Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Understanding Boko Haram: A Theology of Chaos

A kingdom can endure with unbelief, but it cannot endure with injustice.

                                                                            Uthman Dan Fodio 

Three weeks ago, Boko Haram, the ultraviolent Islamic militant group rose like a phoenix from hell from the ashes of its defeat last year by the Nigerian military. In Maiduguri, Borno State, they carried out motorcycle-borne ride-by shootings targeted at police officers and other law enforcement agents. In Bauchi, they stormed a federal prison and set free hundreds of their members as well as other inmates and threatened reprisals against those they accused of persecuting their members. Obviously, the military did not defeat Boko Haram last year when a five-day long clash ended with the extrajudicial execution in police custody of Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s leader. Although scores of the militants were killed or rounded up, several also escaped, simply melting into surrounding environs. According to the State Security Service, Boko Haram has 540,000 members. A group with that numerical strength cannot be wiped out by the strategy of decapitation traditionally used by states to cripple dissident groups. Decapitation as a strategy is simply targeting dissident leaders for elimination as a means of exterminating their rebellion from the very top. The resurgence of Boko Haram makes clear that the military operation against it was only moderately successful.

The emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of Northern Nigeria. But the group itself is an effect and not a cause; it is a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos. Think of Boko Haram and other extremist groups of its kind as bacterial cultures. We must understand the Petri dish in which they have been cultivated. In order to appreciate the peculiar resilience of such groups, we must grasp the socio-political and economic conditions of the north. Northern Nigeria is a seething mass of illiteracy, misery, poverty and beggary. While Nigeria generally scores very poorly on every index of human development, Northern Nigeria sinks below the abysmal national average to the extent that a child born in the northwest or in the northeast is likely to have a lower quality of life than a compatriot born in the southwest or southeast. 

The news headlines in recent months portray only a part of the north’s mosaic of human suffering. Since the beginning of the year, lead poisoning has steadily decimated children in villages in Zamfara State, where they have been forced by poverty to engage in illegal mining. Cholera, a water-borne plague eradicated by the early 20th century has reached epidemic proportions in the north where it has killed hundreds. The recent outbreak has been called the worst in twenty years and according to the Federal Ministry of Health now poses a threat to the rest of the country. Cholera is rife in the north because of the lack of potable water and flooding. In addition, the southward surge of the Sahara is claiming many natural water bodies forcing rural folk to resort increasingly to contaminated water sources.      

In 2006, Borno State Governor Ali Modu Sheriff told broadcasters that he was not bothered by criticisms of his administration in the print media because 95 percent of the people in the state cannot read and write. In any case, he added, less than 2 percent of Borno residents have access to newspapers. The governor’s press people later clarified that what he had meant to say was that radio and television were the dominant media in the state. To discerning ears impervious to spin-doctoring, it sounded as if Governor Sheriff had been glorying in the illiteracy level of his people and boasting of its utility as a political weapon. Mahmud Shinkafi, the current governor of Zamfara achieved infamy in 2002 when as Deputy Governor he pronounced a fatwa urging Muslims to kill Isioma Daniel, a Thisday reporter, for alleged blasphemy. Despite the acute humanitarian crisis of the north, its leading politicians have been preoccupied in recent months with how to clinch presidential power in 2011 and how to negotiate favourable niches in a post-2011 political reality.  Clearly the priorities of the so-called northern political elites are not in consonance with the realities of their people.

These facts are necessary to provide an insight into the prevailing political psychology in the north. Boko Haram is the consequence incarnate of misrule by delinquent political elites. It is a creature of state failure demonstrating the decline of our institutions in all its unvarnished ugliness. Despite the fact that the sect sent a widely publicized letter warning of its militant intentions, its attacks still surprised law enforcement agencies. The diminished intelligence capabilities of the government, the ease with which the militants struck at the federal prison and the group’s boldness in attacking federal agents since 2005 all indicate the waning strength of the Nigerian state. Elsewhere in the federation a range of embryonic insurgencies exist in the form of militant groups in the Niger Delta and kidnap gangs in the south east, and they intimate us of the fact that the Nigerian state no longer has the means to impose its will on this country; it no longer has a monopoly over the coercive instruments that underwrite the state’s rule and indemnify it against sedition or dissidence. Boko Haram is the terrifying face of this reality in northern Nigeria. It is the harbinger of incipient chaos.      

