What is Boko Haram? By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan
Akin Adesokan

[NOTE: This column was written before the author became aware of last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 59 people were killed and many wounded. Such was the nature of the event in which the killings occurred that the author himself could have been there, a victim as well. This therefore is no plea for fundamentalists who murder innocents—they will have no peace, and they will be defeated. The aim of this piece is to call attention to a Nigerian problem that the war against Boko Haram has simply deepened: the state-sponsored waste of the lives of Nigerian citizens.]

What is this confounding subject in Nigerian society called Boko Haram?

Is it of the kind of clerical fascism that took root in Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979?

Does that kind of religious rule of the Ayatollah, which seeks to bring a modern state under the sway of the tenets of  a particular cultural strain in Islam, Shi’a, have the sympathy of the sects that periodically launch Nigeria into senseless killings—Maitatsine, Al-Zakzaky, etc?

Is there a connection between this “culture” of Northern Nigeria and the explosion of what we now call Boko Haram in 2008?

Translated idiomatically, Boko Haram means “Western education is sacrilege”: are the teachings of Islam not already shaped by the Prophet Mohammed’s familiarity with the books that came before him?

Are there connections between the appearance of Shari’a laws (or pretensions to them) after 1999 and the resurgence of religious extremism that the Nigerian state now confronts?

Can these connections, if any exist, be understood in terms of the reactionary tactics of the country’s political elites? There is a general belief within Nigeria that certain interest groups in sections of the country bring out instruments of violence the moment power equation changes to their disadvantage.

Is the current heedlessness of what we call Boko Haram owed to its links to other fundamentalist, terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab or to the repressive tactics of the Nigerian state?

In 2001, as the world reacted to the harrowing events of September 11 in New York City, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk published an essay in which he argued that, religious fanaticism apart, the grievances of the foot-soldiers of fundamentalist Islam ought to be understood as the grievances of people who experience images and narratives of freedom as unrelieved nightmares.

Is what we call Boko Haram a phenomenon not just of terrorism in Nigeria but also, as the political commentator Edwin Madunagu argues some time ago, of Nigerian terrorism?

Recall the coldblooded murders of leaders of the then-underground group in 2008/2009, captured on videos that circulated widely.

Watching any of the videos, the viewer experiences a chilling sense of déjà vu, having once seen President Samuel Doe of Liberia begging for mercy on his knees.  But when the agents of a state—the army, the police—publicly kill persons who have not been tried in a court of law, or tried in a convincing, transparent manner, any witness with an acute sense of history hears the gunshots as echoes from the gallows where Nigeria murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and his comrades in 1995.

How does one understand the ongoing scorched-earth operations in different parts of Northern Nigeria separate from the unrelieved suffering that passes for life for the wretched of the earth of this country, with or without punitive military operations?

What becomes of Nigerian citizens caught in the obsessive grip of these operations, citizens who are just struggling to enter the twenty-first century of technological innovations but are daily bombed into the dusts of pre-industrial “Hausaland” because the state must destroy the communication capacities of the terrorists?

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Do the fates of these citizens matter, or, as the language of neoliberal market fundamentalism puts it, they are to be understood as part of “collateral damage”?

Aren’t there Nigerian citizens who are alienated not so much from religious freedom as from freedom as such, who cannot know what it means to be “free,” much less to be a “citizen”?

If the one imaginary that appeals to these citizens is the nihilistic one of religious fundamentalism, should they be hunted down like the beasts of the savannah, the way the Joint Task Force does routinely in the North?

Knowing the Nigeria state and its way with nebulous categories and phrases, might the now-standard phrase “suspected Boko Haram members” used by the JTF and parroted by the media just be the rhetoric of a negligent system at lazy ease with the brutal killing of defenseless citizens?

I remember visiting a prison in Yola, as a reporter in the entourage of a Minister of Internal Affairs in 1991, and seeing a group of detainees recently arrested after a disturbance in Takum, in what was then Gongola State. Among the detainees was an elderly man who appeared to be in his late seventies. White-haired, sick from a nasty cough, his remaining teeth seeming to fall from his mouth each time he spat, this man did not strike me as someone who could hold a pebble with a steady hand.

Might the police action by which those men were taken prisoners be just a less violent form of the procedure the JTF now uses routinely in fighting Boko Haram?

Has Boko Haram become an excuse for killing innocent Nigerians without having to answer for it?

Professor Adesokan, a novelist, essayist, and former newspaper reporter, teaches comparative literature at the University of Indiana, in the United States.


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