Nigeria: “Bring back our girls – and take back our country”
12 May 2014. A World to Win News Service. Millions of people around the world were repulsed by the video of the grinning Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau as he bragged about kidnapping 276 Nigerian schoolgirls and threatened to sell them as slaves or marry them off to keep them out of school. But the TV images of Michelle Obama, David Cameron and the like shedding crocodile tears should inspire even greater revulsion and alarm. Leaders and political figures in the Western countries most responsible for creating a horrendous situation in Nigeria in the first place are now using global solidarity with the girls as an excuse to step up their military intervention in Africa.
For weeks after the girls were kidnapped, the initial response of the Nigerian government, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US, UK and a few other big powers, was to do nothing. In fact, when the girls’ families and supporters launched sorrowful and vociferous protests, the government’s first reaction was to repress them, as though they, not the kidnapping, were the problem.
The wife of President Goodluck Jonathan proclaimed the abductions a hoax. After offering to meet with representatives of the mothers of missing children, she had them arrested and detained. Jonathan’s supporters claimed that the political opposition in the three north-eastern states where Boko Haram is strong have fomented unrest and accused them of funding the group in order to sully him before elections early next year.
In early May, this cruel abduction was followed by the kidnapping of 8-10 more girls. In another incident, Boko Haram fighters in armoured trucks and motorcycles stormed the town of Gamboru Ngala near the Cameroon border, setting buildings ablaze and firing on civilians as they tried to escape, killing 300 people, according to local officials and residents. A medical officer in the Cameroon army, which has reinforced security at the Nigeria-Cameroon border, said, “Some of the bodies were charred. It was horrific. People had their throats slit, others were shot.” Witnesses said the town had been left unguarded because soldiers based there had been redeployed towards Lake Chad in an effort to rescue the kidnapped girls. But the soldiers rarely engage with the better-armed Boko Haram units, despite the country’s five billion dollar military budget.
About 1,500 people have been killed in the first three months of 2014 alone, and Boko Haram has been more or less in control of the country’s north-east for almost five years. All the schools in the area had been closed for some time but the head of the national examination board was pressured to open the school in Chibok for exams. He had been promised adequate security from the state governor as Boko Haram had already razed or attacked every other school in the area.
A report by Amnesty International, based on interviews with two high-ranking military officials, corroborated by village residents and local officials, indicated that the military was given advance warning of the planned abduction. The information of an impending attack was passed on at 7 pm, the fighting started at 11:45 pm. One group of residents had even dispatched a motorbike rider to the nearest battalion 30 minutes away but no reinforcements came. The dozen soldiers in the village held off the Boko Haram forces for an hour and then fled when no reinforcements arrived. Later villagers found them hiding in the the surrounding bush. The Amnesty report is denied by the government.
But the government has been far from inactive militarily. For years it has been killing civilians in its anti-Boko Haram operations in the north-east. Journalists and NGOs have reported that the military has often carried out atrocities against the region’s population with no distinction between Boko Haram fighters and civilians. In March, when Boko Haram attacked a military prison, well over 500 people were killed, many of them civilians killed by the security forces. At the same time, the bulk of the country’s forces are concentrated in the oil-rich south because that’s where the oil is.
The country’s military and civilian governments have always been quick to send soldiers to protect oil installations. In the late 1990s, in response to protests by Ogoni people against deadly oil spills by Shell in the Niger River delta, the military killed or arrested many people. Despite international protests, they hung leaders of that non-violent movement, including the widely known author Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Mohamad Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram (which means “Western education is sinful”), sought to avoid confrontation with the government. He formed alliances with local politicians and the state religious commissioner in exchange for funds and an agreement to institute Sharia law. It is said that he received funds from Salafist groups to provide microcredit loans and for unemployed youth and immigrants. When Sharia law was not instituted he became more critical of the government, resulting in his rising popularity. Clashes took place between the police and Boko Haram members, leading to armed rebellion in 2009. Crushed by the military, thousands of supporters were killed or arrested, their central mosque was destroyed and Yusuf arrested and murdered along with other leaders.
The group went underground, and resurfaced a year later under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, who is known for executing those in his organisation who disagree with him. Shekau vowed to exact revenge for the killing of Yusuf and other group members. The government itself carried out a policy of kidnapping and hostage-taking, holding the wives and children of the group’s leaders. Boko Haram demanded reparations for those killed and the release of members and their families, and restoration of the mosque.
