Hotspot – Nigeria

August 7, 2017

Klaus Dodds examines the geopolitical fallout which can result from a simple message of peace
Muslims around the world celebrated the ending of Ramadan in July, when it is commonplace to wish one another ‘Eid Mubarak’, a greeting signifying a ‘blessed celebration’ on certain moments of the year such as Eid al-Fitr. This marks the ending of Ramadan and is accompanied by Eid prayers and a celebration involving families and friends. It should be a joyous yet reflective occasion.

National leaders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have often used this moment to either deliver a message to their fellow believers or embrace the moment as an opportunity to promote a more inclusive national citizenry. For the vast majority of political leaders, the Eid Mubarak statement should be relatively non-controversial. However, in Nigeria, a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in Africa, this year’s traditional greeting from the presidential leader was mired in problems.

Nigeria has a population of 182 million and the Muslim communities number over 80 million people with Muslim Nigerians mainly living in the north. However, Sunni and Shia Muslims live alongside Christian and other smaller faith communities throughout the country. It’s officially a secular democracy and for the last 40 years, it has been buffeted not only by military interventions and widespread corruption, but also by movements such as Boko Haram demanding that Nigeria become a de facto Islamic Republic with Sharia law replacing the existing architecture of government. As is well known, religious violence plagues the country and thousands have been killed, kidnapped, raped, injured and displaced.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, elected in March 2015, delivered the presidential Eid al-Fitr message this year. It was a short audio broadcast urging all his fellow citizens to ‘live in peace’ and give generously to the less fortunate. The content of the message itself was relatively uncontroversial, although some criticised it for being too cryptic in places.

Two things did make it controversial though. First, the message was something of a surprise in the light of his departure from the country in May for unspecified medical treatment in the UK. No one knows what is wrong with him and no one appears to know when he will return. One reason the message mattered was that he was determined to respond to rumours that he was not capable of exercising the duties of office. The last time he was seen was via state television in May when more than 80 girls were released after being held by Boko Haram.

The second problem revolved around the presidential choice of language. Nigeria is a country where more than 500 languages are spoken. English is the official tongue and reflects the fact that it was a British colony until independence in 1960. The presidential message, however, was delivered in Hausa, a language that is mainly spoken in Nigeria’s north by some 40 million native speakers.

Critics were quick to express their dissatisfaction on social media with politer commentators suggesting that the use of Hausa instead of English was needlessly divisive. Non-Hausa speakers accused the president of betraying the ideals of the country and some wondered whether it actually was the president given his absence. The president’s aides were accused of a whole manner of things, including not understanding that not all of Nigeria’s Muslim communities speak and understand Hausa. As one critic noted, the decision to use a ‘sectional language’ smacked of misjudgment.

In his short presidential address, Buhari notes that ‘I, again, appeal to all Nigerians to avoid reckless statements or actions against our fellow countrymen.’ The message did not expand on this notion of ‘reckless statements or actions’ and this lack of explicitness attracted further criticism from other community spokespersons. One example that might have been cited is the recent demand by a northern-based Coalition of Arewa youth groups for the Igbo (a community traditionally from southeast Nigeria) to leave the north by October this year. Acting president Yemi Osinbajo condemned this ultimatum as ‘hate speech’.

This is a worrisome development for a country that has suffered greatly from civil war and inter-tribal and ethnic violence. The ultimatum, which has been widely condemned throughout Nigeria, owes its genesis to unsettling memories of events some 50 years ago when the country was consumed in a bitter civil war (the Biafra conflict). Igbo people fled from the north as community leaders in the southeast declared ‘independence’ from Nigeria in 1967. By 1970, the Igbo movement for independence was crushed with one million people killed in the process. There are still pockets of support for an independent republic of Biafra.

What drove the recent ultimatum? It would appear that the coalition simply stated that Igbo ‘are dangerous separatists’, which for others is simply an opportunistic cover-story for resentment over Igbo investment and influence in the north. Regardless, the country’s future is once again being scrutinised and northern communities have been at the epicentre of violence, disruption and displacement.

While undoubtedly well intentioned, a 60-second presidential message managed to provoke a medley of commentary and reaction. Instead of being a source of reassurance, it contributed to further national debate about the long-term future of the country and its leader. Presidential politics in Nigeria involves a delicate balance between northern and southern political personalities, and language is integral to its success.