Boko Haram: a tragic but very modern colonial theatre

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The continued violence that has characterised Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram, points to Western complicity, but also emphasises a deeper psychology at play: a deep fear of Africa and Islam, and a concerted effort to colonise both.

The continued violence and social media manipulation that has characterised Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram, points to Western complicity, but also emphasises a deeper psychology at play – a deep fear of Africa and Islam, and a concerted effort to colonise both.
 
(CC image courtesy of US Army Africa on Flickr)
 
The issue of Boko Haram in Nigeria demands closer examination and a far more level-headed approach than the theatre of events that it has become. This, not only for the sake of the schoolgirls that remain missing, and their families – but also for the sake of peace, to protect the resources that are key to the growth of Africa, by Africans and for Africans, and for the preservation of our human rights – not least of all, the right to practice our beliefs freely and without corrupting foreign influences.
 
But there is more at stake here. Nigeria’s chaotic and often bizarre battle with Boko Haram shines light on the way modern colonialism is working in Africa to create a need and a dependence, and most of all, to create fracture in a continent that in the eyes of the West, is way too powerful to become united.
In order for this colonisation to occur, the West’s perception of Africa must be manipulated. In this conflict, the personality of the current leader of Boko Haram, Abubaker Shekau, has become a larger-than-life construct and a key to how the West views Nigeria. Shekau is a kind of prime evil black man who taps into the deepest fears of the West, a quintessential mix of the modern era’s purported twin evils: that of Africa, and that of Islam. Driven in waves that repeat a pattern (a violent event where Boko Haram is blamed, followed by the due social media outcry/justification from Shekau, followed in turn by further demonising of Islam, followed by more fracturing of Nigerian society along racial and ethnic lines, and so on), Shekau’s appearances on the world stage (cue ‘YouTube’), vary from the poised religious leader, to a half ranting madman.
 
(There have even been suggestions by some wary Nigerian bloggers, that he is in fact many different men playing the same part; the Shekau with a different nose to the one before, the other who has a slightly gammy arm, and another with a slight squint are all different “Shekau’s” that have been spotted.)
 
Who stands to gain by this pattern of theatre and violence? On first look, current president Goodluck Johnathan. Steeped in corruption and deep in the oil companies’ pockets, he seems ready to glide into a second term amidst the chaos.
 
But behind him, in order to find the real beneficiaries, it’s necessary to follow the trail of oil – to the oil giants, their sponsor governments, and the more-than-ready private security agencies that guard their pipelines and now, increasingly, assist in a number of diverse and morally questionable security operations throughout the beleaguered country, and the broader continent.
 

The roots of Boko Haram

Boko Haram – real name Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad) – was founded in 1996 by Mohammad Yusuf, an introverted but charismatic ascetic, who wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate in the north-east of Nigeria, a poverty-stricken area with a Muslim majority. From the beginning, imams in Nigeria urged the government to open dialogue with his followers. Clerics such as the late Sheikh Auwal Adam Albani and the late Sheikh Sheikh Ja’afar Mahmud Adam (both now dead under mysterious circumstances – more on that later) kept talking to members of Boko Haram.
 
They urged Boko Haram towards non-violence and reason when it came to the group’s attitude to Western education (“boko”), which the group deemed to be haram, mainly due to the way human evolution was interpreted by the secular system, and around their concerns that fraternising between men and women in schools, often led to adulterous relations. These same leaders urged the government against aggressive action towards the group.
 
It is unclear who started the violence, but J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, author of a 2012 report called Boko Haram’s Evolving Threat, Yusuf had tried to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria by non-violent means initially. When Nigerian police began harassing and kidnapping the wives and children of Boko Haram members, conflict between state security police and Boko Haram escalated, with killings and kidnappings eventually happening on both sides.
 
In the beginning, under Yusuf, Boko Haram’s weapons were rudimentary and their goal simple: a caliphate in north-eastern Nigeria. The group had no international aspirations and no links to outside groups. In the ensuing clashes with police, they used poisoned arrows and tossed lit jerry cans from the backs of Okada (motorbikes). Violence against Boko Haram – in particular what NGOs termed “extrajudicial killings” (ie. murder) of members, reached such levels as to prompt the United States’ Department of Foreign Relations to “raise a red flag” . Amnesty International in the early 2000s accused Nigerian security of human rights abuses against Boko Haram.
 
In 2009, Yusuf was captured by police, and killed during interrogation. After Yusuf’s death, Shekau became the leader of Boko Haram. Shekau already had the attention of the United States. “He’s isolated, he’s increasingly extremist and he’s delusional enough to think he could bring down the Nigerian state,” wrote Pham in 2012.
 

How the game changed

Under Shekau, Boko Haram’s weapons suddenly became much more sophisticated – almost overnight they were able to design, manufacture and deploy bombs in buildings, and they thrummed about in Toyota Hi-Lux vehicles costing over a million naira. Terrible atrocities were committed, and whole villages wiped out. In 2011, the UN building in Abuja was bombed , and most notably attacks against churches, mosques and schools took place – all acts totally rejected in Islam.
 
