A rally in Abuja. Photo: Getty
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Live-tweeting an Islamist insurgency

With the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices.

The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April by the Islamist group Boko Haram has provoked worldwide condemnation and sympathy. Protests erupted around Nigeria and outside the country’s embassies overseas. The US, UK, France, China and Israel have all offered practical support. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over a million times, even by Michelle Obama.

It’s easy to send a protest tweet in the west but in Nigeria the stakes are higher. A critical comment can lead to days of government questioning. On 5 May, two women leading protests in Abuja against the kidnap, Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar, were arrested and accused of fabricating the abductions to discredit the government. Both have now been released.

It took over three weeks for the presidency to acknowledge the disappearance of the girls. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration aggressively guards information on its “war on terror” by cracking down on citizen journalism and online activism. With a general election scheduled for February 2015, Jonathan is intolerant of any criticism of his government’s record on security and corruption.

“The current government is desperate to stay in power,” Japheth Omojuwa, a veteran activist and member of the Occupy Nigeria movement, told me. “Any voice, any individual, that looks like it’s not in support of them will be blackmailed, will be arrested. They will do anything they can to shut down these voices.”

Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram dates back over a decade but has intensified in the past two years. In March, Amnesty International estimated that 1,500 people had been killed this year alone. Nigerian newspapers report that at least another 500 have died since.

Official government reports claim the army has incurred few losses in its campaign against the Islamists. Amendments last year to a 2011 law have made it a criminal offence to incite terrorist violence online, and the security services have used the act to intimidate journalists and bloggers who publish alternative accounts of the military’s campaign. Independent journalists say they are being threatened with libel actions to prevent publication of stories damaging to the government.

On 30 March, Isiyaka Yusuf Onimisi, an engineer at an electricity substation on the edge of Abuja’s high-security Aso Rock compound, which contains the presidential villa and the federal Supreme Court, heard gunfire outside his window. Aso Rock is also where the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s domestic intelligence agency, interrogates suspects. In the 1990s, enemies of the military dictatorship disappeared into the SSS headquarters – known locally as Yellow House – and never came out. Today, it is central to the government’s battle against Boko Haram.

That morning, a suspected militant overpowered his guard and freed his comrades; they then staged a jailbreak from Yellow House. The resulting gunfight lasted over four hours. The media were kept away but Onimisi was, as he tweeted, “in the middle of the show”. As the government tried to play down the incident, his tweets were being read avidly around Nigeria.

Three hours in to the gun battle, he stopped tweeting. When family members tried to call him, they found that his mobile phone was switched off. A source close to the family told me that when Onimisi’s brother rang his office, colleagues told him he had been taken away “on orders from above” by men who identified themselves as members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence.

When ten days later Onimisi still had not resurfaced, his Twitter followers raised the alarm. Activists, including Omojuwa and others from Occupy Nigeria, began demanding his release. Protests were organised in the cities of Ibadan, Ekiti, Benin, Lagos, Kaduna and Kano.

On 11 April Onimisi was quietly released. He returned to Twitter, briefly, on 17 and 18 April. He did not respond to my request for an interview, but thanked his supporters. “My freedom matters,” he tweeted, “whatever happen in there end in there.” (Meaning “whatever happened in there, stays in there”.) Then his account was closed.

Even now, with the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices. Social media might not bring back the victims of Boko Haram’s crimes, but the continued courage of critics inside the country could help force a complacent government to confront its own weakness.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution