Boko Haram Analysis: an Expat in Nigeria Shares Exclusive Insights into the Schoolgirl Kidnappings and the Complicated Local Situation
The author is a European expatriate who has been a permanent resident of Nigeria for the last year. She has written anonymously for security reasons.
Nigerian forces undertaking anti-terrorist operations against Boko Haram in the Sambisa Forest
We are no longer very skilled in foreign affairs.
Since I have been here, I have lost count of the number of times I have sat down to supper with the Nigerian elite and been asked why the British refuse to trade here. The elite are Anglophiles, usually schooled in England, frequently dual nationals. Almost every passenger wealthy enough to take the Abuja to London flight switches from the green passport to the red one as they travel between gates. They want architects, engineers and educators from us, but the combination of our anti-bribery laws and risk-averse culture means that these organisations won’t come. The British flag in Nigeria is almost always attached to the logo of an aid programme rather than a commercial venture.
Losing an ability to treat other nations as markets damages us and them. The skills transfer that is needed to the ranks of small businesses and the professional class never occurs. The ability to contract with suppliers who have, on the whole, a willingness and ability to deliver on time, at cost and without backhanders is removed. The government at a national and state level is under no obligation to develop an efficient system of business taxation and civil administration because the gaps in capacity and funding are plugged with foreign experts and foreign money. For our part, our firms lose the ability to grow profits outside of the slow, steady domestic markets, and we collectively lose the soft power that we have, through good business practice, to shape the development of countries which are still determining what their futures will look like. In place of this soft power, we are increasingly drawn to hard power. The enthusiasm of the political class for mobilising vast armies of bombs, drones and other instruments of terror under the humanitarian flag is linked to our refusal now to exert soft power through business. Prevented from doing so in Syria by the brilliant diplomacy of Vladimir Putin, prevented from doing so in Ukraine by the armed obstinacy of Vladimir Putin, those wishing to slake their thirst for violence in the name of peace have now turned their attention to Nigeria.
Boko Haram: an Islamist group?
I have lived in Nigeria and worked with Nigerians from Lagos to Katsina over the last year. The backing track to this adventure has been the low thunder of violence in the corners of the North East where three states are under martial law as the national government attempts to deal with the Islamist insurgency in the region spearheaded by Boko Haram. The European press have a tendency to talk about Boko Haram as if they are the West African branch of the IRA. Both the organisation and the threat which it presents are quite different. It may be useful, before proceeding, to tackle a few preconceptions. Firstly, the name. Every single newspaper article gravely informs its readership that it means “Western education is forbidden”. This makes great copy and is useful for conveying to the reader the sort of terrorist we are dealing with. However, it is not the group’s name, but a nickname given by the residents of Maiduguri, the North Eastern city that still trembles in their shadow. The group calls itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. The difference is important – this is not a group that is, as the nickname suggests, rebelling against Western influence in its heartlands – it couldn’t very well do this as there is not any Western activity up there and has never been historically. Instead, it is a group that murders solely out of religious, not cultural motives.
This is a point worth underscoring. The Western media is largely constituted of atheists who see religion in terms of its incidental aspect as a cultural identifier. Given the doctrine of cultural relativity to which most of these people subscribe, no one culture (and by extension religion) has a claim to be more valid or worthwhile than another. As such, there has been rather a tying in knots over the past fortnight by Western commentators attempting to assert that Boko Haram are not an Islamist group. In the words of one popular liberal website: “the Nigerian terrorist group that kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls has nothing to do with Islam, and it’s grotesquely irresponsible of the media to suggest it does.”
I have not met a single person in Nigeria who believes this is the case. Not one. There are plausible accounts of how Boko Haram have come to be funded or supported by more powerful backers out of motives that have nothing to do with Islam, and we will come to those later. There are plausible accounts of how this dirt-poor area, deprived of political clout and personal prospects fell under the spell of radical Islam – in my view the disastrous disappearance of Lake Chad has been the prime mover in this respect, rendering entire towns economically useless. However, neither of these is an adequate response to what is driving the people responsible for shooting schoolboys while they sleep, flattening entire towns, kidnapping Christian schoolgirls and forcing their conversion. The people doing this are motivated by the Islamic doctrine of Jihad, both by their own account and in popular understanding here. This is not, at its heart, a political revolt, although the resources being used to sustain it are arguably drawn from this arena. The almost complete indifference of the Nigerian arm of Boko Haram towards foreign nationals living there (until the recent international circus whereupon it was announced that the group would look to kidnap us) is again a powerful augmentation to this point – this is not a group rebelling against the West per se, but rather attempting to assert its religious doctrines over a particular geographical area at gun tip. One more point – Boko Haram is not a cohesive organisation. It has at least four large, independent factions in Nigeria alone and the competition between these factions for the moral high ground, in their eyes, has been one of the main impediments to the Federal Government being able to co-opt the leadership with money or political influence. It is the fragmented nature of Boko Haram that in turn makes it very durable in a country where even the main opposition group is widely accused (and I am not competent to judge the veracity of the accusation) of being a front to extract money from the ruling party, President Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP.
