Behind the dirty war in Nigeria

May 12, 2014

There's more to the violence in Nigeria than the media report, writes Alan Maass.

PEOPLE AROUND the world reacted with outrage after a flurry of international media coverage about the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted in northern Nigeria by a radical Islamist group. The viral spread of the "#BringBackOurGirls" campaign has cast a spotlight on a terrible crime and horrific social conditions in a long-neglected part of the world.

But we aren't getting the whole story from the mainstream media and U.S. politicians. And the part of it we are hearing is being manipulated to build popular support for political and military actions--by the Nigerian government and by the world's imperial powers--that will only make the violence and injustice worse.

The abductions from a school in the northern Nigeria town of Chibok, carried out by the group Boko Haram, took place nearly a month ago. Pleas for help from relatives of the girls and their communities went unnoticed until a march of the desperate mothers of the victims to the capital city of Abuja at the end of April.

Those demonstrations and a social media campaign within Nigeria catapulted the kidnappings into the headlines worldwide and pressured political leaders in the U.S. and Europe to respond. Now, the U.S. and British governments--representing the dominant imperial powers in Nigeria in the colonial and post-colonial eras--say they will assist the Nigerian government in its operations against Boko Haram.

Mothers marching in Nigeria against government inaction after the abductions
Mothers marching in Nigeria against government inaction after the abductions

The instinct of many people around the world will be to support some kind of action--in the hopes that the abducted girls can be saved and a ruthless and reactionary group punished.

But the Nigerian government of President Goodluck Jonathan will use U.S. backing to escalate a campaign of indiscriminate terror in northern Nigeria that bears direct responsibility for the current violence. In the U.S. and Europe, politicians are exploiting the international outcry against Boko Haram to recycle anti-Islam rhetoric from the "war on terror"--and to justify, behind a façade of humanitarian concern, the expansion of military operations in Africa that are designed to promote imperialist interests, not the well-being of Nigerians or anyone else on the continent.

As Jumoke Balogun wrote at the CompareAfrique website: "[W]hen you pressure Western powers, particularly the American government, to get involved in African affairs and when you champion military intervention, you become part of a much larger problem. You become a complicit participant in a military expansionist agenda on the continent of Africa."

Our support belongs with the working people of Nigeria, who have a long history of struggle against tyranny, right up to the present day--and with movements in the U.S. and elsewhere that are fighting the multinational corporations and powerful governments that benefit from injustice in Nigeria.

BOKO HARAM'S campaign of violence is deplorable.

The group was founded in the early 2000s to advocate for the imposition of sharia law in northeastern Nigerian state of Borno. Its military operations date from later in the decade, after the central government arrested a number of its leaders, and the group vowed to strike back.

But Boko Haram's targets have included not only government forces and facilities, but Christian churches and civil society institutions. Bombings and shootings on Christmas Day in 2011, for example, killed a reported 41 worshippers, and prompted retaliatory attacks by Christians on Muslims. Over time, the group has extended its operations to include terrorist bombings in southern cities, including Abuja.

Needless to say, most of Boko Haram's victims have nothing at all to do with the repression meted out by the Nigerian government. Earlier this year, the group was reportedly responsible for a massacre at a boarding school in Buni Yadi in which 59 students, all male, were killed.

Last week, the purported leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, took responsibility for the abductions in Chibok with the explanation that the girls--whose age ranged as young as 9--should have been married, not going to school. He declared the kidnapped girls would be sold into slavery. Muslim clerics and organizations around the world have denounced Boko Haram's actions as antithetical to Islam.

The Nigerian government claims it wants to protect ordinary people from Boko Haram's attacks. But its true priorities were revealed when the president's wife, Patience Jonathan, ordered the arrest of two leaders of the march to Abuja by the desperate mothers--who she accused of belonging to Boko Haram and of making up the abductions in order to smear her husband.

President Jonathan has since redirected his government's messaging, but the incident speaks volumes about how little the corrupt ruling clique at the head of the U.S.-backed Nigerian government cares about anyone in the country, Boko Haram supporter or not.

The death toll from the government's war on the Islamists easily rivals that of Boko Haram. In June 2013, Nigeria's own National Human Rights Commission released a report presenting evidence of security forces "killing, torturing, illegally detaining and raping civilians in a fight to halt an Islamic uprising in northeast Nigeria," according to a CBC summary.

And that was just as the government was escalating its operations in the north for what it called an "all-out land and air campaign." A New York Times report from neighboring Niger recounted the stories of refugees who fled from the violence inflicted by government forces. They told reporters that:

civilians were being killed there by soldiers unconcerned with the distinction between militants and innocents. Friends and neighbors were being shot, they said; young men were being rounded up at night; and citizens with the vertical ethnic scarring of the Kanuri, a group dominant in the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, were being taken away.

"They are killing people without asking who they are," said Laminou Lawan, a student who said he had fled here 10 days before. "When they see young men in traditional robes, they shoot them on the spot. They catch many of the others and take them away, and we don't hear from them again."

The bloodshed has continued, with competing massacres involving hundreds of victims becoming routine. For example, the Economist described "a military counter-attack on March 14th following an attempted jailbreak by suspected members of Boko Haram detained at a barracks in Maiduguri. According to hospital sources, around 500 people were killed, mainly at the hands of soldiers."

As barbaric as the actions of Boko Haram are, the government's scorched-earth offensive is at the source of the atrocities--and that's the side the Obama administration is picking with its promises to assist in the war on Boko Haram.