Boko Haram is an extremist group but it transcends the traditional extremist victimization of Christians in pursuit of grander anarchic ambitions. Its war is with the Nigerian state and western education which it perceives as a vector of the corrupting influence of modernity. Its ultimate objective is some version of an Islamic state, preferably of 7th century vintage. In this, it closely resembles Maitatsine, the violent extremist cult that inaugurated the bloody era of religious terrorism in the north in the early 1980s. But Boko Haram is itself only a part of the picture. The social conditions that permit its existence are rife across the country. Millions of unschooled and unskilled able-bodied young men reside in our cities and towns and provide a ready pool of malcontents for extremist recruitment. Even among the educated unemployed, the crisis of unemployment in Nigeria where 40 million youths are jobless makes them vulnerable to sectarian preachments. Into this breach, groups like Boko Haram enter offering a theological framework of social analysis: rampant poverty and existential meaninglessness emanate from the Nigerian state and its unislamic provenance; from the presence of western education and the intrusion of modernity into an Islamic society. Boko Haram imparts to its members a sense of purpose and mission as warriors for the cause of God ordained to cleanse the society of moral impurities and establish an alternate order.

In a failed or failing state, religion is particularly prone to perversion. The role of the state is to protect humanity from assault by the elemental forces of nature through the institution of law and order. Where the state is derelict, religion is often the likeliest agency people turn to for interpreting the vagaries of their existence. This is what has happened in Nigeria. The explosion of sectarian violence in northern Nigeria coincided with four developments in the eighties – the collapse of the Second Republic which signaled the failure of politics and a popular loss of faith in politicians; Babangida’s imposition of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) which eliminated state subsidies, and through untrammeled trade liberalization wiped out local enterprises (especially the major textile industries and tanneries of the north) thereby eliminating jobs; the Babangida regime’s unhelpful religious politicking as evinced by its surreptitious dealings with the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) which gave the impression that it was a pro-Muslim regime and inflamed sectarian suspicions; and the collapse of the agrarian communities of Nigeria’s northern neighbours, Niger and Chad due to massive plagues of drought and desertification, spewing huge numbers of refugees into northern Nigerian cities where they fell into the void of extremism. Niger and Chad are essentially failed states and represent bleak prophecies of what could eventually befall northern Nigeria.

Even now, as desertification and drought devastate vast swathes of the north, a convergence of ecological, economic and social adversities is occurring. When rural areas lose ancestral farmland to the onslaught of the Sahara desert, huge numbers of disinherited young men flood northern towns and cities in search of jobs. In some places they become commercial motorcycle riders known as Achaba who now number about three million in the Kano metropolis; otherwise they swell the ranks of the urban underclass and most wind up on the margins of society from where they become easy recruits for politicians looking to build private armies or for roaming bands of outlawed extremists or bandits. Note that in the southeast where gully erosion has devastated rural communities, young men dispossessed of any means of livelihood make for the urban areas where many sadly enlist in the underworld. It is permissible to argue a direct link between the ecological degradation of rural areas and the uptick in urban crime and terrorism that has gripped south eastern metropolises.

