By Kinsley Sheteh – A Neo Copernican Review
In the early hours of the 2nd May 2011, US President Obama greeted the world with the news of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most notorious terrorist leader. One thing that was not lost in the drama that ensued through and after the announcement, ranging from the widespread jubilation; assurance that the war on terrorism was not a war on Islam to the hasty burial that was attributed to be in ‘line with the dictates of Islam’, (Whitaker, 2011) was the undertone that the international political scene in the last ten years has had this shadow of a war cast on it. This is a war that from all intents and purposes began as a form of religious extremism and will not simply go away with the killing of Bin Laden. This therefore is not simply about one man but about religion – either interpreted wrongly or misunderstood. Whatever the reasons, religion is making headlines so much in recent years to go unnoticed. For on New Year’s Day of 2011 there was the case of Egypt where a suicide bombing at a church killed 21 people and wounded 79. The Daily Times quotes Time magazine as having written that “for months, al Qaeda militants in Iraq have called repeatedly for attacks on Christians — in retaliation, they say, for the alleged kidnapping and detention by Egypt’s Coptic church of two Christian women who are believed to have converted to Islam” (Daily Times Editorial, 03/01/2011). Meanwhile, in April, the declaration of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the South of Nigeria as winner of the 16 April presidential elections, against his main opponent Mohammadu Buhari from the Muslim-dominated North, was the only signal that the Northerners needed to go out on the rampage and cause the death of over 500 people (The Guardian, 2011).
But the questions that need answering ab initio is whether when a thing looses its essence it can still be rightly called the same thing. If we are in agreement that it is the essence of a thing that gives it being, we are apt to agree that when that essence is lost, that thing should cease to exist. Hence this question could be extrapolated to ask whether when a group becomes extreme and commits heinous crimes and terrorist activities like the recent bombings on Christmas Day in Nigeria, it is logical to keep labeling them ‘Islamist’? How logical is it to label Boko Haram as bad because they are asking for an ‘Islāmic’ State according to Sharia Laws when NATO powers effectively installed a government in Libya that declared it was going to be governed according to strict Sharia Laws? If Boko Haram which claims to be adherents of Sharia are extremist, does it follow that the new government of Libya is extremist? Does this have any bearing on the facts being peddled that arms are leaving Libya to Nigeria? Is the problem really a religious one or religion is simply being used as a pawn in a broader political game to create chaos and division, which could be the prelude to another imperialist intervention in Africa?
Before answering these question, I will like to take a look at how religion has been playing out with politics and development, especially in Africa.
Religion, Politics and Development:
Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, suggests that religion, like morality, should be eliminated if the world were to achieve a new political and economic existence. According to him, “Communism abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on new basis” (1968:52) hence, it would seem therefore that Marx did not simply seek to criticise the logic of religion as a set of beliefs but rather, his criticism sprang from the fact that he saw religion as a hindrance to the realisation of an egalitarian society. His argument was therefore that religion reflects society hence any criticism of religion must of necessity be a criticism of society itself.
These sentiments of Marx were also expressed by different writers in different forms but who all arrived at the conclusion that religion was going to wither away (Bruce, (Ed.) 1992; Aldridge, 2000). The prevailing rationale of such discourse has been underpinned by the four major assumptions of the Westphalian synthesis (Philpott, 2002) that: Political sovereignty lay with the state and the states were the key actors in the International Relations system; states would not interfere in the religious affairs of other states; states increasingly refrained from promoting the welfare of the church; as the functions of the modern state increased, the temporal functions of religious bodies also declined.
It is therefore not surprising that one of the foundations of modern sociological theory is the assumption that the modern world is becoming ever more secular and that religion is dying out or becoming irrelevant to modern life. (Berger, 1969) But it is now apparent that the facts do not bear this out. Even in China, as in the rest of the world, especially in the developing world, religion is evolving dynamically and having a great influence on public life and “…refusing to be condemned to the realm of privatize belief, …is once again reappearing in the public sphere, thrusting itself into issues of moral and political contestation” (Haynes, 1998).
Conventionally, development studies and international political economy focused on the causes of poverty, income distribution, disparity in wealth, and some baseless dichotomies between politics and economics while, religion was viewed as detrimental to progress. More recently, however, far from fading from political relevance, religion has assumed a new and more important, mobilising role in many cultures, including those considered fully ‘modernised’(Haynes, 1998). This has led to a breakdown of the negative view about religion, partly due to the widespread failure of secular development programmes to achieve poverty reduction and end inequality and injustice. Religion is now seen as a potentially crucial to the achievement of developmental aims (Haynes, 1998; 2007).
