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Poverty in Nigeria fuels Boko Haram—and force will not stop it

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Baba Aye of the Socialist Workers League in Nigeria explains the roots of the Islamist group Boko Haram and says military action against it is bound to fail
Issue 2403
In Maiduguri, the capital of the Nigerian state of Borno
In Maiduguri, the capital of the Nigerian state of Borno (Pic: Jordi Bernabeu Farrus on Flickr)

The kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram has finally roused the Nigerian government into tough speeches. But the kind of action it proposes has already proved to be counter-productive. 

In response to a wave of Boko Haram attacks, the government declared a state of emergency in April last year across the three most northeastern of Nigeria’s 36 states—Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe.

Yet this only increased the levels of violence. 

According to Amnesty International at least 1,500 people have been killed since then—almost half by the military. The extent of army killing of civilians is really scaring people now. 

If we just say Boko Haram bad, government good, we will not understand what is responsible for its growth. Ministers present the Islamist group Boko Haram as a military security issue. But that’s absurd. Social and economic insecurity built it, and it feeds on rising levels of poverty and inequality. 

The group gets support from tens of thousands of people who feel abandoned by Nigeria’s Western-backed elite. That is bigger than most trade unions in the country.

The group fuses sections of the middle class together with some of the poor masses. But a number among the elite also support it. 

Ali Modu Sheriff courted Boko Haram in his successful bid for the governorship of Borno state in 2003. 

Mohammed Ali Ndume has been accused of being its main financier. Both men are senators, a position that carries more status that a British MP.


The middle class provide the group’s ideological leaders, but ­without the poor people who give them cover it would be impossible to keep going. This is true not only in its core areas, such as Borno, but also in the working class district of Nyanya, in the suburbs of the capital.

Boko Haram has a cell operating there which has recently carried out at least two bombings.

The government’s emergency laws must be renewed every six months. But now even some of the local elite are against them because of the upwards spiral of violence. 

Alhaji Murtala Nyako, governor of Adamawa and a former vice-admiral, alleges that the military’s JTS taskforce is engaging in genocide in the areas at the heart of the fighting.

In response, some young men in the Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, are organising a “Civilian JTS”—which has seriously reduced Boko Haram’s activities in the areas where it is active.

This is much preferable to military control, but it’s contradictory. The group see themselves as a civilian extension of the state and don’t yet understand that the state and Boko Haram are two sides of the same coin.

Without the self-activity of the working masses the situation cannot be changed. For us socialism or barbarism is not a question that might arise in the future. It is the choice in Nigeria today.

Baba Aye will be speaking at Marxism 2014 in central London this July.

Nigeria’s corrupt rulers are well taught by the West

The Nigerian state has often struggled to maintain a grip on the country’s provinces.

Ken Saro Wiwa was arrested 19 years ago this month. His Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People was a thorn in the side of multinational oil companies, including Shell. The state executed him and eight others. 

At the time Nigeria was under military rule and the links between the dictatorship and the West shocked the world. Although the labour movement was proscribed in those years, in many ways it was much stronger then—ideologically, politically and organisationally. 

In the 1990s we were fighting in a united front against the military. People generally assumed that once we achieved a civilian government we would get rid of corruption. It did nothing of the kind.

Then we were taking on a corrupt government, but today there are even more layers of corruption. We have the parliament, the executive and the judiciary—and they are all riddled with it. 

This is not intrinsically Nigerian. Western multinationals operating here that are accused of corruption include Siemens, Halliburton, Shell and Chevron. 

The head of the Nigerian central bank was suspended in February after lifting the lid on oil corruption. He said that £29 billion is unaccounted for. The government claims this is untrue—it insists the real figure is just £12 billion.

That explains a lot about our ruling class. Nigeria has the highest rate of return on investment in the world. 

The elite boast that we will soon have the biggest economy in Africa. This has made some Nigerians very rich. But for the vast majority—the poor—living standards are getting worse. 

Over 63 percent of the population live on less than 60p a day. 

President’s moves don’t meet the mood 

Despite protests in Nigeria about government inaction, president Goodluck Jonathan made no comment about the abductions for three weeks—until they became an international news story.

Indeed the day after the news emerged he appeared dancing at a campaign rally. The serious issue is that the elite has no idea how the poor see the world.

The ‘help’ that will hinder

When the US talks about helping the Nigerian government, people should know it has a Predator drone base in Niger which borders Nigeria. But the Nigerian government is wary about giving it the right to overfly its territory. The British government hints that it has sent SAS troops to hunt Boko Haram.

Group built by targeting West

Boko Haram was formed in 2002. It built support by saying the corruption and social divisions in Nigeria are down to the Western values practiced by the country’s elite. 

In the local Hausa language Boko means “fraud”, while Haram is “forbidden by God”. Western ideas are seen as fraudulent. 

Its support appears to be ethnic and regional.


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