Hollande’s Recent Trip to Nigeria

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan started his re-election campaign early this year. For some, it was a little too early.

Elections are set to proceed next year, and opposition parties assert that the campaigning season has not begun yet. In fact, the opposition has not even picked a candidate. However, Jonathan has begun to tour the opposition’s strongholds in the North, around Niger State, Sokoto, Kwara, and Murtala Muhammed Square in Kaduna last Wednesday.

Controversially, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, has not intervened. The National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), an alliance of three opposition groups, claims, “It is like an umpire in a football match who has allowed a team to score a goal using their hands… it is too late.”

According to civil rights activist, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa: “The commission has become like a toothless bull dog that is only barking and cannot bite. Otherwise, what is the essence of INEC making rules that it cannot enforce or implement? And if this is the trend now, pre-2015 election, only God can say what will become of 2015, when the real election comes.” Adegboruwa’s sentiments stoke fears in many of a return to the trauma of the 2011 electoral violence that struck Nigeria, leading to three days of riots in 12 northern states, the deaths of 800 people, and the displacement of 65,000.

Jonathan’s whirlwind campaign has accumulated critical allies in these troubled northern regions. Jega, himself, is Hausa Fulani, the predominant ethnic group in much of the northwest. The former governor of the important northern state of Sokoto, Attahiru Bagarawa, has also joined Jonathan in insulting his former opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, a military leader with a large, fervent following in the north. But Buhari is not the favored leader of the opposition for next year’s election; instead, a Senator from Kwara, Bukola Saraki, appears poised to contend for the country’s highest office.

Analyst Obina Akukwe suggests that Jonathan’s moves in Nigeria’s northern regions are sending a message: he will win the election regardless of the voting (with the INEC in his pocket), and the northern states will be his subjects again whether they like it or not. If Jonathan is not elected, militants in the Niger River Delta have threatened retribution against the north.

Former Head of State and resident of Kaduna, General Muhammadu Buhari compared Nigeria’s elections to a hound and a monkey engaged in a gory battle for survival. Last month, Niger River Delta militant Mujahedeen Asari-Dokubo replied, somewhat strangely, “If they say the blood of the dogs and the baboon will be soaked in water on the street, in blood on the street, in salt water on the street, we will help them soak them in blood.” Asari-Doku was promptly arrested for making inciting comments under the demands of the APC.

Land Deals and Violence along the Niger River

In Wednesday’s speech in Kaduna, Jonathan called the APC an admixture of vitriolic chemicals, and told the organization to dip its collective head in a septic tank. Such acrimonious discourse adds fuel to fears of political conflicts in a region that is already plagued by violence. Only three days later, attacks against three different villages in the area led to the deaths of between 100 and 200 people.

With a long and complicated pre-colonial history of diverse, interconnected governmental systems—including the 100-year year reign of the Sokoto Caliphate—Northern Nigeria is both politically and economically, as well as ethnically, distant from the mostly-Christian South. During the military dictatorship of Ibrahim Babangida in the 1980s, control over the crucial Sokoto State was attempted by the appointment of Ibrahim Dasuki to the Sultanate, which wields considerable influence over the region. In 1996, a change in dictatorships brought by General Sani Acacha led to Dasuki’s replacement with more-popular Muhammadu Maccido, who died in a plane crash nearly 10 years later.

The current Sultan of the Caliphate, Ca’adu Abubakar, was most recently on hand during the first conference of the Muslim World League ever held in Africa. Significantly held in Sokoto, rather than historic rival, Kebbi State, the conference highlighted issues of peace and unity amongst the areas Sunni Muslims. But peace has been a difficult subject in the Sahel, where drastic moves for food security are contributing to instability.

Though 95 percent of Nigeria’s income comes from oil, most of its northern population lives off of farming. An estimated 80 percent of Sokoto’s residents sustain themselves through agriculture along the alluvial plains of the Sokoto-Rima river system that descends from the North into the Niger River. After a draught in the 1970s, a state-run organization called the Sokoto River Basin Project modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority was created to irrigate and farm the region. However, numerous dams from the era lie disused and unfinished, due in no small part to political turmoil. In 2008, a controversial project to irrigate the Rima in the Kebbi State led 1,000 enraged farmers to engage in open hostilities against the Deputy Governor and Emir.

Four years later, 25,000 hectares (approximately 100 square miles) of Rima basin “fadama land” in Sokoto was granted to Swiss agricultural company, Novel Management Services, to grow 200,000 tons of milled rice per year. Such intensive monoculture requires much water, which some see as an opportunity to make full use of the dam infrastructure currently in disuse. However, farmers’ organizations have pointed out that dams hurt some farmers while helping others, and can harm fish populations and biodiversity. Standardization of rice cultivation may make the produce more marketable, but it remains to be seen how much of the rice will remain in Nigeria. Furthermore, the Swiss company’s promises to employ 10,000 Nigerians in the operation appear optimistic at best.

