The imperialist legacy of Boko Haram

The widespread poverty and deprivation from Nigeria's neocolonial legacy has created a fertile recruiting ground for Boko Haram's Islamist insurgency, responsible for thousands of deaths as well as the recent mass kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls.

Submitted by Steven. on June 1, 2014

Exactly a year ago President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Nigeria’s north-eastern states to combat the insurgency of Boko Haram. He received backing from the United States which put the group on its list of terrorists. Neither step seems to have been very effective. Alongside the well-publicised abduction of 260 plus girls from their school in Chibok, Boko Haram has killed over 2265 people, tripling the number of their victims since 2009. With elections due in 8 months it is not what the Nigerian government really wanted the world to see. They want instead to focus on Nigeria’s “economic success”.

With a GDP now recalculated as $509 billion a year Nigeria has just passed South Africa as Africa’s largest economy[1]. Under the current finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank managing director, foreign capital has flowed into the country.

More than $21 billion of foreign direct investment poured into Nigeria in 2013, up 28% from the year before. The country has attracted the most foreign direct investment in sub-Saharan Africa since 2007, according to Ernst & Young.[2]

And for all the headlines captured by Boko Haram’s atrocities in Chibok and Jos in the last few weeks the confidence of the big banks has not been shaken. The Nigerian Stock market has only declined 1% largely because the returns on investment there are considered to be so much higher than elsewhere. Nigerian government propaganda claims a return of 30% for foreign investors. No wonder Jon O’Neil (the former Goldman Sachs investment parasite who coined the terms BRICs) has put Nigeria amongst the next most promising group of so-called MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) who, with their “market-oriented” policies, could achieve “growth rates to match that of China”.

In formal terms perhaps they can, but for those of us not controlling huge swathes of finance there is something chimerical about this growth. We have been hearing for decades that with the end of colonialism the ex-colonies would become self-sustaining economies approaching something like the same standard of living to be found in the nations of their old imperialist masters. They used to be called “developing countries” or “countries on the way to development” but now the country bit has been dropped and they are simply “emerging markets” – places where the already rich can invest and get richer but the populations either don’t get a better standard of life or the quality of life has declined as a function of the globalised capitalist market.

Nigeria is a case in point. Despite having a GDP supposedly approaching that of Sweden, 62% of its population (105 million people) live below what the World Bank defines as the poverty line[3]. Even this cool statistic gives little idea of the desperation of the situation of the poor. Only half the population have access to drinkable water or sanitation. The World Bank’s definition of poverty is distorted to make it look as though globalised capitalism is dragging the working class of the world up by its bootstraps or, as UN Millenium Project Director Jeffrey Sachs puts it, “sweatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty”.[4] In fact at $1.25 a day the definition of the poverty line (the line below which it is impossible to lead a dignified life) adopted by the World Bank is so low that

If applied to Britain, this would be equivalent to 37 people living on a single minimum wage, with no benefits.[5]

By this definition “dignity” does not come into it. And Sachs’ assumption that you have to be in the monetised world to be “wealthy” misses out one salient point. Most people in the rich agricultural area of Northern Nigeria were better off as subsistence peasants under colonialism than they are today. And if we go back to a time when imperialism had not reached Africa they were probably, in terms of the quality of life, better off still. And we are not arguing that this time was a “golden age”. Far from it, but today it is capitalism, with its imperialist imperatives, assisted by local kleptocratic élites, which is blighting the lives of billions of the World’s population like never before. And if Nigeria is a showcase of what capitalist development means then you don’t have to look very hard to see why a fairly disorganised, poorly armed (at least until recently), and supposedly fractured outfit like Boko Haram, have found some fertile soil for their cause.

