Unlike groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (also known as Daesh), Boko Haram and other insurgent groups in sub-Saharan Africa are less frequently, and much more selectively, cast as terrorists. Instead, terrorist bombings, civil wars and other violent events on the African continent are easily dismissed, accepted, or characterized as quotidian, simply part of the consequences of the incapacity and inability of Africans to govern themselves.
On Saturday March 7, 2015 Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS. Although the news made global headlines in much of the western media and elsewhere, on the African continent the announcement was only significant as a public confirmation of what had long been an open secret: that Boko Haram was as much a terrorist group as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any other group across time and space that has targeted innocent civilians in order to make a political statement. In spite of the similarities in the modus operandi and ideologies of Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram, however, and in spite of the fact that Boko Haram has killed as many people as ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the group is less often referred to as a terrorist organization and much more frequently regarded as one of the numerous insurgent groups that have contributed to an erroneous and monolithic image of Africa as a continent of instability and conflict.
This piece sheds light on this inconsistency, approaching the politics of terrorism in Africa in terms of how political violence against poor, defenseless, civilians is conceived by belligerent groups on the continent. The piece also discusses the duplicity with which the murderous actions of ostensible terrorist groups in Africa are externally perceived within prevailing western discourses and often charitably contrasted with terror groups elsewhere, especially in a securitized post-9/11 world that prioritizes the lives of westerners over others.
I argue that the reason why Boko Haram and similar murderous groups in Africa’s recent past are infrequently cast as terrorist entities that pose a viable threat is because their victims have mainly been their fellow Africans. From the Mau Mau in pre-independence Kenya to the African National Congress in Apartheid South Africa, there is abundant evidence to support an assertion that insurgent groups on the continent have only been readily labeled “terrorists” when their victims have been white or non-African, or when they have posed a threat to western interests, such as oil in Algeria. Interestingly, while ignoring the diverse sources of global terror, members of the Republican Party recently insisted that President Obama intertwine Islamism with terrorism during the White House Summit on countering violent extremism. The calls once more evidenced the strident hypocrisy with which many in the West have selectively labeled violent extremism to suit their expectations and political needs.
Such debates over terminology are telling, and indicative not only of the way in which terrorism is conflated with Islam but also the indifference with which the rest of the world accepts political violence, such as the one perpetrated by Boko Haram, as part of the everyday in Africa. The conflicts have also conditioned Africans themselves into polarizing conceptions of political order as exemplified by the violence of Al-Shabaab and other competing groups in the destroyed former Somalian state.
Indeed, many among Africa’s most notorious terrorists such as Jonas Savimbi, Charles Taylor, Joseph Kony and Foday Sankoh were called anything but terrorists in the prime of their murderous deeds. Thus, Taylor and Sankoh were frequently referred to by the rather venerated or predictably ethnic titles of “warlords,” or the troublemaking monikers of “insurgents,” yet rarely terrorists. Jonas Savimbi, an infamous terrorist in Angola who was responsible for the death of thousands of his fellow Angolans, was once welcomed to the White House by the Reagan administration. It should be pointed out that Savimbi’s UNITA “terrorists” laid more landmines that maimed or killed innocent civilians than any other fighting force in the history of Africa. One can be fairly certain that American taxpayer money contributed to that ignominious record, in spite of the Cold War rivalry that many would like to deploy to defend American excesses in that part of the world during the period in question.
Much more recently, as Foday Sankoh and his dreaded Revolutionary United Front terrorists chopped of limbs, disemboweled pregnant women and terrorized their fellow Sierra Leoneans such as myself for over ten years, the closest anyone in the West came to calling them anything deserving of their terrifying reputations was “rebels.” Indeed, of all the insurgent groups in Africa since the 1950s, only groups fighting white-minority governments for the right to self-determination, groups such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, the Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front and the Zimbabwean African People’s Union forces in Zimbabwe, and the ANC in South Africa were readily and regularly referred to as terrorists. In the 1970s and 80s, the United States infamously placed the African National Congress on an international terror watch list. It was truly one of the head scratching moments in the history of the United States’ international relations. The “terrorist” label assigned to Nelson Mandela and other ANC officials was not removed until well after the ANC attained power in South Africa in 1994, and only following an embarrassing diplomatic faux pas for the United States State Department after Mandela visited the United States in the official capacity of the leader of a friendly country who also happened to be on the “terrorist” watch list.
Earlier this year, while the world’s attention was captivated by the gruesome attacks on the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a far-greater massacre in scale (if one counts the proportion, not the assigned value, of human lives lost) unfolded several thousand miles away in Baga, a small town in northern Nigeria. According to eyewitness accounts, an estimated 150-2000 people were gruesomely slaughtered over a period of about three nights, from January 3 through January 7, by Boko Haram forces.
The carnage at Baga was one of the sharpest spikes in a long series of Boko Haram massacres in Nigeria extending back to 2009 that have so far left over 13,000 people dead, millions displaced, and countless communities devastated in Africa’s largest economy and its most populous country. Boko Haram has continued its reign of terror since Baga, and the terrorist group has now extended its killing fields across the borders of Nigeria into neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. All three neighboring countries have since joined Nigeria to launch a major offensive against the terrorist group. The African Union has also approved plans to send more troops to join the fight against Boko Haram.
