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The Bring Back Our Girls campaign in Nigeria has mushroomed into an international cause célèbre with very little understanding of nuance or complexity. It is impossible to argue that Boko Haram is not a threat to peace in Africa, but some are insisting that they share insidious rhizomal roots with other political and social aspects in the region. While US drones search the land for the missing girls, political upheaval sets the backdrop for a possible turning point in Nigerian history.
According to the World Bank, “Income distribution also worsened [in Nigeria in recent years]. If not for worsening income distribution national poverty would have declined by 13.6 percent rather than 8.9 percent. Growth was not equally shared by different parts of the country; growth was fastest in southern and middle agroclimatic zones, with much slower growth in northern states. This resulted in the largest number of poor people in northern regions.” The northern regions of Nigeria, which are predominantly Muslim, are not poor in and of themselves; as the Bank claims, the income gap has increased, while economic growth persists. According to experts, the North remains dominated by a military class that has accrued great status and a dominating political influence in Nigeria since the Civil War of 1967-1970.
According to Amnesty International, the Nigerian military knew about the attack in Chibok that led to the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls. Officials had four hours notice, and sent no troops, according to several interviewees. This confusion is redoubled by the fact that Boko Haram members have begun wearing military uniforms. However, it is not the first time prior notice has been ignored. Major-General Isah (currently retired) is currently facing the threat of a court martial, because he allegedly had prior knowledge about an attack against the Military Protestant Church in Jaji that caused more than 20 deaths.
While suspicions abound about the military’s connections to Boko Haram, current Army Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Onyeabor Azubuike Ihejirika, is from the South, and has been accused by other army members of deploying more Southern officers who have an ethnic agenda against Boko Haram. Ihejirika defended his actions—particularly the deployment of an ethnically Igbo General to head operations—by insisting, “Every nation has its faultlines and I can say it is these faultlines that are being exploited by faceless groups to cause more problems for Nigerians. I believe they would have identified the fact that the Nigerian army is one of the few institutions that will stand in defence of this country, come rain, and come sunshine.” It was even joked that members of the army would start “Igbonizing” their names, so that they could fulfill the suspicions of the press.
On one side, suspicion that sectors of the army in the North are connected to members of Boko Haram feeds worries that increasing military support in Nigeria may end up helping the organization; on the other side, intervention adds kindling to the concern that the missing girls are a smokescreen for ethnically-motivated attacks against the North. This double movement between assisting terrorists and feeding ethnic rivalries was already prefigured by the war in Mali, where the ironic slogan for involvement was “Today it’s Mali, tomorrow it’s Nigeria.” If al-Qaeda could take over Mali, jingoists insisted, Islamists would be storming into Nigeria next. Although he expressed total opposition to the coup regime at first, President Jonathan, himself, eventually rattled sabers for Nigerian intervention, insisting that Boko Haram members were being trained by al-Qaeda in Mali. Yet after the defeat of Islamists and Tuareg separatists in Mali, Boko Haram has only seemed to grow stronger, while the Nigerian military (the dominant ECOWAS force in Mali) seems demoralized and overstretched today.
Indeed, intervention in Mali may have precipitated today’s intervention in Nigeria in three crucial ways: it arguably weakened the Nigerian army while feeding the power of the generals and valorizing the reach of NATO. Strife in Mali handed the US a fillip to build a new drone base in Niger—a base that is growing and currently in use in the search for the girls. One might think that NATO is using Boko Haram to strengthen military rule in Nigeria, but if members of the military and Boko Haram are intertwined, the question becomes: “Which military rule is the US enforcing?”
Already, this dispensation seems too easy—a bit too much like a conspiracy theory. What becomes apparent is that the situation in Nigeria is increasingly similar to Afghanistan, where the US has been blundering for so many years in support of some terrorist organizations against others, switching sides, disrupting relations between Pakistan and India, while accidentally opening up the space for increasing investment from other global powers in the chaotic mop-up of the troop withdrawal.
