Hashtags, Militarism and the ‘Konyisation’ of Boko Haram

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.





Through a Davos Darkly

The world looks different from Davos.   Its lofty snow-covered peaks invite reflection and contemplation,   as Hans Castorp, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain once found, when he went to a clinic there to recuperate from tuberculosis and found himself part of a spiritual elite serenely contemplating a European civilization that was drifting towards disaster.

Looking down from   those high altitudes, Castorp and his companions inhabited a seductive and rarefied world of high culture and ideas far above the ongoing trainwreck taking place down below.     Today that experience is still possible in concentrated form for the politicians, CEOs, millionaires and billionaires, bankers and showbiz types who assembled for four days of debate and discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Instead of Castorp’s clinic, delegates at the Golden Egg hotel can pay an average ticket price of only $40,000 and $500,000 for particular fringe conferences to discuss the great problems and challenges of our time, washed down with meditation classes from Goldie Hawn.   Here you can experience some real Joseph Heller-ish moments, whether it’s   David Cameron defending his viciously anti-immigrant policies against a poster that reads ‘Committed to Improving the State of the World’; or that indefatigible ‘anti-poverty campaigner’ and tax evader Bono criticizing the rich for tax evasion.

As well as lots of high-level chunter you can also attend the Napster party or an event called ‘ A Day in the Life of a Refugee: Exploring Solutions for Syria, billed as ‘ a powerful simulation…of the struggles and choices that refugees are making to survive.’ .

Simulations are about as close as many of the people here are ever likely to come to the world that you and I inhabit.     Because it probably hasn’t escaped the attention of you less well-heeled folk out there that millions of people across the world have not been doing well during these bleak years of financial crisis and deficit-fueled austerity.

Enforced pauperisation, savage cutbacks in welfare services, the destruction of social programs, layoffs and mass unemployment, wage cuts and wage stagnation, zero hour contracts and other forms of precarity and insecurity – these have been some of the remedies that national governments and global economic institutions have forced down the throats of so many countries during these bleak five years.

In that same period the banks and financial institutions that brought the financial system to the brink of collapse were first ‘saved’ through taxpayer-funded   recapitalization programs, and have since gone to recover everything they lost and more.   In 2012 the richest ten percent of earners in the United States earned more than half the country’s total income – the highest total since records began.   That same year the 1,000 wealthiest people in the UK also saw their combined wealth rise by £414 billion, according to the Sunday Times.

This happy outcome may explain we have begun to hear more optimistic pronouncements from the IMF, the World Bank, the EU and national governments about ‘green shoots’, and ‘corners turned’ and the ‘worst is behind us’   The tone at Davos has also been cautiously upbeat.     Growth is once again in sight.     Recoveries are in the air and CEOs are once again confident enough to invest.

But the wise men and women of Davos cannot be accused of looking at the world entirely through rose-tinted spectacles.   For the conference is also an occasion for the publication of the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Risks report, which outline possible reasons for caution and even pessimism.

The report lists a number of possible ‘systemic risks’ that include water shortages, liquidity and fiscal crises, rising youth unemployment, geopolitical conflict, global pandemics, major escalation in organized crime, ‘lack of trust’, and ‘ideological polarization.’

The new Oxfam report Working for the Few has just reported that the wealth of the one percent of richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion, 65 times more than the bottom half of the world’s population, and that 85 individuals own the same as 3.5 billion people.   In the US, the report notes that 95 percent of financial growth since the crisis went to the top one percent of the population, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

These staggeringly skewed statistics are a grotesque obscenity, and they didn’t just happen by chance.   Oxfam notes a process of ‘political capture’ in which wealth has persistently shifted towards the rich since 1980, with the collusion of governments who have ensured that ‘laws and regulations are now designed to benefit the rich’ through   ‘financial deregulation, skewed tax systems and rules facilitating evasion, austerity economics.’

In other words we are talking about a deliberate transfer of wealth towards the already wealthy, at the expense of everything that might come under the broad rubric of the common good.     Yet proving once again that satire will always lag behind the 21st century, this gathering of some of the richest people and companies on the planet – most of whom have been beneficiaries of these developments – is also concerned about the effects ‘severe income disparity,’ which has supposedly become a major theme of the conference.

The Davos ‘global risks’ report notes that ‘anti-austerity movements and other protests give voice to an increasing distrust in current socio-economic and political systems’ and that ‘ widening gaps between the richest and poorest citizens threaten social and political stability as well as economic development.’

This threat to ‘social and political stability’ is clearly more worrying to the Davos delegates than inequality itself.     Can we expect the summit to support income redistribution? Social programs funded through higher taxation?     Perhaps the complete reorganization of the economic system to favour the least well-off?     An organized transfer of wealth towards the poor rather than the rich? Raising the minimum wage?

Not exactly.     In fact Bill Gates actively opposes raising the minimum wage, on the grounds that it is bad for (his) business.     But as Thomas Mann once observed ‘There are so many different kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst’, and the Davos summit contains many clever people who even if they are not too bothered by the impact of inequality on those at the sharp end of it, nevertheless sense that it might actually threaten the system that they have all done so well out of.

The report worries that rising populism and a general disenchantment with politicians might lead to   ‘ an era of greater economic pragmatism and national self-protection’ that would ‘increase inter-state friction and aggravate a global governance vacuum.’

They’re right.     But that vacuum has been evident for some time, and watching Blair, Gates and the astonishingly self-regarding Bono linking arms   in a kumbaya moment, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Davos is a symbol of such vacuity rather than an antidote or a cure for it.

But behind the posturing and the self-regard, perhaps these glassy-eyed   saviors can sense the dangerous tremors beneath the surface of this scandalously unjust and mismanaged world that they helped create,   and worry that one day they will have to descend like Hans Castorp from the magic mountain, and fly away in their private jets to find that there is nowhere safe for them to land.