|one of the flags of insurgent group boko haram|
"while everyone is talking about 12 people killed in the #charliehebdo attack, no one is mentioning that boko haram just killed 2000 people in africa."
normally, there follows a link to a news story like this one.
the thing is, the discussion usually ends there. there is perhaps a brief bemoaning of how no one in the west cares because it's happening in africa, which is possibly a valid point, but no one seems to want to investigate how this state of affairs has come to be, why boko haram are who they are and what can be done to stop them. [no, john mccain, bombing them out of existence is not a viable option. not even if you dropped all the bombs right on top of them. you don't get terrorism.]
it's easy to look at a group like boko haram and think "these are bad guys". and they are bad guys. really bad. but nothing is solved by believing that this group of bad guys has just spontaneously appeared in west africa and even less is accomplished by trying to link the rise of boko haram to the activities of groups like islamic state and al-qaeda. [although there are some links between the leaders of boko haram and some al-qaeda leaders, they aren't central to the group's existence.] rather, boko haram is a geographically specific entity borne of an uncomfortable-sounding fact: nigeria is, and always has been, a bad idea.
|happy together? photo by pieter hugo|
the reason that what's happening there should be of interest to us [aside from the fact that caring about the suffering of others should be considered one of the most basic components of our alleged humanity] is that nigeria is part of a coming wave of nations who will play an increasingly important role in world events. it is already the most populous country in africa, the seventh most populous in the entire world. although the vast majority of the people live in poverty, there is a reasonable size middle class and a substantial amount of money in the economy, much of which has unfortunately been pilfered through corruption. they're also in possession of massive oil reserves along the niger river delta, although the extent of their control over those reserves and the benefits derived from them are certainly subject to question. those questions, however, are for another blog post, because, as surprising as it seems, they're not particularly germane to a discussion of who boko haram are and why they exist.
nigeria is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, but for our purposes, we only need to look at the three major ones: the hausa, igbo and yoruba. each of the three is among the largest ethnic groups on the continent, to give some perspective on the numbers of people involved and all three groups have an extremely long history in west africa. the hausa live in the northern part of nigeria and number almost thirty-five million. however, the hausa are hardly bounded by nigerian borders, with over ten million hausa living in niger, two and a half million in cameroon and around a million each in benin and côte d'ivoire. interestingly, the hausa share a culture, but are racially diverse. their language, part of the afro-asiatic group, is the most widely spoken in all of western africa and is used as a lingua franca in muslim west africa. the hausa were fairly early adopters of islam and the vast majority are muslim today. hausa society is deeply traditional, almost feudal in nature, with various emirates long established within their territory. [side note :: i always simplify matters in these posts, but i feel the need to mention here that i'm using the term "hausa" to refer to the muslim population in northern nigeria. there is also the fulani, a major group who are later arrivals and from a separate culture, but who currently exist more or less alongside the hausa, as one people.]
|yoruba religious art|
when the british began to actively colonise the area now known as nigeria- part of the european "scramble for africa", where nations rushed to stake a claim to the one part of the world that they'd thus far failed to occupy- they found the igbo in particular difficult to deal with. their confederate alliance was anathema to the centralised control the british required in order to maintain control and therefore structures were imposed on the igbo people that felt foreign. the desired effect was to diminish the differences between the different groups, thus giving the british less to manage. [for an excellent study of this process, see igbo author chinua achebe's things fall apart.] however, as they compressed the igbo and the yoruba into more homogenous groups, they also started to set them at odds with each other and especially with the hausa, with whom they had little in common. the british had little interest in the hausa territories, beyond being able to say that they controlled them. the natural resources- chiefly palm oil- were concentrated in the southern territories. although they did claim the northern territories, once they had gone through the motions of conquering them, the british left things more or less as they had found them. the emirs were allowed to remain in place, as long as they reported to a british authority and didn't try to raise trouble. since it made pretty much no difference whatsoever to the emirs and their way of life, this arrangement suited them fine.
by the time world war two ended, it was obvious that the european-based empire was a sinking ship and that the passengers were lining up to secure their lifeboats. however, while europe's powers were willing to reconcile themselves with the idea of relinquishing their claim to the lands [eventually], they weren't so willing to relinquish their rights to the booty they'd been claiming. and to complicate things further, as calls for the british to release their hold on nigeria, it was discovered that the country was sitting on great surging vats of oil.
