Nigeria's Boko Haram a holy war? Maybe not entirely

Nigerian Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan, on a visit to Kenya, said the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency is as rooted in bad governance as much as in its push for Islamic sharia law. 

People stand by the wreckage from a car bomb explosion at a church in Yelwa on the outskirts of the northern Nigerian city of Bauchi, June 3. A suicide bomber drove a car full of explosives into a church in northern Nigeria on Sunday, killing 12 people in the latest deadly attack on Christian worshippers, witnesses said. Churches have been targeted this year by militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

From a distance, the violent campaign of a shadowy Nigerian Islamist group called Boko Haram is nothing less than a holy war between Muslims and Christians that has killed more than 2000 people.  

But look beneath the surface, says Nigerian Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan in a recent visit to Nairobi, and you find that the crisis is “not purely religious.”

In Nigeria’s “winner take all” political culture, the archbishop said, where the country’s political elites from a number of regions, religions, and ethnicities compete for power and the control of oil resources, militant groups serve as a kind of pressuring mechanism for achieving what cannot be achieved in elections, in parliament, or in backroom deals. Far from uplifting the entire populace, oil wealth has remained in the hands of a very powerful few, creating economic and social inequality for those regions – such as the Islamic north and the oil-producing but poor Niger Delta region – who are left out of the power balance.

So when Boko Haram targets Christian churches or Western-model schools, they aren’t doing so out of mere hatred of Christianity or the West. They are doing this for much more basic reasons, to protest the north’s feeling of being excluded from power.

It’s a lesson that rings true for many Kenyans as well. After post-election riots in 2007-2008, which targeted ethnic communities loyal to Kenya’s main political parties, Kenyans realized that their political leaders were using ethnic suspicions for their own political purposes, and with murderous results. More than 1,300 people were killed, and another 600,000 displaced from their homes after the December 2007 elections ended with disputed results.

Africa cannot afford to allow its territory to become a proxy battleground for its own politicians, or for the ideological wars over “terrorism” of foreign nations and radical interests, the archbishop and others say.

"The ‘terrorist’ and ‘insurgent’ groups in various parts of the world are a phenomenon of the early twenty-first century. They teach us that there is something fundamentally flawed about global governance,” says Jesse Mugambi, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi. “Such groups are in all continents - Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas! Such groups are the symptom, rather than the cause, of instability.”

In Kano, Nigeria, a town that has borne the brunt of much of Boko Haram's violence, Rev. Ransom Bello of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Kano state chapter, says that the activities of Boko Haram are “not religious. It’s the aggrieved people, disguised under the aegis of religion to cause insecurity in the country.”

The current insurgency by Boko Haram, a nickname for the Islamist group, based on their common slogan “Western education is forbidden,” gathered pace after the group’s founder, Mohammad Yusuf, was killed in police custody in July 2009, during a general crackdown on the group.

Boko Haram’s original campaign for Islamic sharia law was aimed at the corruption and maladministration of local political elites and of the federal government in Abuja. But after the killing of Yusuf, Boko Haram became radicalized, and under new leadership, it joined with other Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al Shabab, picking up a global-jihad ideology and a few new tools, such as suicide bombings, to carry out their war.  

Most victims of attacks are Muslims

Boko Haram claims to be fighting in the interest of all Muslims. But of the 500 people killed in the first half of this year, through Boko Haram raids, suicide attacks, and commando-style assaults on government facilities, the vast majority of the victims have been Muslims.

In his speech at the newly inaugurated bi-annual lecture of the African Council of Religious Leaders in Nairobi on May 16, Bishop Onaiyekan described the early days of the Boko Haram phenomenon, in which villagers in one of the northern states went on a rampage. The villagers called themselves “Talibans,” after the militant Islamist group in Afghanistan.

“At the time, we thought they did not know what they were talking about,” Onaiyekan said. “But looking back now, it is possible that they did indeed know about Talibans and perhaps had contacts with them.”

“It is coming out more clearly that Boko Haram have had links with the Islamic terrorist organizations like the Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their counterparts in Somalia, the Al Shabab,” he noted. But it would never have had the power or the amount of local support it seems to enjoy if not for other, more fundamental issues, particularly local alienation over bad governance, he adds. Boko Haram’s ability to carry out attacks across northern Nigeria “has introduced a completely new dimension dimension in religious conflict in our nation, new in intensity and ideology,” he said.

The solution, Onaiyekan says, is for Africans to reach out across national borders and religious lines, compare notes, and insist that the rule of law is applied without discrimination on either ethnic or religious basis.

In Africa, some analysts have said that there is also a political dimension to the conflict. Just before the 2011 election, President Goodluck Jonathan ended an informal agreement within the ruling People’s Democratic Party to alternate presidential candidates between the Muslim north and the Christian south. When the Muslim president Umaru Yar’Adua died in May 2010, and his Christian vice president, Mr. Jonathan, took over, many northern politicians of his own party pushed for a new election, rather than allow a Christian to take on the remainder of Yar’Adua’s term.

Alhaji Adamu Sumaila, a PDP official in the Jonathan administration, put the blame on the opposition, however, saying recently, “opposition members are aiding the insurgency of Boko Haram in Nigeria because they lost power, which forced them to be aiding rebellion against the government.”

Kenyans see parallels

For Kenyans, there are clear parallels, not only in the ethnic battles that followed the 2007 elections, but also in the ethnic scapegoating of Somali Kenyans during the ongoing Kenyan incursion against the Islamist militia Al Shabab inside Somalia.

There is even a secession group in the Muslim-majority coastal region known as the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), which has threatened to use violence because of what is sees as neglect by the Kenyan government.  

It has since threatened to scuttle general elections expected to be held later this year or in 2013.

Sheikh Ibrahim Lithome, the secretary general of the Islamic Foundation of Kenya, uses an African proverb to warn against Kenyans getting complacent about the potential for violence at home.

“The piece of firewood in the storage should not laugh at one [piece of wood] that is burning on fire, because the next thing that will happen is that the piece of wood in storage will be picked up and put on the fire,” said Sheikh Lithome.

Kenyans may feel like the ethnic and religious violence they hear about in Nigeria could never happen at home in Kenya. “All of us know we are not safe from what is happening in Nigeria,” he said.

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