You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Boko Haram: Terrorism and the White Man’s Burden

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-05-2014 G. Sampath

Over the past fortnight, Boko Haram, an extreme Islamist group based in northern Nigeria, has garnered a lot of attention in the international press, and understandably so. On 14 April, it abducted 276 girls from a government school in the north-eastern Nigerian town of Chibok. It announced that it planned to sell the girls into slavery, for $12 each.

Even as the Nigerian government seemed clueless on how to tackle the crisis, last week, in separate incidents, the militant group slaughtered more than 300 people, and abducted another eight school girls. These developments, however, are only the latest episodes in a campaign of extreme violence that Boko Haram has perpetrated in the northern and central belts of the country over the past four years.

What is Boko Haram all about?

Predictably, much of the commentary on Boko Haram has been marked by analysis untroubled by history. The facts, typically, are presented to us stripped of context. We have been told that Boko Haram began as a local — fundamentalist but peaceful — movement in northern Nigeria in 2002, that it was founded by an imam named Mohamma Yusuf, who was killed in a bloody security operation in July 2009, paving the way for his near-psychotic second-in-command Abubakar Shekau to take charge.

Shekau, who is said to have escaped from a mental asylum in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno province in north-eastern Nigeria, has turned Boko Haram into a byword for savagery, as the outfit under him unleashed wave after wave of brutal attacks on churches, schools, and police stations.

Nobody seems to have a clear idea of what the militant group wants. The Hausa name of Boko Haram, literally translated, means Western education is forbidden, which is not much of a political programme to rally around. While it speaks the idiom of religious struggle, its attacks have been mindless and nihilistic. Its targets, too, defy logic, with attacks on churches interspersed with assassinations of Muslim clerics interspersed with attacks on secular institutions. In the past four years, violence linked to Boko Haram has been responsible for over 3,600 deaths.

Until this month, Boko Haram’s atrocities had rarely evoked much concern in the international press. When, for instance in February, it shot, hacked and burnt to death 29 school boys, it created nary a ripple outside Nigeria. But the latest episode involving the mass abduction of school girls seems finally to have stirred the conscience of an international community benumbed by the by now familiar media narratives of mass killings, insurgency and internecine strife in yet another third world country that can only be — it would appear — resolved through Western intervention.

Shift from ethnic to religious strife

While Nigeria has seen civil strife in the past (the Biafran war of the 1960s claimed over a million civilian lives), its political fault lines in Nigeria have traditionally been along ethnic lines — the Hausa-Fulani-dominated north, the Igbo-majority south-east, and the Yoruba-dominated south-west.

Boko Haram’s vague demand for an Islamist state in northern Nigeria, therefore, marks a departure. It is a fact that the comparatively more prosperous south is Christian, while the impoverished north is predominantly Muslim. The president, Goodluck Jonathan, is a southerner and a Christian.

Despite the serious threat that Boko Haram poses to the Nigerian state, the administration’s response to it has been erratic, swinging from one extreme to another – either a brutal scorched earth policy where the military has bombed entire villages suspected of harboring Boko Haram militants, to baffling insouciance. The mass abduction of the school girls on 14 April elicited the latter response. But following mounting criticism both domestically and from the international community, and a full three weeks after the kidnapping, Jonathan announced a fact-finding committee to investigate the kidnapping.

All this raises an obvious question: Why has Nigeria, with the fourth most powerful military on the continent, been so ineffective in combating this militant group?

One theory that has been doing the rounds is that Jonathan is going easy on Boko Haram because, with the elections coming up in 2015, he is hoping that the violence unleashed by the Muslim extremists would polarize the electorate and consolidate Christian votes behind him. But this theory fails to explain how someone hoping to consolidate Christian votes could afford to be seen as ineffective and weak when faced with repeated attacks on churches and Christian educational institutions.