Setting the Records Straight…
While it may not be difficult to see that religion became divided from politics in the Western world with the increasing rise of secularism, this has not been the case with most third world countries (Haynes, 1998). A case in point is that of Nkrumah who, despite his adoption of Marxist materialism, makes it clear that “strictly speaking …Philosophical Consciencism even though deeply rooted in materialism, is not necessarily atheistic.”(1964, p.84) Nkrumah’s intention was to make his ideology an option for the African to rise up from their slumber and assert the dignity of the African personality. It was his conviction that the African personality is not an exclusive personality but must take cognisance of its historical experiences. This is because;
…with true independence gained… A new harmony needs to be forged, a harmony that will allow the combined presence of traditional Africa, Islamic Africa and Euro-Christian African, so that this presence is in tune with the original humanist principle underlying African society. …A new emergent ideology is therefore required, an ideology which can solidify in a philosophical statement, but at the same time and ideology which will not abandon the original humanist principles in Africa. (Nkrumah, 1964, p.70)
Unfortunately, the level of progress anticipated by Nkrumah did not materialise and this can be said to be partly due to the great divide between theories of development and the practical realities in Africa. It is in the light of this that Haynes (1998) analyses the effects associated with modernisation – socio-economic and political change, involving urbanisation, industrialisation, centralisation of government, and the insertion of national economies of Third World countries into a world political economic system, and comes to the conclusion that the nature of religion is accountable to structural and systematic traits and developments.
It is therefore obvious that the failure of most African nations to be able to forge that harmony that Nkrumah advocated, could be at the base of what is today termed Religious extremism or inter-religious conflict. Let us get back to the case of Nigeria then.
First: Is the Boko Haram a religious group and if so are they Islamic?
The name Boko Haram in Hausa translates to ‘Western education is sacrilege’ while the Arabic interpretation of the Sects’ name is ‘People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’. There is therefore no denying that Boko Haram is a religious group. What however is debatable is whether they are Islamic. The natural tendency for most mainstream media has been to take the easy way out – create news that will be popular no matter how cheap. Yes! Cheap because I have rarely seen a media house questioning how a group can be called ‘Islamic’ simply because they claim they are. At the beginning of this discourse, I made the point that if a thing looses its essence, it ceases to be that thing. If a group comes up claiming to be Muslim or Christian but has a unique interpretation of these religions, all what one has to do is go to the foundations of these religions and verify if their claims tie with the essential creeds of the religion – if they do not, the it is logical to look for another name for them rather than simply qualifying them as ‘extremist’ or ‘fundamentalist’. The fact that a person or group of persons claim to be Muslim or Christian does not make them that. A Muslim is one who lives according to the dictates of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet (and not their personal interpretation of it) while a Christian will be a person who lives according to Biblical principles and inline with the teachings of Christ Jesus. Anything outside of these as St. Paul rightly captures “Comes from the evil one”.
Does Boko Haram bear any similarities with the New Government of Libya?
The answer is yes. First they both claim they want the institution of Sharia. Secondly, they are all rebel movements. The new government of Libya was a rebel movement that was given legitimacy by NATO and her allies. It therefore means that if Boko Haram is only illegal and bad today because it has not received the blessings of a UN Security Council Resolution and the backing of NATO forces – or have they not, perhaps not yet!
Which brings me to the issue of the recent unprecedented sophistication of Boko Haram, a group which can effectively be traced back only to 2002. Where were they all the years following Nigeria’s independence? Why did they not surface during the periods Nigeria was going through one military regime to the other? How did they come to realise they had an ideology to propagate only during the so-called period of Nigerian ‘democracy’? How come Obasanjo, a ‘christian’ president could not stop them but Yar ‘Adua a Muslim was able to get them and get their leader killed only for them to wax stronger during Jonathan another ‘Christian’s’ regime? The answer to these are obvious. During military regimes, it was difficult to simply play a political game hiding under the cloak of religion because religious leaders such as the Emirs somehow had a voice then, and could easily rally the people to denounce such aberrations to their religion. Meanwhile, while Yar ‘Adua as a Muslim was able to forge the harmony needed for Nigeria to move forward, most of the so-called ‘christian’ leaders are not able to do so.