Adding to suspicion surrounding European land deals, the same year as Novel Management Services jumped into Sokoto, near-by Kwara State announced that it would grant 20,000 hectares to Vasolar Consortium of Spain to grow and process rice for the free market—a 340 million euro deal spanning four years. The only problem is that Vasolar doesn’t appear to exist; there is no appearance of the group in any agreement other than the one with Kwara State, and it is not registered or recognized by the Spanish Chamber of Commerce. An investigation is currently underway.

Another concern, beyond corruption and duplicity, is civil unrest. It is precisely these kinds of land grabs that have borne troubling political consequences—for example, further upstream along the Niger River in Central Mali where a joint Libyan-Chinese venture called Malibya has cut a 20 mile canal out of the river to irrigate 100,000 hectares of rice land to secure food for Libya. This venture displaced farmers and rerouted crucial water, expanding the water and food crisis that led in part to the 2011 Tuareg uprising.

Since the uprising, Mali’s 200,000 internally displaced people are nearly matched by 150,000 Malians languishing in the refugee camps of other countries. Oxfam states that 800,000 people in Mali’s North need food assistance. The army has taken hold in the cities, but the countryside has been plagued with Islamist groups. 1,600 French soldiers remain, hoping to withdraw soon as rebels engage in discussions with the government.

Some of the groups that fought in the 2011 uprising and are negotiating with the Malian government, such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), are also currently fighting in northern Nigeria and could easily exploit the same political climate. The most fearsome group in the region, however, remains Boko Haram, whose struggle against military forces has led to a state of emergency in three different northern states, and driving 6,000 refugees into Cameroon and 1,500 into Niger already this year—according to the UN, over the last year violence in the North has caused a refugee crisis of 300,000 displaced people.

The Violence of Boko Haram

Founded by Muslim Brotherhood disciple Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, Boko Haram has developed into one of the most vicious organizations in Africa. Purportedly a highly educated, Mercedes-Benz driving holy man, Yusuf created Boko Haram (whose proper name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad”) out of several splinter groups emerging from the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Yan Brothers” in Nigeria.

Connected to the Wahhabism advocated by the World Muslim League, Boko Haram advocates an educational system based on a particular strain of Islamic scholarship, rejecting both evolution and the Western banking system. Half of the population of Nigeria is Muslim, and there is wide-spread support for the conservative establishment of Sharia law. Sharia law has taken hold in 12 states in the north, where 72 percent of people suffer from dire poverty, yet many disagree with the elitist inequality by which the law is meted out. Indeed, poverty is such in Nigeria that 16 people lost their lives last Saturday during stampedes at three different employment recruitment centers around the country.

Boko Haram’s presence has become not only a powerful critique of the West, but a catch-all for a range of grievances—from hunger and poverty to corruption, ethnic strife, and general anti-government sentiment. In 2009, Boko Haram members refused to observe a motorcycle helmet law, leading to a brutal police crackdown and ensuing uprising in four northern states that left 800 dead. The police captured Yusuf, he escaped, was recaptured by the army, and summarily executed before television cameras. The military and police killers have been court marshaled, but the outcome remains inconclusive.

Since then, Nigeria’s north has been embroiled in a rapidly rising insurgency. The following year, Boko Haram staged a prison break in Bauchi, freeing 700 inmates. The next year, a suicide bomber attacked the UN building in the capital city of Abuja with lethal results. A spate of kidnappings and killings have been recorded in the last five years, and security forces have been accused of human rights violations. According to Amnesty International, nearly 1,000 people, mostly militants from Islamist groups, died in military custody last year, prompting the group to proclaim. “Nigeria is in socio-economic crisis.”

Only last month, dozens of students were murdered by Boko Haram while they slept in their residential buildings at the Federal Government College in the hard-hit state of Yobe. State government spokesperson Abdullahi Bagho has noted that the security guards patrolling the school mysteriously vanished before the attack. Jonathan, whose own uncle was kidnapped last month by unknown assailants, has fired much of his defense department in attempts to present an organized response to the chaos, which has plagued not just the North, but the South as well.

Piracy, Trade, and the French Sphere

Significantly, next year will be the 20th Anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the leader of January 4, 1993 peaceful Ogoni uprising against oil companies destroying the Niger River Delta. The mass demonstrations were followed by terrible oppression: the destruction of 27 villages, killings of 2,000 people, and dispossession of 80,000. The sustained oppression against the peoples of the Niger River Delta has met with mounting resistance campaigns, including the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta. In a relatively short period of time, MEND attacked numerous pipelines, planted car bombs in high ranking officials, hijacked a Total tanker, and sent warnings to Chinese interests in the region to stay out. But MEND fighters agreed in 2011 to lay their arms down in an amnesty deal that coincided with a drastic increase in coastal piracy.

