And so it goes. Nigeria's far north has a history of charismatic leaders who preach unorthodox Muslim beliefs and rally large numbers of young men in clashes with traditional Islamic and political authorities. In the early 1980s, a major wave of violence spread from Kano to Maiduguri. A smaller outbreak in 2004 in Yobe and Borno states was a forerunner to the present clashes. Then, a rebellious group of young men who called themselves "Taleban," having no doubt heard the name (but not the spelling) on the Hausa service of the BBC or Voice of America, demanded the imposition of full sharia law. That same plea was sweeping all the far northern states, thanks in part to strong popular feeling that Nigeria's secular institutions were not delivering justice. Sharia, it was hoped, would do a better job.
Boko Haram, which by some accounts evolved from the "Taleban," judged that sharia did not help: Ironically, the four states where last week's death and destruction occurred are all states that did adopt sharia criminal law. It is said loudly and frequently by those who live there that not only has sharia law been quietly set aside, but that now these are among the worst governed states in the country.
Meanwhile, Nigerians note that as the violence last week was escalating, their president -- who is himself from the far northern state of Katsina -- chose to leave the country on a visit to Brazil. (An attack on a police station in Katsina followed.) Newspaper columnists contrasted this unfavorably with the Chinese president's decision to skip the G-8 meetings in Italy last month when unrest enveloped Xinjiang province.
And in the Niger Delta, as in the north, the goverment's indifference to life on the ground has had growing consequences. Protests there have escalated over the years to kidnappings, explosions, and armed combat. Successive governments, especially at the lavishly funded state level, have done little to develop the area and improve people's lives. What is different, of course, is that the delta's oil, which despoils the mangrove creeks but funds Nigeria's government at all levels, has also produced criminal networks whose activities, with political and even military complicity, have made the tragedy there all the more intractable. And the massive importation of weapons into the delta has made guns of all kinds -- particularly AK-47s -- available cheaply throughout the country, notably now in the north.
The problems are not new. Nigerians and others who cared to look closely have seen the political venality, lack of concern, and flamboyant lifestyle of the corrupt rich and powerful who have made daily life for the vast majority of the population worse and worse, year after year. A decade ago, with the return of democracy, Nigerians had high hopes. But now, after rigged elections at all levels in 2003 and 2007, and the prospect of nothing different in 2011; with unclean drinking water, a failed electrical grid, unsafe roads, ever rising crime, and a host of other grievances, they have little hope left.
The world will misunderstand if it looks at the latest Nigerian tragedy through the lens of global radical Islam. If Nigeria's leaders do not urgently start to address their country's most basic, obvious needs, the only question is what will trigger the next spate of armed mayhem, and where. It could be anywhere. And its causes, with deep roots in corruption in high places, will be no mystery.