"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Boko Haram, Privatized Governance, and Poverty

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Boko Haram, Privatized Governance, and Poverty

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

A few people who read my column two weeks ago thought that, in condemning the emerging tendency in the north to inadvertently shield Boko Haram from responsibility for its senseless mass murder of innocents, I failed to appreciate the increasing complexity of Boko Haram’s identity. 

They point out that instances of the arrest of non-Muslims who attempted to blow up churches or who sent threatening text messages to embassies in Nigeria were sufficient proofs that the suspicion that Boko Haram isn’t all that it has been cracked up to be isn’t groundless.

People who made this argument clearly didn’t read my January 7, 2012 article titled “Boko Haram as an Empty Signifier.” In that article, I wrote: “But it can’t be denied that the current popular conceptions of Boko Haram are not exactly consistent with the original identity of the group. Boko Haram has now transmogrified into a catch-all devil term for any and every violent deed in (northern) Nigeria. When robbers dress in stereotypical northern Nigerian Muslim robes and utter “Allahu Akbar!” before dispossessing their victims, they are ‘Boko Haram’ members. Any church that goes up in flames in any part of Nigeria is invariably attributed to Boko Haram. The Christian man who was caught attempting to burn a church in President Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa while dressed in traditional northern Nigerian attires would have been dubbed a Boko Haram member had he succeeded.”
Abubakar Shekau, Boko Hara, leader
So I am not unmindful of the fact that Boko Haram has now become a franchise, or that it has been indiscriminately invoked to account for many acts of violence it has no knowledge of.  But what I was cautioning against is the growing inclination to get caught up in conspiracy theories to the point of (unwittingly) exculpating the actual, provable mass murders of people by Boko Haram in the name of Islam.

These people grant interviews and even videotape their murders. They recite Quranic verses to justify their reprehensible acts, and sometimes even give warnings of their attacks, etc. Yet some people ignore all that and fixate on instances of non-Muslims caught trying to impersonate Boko Haram. 

In my article, I was inviting us to acknowledge the common threat that faces us all and to strategize on how to contain it. I recognize that it's way cheaper and more convenient to spurn conspiracy theories than to confront uncomfortable truths. But if people can’t, for safety or whatever reasons, condemn Boko Haram, they should at least not give them undeserved comfort by exonerating them when they are clearly the authors of naked violence against innocents.

Again, while I do not have any evidence to absolve the Jonathan government of complicity in Boko Haram’s rising sophistication, I think the government is more incompetent than complicit. It is my deep frustration with the government’s crying ineptitude that compelled me to advocate the privatization of the governance of the Nigerian state.

Of course, my suggestion was made tongue-in-cheek. I know enough to know to that that isn’t even in the realm of possibilities. However, anybody who cherishes the illusion that Nigeria has any sovereignty should read the WikiLeaks cables on Nigerian leaders. They literally take directives on state policies from Western embassies. The only thing they do without consulting their “masters” is the looting of our national treasury. 

The World Bank and the IMF, in fact, have offices in the Presidential Villa. What more is left of our so-called sovereignty? So my point was: if it were really possible to truly privatize governance, we might as well explore that option and stop this mass self-deception that we are independent. 

Democracy has failed us miserably because it can’t even guarantee something as basic as the right to vote out bad leadership; “elections” in Nigeria are routinely won even before they have a chance to take place. And a revolutionary overhaul of the country, while attractive, isn’t practicable. It is the seeming lack of options to get us out of our present morass that compelled me to say in frustration that we should probably hand over governance of our country to whoever in the world can get the country to work. Some people understood me as advocating the re-colonization of Nigeria. No, that was not what I had in mind, although I know it makes no difference to many Nigerians who is ruling them so long as the country WORKS, so long as they can go to sleep every day with their eyes closed.

Some people also thought I minimized the primacy of poverty as an explanatory framework to understand Boko Haram’s violence. My point, however, was that while poverty does indeed contribute to extremism, it alone doesn’t render people vulnerable to manipulation if they weren't predisposed to violence in the first place. A lot of us grew up in poverty, but we would never go kill other people because someone gave us money to do so. Economic status isn't a predictor of predisposition to violence. Boko Haram's original members, after all, were children of big shots in the northeast. A lot of them were undergraduates who terminated their studentship to join Boko Haram. 

I think blaming poverty for violence in the north is so well-worn. It is also bourgeois condescension. It assumes that poor people are unthinking automatons who can be made to go kill people against their wishes. No, poverty doesn’t make people brainless homicidal thugs; indoctrination does. There is no intrinsic relationship between poverty and murderous violence. If poverty alone were the driving force of violence, the world would be extinct by now because the great majority of the world’s population is poor, desperately poor.

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