president’s son. Press coverage followed. She moved to a larger studio. More celebrities requested her services, which now included hair and nails. Today BM Pro has four branches and 32 employees. Banke Meshida Lawal has what Onyekachi Chiagozie wants. She occupies the dead center of island prosperity.
“I know that what I do is ostentatious. It’s luxury,” Lawal told me. “Anyone can get by doing their own makeup themselves. But if they want that something special—make it go pow, give it that extra thing—they come to me. This is a cash economy, and there are people here willing to pay the cash.”
Smiling somewhat ruefully, the makeup artist added, “The gap is so great between rich and poor. I’m just glad to be on the receiving end of the cash.”
On a sunny Easter morning I climbed aboard a motorboat docked at Victoria Island and rode an hour along the coast outside of Lagos until the driver deposited me at the edge of a dirt trail that led to a beach house crammed with 200 dancing, cognac-swilling young Lagosians. Everyone was dressed entirely in white, as instructed by the party invitation—at least until a hard rain pummeled the patio, at which point many stripped down to their swimsuits and jumped in the pool. They all seemed to know one another from the same nightclubs, or the same business deals, or the same university back in London, or Lawal’s beauty salon. Few if any of them likely fraternized with aspiring laborers like Chiagozie or knew the hard path he had taken to the middle class.
I stood beside the hip-hop deejay for several hours, observing this landscape of impervious beauty and affluence—a tableau that could just as easily be taking place halfway around the globe, in the Hollywood Hills or the Hamptons. Where it could not be taking place, I found myself thinking, was more than 700 miles northeast, in the forests of northern Nigeria, where roughly the same number of individuals—young schoolgirls—were being held hostage after Boko Haram had kidnapped them six days earlier.
The moneyed and the maraudered. Within a few days the New York Times T Magazine would publish a lavish spread in celebration of the former (“In Lagos, the 1% Takes Stock”) even as #bringbackourgirls hashtag activism sounded alarms on behalf of the latter. How do the two worlds coexist? How does Lagos prosper when upper Nigeria roils with chaos?
It takes effort to discern any connection. But after a couple of weeks moving through the city, I began to form questions: If Nigeria is the largest exporter of petroleum in Africa, how can there be continual fuel scarcity, such that Lagosians periodically sit in gas lines for up to four hours? Why does every building in the city—not just the low-income hovels on the mainland but also the sleekest hotels on Lagos Island—rely on generators to supply round-the-clock power? Why do residents continue to pay for electricity that never arrives? Why do the city’s police set up evening checkpoints on the bridges and shake down commuters for cash? Why do the top academics at the University of Lagos carry on with strikes lasting entire semesters? What’s wrong with this picture?
Corruption is what’s wrong—and because much of it exists on the federal level, Lagos is largely powerless to overcome it. The striking professors and the underpaid police are federal employees. That petro-titan Nigeria must import fuel to attempt to meet consumer demand is the result of the petroleum ministry sitting helplessly by while the country’s refineries deteriorate and gas marketers hold back production to jack up prices. And the chronic power outages throughout the city are also the fault of the bureaucrats in Abuja, according to Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who serves in the Nigerian House of Representatives. “And they’re not tapping the gas that’s there. So the problem is that the plants aren’t being powered,” the Lagos representative told me.
Dabiri-Erewa was once a TV reporter. As a federal lawmaker, she witnesses firsthand the kind of wanton corruption that the government-owned Nigerian Television Authority would never have allowed her to cover. “It is a real phenomenon,” she said somberly. “And it’s done with impunity. Someone working in the government owns a private jet. A civil servant steals a billion naira [six million dollars] in pension funds, and he’s walking about freely. Not one federal official has been punished for corruption—not one! Here in Lagos there’s lots of everyday ingenuity. You see people surviving by selling oranges or phone cards. Still, all of this corruption has to be demoralizing for the average Nigerian.”
It does more than demoralize: The unscrupulousness comes at the expense of hardworking Lagosians—unless, of course, they’re willing and able to play the game. Chiagozie told me that bureaucratic corruption routinely affected his livelihood. “Most electricians like me are seeking a job with contractors,” he said. “But some of them aren’t engineers. They’re teachers, or something else, and they just happen to have a brother who works in the government. So when a contract comes their way, they hire a subcontractor. And the subcontractor is able to pocket a lot of money by using inferior materials. And they won’t hire me, because I insist on using the best material. If I were to use inferior material, the building might collapse, and then the government would arrest me and take my license away and make me pay for the damage. This happens all the time.”
When I asked Kola Karim if the federal government’s sorry reputation made Western investors wary of doing business in Lagos, the worldly CEO elaborately dismissed it as a nonissue. Companies partnered with companies, not with bureaucrats, he maintained. “What does government do for you anyway, apart from charging you more taxes?” he said. “Look, it’s not about who rules anymore. Lagos is a train that has left the station. And you can only slow it down—you can’t stop it. So it doesn’t matter who comes next. This is the fun of democracy! It’s not about [President] Goodluck Jonathan! It’s about progress! Forget politics!”
I left the offices of Shoreline pondering these words of Karim, a genuine patriot who generously donates time and money to Nigerian causes. It’s difficult to begrudge him his yellow Ferrari and his vacation homes in Miami and Marbella, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, and the fact that his children, who live in London, stand little chance of being kidnapped by Boko Haram. Still, Karim said it himself: Lagos may never be stopped, but it can be slowed. It is not immune to the forces paralyzing less fortunate regions of Nigeria. And when I observed to Dabiri-Erewa that Boko Haram’s attacks had spared Lagos, she waved her hand frantically and shook her head. This was not, after all, a far-flung terrorist outfit targeted by American drone missiles. Boko Haram was born in Nigeria and is devastatingly effective. “As we’re speaking now, we don’t know where they’re going to strike next,” she said. “And while they’re planning, the federal government seems to have no clue.”
The city remains, for now, safe and a home for the bold, where even those who could be forgiven for despairing are instead eyeing the next rung on Lagos’s golden ladder. I was told about a hustling fellow named T. J. who apparently had a knack for acquiring—how, it wasn’t entirely clear—a reliable inventory of fashionable used clothes, which he sold in a grubby stall on Market Street, within walking distance of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. The lanky entrepreneur greeted me, sized me up, and then proceeded to pull out several plastic garbage bags filled with men’s shirts.
“Even when I was small, I believed there was something behind me, driving me,” T. J. said as he riffled through the shirts to find something appropriate for me. “I’m an incurable optimist. I don’t believe in negativity. My customers, they love this about me. I cannot call myself a pastor, but I speak the truth. And the truth is, I love this country. People here are suffering. I’m suffering. And the government, they won’t do the right thing. But it’s all about attitude. I can feed myself. And one day I’ll do something else.”
Still digging in his bag of used clothes, the salesman said, “Right now I’m just trying to find the leverage.”