In the south of Nigeria where I am from, many believe that the terrorist group Boko Haram is some sort of karma inflicted on the north. People carry on with life as usual, while carnage rages there. Even the local news media no longer bother providing regular information on the insurgency. Last month, the massacre at Baga, in which Boko Haram slaughtered hundreds, received relatively little coverage.
This disconnect is partly a result of longstanding regional and ethnic resentments. Southerners, who are mostly Christian, see the largely Muslim north as backward. The colloquial term for a typical northerner is “aboki” or “malam”; the words literally mean “friend” or “mister” in Hausa, but saying “You’re behaving like an aboki” is a way of telling someone off for acting daft. Igbos, from the southeast, like my family, are supposedly domineering and money-grabbing, while Yorubas, from the southwest, are seen as cantankerous and treacherous. The Hausas of the north are often labeled violent and ignorant.
Like many Nigerians, I grew up on a steady diet of these stereotypes. But most of my negative attitudes evaporated after I left home at 10 to attend boarding school at the Federal Government Girls’ College in Owerri, and was exposed to different ethnic groups.
In the 1960s, thousands of southern Igbos living in the north were slaughtered by indigenous Hausas. More than a million Nigerians lost their lives in the civil war of 1967-70, when the Igbos of Biafra attempted to secede. After the war, the government came up with an idea to foster national integration and forestall intertribal conflict: federal government colleges.
Those schools were designed to be the country’s best. Students would take highly competitive exams to qualify, but a quota system would also ensure that as many ethnic groups as possible were represented. For the first time, children living in the hinterlands would have the opportunity to mix.
Over six years of sharing dormitories, eating at the same tables and playing pranks with children from various ethnic groups, I began to see myself as Nigerian rather than as Igbo. Apart from when my parents referred to my friend, Abimbola, as “your Yoruba friend” and my friend, Rahila, as “your Hausa friend,” I hardly remembered that there were any differences between us. The government’s experiment worked.
One stereotype, however, was not completely unfounded. Education in northern Nigeria is a longstanding tragedy. Because of poverty and cultural or religious antipathy toward Western education, many parents keep their children from attending formal school. The region also suffers from a poor supply of qualified teachers. Integration alone couldn’t overcome that educational background. As a result, when the names of the top three and bottom three students in each class were announced to the school assembly by our principal, students from northern Nigeria, usually Hausas, were often at the bottom.
Most of them also had the lowest scores in the entrance exams; nevertheless, they had been granted admission because of the quota system.
A similar quota system has been applied to some other sectors in Nigeria, including, for example, employment in the Civil Service. Many southerners have found themselves colleagues or subordinates to northerners with far fewer educational qualifications. This inevitably breeds resentment.
In addition, northerners have run the federal government for the vast majority of Nigeria’s half century of independence, attaining power mainly via military coups. This makes it easy to blame the north for Nigeria’s decline, especially the gross neglect of our country’s education sector. Holding the reins of power for so long also means that northerners have benefited the most from government largess and have controlled most of Nigeria’s resources, especially crude oil, which is produced in the south. Goodluck Jonathan is the first-ever Nigerian president from the oil-producing Niger Delta.
Not only are the northern elite accused of marginalizing the rest of the country while in power, they are also guilty of ignoring their own people. The north has the country’s grimmest statistics on literacy, health and poverty. That stratum of society the elite egregiously neglected is now providing a steady army of recruits for Boko Haram — hopeless youths whose lives suddenly have some purpose, even if it is simply to destroy.
Some believe that the north is finally reaping the wages of habitual violence — the killing of Igbos in the pogroms, and the series of religious riots over the decades during which many Christians lost their lives. Over and over again, I hear comments like: “Those stupid northerners. Let them continue killing themselves. Is that not their stock in trade?” Recently, groups of northerners traveling to the south have been harassed or arrested on suspicion of attempting to cause trouble.
In 2014, President Jonathan, during a media chat, boasted that his government had pushed Boko Haram to the “fringes” of Nigeria. Opposition politicians attacked him for this comment, highlighting the implication that the so-called fringes were not his government’s major concern.
The sad reality is that the president, who is up for election next month, was merely echoing the prevailing sentiment among a segment of Nigerians: relief that Africa’s latest madman and his band of bloodthirsty bozos are confined to the nether regions of our country.
But, going by the rate at which the terrorist group has been snatching territory recently, and the number of bomb attacks on Abuja in recent times, the threat to the south is now more real than ever. As my father put it recently, “If they continue like this, they will end up in Port Harcourt!” Port Harcourt is in the oil-producing Niger Delta. Nigeria cannot afford to leave it — or the rest of our country — in the hands of the hoodlums.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of the novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance.