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Reporter's Notebook: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton On Nigeria


We want to turn our attention now to West Africa for an update on two important stories we've been following. In Nigeria, the Islamist extremist group called Boko Haram has been linked to mass killings at schools, churches, even mosques, and a surge of kidnappings off the Nigerian coast has made the Gulf of Guinea a hot new spot for piracy. NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton recently visited Nigeria, and she's with us in studio to tell us more about her trip. Ofeibea, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. It's good to see you in person.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Lovely to be back in your new rather wonderful studio, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. You recently visited Maiduguri, which is where Boko Haram was formed over a decade ago. This group is such a mystery to many of us here, including the name, which we are told has various translations, which they don't even use. So can you just tell us a little bit more about what you found out about the group - why they're there and what's their status?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, let me first say that Boko Haram means Boko is Haram, education - and by this, probably Western education - is sinful or forbidden. And that's what everyone else is calling them. They have a long name in Arabic. But it's the fact that they have targeted schools, most recently colleges, and have said that Western education is not a good thing, that they've been dubbed that and that's what the authorities call them.

As you say, Michel, Maidugri is where Mohammed Yusuf set up Boko Haram. He didn't come from Maidugri, which is the capital of Borno State, but that is where he had his huge camp, his huge mosque and where his followers flocked from all over to join him. They liked his message. And if you look at a lot of the young people who appear to be members of this group, Michel, it is mainly young men - no hope, no prospects, no future, desperation, no money. And they feel that when they join this group, there is some hope, there's a purpose to their life.

MARTIN: What is the purpose? Is this group - 'cause the impression we get from this end of it is that they're like the Khmer Rouge. They're basically nihilist, destructive. Do they have an objective? Do they have a philosophy? Is it to impose an Islamic government? Or - what is their goal?

QUIST-ARCTON: That's what we've been told by people like Abubaka Shekau who is one of the leaders of this group, who the government incidentally said they had killed. But he's popped up again in a video just this week talking about recent attacks in the area. Yes, they do say that they want proper Islam as they see it. And this is the Islam that is being exported from Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, which in Saudi Arabia is tightly controlled. But when it seems to be exported, especially to West Africa, it takes on this extremist tendency that we have seen. Initially, it was government targets and security targets - the police, the security forces, government offices.

That was initially, four years ago. But more recently, everybody seems to be a target including civilians. Now when you talk to the authorities, a state of emergency has been imposed in three Northeastern states in Nigeria, in Borno and neighboring Yobe, which has been hit by so many attacks. The authorities say, we've got them on the back foot. That's why they are no longer in the towns and cities, that's why they're attacking people in the hinterland, i.e., in the more rural areas. And every other day now, people who are traveling from the capital - from Maidugri to neighboring Damaturu are being ambushed and killed.

MARTIN: So it would appear - so the president, Goodluck Jonathan, says - well, that, as you mentioned, imposed a state of emergency in three states in the north in May, but from your reporting, it doesn't appear that they actually have any control over the situation.

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, no. They seem to be able to attack at will. The difference is, now they're not attacking the big towns. I mean, they have come under attack. There have been really deadly raids in the past. Not so long ago in September, we had an agricultural college, which was attacked - more than 40 students killed in their bed. In July, it was schools. It was a school that was targeted. So it seems to be not random because they are obviously choosing their targets, but the question is why?

We're also told, Michel, that it's not just Nigerian fighters, that there are fighters from across Nigeria's borders and in that area of the country in the North - Cameroon, Chad, Niger. When I was there just a week ago, a couple of days earlier there were attacks again on individuals. The government said, you know - the security forces said they had attacked and destroyed two terrorist camps. And then a couple of days later, they pop up and they're killing more and more people.

MARTIN: So what's the goal? What's the objective of the government here? Is there a strategy to deal with this, even if they have not yet succeeded? Do they have one? What is their announced strategy for addressing this?

QUIST-ARCTON: They say so, Michel.


QUIST-ARCTON: And as I say, they said they've got them on the back foot. They're driving them out. But we see the country that they are able to attack.

MARTIN: One more question before we let you go - another story we wanted to get your perspective on. Piracy is an issue that's been, you know, in the news. There's a very well-reviewed film about this and playing in American theaters now about piracy in a different part of Africa. But now - we've been hearing a lot about Somali pirates - but a couple of weeks ago, two Americans were kidnapped from an oil-supply ship in the Gulf of Guinea. Can you tell us more about that?

QUIST-ARCTON: And it's not new. Of course, all the focus and attention has been on the Somali pirates because they're in very small skiffs and they're quite dramatic and quite audacious. But the Gulf of Guinea - and that's the curve of West Africa, coastal curve all the way from Dakar, Senegal, where I'm based, to Nigeria - has become really vulnerable in that area, and pirates are sometimes bunkering, they call it.

They - the wholesale theft of crude oil in Nigeria - off the coast of Nigeria. But increasingly, they appear to be ambushing and kidnapping oil workers or other because of the huge ransoms that they can demand. And we think that that's the case with the Americans. And there have been other Europeans and others who have been taken as hostages, and we assume ransom's paid because it's a huge area. It's the Atlantic Ocean, and it's hugely difficult to monitor and police.

MARTIN: On the other side, though, Ofeibea, you were telling - so these are two rather bleak stories we've been focusing on. On the other hand, you say that there is quite the scene in Lagos, that it is hopping - lots of new writers, restaurants. Tell us a little bit about that.

QUIST-ARCTON: Everything and of course music. Lagos is where this Fela Anikulapo Kuti now of...

MARTIN: World-wide fame.

QUIST-ARCTON: World-wide fame.

MARTIN: World-wide fame.

QUIST-ARCTON: And he's up with his children, Femi and Seun have taken over, and they're calling it the Felabration - celebration Felabration. And it was hopping, literally, at the shrine, which is where he set up and where he played. They had a week of activities and then a weekend of music, and lots of other musicians. And, Michel, so many young writers. It is so exciting to read what is coming out of Nigeria. I recommend that everybody should take up one book by A. Igoni Barrett. He's a young man and he's got an incredible way with words.

MARTIN: OK. Well, thank you for that. Thank you for that recommendation, and thank you for that update. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, as you heard, is NPR's Africa correspondent based in Dakar, but she was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios on a brief visit to Washington. Ofeibea, thank you. Always good to see you.

QUIST-ARCTON: And always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.