Among the most important crises that Nigeria faces is maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Due to increased oil trade out of the Niger River Delta, Nigeria saw a three-fold increase in piracy between 2011 and 2012. There is purportedly some level of coordination between pirates and inland criminal enterprises, including Islamist organizations spanning from Boko Haram, which has spread as far south as Cameroon, to the MOJWA and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mughraib—both of which have been also actively fighting across the Sahel in Northern Mali, and are linked to militants responsible for overthrowing Qaddafi with NATO/AFRICOM assistance in Libya.

To combat the problems of terror and violence brought by the confluence of piracy in the South, Islamic militancy in the North, and ethnic conflict throughout, Nigeria’s government has called on France to intervene. The Institute for Security Studies, which operates offices throughout Africa, reports, “France has important interests in Nigeria—especially in the oil fields around the Niger Delta, which have been threatened by [Boko Haram]… For France, this could be a rare chance to seize economic opportunities. France sees Nigeria as a potentially important economic and political partner in sub-Saharan Africa, which fits perfectly with its aims to expand its sphere of influence beyond francophone countries.” France’s movement towards security in Nigeria may also be a counter-move against China, which has been seeking an for at least a decade, and discovered its own oil source through state firm SUPEC just five years ago.

Visiting Nigeria earlier this month, President Hollande declared, “Your struggle is also our struggle,” and “We will always stand ready not only to provide our political support but our help every time you need it because the struggle against terrorism is also the struggle for democracy.” Hollande has been reprimanded in the French press for his the colonial-style ambiguity of his discourse, and many critics liken his analysis of Africa (“Africa is going to be a big continent today!”) to that of the old TinTin comic books, which pit the European adventuresome boy against the frightening specter of “the Orient.” The IMF will soon decide, from atop its lofty pinnacles, whether Nigeria may indeed surpass South Africa in economic clout, and France’s interests include ensuring that the country, along with its neighbors, are secured against the possibility of hegemonic deviations.

One question for Hollande, only the second president after Chirac in 1999 to visit Nigeria, is oil infrastructure. Kaduna State, for example, is the site of a critical rail junction, yet the railway to Port Harcourt in the “South South Zone” amidst the Niger River Delta is in disuse. Oil by rail is feasible to bring more oil inland for agricultural expansion in the North, and beyond. Corporations interested in Franco-Nigerian relationships include mainly energy, power, and construction companies like Total, Alstom, Bougues, Thales, and Lafarge. The pharmaceutical giant Sanofi is also a big player. The security of present pipelines may advance trade through the Gulf, but France may also have ambitions towards a fully functioning pipeline network throughout its growing sphere of influence.

Intervention in Nigeria would signal France’s movement from Libya to Mali into Nigeria, along with its beneficial situation in Central African Republic resulting from the coup led by pro-EU Seleka government (incidentally, after refusing to come to the aid of outsed president Bozizé, France now has stationed troops to prop up the new government). One possible advantage for French intervention would be access to the new oil discovered in Sokoto and in the Chad Basin of the Northeast, which is currently made perilous by strong rebel presence. Northern Nigeria sits between Niger and Chad—both former French colonies. Cameroon lies across the entire eastern border, between Nigeria and Central African Republic (also a former French colony). Strategically, French influence over Nigeria would mean domination over much of Africa, and the possibility of infrastructural connectivity that might advance the interests of transnational corporations throughout the region.

Depending on how far France wants to intervene, however, it may find itself in an even more controversial position. Currently, France may provide logistical support as well as drones, but further involvement could lead to greater destabilization, which in turn could combine with election-time turmoil to create highly volatile political situations. France’s economic relationship with Nigeria picked up after the brutal suppression of the peaceful uprising of 1993, and Total’s role in Nigeria’s politics is not lost in the re-emerging popular movement against French, English, and US-American oil companies in the Niger River Delta. Last December, locals shut down two oil refineries and a petrochemical plant, and it appears that the movement will only continue to grow.

If increasing poverty in the North and oppression in the South continue apace, redoubled by recent plans to siphon away regional oil revenues to the national coffers, French intervention may ignite lingering resource conflicts and ethnic strife leading to renewed warfare. The question of whether TinTin’s arrival in Nigeria signals a boost for the Jonathan Administration during a hotly contested election cycle is less important than how it will change the dynamics of a presidential race that threatens to bring even more violence than the last one.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). This article is also being published at earthfirstjournal.org/newswire.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.