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.
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