Another theory holds that the Nigerian political and military elite — reputed to be one of the most corrupt in the world — has discovered the economic rewards of its own war on terror. British journalist Richard Dowden, author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, supports this theory. Pointing out that almost a quarter of Nigeria’s budget gets spent on military and security services, he writes that senior military officers have a “major stake in Nigeria’s ‘war on terror’ and “northern Nigerian politicians… have been funding and possibly even directing Boko Haram.”

One cannot easily dismiss Dowden’s claims, for it is difficult to fathom how an organization that, till 2010, was using crude, home-made bombs to attack churches in northern Nigeria had, in the span of a year, graduated to carrying out a suicide bombing of a United Nations building in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. How did Boko Haram suddenly become so powerful from 2011 onward?

Nigeria and AFRICOM

For a proper explanation, we need to go back a little into recent history, and ask what was so special about 2011. What happened in northern Africa in 2011? We all know the answer: the American military intervention in Libya. Seen in this light, Boko Haram doesn’t seem like such an isolated phenomenon. It is another piece, a crucial one, of a geopolitical jigsaw puzzle.

The US has for long struggled to establish a permanent military foothold in Africa, which it needs to in order to exercise control over the continent’s mineral-rich regions. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) was established as an attempt to create an African NATO, which would enable the US to have military bases all across the continent and secure full-spectrum strategic dominance. But so far, except Liberia, none of the African countries outside the US’ existing sphere of influence has been willing to allow a full-fledged American base on its territory. As a result, AFRICOM has been operating from a base in Stuttgart, Germany.

Any guesses as to who have been the most vocal opponents of AFRICOM? That’s right: Nigeria and Libya. Libya has now been taken care of. Could Nigeria be next? Africa’s largest military power, Egypt, comes directly under US Central Command due to its proximity to the Middle-East.

Terrorism as hand-maiden of colonialism

The terrorist attack of 11 September 2001, among other things, inaugurated a new era of colonialist consolidation. This is not some conspiracy theory but a geo-strategic orientation advocated by influential architects of American foreign policy such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and much favoured by mainstream Western analysts.

For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11, well-known British historian Paul Johnson wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal, titled The Answer to Terrorism? Colonialism. In this opinion piece, he made an explicit case for aggressively expanding US-led western colonialism, and explained why the erstwhile colonies needed it.

Just as, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the war against sea piracy led to naval expansion and the blossoming of western colonialism, similarly, Johnson argued, today’s war on terrorism should pave the way for so-called responsible supervision of irresponsible third world nations that either cannot tackle terrorism on their own or are a hotbed of terrorism.

Writing in 2001, he had named Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan Libya, Iran and Syria as countries where “a Western political presence seems unavoidable”. Well, 13 years is not a long time in international politics, but most of the countries in that list are already under “responsible supervision” of the West. Those that aren’t as yet – most notably, Iran – are under perpetual threat of being brought under it.

As Nick Beams of Australia’s Socialist Equality Party pointed out, here is where the idea of a “failed state” – a dubious concept that has become entrenched in the discourse of strategic analysis—comes in. The modus operandi opened up by the notion of a failed state is as follows: If it proves impossible to get an independent post-colonial state to open up its markets and resources for western corporate exploitation (as opposed to, say, reserving them for the benefit of its own people) through diplomatic means, and if installing a pliable puppet government via a regime change engineered through coups or assassinations or revolutions prove difficult, then the final option would be to foment trouble within the country by nurturing a terrorist or militant group which would substantially weaken the administration such that it can now be termed a failed state. This would then clear the way for rescue teams (military and humanitarian) to be sent in, and some form of a loose protectorate shall be established to do the bidding of the US-NATO axis.

American foreign policy, whose goal is unquestioned supremacy in every strategic region around the world, has followed this flow chart model in its foreign policy across the globe – from Latin America to Africa to West Asia to the Far East. To some extent, for much of the 20th century, it had been held in check by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but that is no longer the case.

