Hashtags, Militarism and the ‘Konyisation’ of Boko Haram
- May 10, 2014
In the last week the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram have become the object of the same kind of international crusading zeal that was once directed at Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Hashtag twitter campaigns, celebrity condemnation, political outrage, and now Michelle Obama holding up a placard calling for the release of our girls – all these manifestations of international condemnation have transformed Boko Haram into the personification of evil.
The kidnapping of these girls is undoubtedly a crime against humanity, like many of the actions carried out by Boko Haram, and those who carried it out are worthy of all the contempt and condemnation that can be heaped upon them. Watching the hideous video of the gloating Abubakar Shekhau bragging about selling the girls into slavery, my first reaction is to wish that he and anyone who thinks like him should be wiped of the face of the earth.
No doubt many people felt the same way. But such a visceral reaction is not much use when it comes to an episode like this, in which there should be two fundamental considerations: 1) to do everything possible to ensure that the kidnapped girls are found and brought back alive and 2) to end a violent insurgency that threatens to become even more violent and destructive than it already is.
The Nigerian government does not come of this well. The girls should never have been allowed to take the exams in the middle of a war zone in the first place. According to Amnesty, the military had a four-hour warning of the impending attack by Boko Haram and failed to do anything to stop it.
Naturally the military and the government are denying this. But then this is a government whose First Lady, Patience Jonathan, recently spent a whole night berating relatives of the abducted girls and even accused them of being members of Boko Haram. She then compounded this having a leading activist in the ‘bring back our girls’ campaign arrested.
Such behavior is just one symptom of the contempt and indifference with which Nigeria’s rapacious ruling elites have treated their own population for decades. Nigeria should be one of the richest countries in Africa, yet 40 percent of Nigerians are illiterate, and more than 100 million people, 61 percent of the population live on $1 a day.
Nigeria’s poverty is particularly extreme in the northeast provinces – the heartland of the Boko Haram insurgency – where 72 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared with 27 percent in the south and 35 percent in the Niger Delta.
This does not mean that Boko Haram can be reduced to poverty and misgovernance alone, but not can it be separated from the decades of “failed governance, economic hardship, rising social inequality, corruption and impunity, gross official neglect and misrule” that the International Crisis Group has highlighted in a searing report on the insurgency.
Like many radical Islamist movements in other parts of the world, Boko Haram flourished in areas that were more or less abandoned by the state – and struck a chord amongst marginalized people who no one else had even tried to reach. These aspects of the conflict have been largely ignored during the explosion of hashtagactivist fervour, and received no attention at all during the World Economic Forum in Abuja last week, whose delegates were praised by President Goodluck Jonathan for their “moral support in the fight against terror.”
In fact the countries, corporations and institutions that have invested in Nigeria, profited from its economic growth in partnership with its rulers, are not ‘fighting terror’ – but contributing indirectly to the circumstances that fuel it, whether it’s Shell Oil, the United States, Britain, or China.
There is now a danger that the ‘Konyisation’ of this crime will transform Nigeria into another ‘front’ in the West’s global ‘war on terror’ and incorporated the struggle against Boko Haram into the US military’s Africom security axis. In the last week both Barack Obama and David Cameron have promised to ‘stand up to’ and ‘take on’ Boko Haram.
That is the last thing anyone needs, because such efforts will not ‘bring back’ the girls and may even endanger their lives. Nor will they defeat Boko Haram. There is not a single country where western militarisation has succeeded in eradicating conflicts of this kind. In most cases, such intervention has made them worse.
Obama has rightly accused Boko Haram of “ruthlessly killing” hundreds of people, but so have the Nigerian security forces – not to mention his own government. Boko Haram will not be defeated without the use of military force – but it should be targeted and focused and waged within the law, unlike the extrajudicial executions and massacres of the kind that the Nigerian army has carried out before.
But force alone won’t bring this nightmare to an end. Political and economic reforms are also required to give people in the north east a reason to want to be part of the Nigerian state. If the kidnapped girls are to be brought home, then negotiation and concessions are also required.
Because there are divisions within Boko Haram that can be exploited, and the Nigerian government needs to accept its share of the blame for the insurgency if it is going to act on them. There is little indication that it is willing to do so.
Jonathan has requested international assistance from Britain, China and the United States. Fine, if that assistance consists of UAVs and satellite technology to help locate the girls. But if Nigeria uses Boko Haram as a justification for money, weapons and military aid, by declaring Boko Haram another manifestation of al Qaeda then it will only distract attention from its own failings and postpone any attempt to do anything about them.
It also runs the risk of internationalising a conflict whose solution is ultimately dependent on Nigeria itself.
Hashtagactivism may make people feel better. And if it helps put pressure on the Nigerian government to take action, then that is a positive outcome.
But the natural desire to ‘do something’ about a horrible crime like this should not translate into simplistic and reductionist moral crusades, and fuel the ‘war on terror’ military interventionism that, in other countries, has repeatedly proven to be worse than the disease it was supposedly intended to eradicate.