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Muslim leaders must speak clearly against Boko Haram — Powell

February 12, 2012 by JOEL NWOKEOMA and ALLWELL OKPI
Jonathan Powell

In this interview with JOEL NWOKEOMA and ALLWELL OKPI, Jonathan Powell, an American foreign-affairs columnist talks about the violent activities of the Boko Haram sect and the unity of Nigeria

You wrote a book portraying Islam as a religion of peace, how do you reconcile that idea with the violence being perpetrated by members of the Boko Haram sect, who claim to be Muslims?

I think all societies can produce extremes. In Christian societies, we’ve had terrorism with the Irish Republican Army in a Christian country like Ireland and chad Euskadi Ta Askatasuna in Spain. But I think, when you analyse the teachings of the prophets and the great religions, you don’t find them talking or justifying violence. Jesus Christ never did, Buddha never did, but then, there were Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka, who until they won the war two years ago, had turned the society inside-out for over 20 years.

Islam is really different from Christianity in-as-much as Mohammed did not condemn violence the way Jesus did. He was more in the tradition of the Jews, as we all know the Old Testament is part of Islamic teaching and he was a warrior himself. It was a warrior religion; it spread quickly all over the Middle East, and over to as far as northern India and into Eastern Europe. And it was done, in the large part, by military conquest. So we know that the Muslims accept violence but they also accept some sort of discipline on violence. They don’t accept wilful violence and Muslims also recognise that one has to accept extreme circumstances, be loyal to the secular authorities, and to the state. So the idea of Al Qaeda or Boko Haram, to me seems to go against all the tenets of Islamic belief or discipline.

If you have a point of view which is strongly felt, then you have to find channels of change in your society to express it. It may be more difficult in authoritarian societies like Saudi Arabia, but it would be a lot easier in Nigeria because it’s a democracy. There are many avenues here; one can run a newspaper, one can speak through a newspaper or radio or TV; one can protest by marching or strikes. These are all tools that Boko Haram could use to bring attention to what they believe in.

This is a democratic society and if Boko Haram is really interested in the principles of Islam, then it has to behave in a responsible way, which is not killing people at random, blowing up churches which has women and children inside.  This is what some people have called Islamic fascism.

Do you subscribe to the idea of government negotiating with Boko Haram?

I think in the end, whether you like it or not, whether it goes against your principle or not, if you are in government, at the end of the day, you’ll have to negotiate. There were times when countries said they wouldn’t negotiate, but in the end, they did: look at the British with the IRA or Spain with ETA, the Americans now with the Taliban. You have to negotiate.

President Goodluck Jonathan recently said, ‘Boko Haram, tell us what you are fighting for, then we can discuss.’ I wish he had said that earlier or President UmaruYar ‘Adua had said that a couple of years ago, because the violence escalated in the past two years. There might have been a possibility of a discussion or negotiation. Now, it’s more difficult.

Even in the most rabid organisation, there will always be some people in it who want to talk. That was the case with IRA, the same with ETA, my guess is that it would end up being the same with the Taliban. It is very difficult. But you have to try and make contact, if you can find them, with the more reasonable members of the movement and find a way to talk to them.

It is also very important that the religious authorities talk to them. According to what I read in the papers, there was a meeting of all religious leaders in the North. It is not clear what they are saying but I hope they would condemn Boko Haram, I haven’t quite seen that happen yet. This must happen. The leadership of Islam, which should be wise and educated in the principles of Islam more that the rank-and-file of the Boko Haram, should be using their knowledge and wisdom to speak very clearly against Boko Haram, winning the people’s attention. Their silence is deafening and it’s also frightening.

Don’t you think calling for negotiation is an admittance of failure and evidence that government is incapable of handling the insecurity caused by the activities of the sect?

I wouldn’t say it is a case of the government being incapable to handle the security challenges posed by Boko Haram in the country but that of it being late to address the problem. As we know, the police allegedly responded to the problem by being violent in an undisciplined way and even killing women and children just like Boko Haram do. There has been no strategy and proper policing, no discipline of policemen. And thank God the head of the police force has now been sacked. I do hope that the new chief can do a better job. It won’t happen in a short term, because these police personnel are not well-trained to deal with civil disobedience. They need a lot of frontline training.

With Boko Haram attacking Christians in the North, and threats of reprisals in the South, Nigeria seems to be heading towards splitting like Sudan did, do you think this is possible and would it be a solution?

Nigeria, as a united state has been for a very long time and for many generations. It went through the murderous war with Biafra and I think Nigeria has made it plain, through its history that it is one state and that different religions and different tribes can live together harmoniously and for the most part they do.

I was coming a lot during the Obasanjo years. Yes, there were flaws like around Jos; there were Christian — Muslim clashes, there were clashes over land holdings and land tenure, but they came and they went. They weren’t threatening the life of the country. There were the militans in the Niger Delta. They posed a lot of damage and loss of revenue for the central government. But they were a small minority; they never really threatened Nigeria as a country.

Now Boko Haram is different, because it’s playing on the religious divide to some extent and of course Christians feel under threat. Christians in the South have threatened Boko Haram and it could turn into a very unpleasant situation. But I don’t really expect that to happen, because Nigeria has good institutions of government. They need improving of course and they are improving; they are not getting worse. You have wise people; a wise president and former President Obasanjo, who I believe is trying to negotiate. You have lots of great people on the job. So I don’t see a split or break up of Nigeria.  We have to keep Boko Haram in perspective. It’s only one or two thousand people. One or two thousand people cannot mess up a country of 150 million people.

Do you think it is proper for the Nigerian government to seek the aid of foreign governments to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency?

I think it’s necessary for two reasons. One is that there are signs that it might be spreading to adjoining Islamic countries. Secondly, there seem to be a lot of evidence that they are affiliated with Al Qaeda in North Africa. We are not sure about that, but they are obviously getting their weapons from somewhere and getting their ideology from somewhere. I think everybody in Africa and especially North Africa has to be aware of the dangers of this movement.


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