The destruction of lives at Baga and the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris elicited quite different, and fascinating, responses in the media. In multiple ways, the varying responses were reflective of how differently terrorism on the African continent has been perceived and received, in contrast with terrorism taking place elsewhere. Whereas world leaders raced to France in the days following the massacres to stand with the French people in solidarity against terrorism, no one offered to make a similar trip to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to stand with Nigerians in solidarity against “terrorism,” or to comfort survivors of what was one of the worst atrocities ever to be committed by a terrorist group anywhere in the world. Indeed, even the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeking reelection from the people of Nigeria, reportedly first offered his condolences to France for the Charlie Hebdo attacks before making the first public comments about the massacres at Baga in his own country. It was the kind of duplicitous reaction one has come to expect in a stratified global community that attaches varying values to human lives, and one that firmly locks Africans and other residents of the developing world into a status and place of third-class global citizenship.
Thus, it is far easier for most observers to humanize violent events and empathize with victims elsewhere at the same time as they are indifferent to similar sufferings of Africans. Of course, global media quickly labeled the Charlie Hebdo attackers “terrorists” and “Islamic radicals” who appeared “well-trained.” On the other hand, the most common epithets for Boko Haram, so far, have been “militants,” “Islamists,” or “insurgents.” Only a few observers describe the incessant atrocities perpetuated by Boko Haram in global media as “terrorism” with any regularity. A recent report in the New York Times, for example, did not once refer to Boko Haram as “terrorists.”
The closest the world came to standing in solidarity with the victims of terrorism in Africa and the sufferings of the Nigerian people was via the hashtag #Bring Back Our Girls, which sprang up on Twitter following the abduction of over 200 innocent Nigerian girls from their boarding school by Boko Haram in 2014. The solidarity was as fleeting as it was fruitless, as some observers have pointed out. The hashtag now largely resides in the deep recesses of the Internet where the occasional troll fishes it up for new memes.
Many have long since dismissed the killings in northern Nigeria as religious, regional, or ethnic strife without accounting for the gaps in the evidence that point to much more than sectarian differences. Why, for example, has the group equally targeted moderate Muslims and non-Muslims in the region? A majority of the victims of the terrorist group have been the people of northern Nigeria, not the assumed political rivals of southeastern Nigerians from the predominantly Yoruba and Ibo ethnic groups. Another confounding detail is why Boko Haram occasionally has released some of their hostages while showing little mercy to others. The inescapable fact is, and should be, that politics in Africa is not unlike politics elsewhere. Political violence occurs less over religious or other ideology on the continent than over processes of public goods distribution and access to resources. Political scientists and economists advise that we must ask who benefits in every situation of public goods distribution, or why the process of distribution breaks down and results in violence in some contexts and not in others. In the case of Boko Haram, we must be prepared to look beyond the limited primordial explanations that have been offered by much of the western media and ask perceptive questions about who is benefiting from, or is likely to benefit from, the breakdown in political order in the northern region of Nigeria in order to begin to understand and find solutions to the problem.
As some observers have questioned, “where does Boko Haram obtain their weapons and equipment?” In several media appearances, Boko Haram elements are shown against the backdrop of gleaming new Toyota trucks and the occasional captured armored personnel carrier of the Nigerian military. Where does Boko Haram acquire new vehicles and weapons with which they attack poor villagers? With regards to access to the Internet, you do not have to be a geography buff to know that Boko Haram’s main areas of operation are some of the most isolated territories in Nigeria. Yet someone who stands to benefit from the terroristic actions of Boko Haram has been dutifully and diligently uploading the group’s videos and messages to the Internet, such as the most recent message of March 7thannouncing the group’s allegiance to ISIS.
According to scholars of insurgencies in Africa, rural insurgencies are more often than not elite-led undertakings that originate from the fallout of urban competition for resources. Compared to urban elites, it is much more difficult for rural dwellers to organize due to collective action problems in rural communities and the relative lack of education to overcome such dilemmas. If the terrorism perpetrated by Boko Haram were a truly local affair, where did Abu Bakar Shekau, the mysterious purported head of the group, who has been described as lacking any form of formal education, acquire the resources to launch a military campaign that has been sustained for over half a decade? Part of the answer to this question lies in the same places in the Middle East and the Gulf States, where ISIS have also obtained their funding. Now that Boko Haram has openly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, maybe the media will, from now onwards, consistently refer to the terrorist group in northern Nigeria as such. The change in terminology might be smaller in the scheme of things, but it will reflect a symbolic change of attitude and an awareness of the scale of the problem facing the global community, not just the western world.
In the search for solutions, we need not look any farther than in places such as the United States Congress where a treaty that was supposed to curb the international trade in small arms sat delayed for many years awaiting ratification. The influential gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, and their largely Republican sympathizers in the United States Congress have continually opposed the passage of the bill to serve their common interests. Ironically, the pro-gun rights coalition cobbled together primarily by conservatives in America helps puts the interests of such groups on the same page as the global terrorists they detest as threats to western values. Consequently, it is such missteps that allow bona fide terrorist groups such as Boko Haram to flourish. Indeed, what’s in a name?
Image Source: Wikipedia
- Interestingly, on the morning following Boko Haram’s announcement of its pledge of allegiance to ISIS, I followed the media rounds among the various broadcast channels and found that all commentators were much more likely to label Boko Haram as “terrorists” similar to ISIS, than had been the case before the announcement.
- See for example, Caroline Elkins. 2005. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- See for example, Aregawi Berhe. 2004. “The Origins of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.” African Affairs 103: 569-592; see also Morten Boas and Kevin C. Dunn. 2007. (Editors). African Guerillas: Raging Against the Machine. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
- See Heather Deegan. 2009. Africa Today: Culture, Economics, Religion, Security. London and New York: Routledge; pp. 148-197