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Gordon Campbell on New Zealand’s role in combatting Boko Haram

May 15th, 2014

Yesterday’s street protests in New Zealand main city centres about the kidnap of 276 girls in Nigeria by the fundamentalist group Boko Haram were a reminder of the problems New Zealand has in its stance towards terrorism. On the evidence, New Zealand is far more zealous and competent about gathering and sharing sweeping surveillance data (a) on its own citizens and (b) on the leaders of friendly nations, than it is in combatting the threats posed by real, live terrorists. It has always been this way. Our spies didn’t detect, much less forewarn us about the Rainbow Warrior bombers and –as shown below – New Zealand twiddled its thumbs for seven months before finally getting around to designating Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, even though global conformity with such designations is essential to shutting off their sources of funding.

Yesterday, the public learned from Glenn Greenwald’s new book No Place To Hide about the extent of this country’s involvement in mass surveillance via the Five Eyes network, which has included sharing in espionage-derived information about the leader of Brazil. This spying was carried out by the Canadian spy services on behalf of the Americans, with whom Brazil has been engaged in trade disputes – and was then shared with New Zealand. (There will be more on Greenwald’s book in a subsequent column.) On the issue of Boko Haram, New Zealand has not been the only country dragging its feet. Hitherto, world opinion had taken in its stride the slaughter of 40 schoolboys at the Gujba School of Agriculture last year, and also the massacre of a reported 300 residents of the northern Nigerian town of Gamboru Ngala a fortnight ago. Belatedly, the capture of the girls has finally galvanised the world to respond to Boko Haram.

As mentioned, it was only six weeks ago that New Zealand got around to designating Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, although the US had done so in September 2013. Even the US had been criticized for being too tardy, given Boko Haram’s long track record of violence, which included its role in the lethal bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja in 2011. Yet reportedly, the US reluctance to designate Boko Haram was deliberate, and had been at the behest of the Nigerian government:

The FBI, the CIA and various lawmakers argued for its inclusion [on the UN-designated terrorism list] but Nigeria’s government, which Boko Haram is trying to topple, argued against it, as did academic experts on Nigeria….Opponents figured the designation would elevate the prestige of Boko Haram, which was essentially a domestic Nigerian organization. Instead, [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton in 2012 put three of the group’s leaders on a list of foreign terrorists. After Boko Haram killed more than 160 civilians in Benisheik, Nigeria, in September 2013, Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, finally put the group on the terror list — and Boko Haram’s brazen attacks continued unimpeded.

So what is Boko Haram – and what is the context for their rebellion? The group’s strongholds are in northern Nigeria, and it identifies itself as “The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.” Taken together, “Boko” and “Haram” in Hausa loosely convey the meaning: “Western education is sacrilege.” Although the group makes no bones about being a resistance movement pitted against Western values and influences, some observers believe its actions and support base are also grounded in factors other than religion. Also, as Amnesty International has reported, some of the atrocities committed recently in northern Nigeria have been committed against Boko Haram, and its alleged followers and sympathizers.

Nigeria is no stranger to factionalism. In the 1960s, the southeast of the country – which called itself Biafra – tried unsuccessfully to secede from Nigeria in a civil war that claimed over a million lives. At the outset, “Nigeria” was a country created by the British out of a diverse region of over 300 languages and at least three main tribal groupings with differing traditions of self –governance. The Igbo comprise 60–70% of the population in the southeast; the Hausa/Fulani account for two thirds of inhabitants of the northern part of the country, and the Yoruba comprise about three-quarters of the peoples in the south-western region.