UNSURPRISINGLY, JONATHAN'S regime gratefully accepted the U.S. government's offer of personnel and equipment to help in the effort to locate the Chibok schoolgirls and strike back at Boko Haram. But Washington political leaders are pushing for more. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein said that the advisers should be "just the first step" toward "whatever actions are necessary to locate, capture and eliminate the terrorists responsible for this reprehensible act."

Though you wouldn't know it from comments like this or the mainstream media coverage, the U.S. has already contributed a lot more than some security advisers to Nigeria's military machine.

As Lee Wengraf wrote at, the whole continent of Africa "is awash with American military bases, covert operations and thousands of Western-funded troops"--an escalation of U.S. military presence that the Obama administration considers one of its foreign policy achievements.

According to Nick Turse writing for TomDispatch, the Pentagon's U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) last year carried out one and a half missions each day in Africa--triple the number of operations, programs and exercises from five years before, when AFRICOM was founded to project U.S. military power on the continent as it became a newly active battleground for imperial rivalries, particularly with China.

AFRICOM's missions reach into every corner of Africa, and Nigeria is no exception. As the most populous country in Africa by far, it is a geopolitical prize, but Nigeria is also vital to the U.S. because of oil--it is the sixth-largest producer in the world, and almost half of its oil exports go to the U.S.

As a result, the U.S. has encouraged Nigeria's ongoing militarization, regardless of the flagrant corruption of the regime and the further concentration of wealth among a tiny elite--in a society where one in five children dies before the age of five.

The outrage about Boko Haram's atrocities is understandable, but when it is channeled into support for U.S. "assistance" in Nigeria's war on the Islamists, it gives a humanitarian cover for expanding the Pentagon's reach in a country where the U.S. has critical economic interests at stake.

Left-wing writers have rightly made comparisons between the current situation and the Kony 2012 social media campaign. Produced by the charity group Invisible Children, the Kony 2012 video, watched by tens of millions on the Internet, documented the crimes of African warlord Joseph Kony, whose Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) abducted children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves.

But the explicit conclusion of Invisible Children's campaign was that the U.S. should increase its military support for the regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, despite its record of matching the LRA, atrocity for atrocity. As's David Whitehouse wrote: "Missing is any account of the Ugandan army's own abuses against the civilian population, or how U.S. support for the army fits into a strategy to reassert U.S. influence throughout Africa--and gain favored access to its resources--by cultivating client states like Uganda."

In the case of Nigeria and Boko Haram, there's a further twist--the group's claim to be Islamists has allowed "war on terror" cheerleaders like CNN's Frida Ghitis to recycle Islamophobic rhetoric about the "clash of civilizations":

These young girls, eager for an education, are caught in the crossfire of the war between Islamic radicalism and modernity. It's the Nigerian version of the same dispute that brought 9/11 to the United States; that brought killings to European, Asian and Middle Eastern cities; the same ideological battle that destroyed the lives of millions of people in Afghanistan; that drives many of the fighters in Syria and elsewhere.

NIGERIA IS a country of grinding poverty for the vast majority of people--worst of all in the northeastern region where Boko Haram has its base. Nationally, two-thirds of the population--well over 100 million people--live on $1.25 a day or less.

But Nigeria is also rich in natural wealth. In 2010, multinational oil companies exported more than $69 billion worth of oil out of Nigeria--and the working majority of the population saw virtually none of the proceeds. There are no public services to speak of, while a small fraction of the population lives well--some very well--due to their connections with the oil giants and the regime.

The oil companies inflict devastation in other ways, too--environmental destruction. In the Niger Delta on the southern coast, more than 300 spills occur every year, with the largest forcing entire communities to abandon their lands.

As the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole wrote on Twitter, "Terrorism is not a natural disaster." Nigeria's history of colonial exploitation and the plundering of the country's natural resources by multinational corporations set the stage for "[c]riminal negligence by successive Nigerian governments [that] created ideal conditions for Boko Haram," Cole wrote.

But there is another side to Nigeria's history, too--one of resistance and struggle, against British colonialism; against the environmental annihilation caused by Royal Dutch Shell and other oil multinationals; against the corruption and repression of the government, armed to the teeth by the U.S. and its allies.

January 2012 marked a high point in the struggle, even as the Jonathan regime continued its war on Boko Haram. When the government announced without warning that the state gasoline subsidy would be eliminated as of January 1, a general strike brought business and transportation to a standstill in key cities within a matter of days.

Matt Swagler described the scenes of struggle in an article for

In Lagos, tens of thousands of people gathered in Gawi Fawehinmi Park on Monday. Hundreds of doctors participated, offering to provide medical attention for protesters in anticipation of attacks by security forces...

In Kano, thousands blocked main roads, forced gas stations to close and surrounded the home of the Nigerian central bank chief Lamido Sanusi. Protesters renamed the city's main square "Liberation Square," taking inspiration from the Egyptian revolution and Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Some Nigerian protesters have even begun referring to the movement as "Occupy Nigeria," linking its aspirations to the Occupy movement in the U.S.

On the first day of the strike in the capital city, Abuja, speakers blasted the anti-corruption songs of Nigerian singers like Fela Kuti and Idriss Abdulkareem. Protesters managed to shut down the airport, carrying placards with slogans reading, "Subsidy removal is a huge economic fraud" and "One day, the poor will have nothing to eat but the rich."

The hope for an alternative to the suffering caused by Nigeria's violence lies with the power of working people to confront poverty wages and unemployment, government repression and sectarian divisions--not with the intervention of imperialist powers, and certainly not with the government's security apparatus.

We can do something in the U.S. to advance this alternative--by building solidarity with the struggle of Nigerian workers, by organizing against the U.S. government's support for the Jonathan regime, and by challenging the U.S. military's attempts to project its power in Nigeria and across Africa.

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