Falling through the cracks
On 14 April, 2014, armed Islamic militants, popularly known as Boko Haram, abducted 276 girls from their boarding school in Chibok, located in the northern province of Borno, Nigeria. Despite the real time flow of information, which modern day technology has precipitated, there is very little that people really know about this ultra-secretive and enterprising terrorist organization. Most western narratives are built around the idea of a fanatic Islamic sect that is waging war against Nigerian Christians, western education and is hell bent upon toppling the ‘secular’ government. Ever since 5 May, when influential Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, sent a message to the world about dire threats of ‘selling’ the abducted school girls to the market, the international media has gone abuzz. However, the plight of enslaved school girls, deep in the forest of northern Nigeria is only symptomatic of the larger social, economic and political malaise that exists. It would be prudent to examine the issue on a more granular level before making any conclusions. Michelle Obama would agree.
Boko Haram is the moniker given to ‘Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad’, whose literal translation means ‘People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’. Derived from the Hausa Language, the title Boko Haram can be loosely translated into ‘Western education is forbidden’. Despite the obvious signs and symptoms of a band of fervent anti-western crusaders, this story isn’t about a holy war or a great clash of civilizations. After all, many of Boko Haram’s victims are Muslim civilians. According to credible estimates, Boko Haram has killed over 4,000 people since they took up arms in 2009. This sense of resentment against western culture, education and ‘secular governance’ emanates from a blood soaked colonial past, rampant corruption and extreme poverty.
Though the British officially colonised modern-day Nigeria in 1900, their presence in the region extended back into the 19th century, when European countries entered into a race for colonies, which was notoriously called the ‘Scramble for Africa’. What is now modern Nigeria was once home to numerous independent Hausa kingdoms and later on the Sokoto Caliphate. It was the British that overthrew the Sokoto Caliphate, which later became the Northern Nigerian Protectorate. However, locals in the region resented the coloniser’s presence, primarily because they saw the entire exercise as an attempt to pave the way for Evangelists and an attempt to control their land, customs and culture. Resentment from the Northern provinces further spread towards the nation’s elite, who they felt had easily abdicated their administrative powers to the British, in order to maintain their titles.
The rejection of western ideals was to become the epicenter of the region’s discontentment. There were uprisings that threatened to overthrow their colonial masters. However, the British suppressed these rebellions and soon thereafter went on a conversion spree in the south, a region traditionally beholden to animistic traditions, who due to sustained evangelical efforts fully embraced Christianity. Infrastructure was inevitably better established in the south, with constructions of schools, hospitals and churches. Despite unification in 1914, varying economic realities undermined the relationship between the North and the South. Despite independence in 1960, political and financial centres were firmly established in central and southern Nigeria. Discovery of oil in the Niger delta didn’t help the geopolitical balance either, with western companies colluding with a corrupt south central administration to attain a larger share of the spoils. However, long before Boko Haram, in the ‘70s, a radical Islamic cleric named Mohammed Marwa, better known as ‘Maitatsine,’ gained a massive following in the disenchanted North, particularly amongst disaffected Muslim youth. Messages of dissent against corruption, brutal military regimes and police high-handedness saw riots, clashes and violent uprisings. Maitatsine died in 1980, after he succumbed to injuries sustained during clashes with the police. The ‘80s did not bring much relief either.
This Islamisation was to intensify, when in the ‘90s, a radical Islamic cleric, Mohammad Yusuf, picked up the mantle from Maitatsine and led a resurgent sect of radical Muslims into uncharted territory. It was Yusuf, who introduced Wahhabi/Salafi strain of Islam in the mid-1990s. He implicitly called upon Muslim youth to overthrow the government with his aggressive rhetoric. Things reached a tipping point a decade or so later in 2009, when government officers in the city of Northeastern Borno called Maiduguri (Boko Haram’s traditional home), shot and wounded many Yusuf’s followers for not wearing helmets, while riding motorcycles. This arbitrary violence provoked Yusuf to respond by unleashing a wave of violent attacks, which the Nigerian army responded to with full force. Over 1,000 people died in the ensuing violence and Yusuf was killed in police custody. The situation escalated quite quickly with those even remotely suspected of links with the organisation being summarily executed on the streets. After a brief lull, in late 2010, Boko Haram announced their return with vicious bombing. Under their new leader, Abubakar Shekau, a central Nigerian city, Jos, was subjected to blasts, which killed 80 people. In June 2011, police headquarters were bombed in Abuja, killing six people. United Nations headquarters in the capital were targeted just two months later. Eighteen people were killed.
By examining Nigeria’s history we hope the reader has been able to gain a brief sense of the fertile soil in which this crisis was born. Now we need to examine the roots of the current crisis. Islamist militancy in Nigeria is being strengthened by conflicting western and regional fossil fuel interests. As always oil lies at the epicenter of the crisis. That and other externalities like climate change. Instability in Nigeria, however, has been growing steadily over the last decade - and one reason is climate change. In 2009, a UK Department for International Development (DfID) study warned that climate change could contribute to increasing resource shortages in the country due to land scarcity from desertification, water shortages, and mounting crop failures. The real thorn in Nigeria’s side is the declining oil production. In northern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram hails from, there is little evidence of an oil boom. With about 70 per cent of the population subsisting on less than a dollar a day - some 20 per cent higher than the already dismal rate in the South, rates of illiteracy and illness are endemic. Corruption hasn’t helped the situation either. Transparency International has ranked President Goodluck Jonathan’s government 139 out of 176 countries.
An overlooked factor in the evolution of Boko Haram was the extension of Shaia law to criminal cases in North West Nigeria. This was introduced by the governor of Zamfara state, where strong punishments were prescribed, including stoning for adultery, amputation for theft and flogging for drinking alcohol. This began a full-scale adoption of the controversial religious law amongst eight other states in the region and the Borno was expected to adopt these measures too. However, when Borno didn’t adopt Sharia law, radicals became incredibly disaffected and hostile to the Nigerian government. Ceding the initial space to these elements has only accentuated the fault lines. Allied with serious allegations of extra-judicial killings, detention, torture and destruction of property that belonged to innocents, suspected to have affiliations with Boko Haram, further disaffection with the Nigerian state was a natural consequence.
In the final analysis, as noted by David Francis, one of the first western reporters to cover Boko Haram, ‘Most of the foot soldiers of Boko Haram aren’t Muslim fanatics; they’re poor kids who were turned against their corrupt country by a charismatic leader.’ Ironically this has happened with the knowledge of western intelligence agencies. If this analysis is correct, then the hundreds of innocent girls kidnapped in Nigeria are not just victims of Islamist fanaticism; they are also victims of failed foreign, economic and security policies tied to this never ending infernal addiction to black gold.
(Key inputs from The Guardian, Atlantic, AP, AFP, PolicyMic, Counter Punch)