[pullquote]Essentially the area is a savannah dotted with small trees…it would be very hard to conceal a large terrorist organisation here.[/pullquote]Now let us turn to the specific events around the kidnap of the schoolgirls that has outraged the world (and this outrage is no less deeply felt here, despite the population becoming jaded by the endless dribble of bad news from the North East). It has been widely reported that the terrorist group and the girls are concealed within the Sambisa Forest. The word ‘Forest’ evokes certain thoughts, not least the idea of a thick cover of vegetation that would make detection difficult when dealing with a skilled opponent armed with local knowledge. The truth is some way from this. The same climate phenomenon that has devastated Lake Chad has rendered the forest sparse. While vegetation can grow up to two meters tall, essentially the area is a savannah dotted with small trees. In other words, it would be very hard to conceal a large terrorist organisation here. So why have the girls not been found, and why, as US diplomats are hinting, is information that is passed to the Nigerian government not being acted on swiftly? To answer these questions, we need to take a step back and look at the much wider political picture.
A nation divided against itself
Nigeria is made up of three former British colonies – Northern Nigeria, Southern Nigeria and Lagos Colony. It contains around 350 ethnic groups, three huge ethnic groups (Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa), and 170m people. Two Nigerians of entirely different tribes meeting in a separate country will embrace like brothers irrespective of their status. In Nigeria, the social hierarchy is as terrible and fixed as feudalism, and the two would most likely not speak. Only outside of the country does a national identity exist as a foremost reference point – inside it, a person is a Hausa, a Muslim, and then a Nigerian, for instance.
This partly explains what the Westerner would describe as the awful corruption here. To Nigerian eyes, it is seldom corrupt. If given a government contract, you have a duty to your family, your town and your tribe to extract as much as possible from it, otherwise the money would go to an alien group who would probably use it to oppress you in some way. I remember reading, in the main business newspaper in Lagos, a scheme for national unity that effectively involved invading Mauritania. This splendidly impractical idea nevertheless has some explanatory power – the only reason why this huge country, blessed with a natural bounty and peopled by some of the most entrepreneurial people in the world has not become an empire in its own right is because it is so internally divided. If this were not so, I have no doubt that it could and would become the first African superpower – it has that much potential. Holding this country together is an immense undertaking. Democratic government is still young, but already it is in serious crisis. When the army relinquished power it was on the understanding that the President would serve no more than two terms, that the Presidency would rotate between the Christian South and the Muslim North when there was a change in President, and that the Vice-President would be from the opposite part of the country to the President. When the Southern President Obasanjo retired, he passed the reins on to the Northern President Yar’Adua who made President Jonathan his deputy. Unfortunately, only two and a half years into his first term, President Yar’Adua died. President Jonathan took over.
Then and now, this is enormously controversial. The North feels short changed. Having waited out President Obasanjo’s two terms, they had their man in power for only two years. They argue that in completing President Yar’Adua’s term, and then winning another term himself in the 2011 elections, President Jonathan has completed his term limit and it is now time for a Northerner. President Jonathan’s supporters want and expect him to run again in 2015. This is the prism through which all Nigerian political activity takes place. The army is a Northern institution. I have heard from those well placed that they came very close to launching a coup when Jonathan became President. Very close. They resent his determination to run again in 2015. He cannot rely on their support in the event of major social unrest. This is key to understanding what has been happening in the North East. Borno State is under martial law. There are checkpoints everywhere. It is inconceivable that nobody in the military in the state knew what was happening when those girls were abducted. The $100,000 question is how deep it runs. Are we dealing with an isolated incident whereby a local platoon, unpaid for who-knows-how-long were tipped off about an attack and decided that discretion was the better part of valour? Or are we dealing with a military tolerance of disorder where it contributes to the disgrace of the Presidency? I fear that the future of Nigeria as a united nation may hinge on the answer and we just don’t know, can’t know what it is.
The other unknown is the mood within the PDP. Here we are also stuck with an attitude that at first seems strange – when I speak to senior figures, they all assert that Boko Haram are being funded by the CIA. Why would the CIA wish to do this? As a means of taking control on Nigeria and her oil wealth, of doing the same thing in Africa that has been done, unsuccessfully, in the Middle East. It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But then I see the massed ranks of peaceful warriors in the studio armchairs of the UK and USA and I begin to wonder. After all, there is something disconcerting about the absolute determination shown by both to use this as a sort of casus belli. This is why the abduction of those poor girls is rooted not in a little local problem, but in the existential crisis facing Africa’s greatest and most important country. Can the presidency control the army? Will the West allow Nigeria to control itself? These are questions to which I do not know the answer. But they require a lot more of us than drone strikes and satellite surveillance – they require an honesty and a capacity for analysis which we seem to have lost. Writing as a Nigeria-phile, I hope that as well as understanding, we can also send our prayers.