It is well documented, for instance, that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were monsters nurtured by the CIA. It is also well-known that both in Syria and in Libya, the rebel ranks are or were were made up of Al-Qaeda militants – meaning that the US and Al-Qaeda were fighting on the same side, with the former training and funding the latter through Arab and African intermediaries.

In other words, it is the same old colonial story all over again, of the white man getting his way through compliant brown men. If in the 19th century, it was the white man’s burden to save the colored races from barbarity, in the neo-colonial 21st century, the white man’s burden is to save the coloured races from terrorism. In both cases, the white man is needed to save the black and brown races from themselves. It goes without saying, of course, that the terrorists are, by definition, non-white. Exceptions, where they exist, serve to prove the default color setting. In Nigeria now, it is young black women who the white man will help save from black men.

How Boko Haram changed in 2011

So, to understand the transformation of Boko Haram from a home grown fundamentalist movement to a powerful, well-funded radical Islamist terrorist outfit, we need to go back to 2011. One of the toxic fallouts of the Libyan conflict of 2011 was the dispersion of NATO arms and weaponry into the surrounding Sahel region.

Militants belonging to the Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were an integral part of the Libyan rebel forces that enjoyed the technical, financial and military support of the NATO and the US. Reports in the African press indicate that Boko Haram has been receiving arms and funding from AQIM. These reports also suggest that different groups based in Saudi Arabia and the UK — both US allies — that had been funnelling funds to Boko Haram through the AQIM. So, in effect, there is just one degree of separation from between Boko Haram and Western military command.

Add to this the fact that Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, harbours immense oil and mineral wealth, and that it has recently seen massive investments in its extractive sectors from China, and the picture gets clearer.

Add also to this the fact that Nigeria has been the one major African power that has shown the gumption to systematically challenge Western neo-colonial hegemony – most notably through ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group), which shut out US intervention in regional conflicts and expanded Nigeria’s sphere of influence.

Finally, add also Nigeria’s influential role in keeping itself and Africa free of US military bases under the AFRICOM umbrella. Totaling it all up, one could say that terrorism was more or less waiting to happen to Nigeria.

A Taliban for Nigeria

Simply put, Boko Haram’s mandate is to be Nigeria’s Taliban. It will foment sectarian tensions, commit unspeakable atrocities, destabilize Nigeria and provoke a humanitarian crisis on such a scale that three things are accomplished: one, establish Nigeria as a failed state; two, precipitate a humanitarian military intervention from the West either under the UN umbrella or via a multinational force under the leadership of US-NATO combine; three, either the installation of a puppet regime that will be both pliant to American interests and manage to keep the country together, as has been the attempt in Iraq and Afghanistan, or balkanization of Nigeria into smaller, more manageable pieces as was done to Yugoslavia.

If there is one lesson that emerges from all this, it is that international public opinion should weigh in against any kind of Western intervention in Nigeria. The best outcome would be if the Nigerian administration, on its own, proves able and willing to resolve the ongoing crisis by rescuing the abducted girls, and over the medium term, succeeds in subduing Boko Haram.

But that requires a strong, incorruptible military command which, sadly, hasn’t been in evidence, with Jonathan admitting publicly that the Boko Haram has infiltrated even his government – including its police force and security services.

All said and done, it is important to look at the current crisis in Nigeria not in isolation but within the perspective of the continent’s larger colonial and post-colonial history, especially in the context of how Western powers have time and again acted against every semblance of independent African leadership – the killing of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba being the archetypal example of this pattern.

What is needed, therefore, is a global consensus of public opinion in favour of a more democratic, multi-polar world with several independent regional power centres, and in favor of American non-interventionism, rather than a unipolar world subject to the policing of one undisputed military superpower.

Until such a consensus is built, and becomes dominant in strategic circles, we are unlikely to see an end either to the rise of new terror outfits or to the global war on terror or to the periodic need for the white man to come and save the innocents of yet another so-called failed state.

More From LiveMint

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon