The bomb blast that killed 43 Nigerians on 2011 Christmas has raised many questions. The group-Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the blast. Having claimed responsibility, Boko Haram has morally defined itself as a bomb-throwing group. It has made a moral decision on the tool with which to conduct its dialogue and have conversation with Nigeria.
I argue in this essay that the most serious question raised by the blast is an ethical one about moral shame and forgiveness. The legitimacy of other equally important questions, which are political, economic and social, are not in doubt. But they are derived from the fundamental ethical question. The ethical question is the most important question precisely because of the nature of (i) a nation and (ii) the public sphere within which we express our actions. A nation is a moral construct. Outside its moral meaning a nation is a mere geography and ceases to exist in the mind of its peoples. A moral injury on a nation is wreckage on the moral state of its peoples. It is precisely for this reason that the first casualty of a moral wreckage of a nation and its peoples is the questioning of the legitimacy of the past and the viability of the present and the future.
Thus, I organize my moral argument around two basic questions. First, what should we do if and when we have legitimate political and economic claims on a polity and the state? Second, why do we choose what we should do? The first question is a question about propriety of the action, which mobilizes any unit or group of people in the polity to articulate their position publicly in a situation where they have legitimate claim on the polity. The second question is a question about justification of what we take to be an ethically sound action based on our perceived legitimate claim on the polity.
In a historical sense, the Boko Haram and the violence it has wrecked on the ethical balance of the country has taken a cue from similar violence by the disperse groups in the Niger Delta. Some commentators have drawn an analogy between Boko Haram and Niger Delta. In doing so, they inadvertently legitimize both forms of violence and terrorism. In other words such commentators are arguing that in a situation of “legitimate claim” on the polity it is equally legitimate to disturb the moral and emotional balance of the country through any means including violence and terrorism.
While it is important to inspect the soundness or otherwise of the analogy drawn between Boko Haram and Niger Delta space will not permit us to do this comprehensively. Rather we should focus on the main moral argument in order to see that the choice of violence and terrorism on a nation by one of its units is not only shameful and unethical, but that despite the immorality and shame involved in such choices, we the rest of the country ought to ride a higher ethical ground by forgiving those who through their terrorist actions have taken up arms against our moral and emotional state.
Shadowy as Boko Haram is, its goals are open. While Boko Haram justifiably points to the massive economic, social, welfare, educational, unemployment and infrastructural problems in the Northern part of Nigeria, it illegitimately and unjustifiably has as its goals the implementation of Sharia across Nigeria. This is the basis of the ethical absurdity in Boko Haram’s goals and choice of violence and terrorism.
While it is legitimate to identify the economic problems in the Northern part of the country, it is silly and morally absurd to ever conceive the need to implement Sharia Law across Nigeria as part of the resolution of historically generated economic problems. Why? The cause of the massive poverty in the Northern part of Nigeria can be traced historically to the door step of the elites who have used the same Islamic religion that Boko Haram appeals to, to screen off its incompetence and graft from the rest of the country.
This is not about the value or otherwise of Sharia Law, it is about the fact that the mere thought by Boko Haram of implementing Sharia Law across a proudly multi-national and multi-religious nation like Nigeria is morally absurd; and it deepens the emotional and ethical damage already inflicted by its violence and terrorism. The appeal to Sharia Law also screens off from debate the very source of poverty, which is the occasion of its anger.
Seeing the immorality of Boko Haram’s terrorism and the sense of shame it has brought on the nation by disturbing its ethical, moral and emotional balance, a relevant question is: is it morally legitimate to retaliate? My answer is capital NO precisely because forgiveness is one of the greatest ethical capacities that define our personhood.
In saying NO I am aware of my geographical distance from Nigeria. It could easily be argued that it is easier for me to ask for forgiveness for Boko Haram because my family and I are in America, far away from the geographical site of violence and terrorism. But my point and answer is ethical in a conceptual and practical sense. If Boko Haram has deployed morally evil means as a form of conversation should Nigerians repay Boko Haram with evil? I think intuitively the answer ought to be NO. But if the answer is Yes, this answer invites the final question: How morally worthy are you and your argument if you repay evil with evil? A moral cancellation of self which repaying evil with evil represents negates the meaning of the ethical self and a nation.
It morally repudiates our judgment of shame on Boko Haram. But on the contrary, we are persons because of our ethical faculty and not just because we are biological beings. Our personhood lies in our sense of the moral. Hence, a moral retreat from such self-negation, which retaliation represents is the basis of the need to morally forgive Boko Haram and their sponsors and rebuild our wounds, emotions; our justifiably disturbed moral state and Nigeria. Here in lies the meaning of a nation. Here in lies an ethically sound future for our children and us. Retaliating evil with evil infinitely diminishes our moral agency and capacity as persons. And this is ethically unworthy.
Adeolu Ademoyo is of Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.