These instances tell us that the umbrella of the Nigerian state is in tatters and while a derelict political class continues its self-indulgence, dispossessed Nigerians are embarking on the path of self-help by any means at their disposal. Religion is one of those means. It is tempting to argue that this pattern of perverse religiousity is something unique to the north and attributable to its Islamic heritage. This is untrue. Consider the neo-Pentecostal cults in Akwa Ibom that engage in torture of suspected child witches. In these communities, pastors or exorcists are engaged by poverty-stricken parents to seek out the witches in their household. Children are tortured, found guilty of witchcraft and banished from home from which point onwards they fall prey either to early death or sexual slavery and maltreatment as victims of child-trafficking. In a failed or failing state, religion assumes the role of locating scapegoats to explain social conditions of misery. In the north, Boko Haram blames the presence of western education and the Nigerian state itself; other extremists blame it on the presence of Christians or infidels, just as in some other parts it is blamed on the presence of non-indigenes, infidels or strangers. In parts of Akwa Ibom, defenceless children are the scapegoats for material conditions of poverty.

The view that Islam is solely to blame for religious violence in the north is simplistic for another reason. The south has a very substantial Muslim population (particularly in the southwest and parts of Edo state) and records very little of the sort of sectarian bloodletting that periodically grips the north. The region’s acceptance of western education and, especially, Obafemi Awolowo’s single-minded insistence on free education freed many communities from the yoke of illiteracy, boosted the technical capacity of the western region and created a vibrant middle class. Economic security meant that religious affiliation could not be the primary social identity in the region. Lagos State, for instance, has only ever had one democratically elected Christian governor – Sir Michael Otedola, who served in the short-lived Third Republic. Yet, this has never been an issue in Lagos politics. Compare this with Kaduna State where Governor Patrick Yakowa is the first Christian to occupy that position, despite the considerable Christian demographic presence in the state. His ascension to that office this year was attended with uneasy novelty, tension and fears of sectarian violence from some Muslims who saw his rise as a loss of power.  

The difference is that religion is at the centre of northern life. Matters of faith are synonymous with political allegiances. The north, historically hobbled by its cultural resistance to western education, experienced the absence of technical capacity and a lack of readiness for the demands of a modern economy, for which it had to compensate by accommodating southerners and expatriates. According to B.J. Dudley in his seminal work, Instability and Political Order, deep-seated resentment of the educated, technically-savvy southerners who formed the urban merchant middle class of the north was the source of ethnic violence in the region between the 1940s and 1960s. He argued that these explosions of inter-tribal animosity were also (indeed, primarily) class conflicts pitting wealthy southerners against the northern urban underclass. This thesis remains valid. Storefronts in commercial districts are specifically targeted during bouts of rioting by the armies of vagrants and juvenile delinquents that roam northern cities and towns. This kind of “ethno-religious” violence stems from cultural hysteria – the angst of communities who are unprepared for a modern social economy, who have been raised to be deeply antagonistic of modernity and who consider themselves assailed by outsiders as a result.  Young males are socialized to see themselves as victims and then to react as aggressors. Their rage is inevitably directed at presumed alien influences in their communities, often people of other faiths and ethnicities. Supremacist ideologies rooted in inferiority complexes gain increasing audience.

Without the skills necessary to access opportunities in the current socio-economic equation, the people are left with nothing but their religion as their sole resource and are thus vulnerable to all the monstrous mutations of faith that are liable to manifest in a climate of ignorance, corruption and economic inequality. Such alienation feeds the burgeoning subculture of violence embodied by street gangs like the Yan Daba in Kano and Sara Suka in Bauchi. The political imperatives are clear. The north in educational and socio-economic terms is a disaster area comparable to the ecologically devastated Niger Delta. Both zones are theatres of human and environmental carnage wrought by rapacious elites. Northern politicians have singularly failed to invest in education and to fast track infrastructural development in the region. Indeed, over the years, northern elites have cultivated the impression that illiteracy and ignorance are part of northern identity; that part of what it means to be a northerner is to be illiterate, in order to facilitate their own positions as political protectors of their victimized people. Even the Koranic education system is dysfunctional and is mainly mass-producing millions of almajiris – the street children that are fixtures in virtually every northern town and city.

