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Nigerian Authorities Underestimating Unrest?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, award season is here. We're going to take a closer look at the Oscar nominees and this year's winning children's books. That conversation is just ahead.

But first, we want to head to Africa where there is deadly violence in Africa's most populist country. Coordinated bombings in Nigeria killed more than 150 people late last week in Kano, which is Nigeria's second largest city. Islamist militants known as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for last week's bombings.

And there are now fresh reports of violence there. The Boko Haram are also thought to be behind other attacks over the last few months, including a very serious and deadly bombing on Christmas Day. The blood shed comes after mass protests across the country when the government removed a fuel subsidy. That decision caused the price of gasoline and other products to skyrocket.

We wanted to try to unravel this very complicated story, so we've called upon Tim Cocks. He's Reuters' chief correspondent for Nigeria. He joined us by phone from Lagos, Nigeria. Also with us once again, Dr. Mwangi Kimenyi. He is the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both for joining us.

TIM COCKS: Thank you Michel.


MARTIN: So, Tim Cocks I'm going to start with you. Just ask you to bring us up to date on the latest. We understand that there are new reports of violence in Nigeria. What's going on?

COCKS: Well, today there have actually been unconfirmed reports of more violence. But really there's still very much a case of a body count going on for Friday's attack, which was by far the deadliest single strike that Boko Haram has managed to achieve to date.

I think that certainly it looks as if the violence is only going to get worse, at least in the short term. And the general perception is that President Goodluck Jonathan's administration and security forces just seem at the moment completely incapable of dealing with the situation in the North, and haven't really fully grasped or perhaps not until this weekend the gravity of the crisis there.

I would say that probably this could actually be a turning point. And for the first time, President Jonathan went to visit the victims of the bombing in Kano. Normally, he's been very, very dismissive. After a bombing, he'll wait a few hours or put out some statement. But usually it doesn't seem to be, you know, taking it all very seriously. And just telling Nigeria, well, this is just some terrorist thing. This is an insurgency (unintelligible). I think he's starting to realize quite how serious the situation is.

MARTIN: I understand that as serious as this bombing was, it could even have been worse because I understand that the police say that they found 10 cars packed with what are being described as unexploded devices, that some cars were found abandoned. So, as bloody as it was, it could even have been worse, Tim, is that what I'm hearing?

COCKS: It could have been much worse because - and I suppose some limited credit go to the security forces for managing to find those - there were cars loaded with explosives. They also found - there were several Coke cans loaded with relatively high grade explosives that the police have seized in various locations, which would presume (unintelligible). Whether to read that as that, you know, this event could have been worse or whether this is just the tip of the iceberg and it just shows quite how dangerous Kano is becoming is difficult to say. But certainly, the security forces there have been knocked out of any kind of complacency they had.

MARTIN: Mwangi Kimenyi, can you tell us: What is this group? And what are their goals? What are they after? What is the purpose of this?

KIMENYI: This is what I would consider a radicalized Muslim group that has become increasingly violent. It sees itself as the intent of overthrowing the government of Nigeria, which it considers a forbidden government. They consider that (unintelligible) is not right and therefore it has gained a lot of an official capacity. It's gaining more support. But I think the bigger problem is that it has been underestimated by the government of Nigeria.

MARTIN: And what is their ultimate goal? Is it to partition the country into an Islamic North and a Christian South? Is it to control or impose Islamic law in the entire country? Have they ever made clear a specific objective?

KIMENYI: Yeah. They say that they want a state that is an Islam state. But they are not talking about north or south. They are talking about Nigeria. So, they are not talking just partitioning north or south. They think that anything that is Western is not right. And therefore, they would like a different type of government.

MARTIN: And the name of the group means what?


KIMENYI: Well, it's actually more than that. What - it talks about the Western education is forbidden. But actually, it is a bigger term that anything that is not Islam is not correct. It's a longer term but it's been shortened to this idea of the Western education not being right or acceptable.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, we're talking about recent turmoil in Nigeria. I'm joined by Mwangi Kimenyi. He's with the Brookings Institution. That's a research institute here in Washington, D.C. Also with us, Tim Cocks. He's Reuters' chief correspondent in Nigeria and he's with us from there.

Now, Tim, we also talked about the fuel subsidy that the government decided to remove a fuel subsidy. Nigeria is of course a major oil-producing country. And that caused the price of not just gasoline but all sorts of products to skyrocket. You know, bus tickets, food, anything that has to be transported. Now, Tim Cocks, you've covered this issue extensively. What was the rational for removing this fuel subsidy? And is it anyway related to the other story that we've talked about, the violence?

