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world wide wednesdays :: why is boko haram?

one of the flags of insurgent group boko haram
although i hate to dedicate too many of these posts to the subject of terrorism and its propagators, i could not help but notice that my social media feeds were filled this week with messages on one subject. to paraphrase [although i'm pretty certain that this is a direct quotation of many of them], the message goes like this:

"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
that's nothing against any of the people living in nigeria, or any of its cities, or against the territory it occupies, or anything that happens there. it's just that nigeria, the way it has been constructed, with borders slashed through the continent in what seems like a haphazard way [although it isn't at all, but we'll get to that], nigeria as a nation-state was virtually set up to fail, because it doesn't respect the things that are supposed to define nation-states: shared history and shared culture.

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 cĂ´te 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
the yoruba and igbo groups dominate the southwest and southeast of the country respectively. their languages, while different, are both part of the niger-congo group. the two are somewhat closely related to each other, but not to the hausa. whereas the hausa were strictly hierarchical, the yoruba and igbo were considerably more flexible. the yoruba had kings, but there was some social mobility within their society. the igbo were for a long time no more than a loosely affiliated group of small states, more democratic in nature. the rise of an igbo ethnic identity is actually a modern event, dating from after the unification of traditional igbo lands as part of nigeria. living in the fertile areas close to the coastline mean that the yoruba and especially the igbo had greater contact with europeans when they began to arrive in droves during the nineteenth century. as a result, many of them adopted cultural features of europeans, such as the christian religion [although the yoruba in particular practice a form of christianity heavily influenced by their traditional animistic beliefs]. many of the wealthier igbo also sent their children to be educated in england and the structure of western education was imported into the igbo-dominated areas of nigeria. [side note :: it's a myth that colonial powers like britain were unable to distinguish african tribes and considered them as one group. they absolutely did know the differences, both from the perspective of knowing who could be trusted as business associates and in other cases, who were the most valuable. both the igbo and yoruba people participated heavily in the slave trade and their people were in the high demand. as a result, the greatest number of african americans can trace their genetic roots back to this area and these tribal "families". many in north america have at least a passing familiarity with yoruba culture and its syncretic christianity, known in the new world as candomblé, santeria or voudou.]

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.

hausa architecture
there was never any historical or cultural necessity to squash these separate cultures together and, in fact, britain didn't even unite them until 1914, a move that, ironically, helped kick-start a drive for independence. contact with and travel to the west brought yoruban and igbo nigerians closer to pan-african advocates, artists and activists among american blacks, such as w.e.b. dubois, which motivated them to press for changes at home.  [meaning that early advocates for greater autonomy in the yoruba and igbo regions of nigeria and eventually independence was inspired in part by the descendents of yoruba and igbo people who had been sent to america as slaves. delicious, isn't it?]

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
with all that oil sitting in nigeria, the british government and most particularly corporations who wanted to exploit that resource had to make sure that they had a local government on whom they could depend. with the igbo and yoruba clearly pushing for independence, britain chose to side with the hausa, who had always been easier for them to deal with anyway. as nigeria was granted in dependence in 1960, a plebiscite was held in neighbouring cameroon to allow the northern and southern portions of the state to determine their own national affiliation. largely muslim northern cameroon voted to join nigeria, which meant that the hausa group represented nearly 50% of the new state's population, effectively granting them control over the country's government for the foreseeable future.

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.]

one can view this as the one moment where nigeria could have done the right thing, shaken hands and agreed to go their separate ways. the western yoruba leaders had made it clear that if the igbo were allowed to walk, they were leaving too, which left the northerners pretty much on their own, the way they had been when the british arrived. only this time, it was clear that the igbo were leaving with all the money. geography dictated that the oil reserves would fall entirely to the new state of biafra, the least pliable and most independent-minded part of the country and... well, you see what's about to happen. only a tiny number of countries ever recognised the right of biafra, essentially a modern version of a federation that had existed until the british arrived, to exist. other countries nominally supported them without recognition, like france and canada [it was the trudeau era, don't think we'd do it now], but as it became clear that the young nation of nigeria was headed for an all-out civil war, those allies restricted their support to words.

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
sadly, those first few years established a blueprint for nigeria's future. brief flirtations with democracy have been stomped down by the military, who accrued a reputation for violence so extreme that international law still forbids governments from selling them arms, despite the fact that they relinquished power for the final [?] time in 1999. there is no doubt that the nigerian military has been controlled by some really bad guys. much of the time, the hausa majority have been the victims of that violence and have struggled to assert themselves on the national stage despite their numerical advantage. the military has, more often than not, protected the interests of corporations like shell [such as the repression of protests against shell's abysmal environmental record in the nineties.] periods of democracy, and nigeria is just over fifteen years into its longest ever experiment in democracy, have always brought tensions to the fore and nowhere more so than the muslim-dominated north.

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.


MakeUpDiva said…
Thank you so much for this very well written and very well thought out article. It was absolutely fascinating.
morelikespace said…
Very glad you enjoyed it!

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