This is a travesty of the region’s history and heritage. Northern Nigeria has a long-lived tradition of learning and literacy. Uthman Dan Fodio’s jihad was not only aimed at purifying Islam but also at replacing the rule of materialistic potentates with that of scholars. A comparable analog is Plato’s idealized government by philosopher-kings. But Northern-dominated anti-intellectual military regimes from the mid-eighties onward reduced the region to a crypt of learning. Anti-intellectualism is now promoted as being synonymous with Islam – a strange proposition since the religion gave the world gifts of insight in the sciences, astronomy, medicine and mathematics especially algebra. We still use Arabic numerals as the mathematical medium for explaining the physical universe.  In the north, there persists a residual antagonism of the so-called Yan Boko – western-educated northerners “who have forgotten their roots.” This obdurate resistance to education and glorification of illiteracy remains along with elite kleptomania, the region’s greatest obstacle to progress and the leading vector of sectarian violence and poverty.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the British colonialists and the Fulani aristocracy conspired to block the spread of western education in the north. The British wanted to avoid what had transpired in southern Nigeria where the ready acceptance of education had created a generation of anti-colonial nationalist agitators. They also wanted to avoid the emergence of educated Islamists of the sort that were then challenging their rule in Egypt. The British understood that western education would upset the conservative feudal social order over which their allies, the emirs ruled and would ultimately endanger colonialism itself. The Fulani aristocracy objected to western education because they feared that its Christian missionary purveyors would gain inroads into their domains.

Herein lies the source of the historic schism between northern and southern Nigeria. It was not political in the beginning but educational, technical and thus socio-economic. The northern elites of the independence era led by Ahmadu Bello necessarily saw their roles as slowly opening their society to modernity while preserving it from domination by the southerners who were better prepared for the rigours of a modern economy. Today, it is fair to say that the general antipathy to western education in the north has been sustained by political elites who understand that psychological subservience is best perpetuated in a climate of ignorance and fear. By using the bogey of southern domination and manipulating religious and cultural symbols, northern politicians have been able to maintain their access to power. Decades ago, the leftist academic Bala Usman extensively critiqued what he accurately identified as the elite manipulation of religion for economic and political advantage.

Boko Haram and other extremist groups of its ilk have also emerged in the context of a yawning political vacuum in the north. Forty years ago, the poor of the north at least had champions like the great Mallam Aminu Kano and his Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and later the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP). Mallam Kano, a scion of the ruling class was an ardent advocate of the talakawa and made it his life’s cause to terminate the conservative power structures that he deemed responsible for their poverty. He championed education, women’s rights and the social emancipation of a people bent double under the yoke of feudal oppression. He used Islam as a liberating ideology against the preachments of those who used Islam as an ideology of subjection of the masses and women. In his excellent study, Ethnic Politics in Nigeria, Okwudiba Nnoli details how the British colonialists colluded with their local confederates in the 1950s to deny NEPU its electoral victory using thuggery, chicanery and intimidation.

In the years since the early eighties when Mallam Kano died, the fortunes of northern progressives have waned. There has been no other northern (or for that matter, Nigerian) politician of comparable iconic status and moral authority. The machinations of conservative opponents and military dictators ensured that the northern progressive movement was reduced to its entrails. No politician and certainly none of his prominent disciples have risen to claim Aminu Kano’s mantle. In the absence of a progressive opposition to the conservative ruling elite, a dangerous vacuum has grown in northern politics. The talakawa may have lost their political champions but this is not to say that they are completely voiceless. It is this vacuum created by the neutralization of progressive forces that extremist cults are now seeking to fill. It is their advocacy of the cause of the poor and their opposition to social injustice that lends these groups their appeal. Boko Haram and allied groups represent a potent if erroneous critique of the delinquent state and its dysfunctional leadership culture.

