We Nigerians have coped with dictators, genocide and bombs. Boko Haram will never defeat us
Tuesday 26 June 2012 20.15 BST
People buy telephones and computer software in the Ikeja district of Lagos, where in 2002 hundreds died after a fire at a munitions dump. ‘There are still people living and finding a way in every part of Nigeria where you would expect the population to have melted away.’ Photograph: George Osodi/AP
If I were to write a book about the almost perverse will of Nigerians to find a way, I would call it What to do when Nigeria Happens. In chapter 18 – What To Do When There Is a Power Cut During an Operation – I would advise you to follow the example of a surgeon who asked his attendants to turn on their mobile phones and point their lights at his scalpel.
In chapter 10 – What To Do in Times of Fuel Scarcity – I would suggest sleeping in the petrol queue for three days with provisions and a pack of cards to divert you in moments of extreme boredom.
And my personal favourite, chapter four – What To Do When Robbers Pay You a Visit and the Police Ignore your Summons. If you were feeling extremely creative, you could gather a crowd of churchgoers as my uncle did, in the hope that the sound of their approach (singing, clapping and drumming) would scare off the thieves.
The way Nigerians react to what others would call the last straw has made us as a people very difficult to wear out. I wish someone would tell this to Boko Haram, the terrorist group wreaking havoc in my country. The sect is not strong enough to overwhelm Nigeria with force. It has neither the arms nor the funds to stage a full-scale military invasion, so what we have instead is a war of attrition. The steady drip drip of a church bombing every week, a shooting outside a school, the murder of an Islamic leader who has spoken out against the terrorists – these are their tactics. And who knows, perhaps there are other places in the world where the polity would soon dissolve under such pressures. But this is Nigeria.
For years, we have died on the roads that our government will not tar; we have died in the hospitals that it will not equip; and we have died on the streets that it will not secure; and the morning afterwards, those who are left among the living rise at 4am, rinse their faces and continue. We have lived under dictators of all shades, benevolent, repressive and civilian. We have seen genocide. We have seen massacres. We have seen bombs.
The first time that I heard an explosion, I was 11 years old, when a militant Boko Haram was still a fanatic’s dream away. That Sunday a decade ago, shells began to go off in the Ikeja military cantonment after a fire spread to a poorly maintained munitions cache. I live in Ikeja, and I saw the blasts light up the sky. My house shook from the explosions.
Hundreds died that day. Yet today there are still people living in Ikeja. There are still people living in Jos, despite the sectarian clashes that have claimed so many lives. There are still people living and finding a way in every part of Nigeria where you would expect the population to have melted away.
The ease at which we adjust to privation perhaps makes us easily trampled on. Sparks that would ignite a population elsewhere soon flicker out. Fires that would set ablaze a whole country flare briefly and die away. Yet, this flexibility has also made us very difficult to wear out. In a war of attrition, I will bet on Nigerians every time.
After all, we have been taught the art of withstanding by successive governments whose looting and misrule have caused more deaths than the radical groups the “Nigerian condition” periodically spawns. The northern youth – my age and younger – attracted to the radicalism of Boko Haram have legitimate grievances. They, like the youth all over Nigeria, continue to suffer from grinding poverty and widespread unemployment in a country that holds few prospects for them. They, like the youth all over Nigeria, are easily manipulated into violence.
They, like their counterparts in the south, east and west can be tricked into believing that utopia will come when their leaders’ demands are met. Yet they will discover, like others who have taken a similar route, that Nigerians have proved – and will continue to prove – tougher than every bloody chapter in our country’s history.