BEIRUT: The roughly 20,000 Lebanese living in Nigeria are hunkering down and eyeing the exits as Africa’s most populous nation is becoming increasingly unstable and sliding to what some analysts say could be a massive civil war.
The radical Islamist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people in sectarian attacks across the country and is demanding a religious purge of the Muslim-dominated northern region. Nigeria’s government has yet to rein in the paroxysms of violence that threaten to plunge Africa’s largest oil producer into chaos.
For Mohammad Obeid, a Lebanese from Tripoli who lives in the central Nigerian city of Abuja, the situation is deeply worrisome. “Our main concern and fear these days is it doesn’t turn to civil war, as things are going out of control,” Obeid writes in an email.
“The riots, strikes, armed gangs, lack of security and most important the evolving sectarian hatred. For me I will be leaving this country if this violence turns to a civil war. In this situation we will be a number one target for kidnappers and armed thugs,” he adds.
With the country’s President Goodluck Jonathan acknowledging that Boko Haram has infiltrated the country’s security apparatus and increasing calls for reprisals for the killings, Nigeria’s outlook is decidedly grim.
When people fled Lebanon during the Civil War, thousands ended up in Nigeria. Since then the diaspora in Nigeria has prospered and grown in the country via influential business and communication networks with other Lebanese around the world.
That success has let Lebanese build roads and schools in Nigeria and send remittances back home. The director general of the Foreign Affairs Ministry says the total number of Lebanese in Nigeria is now roughly 20,000.
But now many of those families are beginning to have to confront the same question they had to answer in Lebanon over 40 years ago: What do we do if things get worse?
Half of the population in Africa’s largest oil producer is Muslim and live mostly in the north, while the country’s 40 percent Christian population live largely in the south. The latest bombings have often targeted the country’s Christians and have been almost entirely attributed to Boko Haram.
A number of experts are warning of a large-scale civil war in Nigeria based on that religious divide and a host of unresolved political and social problems. U.S. military experts at The Center for Strategy and Technology forecast that by 2030 Nigeria could have a major civil war comparable to Lebanon’s
At the moment Lebanese in Nigeria, particularly in the north, say the they are living in a state of anxiety and fear and have little support besides their own family networks. Many say the Lebanese Embassy is a non-entity that isn’t helping them confront the danger in the country.
“We are citizens without a government. No one tried to contact us or advise us about the situation or what we have to do if things take a turn for the worse,” says Obeid, who is working as an accountant in Nigeria for a Lebanese company. He adds that he follows messages from the U.S. Embassy on Twitter to find warnings and directions when something goes wrong.
For now the political situation in the country hasn’t completely deteriorated and some Lebanese are holding out hope that the situation improves.
Peter Adebayo, a professor at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria who studies the Lebanese diaspora, says the Lebanese community is deeply entrenched in Nigerian society and its leaders are looking for improvement, and not evacuation.
Adebayo is in the process of surveying the violence-affected areas in northern Nigeria to understand how Lebanese are responding. He writes by email that Lebanese community leaders in Nigeria are “completely dissatisfied” with the present situation and are fearful that the Boko Haram wants to “turn Nigeria into Pakistan.”
If things continue to worsen picking up and leaving is more difficult for some Lebanese than others.
David Ramone, who is Lebanese-Nigerian, says despite his concern over his safety leaving won’t be easy.
“Half of my family is Nigerian ... I cant just leave like that,” the 23-year-old told The Daily Star over Twitter.
For now Ramone has to take his safety into his own hands – he is staying indoors and avoiding crowded areas when he can.“The government literally can’t do anything to predict the attacks by the Boko Haram ... they strike at will and kill people,” he says.