In the village of Kalabalge, in the northern Nigerian state of Borno, the people struck back. While politicians dithered and activists twittered, the people of Kalabalge armed themselves and took the fight to their enemies, ambushing a Boko Haram convoy en route to attack their village. At least forty-one Boko Haram militants were killed and ten were captured as the villagers surprised two trucks carrying militants. Armed with rifles, machetes and bows, the brave people of Kalabalge did what the Nigerian military could not and sent Boko Haram off howling.
We are conditioned to think of “activism” as getting someone else to do something. We plead with elected officials and bureaucrats, prodding them to take action. But the best and most effective activism is when we take matters into our own hands and solve our problems — or strike at our enemies — ourselves. In Mexico’s Michoacan province, the people rose against the Knights Templar cartel, driving them off with such alacrity that the Mexican government has given up attempts to suppress the vigilantes and now hopes to suborn them, turning them from a natural manifestation of the people’s wrath into another arm of the criminal state. We pray they resist the attempt.
And now in Nigeria, the people are rising. While the rest of the world responded to Boko Haram’s vicious crimes with hashtags and selfies, the people of Kalabalge responded with bullets and machetes, taking their lives and their families into their own hands. To defend oneself is to learn to rely on oneself; in self-defense courses, we learn confidence in our own strength and power as much as we learn specific techniques for defeating assailants. Boko Haram reacted the way bullies have reacted from time immemorial to suddenly emboldened victims — they turned tail and ran, leaving their dead and wounded behind like the cowards they always were.
In America, the imperial center, we too must learn to act directly against the bullies in our midst, against the forces of the empire. These actions need not be direct, violent confrontation — although those who do choose to engage their oppressors directly deserve our respect. In the anti-war movement over the last fourteen years, many consciousness-raising, fund-raising and feel-good events have been held, but the most effective activism I’ve seen has taken two forms — discouraging enlistment, known as “counter-recruiting,” and encouraging soldiers currently in the military to get out. Both are much more challenging than holding a sign at a rally, requiring us to get to know the people we are trying to reach and to offer them a good alternative to the military, which is one of the last places left in our society where any able-bodied young person can get a secure job with good pay and benefits. But both get results that matter, denying grist to the imperial mill, forcing the managers of the imperial state to spend more time and money on finding and retaining soldiers and less on killing and maiming others.
Talking to a classroom in an inner city high school about alternatives to the military is not as dramatic as ambushing a Boko Haram convoy in Nigerian jungle in the middle of the night, but both actions share one key aspect — neither involves begging power for mercy and comfort. Rather, both take on the enemy directly, confronting personally the mechanisms of oppression and violence. If we are going to be saved, we must follow the bold example of the people of Kalabalge, and save ourselves.
Jonathan Carp is a fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He works as a nurse in Tacoma, WA.