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Archive for October, 2012

Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) – more known as Boko Haram – came in the centre of attention in Nigeria in mid-2009 when they clashed with police squad ’Operation Flush’ in Borno State capital, Maiduguri, resulting in more than 800 deaths. The leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was arrested and killed while in police custody. This followed a pattern of how the Nigerian state has approached similar radical Islamist groups before. This time, however, the strategy resulted in a spiral of violence between Boko Haram, the police, and security forces that is taking an ever more vicious face.

There is a tradition of radical Muslim movements in the north of Nigeria out of which Boko Haram has developed. The group is rooted in north-eastern Nigeria where it has been based since 2002 and where most of their attacks have taken place. Their ideas about creating an Islamic state draw, like other groups in the area, on the Caliphate structure that preceded colonial rule. There is a religious aspect which connects to earlier movements, even if Boko Haram deploys a particularly violent version.

However, the new phenomenon that has created uncertainties about the group is its amorphous structure and the nature of the attacks they pursue. Suicidal attacks are previously unseen in Nigeria and West Africa. High profile targets such as the UN building in Abuja and well-coordinated attacks in January in Kano, in which more than 180 people died, are varied with bomb attempts that have been diverted when plastic bags with homemade explosives have been spotted before exploding.

What also stands out is the capacity to continuously target the security forces and other targets despite killings and arrests of reportedly centrally placed individuals. Later development has seen a broadening of targets, from more or less exclusively focusing on state representatives to also target Muslim leaders seen as cooperating with the government, churches, media houses and, since last month, mobile masts in an attempt to disrupt communications and tracking of their whereabouts.

In all, this has raised the questions of what kind of resources Boko Haram holds and what kind of networks they are engaged in. Boko Haram gives a divided impression of its capacity and several observers point to the fact that there are different groups operating, some more capable than others. And some more connected to the ideological leadership than others, who may have less spiritual reasons for their attacks.

Boko Haram has limited support among people in the region, but they act in a context of widespread poverty, unemployment and inaccessible state functions. Even if these circumstances do not explain why Boko Haram has evolved, they have created the space for the group to operate. The government’s actions have done little to change that. It has responded to Boko Haram in the same way as with similar groups before, such as the Maitatsine movement in the 1980s and the ‘predecessor’ of Boko Haram, ’the Nigerian Taliban’ in 2002 – that is, with force and a mainly militaristic strategy. Police and military have shoot-at-sight orders and young men are arrested indiscriminately in hundreds at a time.

The security agencies have in many places become as big a part of people’s insecurity as Boko Haram. In Damaturu, Yobe State, people have been reported to leave the town in thousands, as they tend to be caught in-between Boko Haram and the security forces. The developments have not only led to increased insecurity but also a militarization of society. The failure of this strategy is even more underlined as the government and the security forces appear to have little capacity to handle the issue. This is exploited by Boko Haram, who rebuts information from state agencies and the government on a variety of issues, ranging from identities of arrested members to whether or not there is a dialogue going on with the government.

Even though there are reports that the new joint military and police task force ’Operation Restore Sanity’ has made hundreds of arrests of claimed Boko Haram members and there are weekly reports of alleged militants being killed, the militaristic strategy have little prospect to succeed in the long run. So far, the heavy handed response has rather resulted in further radicalization of the group. The best that can be achieved is to quell the violence in the short run. Grievances and breeding ground for similar movements are, however, still there.

Northern Nigeria experiences challenges not only in the form of militant movements such as Boko Haram. Relations between Muslims and Christians in northern and central Nigeria have worsened in the last decades. Tens of thousands have been killed in violence between different groups. Boko Haram attacks have targeted Muslims as much as Christians but by attacking churches the group has come to reinforce both a north/south divide nationally on a religious basis and local contention between Muslims and Christians.

Most significantly in places like Kaduna and Jos, where Boko Haram attacks have come into play with local political conflicts that have taken an increasingly religious turn. There have been, in these places, so called ’reprisal attacks’ after Boko Haram bombings. In these attacks, Muslims in general have been targeted on basis of their faith. There is, accordingly, need not only to address the acute threat from Boko Haram but also to find a political strategy that take broader regional and national dimensions into account.