Malam Garba Sani, a senior official at the Nigerian Muslim Forum on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story points out that ”Boko Haram is not only expanding in terms of its area of operation, but also in terms of targets, in terms of strength, in terms of overall ability to strike. However it is only indicative of the level of strength and ability that Boko Haram has. It hasn’t yet elaborated or disclosed the strength of this organisation yet.“ Has anyone paused to question why Goodluck Jonathan was quick to support a no-fly-zone against Libya and one of the first to recognise the National Transition Council? Has anyone questioned why it is that shortly after this recognition, there was a bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja? Has anyone questioned why it is only after the Libyan conflict that Boko Haram has become this sophisticated only in 2011, effectively extending to the capital only in August? Has anyone questioned why it is that Boko Haram until the July 10, 2011, bombing of the All Christian Fellowship Church in Suleja, Niger State and the recent December, 25th bombings been attacking mainly Muslims and government Institutions?
Patrick Wilmot, a Nigerian writer also on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story provides an insight but when he states that “Boko Haram is trying to create the maximum effect in terms of killing large numbers of people. The political effect is to create tensions within the ruling party itself, the PDP, which is a coalition of people from the north, the south, the east and the west and also Christians and Muslims. In the larger society itself, it aims to create more tension between Muslims and Christians, leading to a greater degree of segregation between the populations“.
This viewpoint shows that the original intention was to create antagonism within the political sphere, effectively destabilising the ability of the ruling party to take effective action as Yar ‘Adua did and crushed the group. When this has been somehow achieved given the willingness of the government to play ball in the Libyan case, with President Jonathan consciously or unconsciously providing the backing by supporting the no-fly-zone and recognising the NTC, the next phase is now in operation. Religious antagonism is therefore the trump card.
Gaddafi in one of the messages accredited to him, while denouncing all forms of religious extremism hiding under the cloak of Islam, issued a warning “Do not let them use you. Be united. Build your defences for they are coming if they manage to pass Libya.” This warning was not hearkened to and the result is what we witness in Nigeria today – a very sophisticated Boko Haram which is now capable of creating a religious war in Nigeria. Does that ring a bell? Yes it should. Libya was just the first phase of a bigger game and having passed the litmus test, it seems it is time for Africa to await its recolonization – this time it will be under the guise of humanitarian interventions. The arms crossing from Libya into Nigeria is therefore not a coincidence. It is also not coincidental that arms that leave Libya should be able to find Boko Haram when the group has been and still is seemingly faceless with no known central leadership.
This write-up does not claim absolute knowledge of Boko Haram and neither are the assumptions made here considered dogma. What however I can say with certainty is that whatever the political game being played using Boko Haram, it is yielding dividends. The Nigerian government is gradually loosing the monopoly of violence over its territory and Nigerians are gradually getting to the stage where any tiny spark will ignite a horrible clash between Muslims and Christians. Unfortunately, neither the Muslims nor the Christians will be able to find the source of the problem because the ideology called Boko Haram will become faceless as the country disintegrates into a failed state.
THERE IS CLEARLY A MOVEMENT FROM LIBYA TO NIGERIA – A SHARIA STATE OF REBELS NOW RULE LIBYA AND A GROUP OF REBELS HAVE GAINED PROMINENCE IN NIGERIA WITH THE SAME INTENTION OF INSTITUTING SHARIA. THE ARMS THAT CREATED THE LIBYAN ‘STATE’ IS NOW IN NIGERIA WITH THE OBJECTIVE OF CREATING A BOKO HARAM STATE.
The difference however is that while Libya was small and her case could easily be manipulated using the so-called Arab Spring, Nigeria is so large that unless there is sufficient internal chaos it will be difficult for any external intervention to make headway. Note should be taken then that Boko Haram far from being anything Muslim or Christian is simply a political cancerworm that is being used under the guise of religion.
NIGERIANS BE WISE!
Berger, P.L. (1969). The social reality of religion; London: Faber
Bruce, S. (Ed.) 1992. Religion and Modernisation; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 170-94;
Aldridge, A. (2000). Religion in the Contemporary World. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Haynes, J. (1998). “Religion in Global Politics: Explaining Deprivatization”; A paper For the ‘Religion and Politics’ panel, PSA Conference, Keele University, (April)
Haynes, J. (2007) Religion and Development Conflict or Cooperation? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1975. On Religion Moscow: Progress Publishers, Marx, K. and Engels, F. 1968  , “Manifesto of the Communist Party” in Selected Works Moscow: Progress Publishers, 35-71
Nkrumah, K. (1964) Consciencism, Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonisation with Particular Reference to the African Revolution. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd
Petito F. & Hatzopoulos, P. (eds.) (2003) Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile, New York: Palgrave,
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Whitaker, B. (2011) Bin Laden’s Body Buried At Sea, The Guardian Newspaper, 02/05/2011 Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/02/binladen-body-buried-sea