I want to be clear from the outset: the Islamist fundamentalist group called Boko Haram is a terrorist organization and has to be treated as such, as groups of its ilk are perceived and treated, making allowance for local specificities.
And there goes the rub, in the local specificities, burrowing into the lukewarm sand of the savannah like one slithery worm become a mesh of adventitious roots, dead-looking but alive and deadly.
On the strength of the unprecedented campaigns mounted on all portals and media since April 14, there must be very few incidents in Nigeria to have so powerfully seized the world’s attention since the Age of Abacha.
There are real-time countdowns or countups on interactive Web sites, presidential tears and outbursts that will put Nollywood actors to shame (Is the expression ‘There Is Godduuuuuuuuuu o!’ belted out three times a benediction, a malediction or an exhortation?), elegant FLOTUSian placard-displaying with the BringBackOurGirls hashtags, and viral videos by a stunning array of do-gooders. Confronted with a picture of well-suited Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes and Mel Gibson, highlighted in a red-carpet crowd and each holding a ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ sign, one gets the sense of having hallucinated sleep-walking into the open-air screening of a B-movie from that long-gone time when Margaret Thatcher was queening it over Downing Street. It’s all good. Even better than bizarre.
But stay with local specificities, dead and irrelevant as they seem in the narrow scope of a droning bug making a beeline and looking to strike to the roots.
Boko Haram is at once a brand a clerical fascism beloved of Shi’a Muslims, perhaps with links to other fundamentalist, terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, a manifestation in equal measures of terrorism in Nigeria and Nigerian terrorism, and of the reactionary tactics of the country’s political elites, North, South, Southwest, everywhere.
Taking just these three issues—there may be more—it is possible to illuminate the darkness created by the current wash of Internet limelight.
From the group’s actions and the informed analyses of scholars (for example the recent trialogue between Jibrin Ibrahim, Elnathan John and Jeremy Weate), it is doubtful that Boko Haram has the kind of well-thought-out ideas grounded in intellectual traditions of political Islam, even of Shiite strains. What were/are the objectives of its proselytism beyond an ingrained and visceral aversion to the spectacular aspects modern (read Western) culture? Ibrahim makes the telling point that in all wars, ideological clarity is quickly sacrificed to the immediate needs and outcomes of embattlement. But he could have added that there are philosophies born of struggle. Such philosophies may be less systematic than those supported by a dedicated clerisy, but they will attain material force if they are sufficiently discriminatory. This is a fact of Boko Haram, a group astute enough to use guerrilla tactics to outwit the state-supported networks of Nigeria’s military.
Concerning the second issue, we face a different set of questions.
Who, apart from its inhabitants or select bureaucrats of the education ministry in Borno State, ever heard of Chibok before April 14, 2014?
Chibok is supposedly in a remote region between Borno and Adamawa states. How can an all-girl government secondary school be so isolated that the “insurgents” or “terrorists” were able to literally take it away in four hours?
How do you hide nearly 300 girls for a month and counting?
How are they fed, clothed?
How do these teenage girls take care of the bodily functions pertaining to their biological growth?
Is the inability of the military task force stationed an hour away from Chibok to respond to the invasion of the school a result of the underfunding of the military forces or of the supposed infiltration of those forces by interests sympathetic to Boko Haram?
Who still remembers the names of any of the withering villages in Nigeria’s Southeast where kidnapping is the business of choice for the youth?
Once, in 1991, walking to the “state headquarters” of the National Republican Convention in Jalingo, I passed through a small farm in which a mother and her son were working. I couldn’t tell whether I had come upon inhabitants of the Amazon forest or compatriots expected to vote in the forthcoming elections.
Finally, it is clear that Boko Haram is exploiting the well-known reactionary politics of Nigerian elites whose sole objective is to seize and personalize the spoils of office. Those cynics who vowed to make Nigerian ungovernable for Goodluck Jonathan after the 2011 elections are the same people asking that the government negotiate with Boko Haram, or grant those in custody a general amnesty, as the late President Umaru Yar’Adua did for the Niger Delta militants.
The point is that Jonathan’s government is hardly different.
Professor Adesokan teaches comparative literature at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, where he is also the director of the undergraduate program.