Stephen Chan: Religion and World Politics part 12, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. And some of the oth­er great con­flicts in Africa that seem to have a con­fes­sion­al or reli­gious basis. Or do they? Is the much-vaunted issue of reli­gion only one of many fac­tors in play in these seem­ing­ly unstop­pable and seem­ing­ly atro­cious and unend­ing con­flicts in dif­fer­ent parts of Africa? Everyone now has come to an appre­ci­a­tion in very very gen­er­al part of what’s hap­pen­ing in Northern Nigeria. The kid­nap of 279 school­girls from Chibok pro­vid­ed the world’s media with a very strange lens into a con­flict which is in fact of extra­or­di­nary com­plex­i­ty. And quite apart from the 279 school­girls, some­thing like over 2,000 deaths, some­thing like over 20,000 casualties—people maimed, injured, in one way or anoth­er, some­thing like 250,000 peo­ple dis­placed. The num­ber 2 keeps fea­tur­ing in all of this, but there’s an expo­nen­tial sense of loss, an expo­nen­tial sense of a widen­ing tragedy tak­ing place in Northern Nigeria, occa­sioned only by the fact of religion.

But in fact, what you’ve got in this part of Nigeria is not only a residue of a very com­plex colo­nial his­to­ry but a colo­nial his­to­ry which tran­scends even the British era. You’re look­ing at a lega­cy of Islamic colo­nial­ism and out­reach of many hun­dreds of years before the British got there. You’re look­ing at the exis­tence of an inde­pen­dent Bornu king­dom in that part of Nigeria, with its own mem­o­ry, its own assertive­ness of inde­pen­dence, its own lega­cy of a cer­tain iden­ti­ty for the peo­ple in that part which is divorced from the iden­ti­ty of peo­ple in the south­ern part of Nigeria.

So from the very begin­ning, you have com­pet­i­tive his­to­ries. You have com­pet­i­tive eth­nic­i­ties. You have com­pet­i­tive reli­gions. But all of these things put togeth­er in terms of the play and inter­play of these fac­tors under­neath mod­ern con­di­tions in a coun­try of incred­i­ble com­plex­i­ty, incred­i­ble rich­ness, incred­i­ble pover­ty, and incred­i­bly dif­fer­ent approach­es to how gov­er­nance should take place. The bar­gains made, the for­mal sec­tor pol­i­tics and the infor­mal bar­gain­ings that go into what is an every­day aspect of Nigerian life that the infor­mal bar­gains some­times take prece­dence over for­mal bar­gains. And you have a caul­dron of local issues, local dif­fi­cul­ties, local trans­ac­tions, that then merge with the region­al and the inter­na­tion­al. The clear lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tions that obvi­ous­ly exist between Boko Haram on one side of Africa and Al Shabaab in Somalia on the oth­er side of Africa is tes­ti­mo­ny to a com­plex region­al pat­tern. Their link­ages with Saudi Arabia, with Islamic move­ments of a mil­i­tant nature else­where in Iraq, in Syria, all of these things speak of an internationalism.

So you have a com­plex inter­play of all kinds of dif­fer­ent fac­tors and try­ing to reduce it to only an issue of reli­gion is a mis­take. You’re look­ing at an inter­na­tion­al rela­tions here. You’re cer­tain­ly look­ing at issues of mis­un­der­stand­ing, where the Nigerian army has no real intel­li­gence that it wish­es to bring to play in terms of how to han­dle the Boko Haram phe­nom­e­non. You’re look­ing at Northern politi­cians who are in the gov­ern­ment, try­ing to use Boko Haram for their own ends, their own lever­age in nation­al pol­i­tics. And you’re look­ing at Southern politi­cians who’ve got no under­stand­ing of what’s hap­pen­ing up North in a vast coun­try in which prob­a­bly the nation­al project from the very begin­ning was doomed either to fail­ure or to vast peri­ods of com­plex misunderstanding.

If that’s the case in Nigeria it’s even more com­plex in Somalia, where you have a lega­cy of three colo­nial territories—French, British, Italian—coming to inde­pen­dence by vol­un­tary deci­sion on the part of these three enti­ties as one unit­ed nation. But with­in which you have a myr­i­ad of dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal divi­sions as expressed in clan affil­i­a­tions. And the nature of clan rival­ries, of clan trans­ac­tions, and their inter­ac­tions with for­mal gov­ern­ment, and the use of local lever­ages and the use of reli­gion as a fac­tor in local lever­ag­ing, aid­ed and abet­ted by Western mis­un­der­stand­ing of the dynam­ics of what is going on in Somalia, very clum­sy and ill-advised efforts at inter­ven­tion in Somalia, and total­ly ill-advised efforts to impose forms of gov­ern­ment. Forms of mil­i­tary con­trol using age old Somali ene­mies in the Ethiopians as a mil­i­tant and mil­i­tary vehi­cle of try­ing to put down Islamist” move­ments. And pan­ick­ing on the part of the Islamic courts union, which was bring­ing some form of legal sta­bil­i­ty to a coun­try wracked in a form of anar­chy. And in putting down the Islamic courts union giv­ing rise to its most rad­i­cal part. And that is Al Shabaab.

Al Shabaab nev­er­the­less refus­es to go away. It com­mits atroc­i­ties. It has a very very ear­ly, stark, puri­tan­i­cal form of Islamic law. And yet for some strange rea­son, despite the inter­ven­tion of for­eign armies, not only armies from Ethiopia but also armies from Kenya, it does­n’t go away. It spills over bor­ders and attracts adher­ents in Kenya itself. It’s able to attack shop­ping malls in the neigh­bor­ing coun­try of Kenya. It’s able to have an imprint through­out the entire coun­try and through­out the entire coun­try that speaks to more than sim­ply a reli­gious belief that is in some ways sim­plis­tic, volatile, and hor­ren­dous. It speaks to an affil­i­a­tion that goes deep­er than that. It speaks to a dis­sat­is­fac­tion with for­mal gov­ern­ments. And it speaks to the via­bil­i­ty, no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult we find it to be able to see this, of Al Shabaab as an alter­na­tive vehi­cle of governance. 

Now, things must be pret­ty frus­trat­ing for peo­ple, we might think, to turn to a group like this as an alter­na­tive to what is meant to be in place. But the sheer hor­ri­ble­ness of what is in place, and the sheer des­per­a­tion of seek­ing for some­thing else, which all the same has got to be able to artic­u­late itself in for­mal terms that seem sen­si­ble even if hor­ren­dous, point to a huge gap in our under­stand­ing of this part of the world and the inter­ac­tion of reli­gion and politics.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course infor­ma­tion

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.