As mentioned, Boko Haram is based in northern Nigeria among the Hausa-Fulani, and tribal traditions may be relevant to Boko Haram’s current mission and modus operandi:

The semi-feudal and Islamic Hausa-Fulani in the North were traditionally ruled by a feudal, conservative Islamic hierarchy consisting of Emirs who, in turn, owed their allegiance to a supreme Sultan. This Sultan was regarded as the source of all political power and religious authority…..The Hausa-Fulani commoners, having contact with the political system only through a village head designated by the Emir or one of his subordinates, did not view political leaders as amenable to influence. Political decisions were to be submitted to….a chief function of this political system was to maintain Islamic and conservative values, which caused many Hausa-Fulani to view economic and social innovation as subversive or sacrilegious.

If that sounds like a historical context unlikely to welcome Western-backed intervention, that’s because it is. Yet the foreign friends of Boko Haram are not an argument for doing nothing, either. Northern Nigeria borders on Chad and Niger – through which Boko Haram has supply links with the Algerian –created al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which is the regional representative of the al-Qaeda franchise.

AQIM is part-funded by conservative charities based in Saudi Arabia, and Boko Haram may get funding from those same sources. Kidnapping and ransom are important to both groups – with ransoms providing an estimated 90% of AQIM’s funds. Reportedly, Boko Haram also extorts money from the regional governments in northern Nigeria. Not that the group doesn’t have its own internal problems. Boko Haram has always been a loosely structured grouping of fairly autonomous cells, and it has been riven with internal divisions ever since its founder Mohammed Yusuf was killed in 2009. A disaffected splinter group (called Ansaru)
killed seven foreign workers in 2013
, and attempts have reportedly been made to depose Boko Haram’s current leader, Abubakar Shekar.

For now, towns across the entire north of the country remain vulnerable to Boko Haram attacks, given the lack of any significant military presence in the region by the Nigerian army. Any successful military response to Boko Haram would have to be Nigerian-led and/or entail a force assembled by ECOWAS – the grouping of 15 West African states to which Nigeria belongs. Last year ECOWAS sanctioned a force to intervene in the conflict in Mali, after Islamic fundamentalist groups had over-run the northern region of that country. Conceivably such a force could also quietly use foreign special forces units.

On that score, Nigeria is after all, a member of the Commonwealth. On Monday, Prime Minister John Key confirmed that no request for our special forces has been received from Nigeria; nor, when asked, did he think it desirable for New Zealand to offer SAS special forces to counter Boko Haram. Other countries, Key said, were better placed to do so.

So, the liberation of the kidnapped girls will probably have to rely on negotiations, which will involve the payment of ransom and prisoner exchanges. Yet having apparently converted a large number of these Christian girls to Islam by force, it is hard to see how the Boko Haram’s leadership could conceivably hand them back into a sacrilegious context.

Swamp pop, revisited
Geography is power, and what a great deal the Louisiana Territory proved to be. The US paid Napoleon only $15 million (2013 equivalent: $236 million) to buy Louisiana from France in 1803. The deal gave the US absolute control of the internal river system and coastal port that proved crucial to it becoming a 19th century trade colossus and eventual global superpower…The role of geography in putting the US on the path to world domination is brilliantly explained here.

The cultural payoff was immense, too. Jazz, New Orleans rhythm and blues, Cajun zydeco, the great 60s soul music and gospel that emerged from the city of Shreveport can all be traced back to the Louisiana Purchase. So can swamp pop. (History is a long river.)

As an antidote to the world of Boko Haram, I’ve chosen two resolutely sunny swamp pop numbers. Rufus Jagneaux for instance, was a band that nearly had a nationwide hit in 1974 with a happy, once heard/never forgotten track called “Opelousas Sostan”. Translation: “Opelousas” is a town west of Baton Rouge, and “Sostan” is the Cajun version of the French masculine name ‘Sosthene.’ So, the title is a Cajun version of a name like Texas Pete, or Amarillo Slim. Unfortunately though, the language barrier proved too tough to conquer, and “Opelousas Sostan” ended up being merely a regional smash hit in southern Louisiana. Finally…in the late 1950s, Johnnie Allen was the acknowledged king and originator of swamp pop, and this strolling, carefree number is one of his best efforts.


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