In the last week the Boko Haram kidnappings of Nigerian schoolgirls have become the object of the same 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.
Just so you know: in my opinion the kidnapping of these girls is 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 them 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 event like this, in which there should be two fundamental considerations: a) to do everything possible to ensure that the kidnapped girls are found and brought back alive and b) to eliminate a complex and dangerous insurgency that threatens to become even more violent and destructive than it already is, and which is already far more powerful than it should be.
The Nigerian government does not come of this at all well. Firstly, 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 and failed to do anything to stop it.
Naturally the military and the government are denying anything of the kind. But then this is a government whose First Lady, Patience Jonathan, recently spent a whole night berating relatives of the abducted girls and had the temerity to accuse them of being members of Boko Haram. She then compounded this by arresting a leading activist in the ‘bring back our girls’ campaign.’.
Such behavior is just one symptom of the absolute contempt and indifference with which Nigeria’s rapacious ruling elites have treated their own population for decades. We are talking about what should be one of the richest countries in Africa, whose population is for the most part poorer than it was at independence, whose rulers have looted Nigeria’s vast resources to a staggering degree.
Today, 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, 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 and compelling report on the insurgency.
Like many radical Islamist movements in other parts of the world, Boko Haram flourished in those areas of society that were more or less abandoned by the state – except when it came to repression or politicians who came to harvest votes – and somehow struck a chord amongst marginalized and desperate 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 and profited from its economic growth, while ignoring the gross indifference of its rulers to the majority of their population 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 provide public support for establishing Nigeria as another ‘front’ in the West’s global ‘war on terror’ and incorporating 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. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan – in every case Western militarisation has been like pouring oil onto a fire.
Obama has accused Boko Haram of ‘ruthlessly killing’ hundreds of people, but so have the Nigerian security forces – not to mention his own government. I certainly don’t preclude the use of military force against Boko Haram – targeted and focused force waged within the law, which does not involve 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. It will have to be accompanied with major political and economic reforms that give people in the north east a reason to want to be part of the Nigerian state. It will require negotiation and concessions, and not only in order to save the girls lives.
Because there are divisions within Boko Haram that can be exploited, and ending violent conflicts requires all sides to recognize their responsibility for them and to take steps accordingly – and the Nigerian government must accept its share. There is little indication that it is willing to do so.
Jonathan has requested international assistance from various countries, including Britain, China and the United States. Fine, if that assistance consists of UAVs and satellite technology to help locate the girls. But there is also a very real possibility that Nigeria will do what so many countries have done, and use Boko Haram as a justification for money, weapons and military aid, by declaring it another manifestation of ‘al Qaeda’.
This will not only distract attention from its own failings and postpone any attempt to do anything about them, but it will also ‘internationalise’ a conflict whose solution is ultimately dependent on Nigeria itself.
Hashtagactivism may make people feel better and may be carried out for worthy motives. And if it helps shame and put pressure on the Nigerian government to take action, then that is a postive outcome.
But such campaigns should not be used to ‘konyise’ the Boko Haram confict. And the natural desire of so many people to ‘do something’ about a horrible crime like this should not translate into simplistic and reductionist moral crusades that blind us to its deeper causes, and fuel the kind of neo-imperialist military interventionism that has repeatedly proven to be worse than the disease it was supposedly intended to eradicate.