Alleged connections between Boko Haram and the institutionalized Islamic political strati in the North have also complicated religious conflict. Recently, Bishop Oke of Sword of the Spirit Ministries declared that the Muslim political leaders of the North support Boko Haram. Pointing directly at Emirs and even Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar, Sultan of Sokoto (arguably the most powerful religious leader in Nigeria). While Abubakar has denounced deadly massacres executed by Boko Haram last year, Oke insists that he has more power than he lets on. According to Oke, key officials in the North, such as Governor Shettima of Borno State, know the location of Boko Haram insurgents, but are trying to destabilize the rule of Jonathan. “People are playing politics with the blood of Christians,” Oke maintains, “This is Islamic Jihad.” For his part, Shettima recently derided Jonathan’s extension of a state of emergency in Borno State, but declared that he would sacrifice his life to find the missing girls.
The Sky Is the Limit
The goal of NATO involvement in this divisive conflict is opaque. As in Afghanistan, there are too many loose ends in the dominant narrative of “stopping radical Islam.” The establishment of hegemony over resources seems the most cogent objective. The US and France may want to secure newly-found oil reserves in Yola, Bida, Sokoto, Dahomey, and other northern states, while also building Cecil Rhodes-like infrastructure. Shell, Elf, and Chevron attempted to drill in the Benue Trough between Bauchi and Gombe in the 1990s, but allegations of sabotage accompanied the abandonment of the project. Indeed, oil companies have been flirting with the North for decades, and may be seizing the domino-effect of intervention to firm up their stance.
Late last year, as Sokoto was urged to expedite exploration of found oil reserves in the state, Civil Service Commission chairman Alhaji Muhitaba Ahmed declared to Governor Aliyu Wamakko, “With the oil discovery in the state the sky is the limit for additional meaningful developments that you have embarked on.” The reserves are being explored by NNPC, which is owned by the 19 northern states and was called out in December for embezzling $20 billion dollars (the only punishment doled out went to the bank official who blew the whistle). Naturally, the global energy industry is currently touting “the right to electricity for all” as the main justification for “developing” oil and gas and advancing fossil fuel infrastructure—the very same promise offered by Enron to India, among other places—but interests in northern resources are multifarious and complex.
Hollande’s administration has been parsimonious in doling out budget aid to developing African countries, relying on concessional loans similar to World Bank credits directed towards long-term infrastructure, not to countries in crisis. Key recipients in 2012 were Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mauritania, and Niger. In a speech given on March 1 of that year, in the wake of the invasion of Libya, Hollande asked the pressing question, “Can France maintain a development policy, in spite of the economic difficulties that it is going through?”
However, the argument is made that long-term infrastructural capacity can only come with a guarantee of peace. Hence, within a year after Hollande’s speech, France’s “interests” would be firmly ensconced in Libya, Mali, and Central African Republic. Building infrastructure like pipelines and railways may bring some popularity, but likely as much polarization as well—particularly if the infrastructure serves what is seen as a neo-colonial network of Franco-US hegemony from Libya to Mali and much of the west coast through Niger, Algeria, Nigeria, CAR, and into Chad and South Sudan. As is consistent with Counterinsurgency literature, “development policy” is the velvet glove on the iron fist of intervention that has marked the heavily-militarized phase of the African Land Grab beginning in 2011 with the invasion of Libya.
If new infrastructure emerges that serves extractive industry and the “free market” of NATO countries rather than internal development (not to mention the pollution that oil extraction could cause in critical riparian areas around Sokoto), a Pan-African uprising against Western Imperialism could be on the horizon—not unlike the Bolivarian Revolution, which swelled against not only the extraction of raw materials, but infrastructure pushing it out of the continent without compensation. Although Nigeria’s most notorious anti-extraction organization, MEND, has remained relatively silent since the amnesty agreements, rising piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has terrorized oil and shipping companies operating in the region. It is feasible that, if it brings greater clout to the power structures of the North, NATO’s interventions against Boko Haram could strengthen the rebels in the South who resent the North’s political domination. Either way, intensification of conflict in Nigeria does not bode well for stability in the region.
Alexander Reid Ross is co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of the forthcoming Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). His work can also be found in Life During Wartime: Resistance Against Counterinsurgency (AK Press 2013).