Boko Haram can be seen as a symptom of a dysfunctional state, and a comprehensive solution of the problem involves a transformation of the state itself. Even if Boko Haram would eventually be crushed in a heavy handed strategy there will soon emerge new radical Islamist groups unless efforts are made to address the underlying issues. There is need to reform police and security forces to become credible and functional, but there is also need to have inclusive state services and a strategy for creating conditions for productive lives for people in northern Nigeria.

Henrik Angerbrandt is a doctoral student in political science at Stockholm University. He is at the final stages of his thesis on ethnic and religious conflicts in Northern Nigeria and has followed the region for several years. This post was previously published by NAI forum.

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In speaking about South Africans and their emotions in my previous post it became clear (thanks to the wise words of Mats) that there is a need to discuss the fear experienced (real or perceived) by South Africans in their day to day lives.

Yes, South Africa (SA) is a violent place. Crime levels are high, as can be proven by a plethora of statistics and lived experiences. Recently the OSAC Report on Crime in SA labeled the situation as ‘critical’ in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and Cape Town. Crime Stats SA ‘boasts’ a series of facts relating to crime in South Africa such as “Over 161,000 people have been murdered in South Africa since 2004” and “5900 crimes are reported to the South African Police Service (SAPS) everyday”. Personally I do not know a single person that has not been a victim of some or other crime, several of them particularly violent including armed robbery and kidnapping.

So violent crime does exist in the country and I have no desire to prove that it does not. But to what extent is South African fear (as mentioned at the end of my last post) a product of actual lived crime experiences or of entrenched discourses and narratives that are continually produced along class, geographical, racial and gendered lines?

Any braai (BBQ) or informal gathering you attend there is bound to be a mention of crime, it could stem from something ‘small’ such as someone’s wallet being stolen to talk of corruption and the general ‘rampant’ crime in the country. These narratives are told and retold continually: Visitors are warned against walking around at night, certain areas are labeled ‘hotspots’ for crime, news is filled with grueling details of crimes committed, and the prevalence of private security companies all contribute to the narrative that South Africa is not a safe place and it turn (in my mind at least) contributes to the discourse of fear in the country.

I am considering to what extent narratives such as these serve as self-fulfilling prophecies. I by no means think that South Africans should go into a state of denial, or remove their barbed wire fencing or the pepper-spray safely attached to their key chains. But maybe, through the very talk we speak we reproduce the fear we are hoping to be free of.

I have done a fair share of travelling from the safety of the streets in Sweden and South Korea to cities such as Ho Chi Min City and Bangkok and in all of these places I felt infinitively safer than I have ever felt in South Africa.

Despite warnings by some of my Swedish colleagues that crime does exist in their country I shrug off their concerns and think to myself “they have no idea”. I have put my fear on a pedestal and consider the crime fear of other nations as minor in comparison. The discourse of SA being the country with the most violent crime in the world has not escaped my psyche and I find that strolling down the streets of Bangkok at some ungodly hour a mostly fearless experience.

So the question is, to what extent has our talk of fear and violence in the country generated our fear, fed it like a hungry monster with an insatiable appetite until we have become unable to move from our locked car doors or high fences (if we have the luxury of having them). To what extent has our belief in the violence created it? I wonder, if today, all of SA’s elite and fortunate middle class walked to work (or even to the shops for that matter), if they rolled down their car windows, or if they disabled their alarms, I wonder how long before a narrative of trust would ensue creating a more peaceful environment. Maybe all it takes is a plunge into the dark abyss of crime with a mind that is open to seeing that most people want peace. Maybe a narrative of trust would be a better self-fulfilling prophecy. Or maybe I am just sporting a delusional utopian dream!

Nonetheless, narratives like these are not just a national phenomenon but are also racially and gender determined. Narratives of unruly male youth have escalated and ideas of the black perpetrator and white victim are abound. However, narratives like these blur the reality. Blur the fact that women too can be, and are, also agents of crime in the country and that all races in our diverse country face crime, and of course we cannot ignore the links of crime to issues of poverty and education.

Crime is a prevalent part of our day-to-day lives and has, in turn, become a predominant discourse of our country, but we owe it to ourselves to consider the ways in which this narrative has been simplified and how a more nuanced, liberal, and even critical view of the narrative might open up new avenues of exploration on how to tackle the beast and finally relinquish the monster’s hunger.

Claudia Forster-Towne is a South African student completing an MSc in the Social Studies of Gender at Lund University. Currently she is doing an internship within the Conflict Cluster at the Nordic Africa Institute.

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