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Baba Aye: Boko Haram is a product of desperate poverty in the North East of Nigeria and a reflection of elite politics played with the mask of ethnicity

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

According to Human Rights Watch, in Nigeria, Boko Haram, the groups most people regard as a terrorist group, have killed in the last six months more than 2,053 civilians. Some people suggest that number has also been reached by the government of Goodluck Jonathan, who some say has killed as many people over the same period, but Human Rights Watch mentions only a few abuses in the same report.

How does all this come to be? Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa now, more than–bigger than South Africa. It’s the sixth-largest oil exporting country in the world. Why such chaos?

Now joining us to talk about the historical roots of all of this is Baba Aye. He’s a trade union educator, deputy national secretary of the Labour Party. He’s the national convener of United Action for Democracy, the largest rights-based organization coalition in Nigeria.

Thanks very much for joining us, Baba.


JAY: So let’s kind of give us a bit of a sense of where things are at now. There’s lots of attention internationally still on the missing girls. There’s this campaign, was on Twitter, international campaign, with “bring back our girls”. You have this recent report on the crimes of Boka Haram, but not a heck of a lot of contextualization about why all this is happening. What don’t you give us a sense of how this came to be?

AYE: Boko Haram represents two contradictory developments, two contradictory phenomena. One is a reflection of the level of poverty, the level of disillusionment and discontent in the part of the country where you have–Boko Haram have their base. That is the northeast. The northeastern part of the country has the highest poverty rate in the country, the highest level of unemployment in the country, and you have the highest proportion of children of school age out of school, elementary school, in the world in the northeast. And that is one aspect of it. And Boko Haram feeds on this discontent. It taps into this disillusionment with the system.

The second part is this: it’s also a reflection of elite politics played with the mask of ethnicity and religion, I mean, primordial sentiments, because while Boko Haram presented itself as some organization fighting against ostentatiousness, fighting against, I mean, Western civilization, in the sense of this being oppressive, so to speak, it also has close ties with ruling members of the state. And it’s rather unfortunate, but it is understandable, because this is part of a pattern that goes back to the decolonization process in the country, where you found different sections of the elites playing up primordial cards so as to be able to win sections of the masses to their side as they battled amongst themselves for who gets the lion’s share of access to the state treasury through access to state power.

And as I’ve argued elsewhere, to understand Boko Haram and where we are now and the possibilities ahead, one needs to situate Boko Haram as an organization, as a phenomenon within a broader perspective of political Islam as one of those elements of elite politics in the country. And as I have said time and again, were Boko Haram to be smashed today militarily, which I think is highly unlikely–it’s very, very improbable. But hypothetically speaking, were Boko Haram to be smashed today, a dozen Boko Harams would arise. As it is presently, you have three well-known splinter groups from Boko Haram, of which the larger of the other two smaller groups is Ansaru, which has targeted foreign nationals specifically, and with particular reference to French nationals. You have these. But in May you also had a totally unknown group in Niger state, which is in the northern region. So you have to situate Boko Haram within a bigger problem, and that problem as part of the dynamics of interclass power play based on interests, economic and political interest of the elites in the country feeding into mass poverty, disillusionment, and anger that is quite palpable not only in the northeastern part of the country but across the country as a whole.

JAY: Baba, why would certain members of the elite want to ally or use Boko Haram–at least in this way: would they have actually supported the kidnapping of these girls, an event that’s obvious going to bring such international attention?

AYE: That’s a very good question. I will say part of the elite supported Boko Haram the way Frankenstein was created, and, I mean, the falcon could no longer hear the cry of the falconer. And what do I mean by this? Let’s talk concretely now. There are documented bases to reach conclusions that in 2003, when Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, for example, was contesting for the office of governor of Borno State, he courted Boko Haram. He courted Boko Haram for two reasons. The first was the mass appeal, so to speak, that Boko Haram had. There are several estimates of the membership strength of Boko Haram before it went underground when the insurgency started in 2009. I will say the most conservative and credible of these put it at over 250,000 persons, I mean, a quarter of a million persons, and mainly based in the axis Borno/Yobe states. So Ali Modo Sheriff was trying to win what was in a sense a mass movement to his support for electoral purposes. And the second part of that coin was that these were also people that had trained, armed men. And in the Nigerian politics, where ballot-snatching is not exactly an exception, he also courted them for the strong-arm tactics that they could to bring to bear to defend his influence.

Now, Senator Ali Modo Sheriff emerged, and apart from resources being made available to Boko Haram, and with which weapons was bought and all that, apart from all this, there was an understanding that it would implement sharia. He actually did implement sharia somewhat after he came to power in 2003. But Boko Haram felt that it didn’t go far enough.

Now, Ali Modo Sheriff is axiomatic of a larger reality. And why do I say this? For example, there is a southern senator in the country of the Federal Republic of Nigeria whom it has been established had regular, I mean, text messages or calls that, I mean, could be very implicative with Boko Haram. Apart from this, also, it is very instructive that the Christmas Day bomber of 2011 who was arrested, Kabiru Sokoto, was arrested for the first time in a governor’s official lodge at the federal capital territory, the official lodge of the governor of Borno State. And eventually–and he escaped in very questionable manner when he was with the police, only to be rearrested subsequently. He has now been jailed for life.

But when you also look at this, it’s not–and I think that that should be perfectly clear, and this is where the argument is correct that the issue goes beyond religion. Religion here is more like the form in which the puppeteer and the puppet–.

JAY: And that was my question. Who’s the puppet? Who’s the puppeteer? Who’s driving–is Boko Haram using these elite politicians or the other way around?

AYE: In this particular case. And that is why I started with the analogy of Frankenstein. It’s a bit more complicated than that. There is a dimension in which you had the elite as the puppeteer and Boko Haram as the puppet, but it’s now a puppet that also came to have a life of its own beyond the designs of the puppeteer.

