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