            Boko Haram’s actions cast some light on our institutional failings. Their assault on the federal prison in Bauchi may even be seen as an escalated protest against a travesty of justice. 70 percent of Nigeria’s prison population is awaiting trial. The justice system is over-burdened, beset by corruption, manpower shortages and other plagues. Keeping Nigerians in detention without trial indefinitely does not serve the cause of justice. From their point of view, Boko Haram simply liberated their brethren from illegal captivity by state agencies. If suspected terrorists cannot be charged to court and successfully convicted, then it is the fault of the state.
In a sense, the Boko Haram saga is also about chickens coming home to roost. For years, northern politicians paid lip-service to anti-Christian violence wrought by homicidal zealots. It was as though some secret diabolical transaction stipulated that Christian lives be used to placate the violent extremists to stop them from turning their attentions to their leaders. Emergent groups like Boko Haram, Kalo Kato among others are sectarian zealots like their forebears but have now arrogated to themselves the right to determine who or what is “Islamic.” To that extent, the double-edged sword of extremism is now aimed precipitously at the jugular of the northern ruling classes. It remains to be seen if northern politicians understand the catastrophic potentials of the Frankenstein monster that they have created; whether they can act to stamp out the homicidal pathologies festering along the margins of their society.
A few things can be done to arrest the slide into anarchy. The federal government should establish special tribunals mandated to deal expeditiously with cases of sectarian violence and terrorism. The capabilities of security agencies in terms of intelligence gathering and early warning systems should be enhanced. The operational conditions and capacities of the police mobile units, the army and other paramilitary agencies should be enhanced with respect to addressing urban terrorism and guerilla warfare. From all indications, our security forces are not yet attuned to the operational nuances of suburban counter-insurgency and conventional military approaches result in great collateral loss of life and property. Our northern borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon are notoriously porous and have to be secured against the influx of weapons and would-be extremists and fanatics from these countries.
However, the greatest task lies in the domain of politics and public policy. The fact is that vast areas of the north are conducive to crime and insurgency. So too are the scores of decaying urban centres across Nigeria left desolate after the collapse of social services and public utilities in the late eighties and early nineties.  There needs to be serious commitment at the highest levels of government to address the entropic conditions incubating groups like Boko Haram. It might require some kind of federal intervention especially in the areas of education and healthcare and greater pressure on northern elites to develop the region. Without this, Nigeria could find itself battling with an insurgency in the north in addition to its manifold challenges. And unlike Niger Delta militants who are at least open to negotiating with the state, the absolutist extremist groups in the north want nothing except the very destruction of the state itself.  
Superior bullets, bombs and spies alone will not defeat extremism. Terrorism as a form of protest beckons to a generation of youths who see that they are destined to live and die in poverty and deprivation. Their present is bleak and their future is uncertain. Thus, they take refuge in a manufactured past, a mythical 7th century Islamic Utopia into which they seek to forcibly induct the rest of the society. For these alienated legions, life is a more frightening prospect than death so presumed martyrdom has an allure because it offers a post-mortem status that exceeds anything that Nigeria can currently offer them.  Such cults threaten national security because they virulently oppose the pluralism, tolerance and civic mutuality generated by the very existence of the Nigerian nation. Their ideologies are by nature exclusionary accommodating only one perspective. Our national ideal, even if observed mostly in the breach for much of our history, is inclusion. Furthermore civic solidarity is undermined when a growing number of Nigerians aspire to relocate to the 7th century while the rest strive to master the 21st century. It is worse when these mutually exclusive aspirations occur along geographical lines.

Ultimately, we must redefine the notion of Nigerian citizenship in such a way that it provides a framework of civic purpose and welfare for every citizen. Being a Nigerian must offer a measure of existential meaning for Nigerians otherwise disaffected millions will seek definition in narrow, exclusive and polarizing sectarian identity constructs. The only cure for extremism is an umbrella of psychological, social and economic security spread over the nation by a socially responsible state, one that sees its role as guaranteeing the common good. Constructing such a state is the most urgent task of leadership today.     

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