And a similar thing happened in the Niger Delta. A similar thing happened. But because the movement there took on a more secular garb, it wasn’t seen as a religious problem. And that’s why, yeah, Boko Haram is much more than a religious thing. The same 2003–and I think it’s significant to understand this, in that the Republic was restated in 1999, and when it was restated in 1999, 2003 the elections were conducted under a military regime. Two thousand and three was the first general elections under the Republic, the new republic, the Fourth Republic, as they say, though it’s questionable which was the third Republic [crosstalk]

JAY: This is after years of military dictatorship.

AYE: Yes. The military overthrew the Second Republic on 31 December 1983. And then there was a period of diarchy, which is considered to be the Third Republic, between ’86 and 1993, when a general election by the military was annulled by the–presidential elections was annulled. And then Abacha came to power, and you had a long-drawn period of some of the worst hours, most dark, the darkest hours in the country’s history.

So, now, 2003 marks the first reelection period. And just as you had politicians courting Boko Haram in the north, where it had strength, in the Niger Delta militant activists were courted by the governors. That was how a number of organizations got the resources for militants in the Niger Delta to now assume, you know, that great punch it assumes until the amnesty program under the immediate past president, /əˈladʒi/ Umaru Yar’Adua, who died on May 5, 2010, you know, while in office.

So you see now that either with more secular garbs or with religious garbs, you know, the essential thing was you had a group which had its agenda, its program, but which had some level of mass followership, being courted by the sections of the elite that wanted to tap into the mass followership it had, and also the relatively–it had till before then relatively benign military capacities, you know, but placing resources before such groups, be it Niger Delta militants in the south-south or Boko Haram in the northeast, and then creating a Frankenstein which went further beyond the designs of those elites. So that is exactly the kernal of the problem.

JAY: Now, you’ve written that the martial law that’s been established in three of the northeastern states by President Goodluck Jonathan, that under this there’s probably been as many killed by the state as there have been by Boko Haram. iAnd you’ve talked about the necessity of Nigerians opposing both Boko Haram and the state of emergency. Talk about that, because one would think, given what’s going on there, at least if you look at Western reporting, the state of emergency looks necessary.

AYE: That’s a very good question. And the fact of the matter is this: the state of emergency has not helped matters. It has not helped matters in any way. And I’m happy–before I even go into how it hasn’t, when I wrote–some of my earlier articles on this issue were more like a lone voice in the wilderness. But, incidentally, although, I mean, they might have not necessarily altruistic reasons (and we might come to that later), in the course of the year, this current year–the state of emergency was, I mean, passed in May last year, and it’s been revalidated twice now, because you can’t go beyond six months without being revalidated by the National Assembly–but several elites in the northeast have also come out to speak against it, especially when it was to be revalidated again. I mean, this included a former chief of Defense staff of the Federation, a former chief of Army staff, a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, and so on and so forth.

And the fact of the matter is that during the period of the state of emergency, you have had over 60,000 people displaced. In the course of this year alone, from January till date, we have had close on 4,000 people killed, of which the government forces have killed about as many people as Boko Haram has done. You have had the bulk–you have had a much more sizable chunk of persons–the number of persons, according to the federal government official statistics, that have been killed since this insurgency started in 2009 is over 12,000. And this statement was in April there, where you’ve had a couple of hundred of persons killed or wounded, and with over 8,000 people also crippled.

JAY: So, I mean, the underlying issue, from what I’m getting, is that–especially in the northeast, but it’s true, I guess, in much of the country, is there’s such widespread poverty and desperation, and people find, somehow, some way to fight back. But Nigeria, as I said in the beginning, it’s one of the biggest exporters of oil in the world. Where’s all the money going?

AYE: Aha! Very good question. According to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the anti-graft agency in the country, between 1960 when the country gained independence, on October 1, and this year, over $440 billion have been literally stolen from the coffers of the Federation by the elites, by different sections of the elite. I mean, that gives you an idea of where the money has gone to.

A few–I think a month and a half back, the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, was asked that Nigeria is said to be one of the poorest countries in the world, and you wouldn’t believe what he said. His argument was that how could people say that Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world when you have Nigeria having one of the highest number of persons having personal jets. The richest man in Africa is a Nigerian. He’s richer than anyone in Great Britain, for example. He’s about the 25th-richest person in the world.

So what you have had is this. You have had an infinitesimal few, few, getting stupendously rich while poverty has has stalked the land, while poverty has become the lived realities of the bulk, the immense majority of the population. The percentage of people living below the poverty line as at last year, from the less statistics, official statistics, is 69.5, roughly 70 percent. This is up from 54 percent barely ten years back. So you have poverty increasing while a few, a few people, a few people–. In Nigeria you have, I mean, show rooms of Ferrari, of Lamborghinis. You have a few people that–. And that’s the problem, that is the problem with the country, inequality. You have insensitivity of the government, you have–.

And to make matters worse, this is a country where the elitism lack vision of investing in manufacturing. The oil wealth is so convenient for generating money for them to just dip their hands into and steal that they care less to generate value through production. It’s one of the most awful cases of the rentier states, you know, the resource cost. And so of lot of Nigerians came to the conclusion a long time back that the oil boom actually was more of an oil doom. And you can see it with the lack of vision in the president of the Federation, the head of state (and that was during the military era) Gowon. When the oil boom came–he was overthrown in a coup in 1975. He said then that, I mean, for Nigeria the problem wasn’t money but how to spend the money. And it’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate.

JAY: Okay. None of this takes place without the context of Western oil companies, and of course U.S. policy in Africa. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in the next segment of our interview with Baba Aye. So please join us as we continue our discussions in part two, and thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.


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