By 2010, the group broadened their initial target of security forces and government officials to Christians, Muslim clerics who criticised them, traditional leaders, UN employees, bars, students of secular schools, polio health workers, politicians and villages supporting the government. Due to the nature of some of the killings, it is alleged that the group is supported by the opposition political party. Whatever the truth of that may be, it seems that Boko Haram has been both encouraged and repressed by various national and local political forces. Jonathan’s government has engaged in negotiations with Boko Haram on and off since 2013. With support dropping and the decimation of their membership, the International Crisis Group states that they now resort to forcing or paying youth to join them. (”Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” Africa Report, No 216, 3 April 2014)
The grotesque disparity between the riches garnered by foreign companies in Nigeria with the help of local cronies and the intense poverty of the overwhelming majority of Nigerians has led to alienation and disgust with the omnipresent corruption at all government levels. If that is what is meant by Western values, it’s no surprise that many people reject them. This is the soil that has fuelled the situation where Boko Haram was able to emerge and gain recruits and local support. It is a threat to imperialist domination and at the same time a product of the imperialist system, like the clash between Western imperialism and Islamist jihadi forces that has emerged in many countries.
What drives the Nigerian economy, and almost the only thing about the country that interests the Western powers, is oil and natural gas production. Nigeria has the second-largest crude oil reserves in Africa. Four of the seven most profitable companies in the world are in the oil business, and they are present in Nigeria. For decades Nigeria’s military and civilian governments have helped international corporations appropriate the wealth from the country’s resources.
Shell, a UK-Netherlands company, had a legal monopoly on the exploitation of Nigerian oil and minerals when the country was a British colony, until 1960. Since then it has been joined by ExxonMobil (US), Chevron (US), Total (France), and Eni (Italy). These companies provide almost 80 percent of the Nigerian government’s funding and almost all of the country’s foreign exchange. Last January China, a rapacious newcomer, signed a $10 billion agreement to explore and exploit natural gas there. It is surely not a coincidence that the four countries that sent military forces to Nigeria after the kidnapping – the US, UK, France and China – are the leaders in draining the country’s natural resources and hiring Nigerian politicians as their flunkies. Israeli commandos, who have often acted as goons to enforce big-power domination of Africa, are reportedly on the way as well.
Nigerian politicians are some of the best paid in the world. Most Nigerians, however, are poorer now than when the country gained independence from Britain in 1960, with over 70 percent classified as poor and absolutely poor. Decaying infrastructure, chronic electricity shortages and an influx of cheap imports have led to factory shut-downs and the loss of jobs. For all the neo-colonialist hypocrisy about education for girls, the truth is that everything in the country conspires against education. There is little funding, and very few of those who study for years will be rewarded with a commensurate job, least of all women. Oil and gas production has only contributed to the destruction of the lives and livelihood of Nigeria’s people. The poorest states are in the north-eastern stronghold of Boko Haram.
The legacy and present-day operation of imperialism produced horrific scars on the economic, political, and social landscape in much of Africa. It has set the stage for the fratricidal conflict among peoples in Africa that has been an essential element in colonial and neo-colonial domination. Today, after a period in which the big powers appeared to “neglect” much of Africa – while, as Nigeria shows, they continued to dominate it – they are moving in a more openly aggressive way and often contending among themselves for old and new areas of influence. These countries’ “humanitarian intervention” in resource-rich Nigeria has to be seen in this context. The profitability of oil and gas and its central role in so many other big industries means that it is the lifeblood of the capitalist world economy.
There is little doubt that the heartfelt feelings pouring out from people around the world for the kidnapped girls and their families are genuine. But calls on the part of the imperialists to protect women’s rights and education for girls have been used in the past to justify intervention in other countries like Afghanistan: Michelle Obama, Cherie Blair and Laura Bush also appealed for support for the imperialist wars led by their husbands in the name of liberating women. But the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan only made life much worse for women and men, while it also strengthened Islamic fundamentalism.
More generally, the civil war in Libya resulting from Nato intervention pushed that country further into ruin and destabilised the region, which has been a factor in the spectacular rise of armed Islamism in that area, including in Nigeria and its northern neighbours. The French invasion of Mali, at the heart of France’s West African colonial empire, was carried out in the name of human rights and protecting civilians, but it set off massacres between religious and ethnic groups. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, in which the competition between France and the US played a role as they backed the Hutus and Tutsis, respectively. Everywhere the imperialists have intervened has seen further disaster.
While Obama has not sent a large number of ground forces, American “Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance” manned aircraft are known to be seeking targets over Nigeria. The eagerness of the US and other powers to use their satellite imagery shows just how closely they have been monitoring the region. US Predator drones are likely on standby at any one of the many secret US drone bases in seven African countries, including adjoining Niger (also the site of strategic French military facilities). The kidnappings are being used to justify and perhaps expand these imperialist military footholds in the region. As we’ve seen in Pakistan and Yemen, drones often blast many civilians to pieces in so-called precision strikes that can only serve imperialism and never the people’s interests.
More Western intervention is not what Nigerians need. The lives and rights of the girls from Chibok village are of no more importance to the Nigerian government – and its foreign backers – than to Boko Haram. Television reports have shown some Nigerians chanting, “Bring back our girls – take back our country!”
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