Suicide attacks against civilian targets – also completely contrary to the teachings of Islam and according to founding member of the Taliban and former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef, never practiced by the Taliban under his watch – also took place. It was clear that money was coming from somewhere, and training, both of which drew increasing numbers of men disenchanted with rampant corruption – moral and monetary – and lack of work.
 
In 2012, the Nigerian government formed the Joint Task Force, a special force that continues to avenge Boko Haram attacks by burning and looting homes, and killing civilians. The JTF is notorious also in the Niger Delta, where they are paid and supported by multinational oil companies , most notably Shell. The JTF also works closely with private security agencies from a variety of multinational companies. We’ll come back to the oil giants in a moment.
 
In the same year, two Republican senators in the US introduced the Designation of Boko Haram as Terrorist Act, urging former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to adopt it. Clinton came under intense pressure to do so, but she refused. Her refusal drew political revenge earlier this year, when the conservative American press rounded on Clinton, casting heavy blame at her feet in the wake of the kidnappings.
 
But the reasons why Clinton refused were wise ones. At the time, the Nigerian government felt that if the US designated Boko Haram terrorist it would in fact draw too much attention to the group, giving it more justification; there was also a feeling that it would be ineffective since the group had no outside links that would affect bans on American business, and lastly, that it would mean aligning the US with one of the most atrocious armies in the world, well known its own human rights abuses. But the real reasons for her refusal may lie in a snippet of video that provides an interesting glimpse into her philosophy on US “counter-terrorism” policy, where she admits that the US itself created and funded al-Qaeda.
 

What’s going on now

Now, a glimpse into the north of Nigeria reveals a chaotic jumble of Boko Haram- JTF attacks and reprisals, and now, civilians arming themselves in vigilante groups. Most recently, 45 people died in a twin bombing in Maiduguri, when two rickshaws exploded. All have been blamed on Boko Haram, though no interviews with the group have been conducted, or claims of responsibility made so far. Boko Haram has recently been reported to be funding Chadian mercenaries, to take over the civil administration in Borno province.
 
There is also the question of arms – and those who stand to benefit from the ongoing violence. In September this year, South African customs officials investigated two Nigerians and an Israeli citizen who tried to bring US$9.3 million in hard cash into the country illegally. On questioning, the Nigerian crew said they were acting for the Nigerian intelligence services. South Africa’s City Press newspaper traced the plane with an American registration, to a company in Salt Lake City. Utah.
 
Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, Muhammad Sanusi, the emir of Kano – allegedly, according to the BBC” “one of Nigeria’s most influential Muslim leaders” but who until earlier this year served as governor of Nigeria’s central bank – called on people to defend themselves against attacks by Boko Haram. Police called it a "call for anarchy" and cautioned Nigerians from acting on it. Most recently, the Sultan of Sokoto Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, dubbed by The Telegraph as Nigeria’s “most senior Islamic leader” accused the military of fleeing when Boko Haram attacks and terrorising civilians.
 
This news all plays very nicely into the Western media lens of Africa: We crazy Africans are at it again. Our governments are corrupt, our armies inept, and so you better come in and colonise us, quick. But please, for the sake of success, make it look like you’re “helping” us.

United States policy towards Africa

The US’s AFRICOM programme came into being under George Bush in 2007. Marketed as “a military and humanitarian strategy”, AFRICOM immediately drew scepticism and resistance from African governments. Writing for the Concerned Group of African Scholars in 2007, Nigerian scholar Olayiwola Abegunrin put it like this: “AFRICOM is an example of US military expansion in the name of the war on terrorism, when it is in fact designed to secure Africa’s resources and ensure American interests on the continent. AFRICOM represents a policy of U.S. military-driven expansionism that will only enhance political instability, conflict, and the deterioration of state security in Africa.”
 
Coming in the guise of humanitarianism- hot on the heels, or sometimes even spearing military incursions and security interventions sold in the guise of assistance such as drones, are often a plethora of US-funded humanitarian groups and deceptively well-meaning NGOs that often succeed in opening the markets for US “investment” (loans at rates that hamstring the local economy and people and create dependencies that demoralise Africans of our innate capabilities to do things ourselves).
 
 
Most of the resistance to this has come from governments that have stood up against AFRICOM, and its associated agencies, most notably and controversially Muammar Qadafi’s Libya, the SADC back in the early 2000s (whose members refused to host AFRICOM in 2007), and various pan-African faith groups who have launched noble efforts to encourage transparency among African governments, and good governance for the people, by the people. African Americans at the time of the kidnappings, interestingly, were also sceptical of their government’s willingness to meddle in Nigeria .
 

