Nigeria’s Marikana moment (yet another one)

By Simon Allison 4 October 2012

Another month, another massacre in Nigeria. The violence in Africa’s other superpower makes Marikana look tame in comparison, and the Nigerian government’s response has been similarly lacklustre. With both South Africa and Nigeria competing for continental pre-eminence and international recognition, the two countries need to find a way to stem the tide of violence, and quickly. By SIMON ALLISON.

Forty six. That’s a number that should be engraved on the already-scarred hearts of all South Africans after a cold Marikana winter turned into a bleak, bitter spring. When all the corpses are counted together, that’s what it comes to: the miners killed in self-defence, the wildcat strikers massacred by police, the policemen killed by angry unionists and the ANC councilwoman caught in a crossfire of rubber bullets. It is, commentators agree, the biggest failure of our public order since the end of Apartheid and a chilling, frightening insight into what the state has become and who it exists for.

South Africans are rightly concerned, and pessimistic about what our future holds. But it could be worse. It could be so much worse. It could be Nigeria.

Far north of our borders, the continent’s other major superpower – the one threat to our dominance of the African Union and our claim to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the one country whose industrious population and stunning growth challenges our economic supremacy – is also dealing with the number 46.

Again, the number is a body count. “It was a black Independence Day celebration for the inhabitants of Mubi town, Adamawa State, as unknown gunmen, suspected to be members of Boko Haram, massacred at least 46 persons, mostly students of three tertiary institutions in the town, on Monday night.” Thus ran the report in Nigeria’s widely-respected ThisDay newspaper. Independence Day – Nigeria’s 52nd – was Monday.

Officials claim the death toll was much lower, “only” 25, and suggest the involvement of the Islamist militant group was unlikely in this instance. “Boko Haram open fire sporadically,” said Adamawa State Police spokesperson Ibrahim Muhammad. “In this case, the attackers called their victims by name and left other people in the room alone. This is not the modus operandi of Boko Haram. It is the work of insiders.” Another official blamed the massacre on student politics gone very, very wrong, after a heated campus election. This is not improbable in Nigeria, where some college fraternities have developed into armed gangs.

Over the next few weeks, a confirmed death toll will emerge and we might have a bit more clarity on who was responsible. But, in stark contrast to South Africa, there is unlikely to be a commission of inquiry, or even much of a public outcry. Nigerians are jaded after years of massacres and attacks on this level.

“While the families of the victims try to come to terms with this brutal murder of their beloved innocent children, they may get scant comfort from the expected vacuous condemnation from officials of government at all levels which is the traditional response to the seemingly long serial (sic) of mindless killings of innocent Nigerians in recent time,” wrote Vanguard newspaper.

Here are just a few samples: 25 killed last week in an army operation against Boko Haram militants; 40 killed in April when ThisDay’s Abuja offices were bombed; 180 killed in January in a series of coordinated attacks on churches and security forces by Boko Haram; another 40 killed on Christmas Day last year in an attack on Catholic churches; 37 killed in an explosion at the United Nations Abuja offices. The list goes on and on, each incident its own little Marikana; taken together, it becomes clear that the problem is far more serious.

Boko Haram is of course at the heart of much of the violence. In January, Human Rights Watch estimated the Islamist group was responsible for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people since 2009. But it isn’t solely at fault, as the most recent incident demonstrates. The effective break-down in the rule of law over much of the country means that a culture of violence has been allowed to take root, and there’s little the government has been able to do about it, despite their protestations to the contrary.

“Fellow Nigerians, in recent times, we have witnessed serious security challenges in parts of our country. We have taken pro-active measures to check the menace,” said President Goodluck Jonathan in his Independence Day address to the nation. “Our security agencies are constantly being strengthened and repositioned for greater efficiency. Many Nigerians have acknowledged that there has been a significant decline in the spate of security breaches.” Just hours later, 46 students were dead, making the president look more than a little out of touch with reality (a look he shares with our own leader (

In fact, his administration is helpless to stem the violence. “We have a serious problem in Nigeria and there is no sense that the government has a real grip,” a senior official close to the government told the Guardian on condition of anonymity, shortly before the muted Independence Day celebrations. “The situation is not remotely under control. It is just a matter of time before we see more large-scale attacks that pose a significant threat to national security, and now Nigeria’s economic growth is also at risk.”

Despite the frightening headlines, it is important to remember that life in Nigeria goes on. Just like it’s a mistake to define South Africa by Marikana alone (as so much of the international media has done), so it’s mistake to let the violence define Nigeria. Most of the 162-million-strong population has not been affected by the violence, after all, and the country remains an exciting economic prospect with lots going for it. Things can’t be too bad if South African companies like MultiChoice, MTN and Shoprite continue to operate in (and take huge profits from) the Nigerian market.

Still, these are disturbing times in both of Africa’s superpowers, so often in competition with each other. How each country confronts its unique problems could well determine who dominates the continent in the long-term. DM

  • “Gunmen kill 46 students in Mubi,” on ThisDay
  • “Nigeria takes the fight to Boko Haram, but ignores underlying issues,” on Daily Maverick.

Photo: Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan speaks during an interview with Reuters in New York, September 26, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz


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