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Folarin Sagaya: The perils of selective tolerance
by Folarin Sagaya
On the morning of Friday the 8th of February, 2013, nine women joined their colleagues at work in what was presumably a familiar routine. They had left their siblings, partners, parents and children at home. Their job as health workers put these women on the frontline of a valiant national (and global) effort to combat polio, the potentially crippling and fatal disease.
Polio has been eradicated in all but three countries around the world, of which Nigeria is one. Some time that morning or perhaps in the days before, a very different sort of plan was hatched. This one was designed to cause as much mayhem as possible. It was devised to maim, kill and to instil fear. As a result the nine women were gruesomely gunned down.
The attackers are as yet unknown. Kano, the northern Nigerian city where the tragedy occurred, has a history of scepticism towards polio vaccination efforts. Some say this goes back to the time in the mid-nineties when questionable drug trials by an American pharmaceutical company allegedly led to the death of several children. But to solely blame that episode, either an innocent mistake or worse still intentional malpractice, for the suspicions today would be disingenuous.
Since 2001 Nigerians and their government have lived with the menace of a series of acts committed by an indiscriminate “islamist group”. The self-styled Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language translates as “western education is forbidden”, have as their name suggests declared their intention against anything and anyone perceived to be “modern”. They have shot, bombed, beheaded, and led to somewhere between 3000 and 10000 deaths.
From their logic we are expected to believe that their methods, instruments of war, clothing, foodstuff and everything else they associate with, somehow bypasses “the west”. But this is hard to swallow since their primary means of communication is through videos posted on YouTube, a decidedly western construct.
Bill Clinton, the former US president, on a recent visit to Nigeria linked the group’s actions to extreme poverty and the frustrations that can arise when people are faced with a bleak future. He summarised that the (mostly) young men are driven to the solace of scripture and the bosoms of devious benefactors in their search for security, a roof over their heads, and the prospect of at least one guaranteed meal a day. They are taught skills and put on a path, however misguided, that adds meaning to their lives. It is impossible to argue with the former president’s assessment; the economics of it all are a crucial factor.
However, another explanation worthy of further examination is the level of tolerance displayed in our society. From our newspaper headlines, family gatherings, the sermons in our places of worship, to the bills being discussed in the national assembly, there is an underlying distrust of the other or what is perceived to be foreign. The accused parties are both local and international, so long as they have a different language, geography, custom, lifestyle or religion.
The rhetoric meanwhile has far reaching consequences. It is reflected in the sort of education some see as appropriate for their wards and in the rejection of medical science that has been proven to save lives. It is represented in what kind of marriages are allowed and in the origins of a partner certain families would accept. It gets to determine who leads the country or the national assembly, and for how long. It is considered when determining who spearheads a political party or government ministry. It can have an effect on how seriously the opinions of a particular age group are taken and whether gender bias in the work place is accepted.
These guards that are built to protect against imaginary foes eventually become self-serving. They translate as seemingly populist or religious agendas from positions of power that because they go unchallenged, inevitably lead to disenfranchised groups. And worst of all, they encourage a perpetual cycle of hypocrisy, where one rule applies only to the extent that it benefits those advocating for that particular truth.
This form of cherry-picking tolerance and enlightenment, when it should be one of those all or nothing battles, simply clouds progress. We can’t on the one hand condemn abhorrent violent acts by individuals dead set against reformist influence or engage in tirades against perceived western values. When on the other we promote hatred or mistrust of our neighbours, throw jamborees for foreign leaders, and accept debt relief and aid money with outstretched hands.
From a religious point of view, the pattern of choosing to misinterpret doctrine as and when it suits or worse still injecting it into national policy regardless of whether others share the same beliefs or not, only serve to increase the tensions.
When the United States and South Africa looked finally to end decades of racism and segregation, they enshrined comprehensive legislation in an attempt to stop just this sort of picking and choosing. Their strategies weren’t perfect then and are still being refined but they make for a good vision. So when everyone rises up in anger against the tactics of a terrorist group, they remember at the back of their minds that damage and despair are not only caused by guns and bombs, but by words and policies.