as talks to move towards independence progressed, fueled chiefly by political leaders in the southwest and southeast, it became obvious that there was no particular interest in keeping british-defined nigeria in tact. politicians from the north were interested chiefly in maintaining the integrity of their territory and in allowing things to continue much as they had for hundreds of years- the same arrangement they had made with the british, but taking the british back out of the equation. the yoruba and igbo regions were interested in going their own ways and in reaping the benefits of having control over their own resources. all were eager to foster relationships with other emerging african states, whatever shape that alliance might take. the northern faction proposed a federation with several other african countries, unsurprisingly those which had significant hausa populations. and in the midst of this, the west had a problem.
|igbo masked dancers|
the grand experiment in cohabitation went exactly as well as one might have predicted: the northern state dominated the elections and the south gritted their teeth for a couple of years before a military coup lead by an igbo soldier dislodged the democratically elected president. six months later, a counter-coup organised by hausa military leaders dislodged him. almost immediately, the igbo decided to say "screw you guys, we're outta here" and declared their own independent state of biafra in 1967. [side note :: although the hausa majority should have been enough to secure victory on its own, evidence has been emerging that britain, in an excess of caution, intervened to make sure that the northern faction carried the first election, thus establishing a precedent of corruption in a nation now widely known as one of the most corrupt in the world. we won't know for sure for about fifty years, when the relevant documents are declassified. because security.]
the british took the dignified approach and said that it was up to nigeria to determine its own future, but that didn't stop them from sending massive goody bags of armaments to the hausa faction, in order to allow them to crush the insurgency, which they did. biafra was brought to its knees by 1970, essentially starved into submission, and the igbo were forced back into the nigerian household. [side note :: for those of you, like me, were deeply and permanently marked by a punk "phase", the name "biafra" will conjure up images chiefly of dead kennedys front man jello biafra. this conflict is, in fact the genesis of his name, which was an ironic amalgamation of the non-food gelatin dessert so popular in the seventies and the name of the nation defeated through engineered famine.]
|modern day lagos, nigeria|
so where does boko haram come into it? well, if you've been reading carefully, you'll already know the answer: they've always been there. the hausa region of the country has been progressively more marginalised and progressively more frustrated as their influence waned and western powers became more concerned with courting the english-speaking, western-educated people in the south. ironically, boko haram's stated aim: the establishment of an islamic caliphate in nigeria- is exactly the aim that the hausa region has always had when negotiating with outsiders. and up until the last few decades, westerners were generally ok with that.
nigeria's regions have operated with some level of autonomy since the democratic reforms of 1999 and in the north, that has meant that a dozen muslim-controlled states have introduced sharia law. however, as often happens, partial autonomy has only served to spur the desire for more autonomy. there are few examples of a people who, given some freedoms, have been wholly satisfied with compromise. the nigerian hausa are just a particularly violent example.
the name "boko haram" is widely understood to mean "western education is forbidden". [their official name is actually "people dedicated to the prophet's teachings for propagation and jihad", but no one really wants to go through the process of saying all that every day in any language.] "haram" does mean forbidden, but the meaning of "boko" is a little more fluid. its current connotation is generally "western knowledge" or simply "westernisation". its earlier meaning was simply "fake", which would imply that the knowledge gained from secular western sources is fake and that the indictment is against false knowledge rather than specifically western knowledge, but, moving on... western media have interpreted that as indicated a particular hatred for america and the west in general, but viewed in the context of history, while fundamentalists undoubtedly despise much of popular western culture and may feel that they were betrayed by westerners after they had been valuable partners, it seems more likely that the name is pointed in the direction of other nigerians who have chosen to run the country in accordance with their western-educated principles. it is we who have chosen to interpret this long-standing conflict as part of a larger, anti-western movement.
the scariest thing about boko haram is that capitulating to their professed aim may have at one point been the best idea for the region. now, of course, agreeing to terms with such a violent gang of criminals. [aside from the kidnapping, bombings, enslavement and destruction for which they are known, boko haram apparently raise funds by robbing banks, demanding ransom for kidnap victims, serving as porters for drugs from south america to europe and engaging in the illegal elephant ivory trade. i'm pretty certain that the prophet mohammed wouldn't be down with any of those things.] the question now is: what can be done to stop them? i don't have an answer to that, but i am certain that unless world leaders bone up on their history and figure out who these people actually are, no answer they come up with is going to be of much use.