AFRICOM loves corrupt governments. Divided and warring countries serve its interests. Its actions often conflagrate cultural, ethnic and religious peculiarities.”

 

Why would the US and its allies want to divide and militarily infiltrate Nigeria and the broader Sahel region including neighboring Cameroon? Three words: “colonial dominance” and “oil”.
It is easier to secure the oil – especially in the ruined Niger Delta where multinationals like Shell, BP and Esso, have drawn global outcry against their continued environmental exploitation of what was once pristine mangrove areas (the extent of which can be viewed here) – when a nation is broken into little pieces, too small to resist the force of a foreign multinational.
 
It is easier to bribe the government, and put ex-oil company employees in government. The oil companies support government militias like the JTF or private security companies, to brutally quell any local uprisings, and in the meantime because these uprisings themselves are fractured, a good deal of ethnic divisions are rooted out and stirred up. Companies like Shell have effectively dodged the International Criminal Court. In the Niger Delta particularly, the multinational essentially becomes the de facto government. The state is irrelevant. Workers’ rights have evaporated. The environment is a mess. It is a final dark vision of Western capitalism.
 
Dominance starts with business as usual. Wikileaks cables in 2009 already showed how Shell had infiltrated almost every level of Nigeria’s government and through a system of pay-offs and visa bribery, ensured that the state held no sovereignty. The corruption and ensuing violence prepared an easy passage for the modern Western “savior”.
 

When the truth comes out, good people die

“I am not convinced that what is happening now is being perpetrated by Boko Haram,” Sheikh Albani said in a radio interview in 2012, the transcript of which was published by the Nigerian Sunday Trust. “There are many possibilities. For example, investigation has revealed that over 90 percent of bomb blasts in churches and mosques in Pakistan are sponsored by agents of other countries. Is it not impossible for such a type of thing to happen here in Nigeria, because some such countries are predicting the collapse of Nigeria by 2015? If we are living peacefully, are we going to disintegrate? But if bombs continue to rain down on mosques and churches, are we not heading for disintegration? Therefore in a real sense, you can’t rule out a Western conspiracy and their representatives in Nigeria, on all that is happening in Nigeria today.”
 
Not long after this interview, Sheikh Albani was shot dead by unknown gunmen in front of his family on his way home from mosque. A week later Boko Haram stepped in to claim responsibility. Sheikh Ja’afar was also murdered in a targeted assassination while leading the prayers at his local mosque – the culprits remain at large.
 
At the beginning of this year, Mohammad Alban, an associate of Sheik Albani, said that powers intent on “redefining Islam in Nigeria” were behind the slaying of Albani and other Islamic clerics in Northern Nigeria. Alban also said the slain cleric was pursuing his second degree in engineering, and was highly passionate about encouraging young Muslims to seek both Islamic and Western education.
 

Social media must be treated with caution

 
Boko Haram and its alleged victims began appearing on social media in a gruesome campaign to stir up division in a society that for the most part – and despite trying economic circumstances – once demonstrated harmony between Christians and Muslims (and still, remarkably, does).
 
A taste of the deception of social media is clear with one Boko Haram hoax – a photo circulating Facebook allegedly depicting the burned bodies of “375 Christians” said to be the victims of Boko Haram. In fact, the photo indeed depicts charred bodies, but it is fakely attributed to Boko Haram. The bodies are actually the victims of a fuel explosion nearly 2000km from Nigeria, in the neighbouring DRC.
How did this photo find its way from a journalist reporting on a fuel explosion in the DRC, into the hands of someone intent on furthering the publicity campaign around Boko Haram? The answer to this question might provide some illuminating links in the chain of logistics that furthers the West’s War on Terror.
 
Either way, it’s a dirty, dirty media trick.
 
We should consider the possibility that the real culprits for the kidnappings lie far behind the #BringBackOurGirls social media noise. “Packaging strategic incentives with feminist motives and painting benevolent Westerners as the saviours of the childlike natives is an old tactic,” writes al-Jazeera America columnist Rafia Zakaria. “These colonial tropes were widely discussed during the United States’ more than decade-long presence in Afghanistan.”
 
(CC image courtesy of Xavier J. Peg on Flickr
 
Rather, Western feminists should be listening to what their sisters in Nigeria and South Africa, are saying. Which is: there is more to this “process” than meets the eye.
 
In the meanwhile, bloggers in Nigeria are asking crucial questions that are so far going unanswered: why did the Nigerian government fail to react when they had five hours advance warning of the “Boko Haram kidnapping”? Why is the issue fading from the Western media spotlight, while private military contractors stream into the country and arm the sky with drones? Who is responsible for the Boko Haram publicity/social media campaign – and why, given Nigeria’s relatively sophisticated but foreign-owned telecommunications infrastructure and given the fact that Boko Haram are capitalising on the publicity, are their voices not being blocked? In whose interests is it to keep the “theatre” alive?
 
Certainly not Nigeria’s. And not Africa’s either.

NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.

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