COCKS: Well, the clear links between - they're obviously very different things. The issue of Boko Haram and the anger over the fuel subsidy removal. What came out from these protests that I think connects the two is that both were motivated by a general anger at the government and what Nigerians see as decades of misrule, of corruption, of failure to deliver even the most basic services, despite something like two million barrels of oil every day. Which as far as most people can see, and especially in the north where this insurgency started, hasn't really done much to better their lives.

In fact, they say they suffer more insecurity, they suffer higher prices and they get nothing back. The one thing that they thought they did get back was this fuel subsidy. Of course, it was not actually a direct benefit from the oil because the oil, it's mostly crude. And then they have to import refined fuel very expensively. That's because the refineries here are completely (unintelligible). But it was always seen as a kind of red line that you can't cross.

Maybe you failed to provide us with education, health, roads, and everything else. But at the very least let us keep this cheap fuel. The reason the government and now wants to get rid of it and many people think it's actually a very sensible idea, you know, it's a huge cost on the budget. It's extremely inefficient, it's very corrupt. It basically hands over billions of dollars of Nigerian treasury money to a cartel of fuel importers who fix prices and then smuggle the fuel to other countries anyway.

So, the actual economic logic of getting rid of the subsidy was very, very sensible. But the anger that is unleashed was motivated as much by this feeling that despite pumping all this oil that people's lives - and they're better than they were in the 1960s. And very much that's what kind of connects it to Boko Haram, because if you looked at the north, the north is very, very poor. You know, they think that allocation of the oil money, all this sort of wealth and power and increasing power is concentrated in the south.

And northerners are very resentful about that and with sort of (unintelligible) high youth unemployment that you have in places like Kano and Maiduguri is sort of easy for someone like Boko Haram to find recruits. So, I'd say that's the thing that connects the two.

MARTIN: Very briefly, Tim, can you just tell us, what is your sense of the mood of the country right now?

COCKS: Yeah. The overall mood, it's pretty sour at the moment. There's a feeling that the current administration isn't able to guarantee people's security. They haven't really delivered on other promises, like sorting out electricity and that it's going to be able to as long as it has this huge security headache to deal with.

Increasingly, especially in the north, people are becoming very, very fearful that this low level insurgency is actually escalating into something much bigger, much nastier and that it's actually potentially going to bring the country to the brink of something like a civil war, though nobody really thinks that, you know, a full-on military conflict that's splitting the country is that likely. The mood is pretty - it's pretty downbeat at the moment.

MARTIN: And, Mwangi Kimenyi, I'm going to give you the last word. You follow events, not just in Nigeria, but throughout the continent. And what are you most concerned about with this situation in Nigeria right now?

KIMENYI: Well, maybe if I comment very briefly on the oil subsidies. It's something that makes - the removal of subsidies is something that makes economic sense, but it's very - politically, it's a very volatile situation. Nigeria is spending about 5 percent of its GDP on subsidies. That's a huge expenditure. It's not sustainable. That's one of the places where you also find that you (unintelligible), although you are, you know, a major producer of oil because refineries cannot be, you know, they cannot be kept in good order if the infrastructure is not maintained because most of these resources is going to these subsidies.

So it's not sustainable. However, the way you do this type of situations is - I think that was the problem. It's immediate removal of the subsidies. There should have been a well thought out, a better way of doing it gradually and so on.

Now, what does it all mean? You have the Boko Haram. You have these protests against subsidies. Nigeria is a major country in West Africa and in Africa. This is like it could stabilize Nigeria, but it's also going to impact the other economies in the area. So, the concern is that the problems in Nigeria are likely to spill over to other economies, so that's the real issue.

MARTIN: And, finally, is there any role that you think the U.S. should be playing right now?

KIMENYI: Well, I think, in the area of the Boko Haram, maybe issue of more training, counter-insurgency. But let's remember, this group, the northern part of Nigeria consider itself marginalized. There has to be - even when you use military force, you need also to use other economic programs - investments, more education and all that. So, if you're just fighting the terrorist group, it needs also to think about the economic well being. And U.S. can assist there.

And it's important for U.S., also, because if this group continues to grow in strength, it's going to join this other terrorist groups. It's going to be a headache to Africa. It's going to be a headache to the international community.

MARTIN: Mwangi Kimenyi is director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. That's a research institute in the Washington, D.C. area. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Tim Cocks is Reuters chief correspondent for Nigeria and he was kind enough to join us by phone from his office there in Lagos. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

COCKS: Thank you.

KIMENYI: Thank you, Michel. God bless you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.