The North

The Federal Republic of Nigeria, like most of today’s modern so-called “nation states”, is an artificial product of imperialism and colonialism. Over a century ago the British amalgamated something like 200 different linguistic and 500 tribal groupings within the boundaries of today’s state. The very artificiality of the construct was shown only 7 years after “independence” in 1960 when the South eastern region tried to secede as Biafra, This was after Moslem massacres of the mainly Christian Igbo people there following an army coup in 1966. It led to a bloody civil war in which Britain, Israel and the USSR armed the Federal Government whilst a few other states, but most notably France, discreetly sold arms to Biafra. As a result of this slugfest for arms manufacturers 1 million died from war and famine in the three years before the Biafrans were crushed.

At the time of independence the North of Nigeria with its minerals and rich soil for agriculture provided the bulk of Nigeria’s revenues but the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta meant that the vast bulk of mainly foreign investment was subsequently diverted there. The main oil discoveries (1973) came just too late for the Biafran separatists, but they have played a major part in distorting the Nigerian economy and its political system ever since. Whilst the bulk of the population lives in abject poverty, with life expectancy averaging 52 years, a new generation of billionaires has emerged centred around the oil wealth which accrues to the state. The state in turn disburses the contracts to private firms which under the Indigenisation Decree all have to be in partnership with “native Nigerians” (that’s what “nation-building” in the ex-colonial world is all about). Given that Nigeria has been ruled for 33 of its 54 years of existence by military dictators, who have all enriched themselves whilst in power, it is not surprising that corruption has become the normal state of affairs.

The assumption of state power by military commanders and top civil servants did not eliminate the politics of resource allocation. It simply changed its form. Access to opportunities was now controlled, not by elected politicians with constituents to reward but by military governors … At both federal and state level resources were allocated by a clique of insiders … Bureaucrats act as “gatekeepers” ... As they open and close the gate they can exact a toll on the exchange.[6]

This did not change with the restoration of civilian rule in 1999. However, it has become more complex. It operates in various guises such as clientilism (they call it prebendalism in Nigeria) where the control of some aspect of the oil extraction business gives the local cacique the ability to buy support. Or it can be via outright nepotism since traditional tribal ties demand that you see to the promotion of the extended family. All political parties operate on this basis which, as elections approach, is supplemented by extra-judicial killings of opponents and bribery of officials charged with running the election. According to Transparency International’s 2012 report Nigeria ranks 139th out of 176 nations as one of the most corrupt states on the planet. The current President, Goodluck Jonathan, is a product of this system and has a dominant position in the political process with his party holding two thirds of the seats in both chambers. So when the Governor of the Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, announced that there was $20 billion missing from the accounts of the state petroleum companies books over a 19 month period, Jonathan’s response was not to investigate the crime but to sack the one who exposed it (despite the fact that he had no constitutional power to do so). Independent international economic experts have analysed the figures presented by Sanusi and have supported him. Sanusi himself may have earlier sealed his fate by pointing to the distorting effect that oil wealth has had on Nigeria, and particularly the neglect of the North.

You've got so much poverty in the north because people have been thinking of Nigeria as an oil economy. If instead they thought, this is an economy that is rich in minerals, that's rich in agricultural potential, but that's landlocked and that needs to have links to the coast, you'd have a different developmental agenda.[7]

But the oil monoculture is what greases the wheels of the system so nothing has been done in half a century of independence to alter that. Not only are there no roads worth the name, but there is not even reliable electricity anywhere in Nigeria. 75% of Nigerians are very poor but there are three times as many of them in the North as in the South. And Goodluck Jonathan’ career path is not one that equips him to deal with the insurgency of Boko Haram in the North.

Boko Haram

The official unemployment level for Nigeria is around 23% but this is obviously an underestimate. In one recent account 1 million Nigerians were said to be in pursuit of just 5,000 jobs. Throughout Nigeria state education is free but is not considered adequate so that less than 30% of school places are filled. In the North it is even less and in the 12 states where sharia law has already been operative for up to 14 years, female literacy is 5%.

Needless to say the bulk of the unemployed are to be found in these Muslim states of Northern Nigeria. Here international agencies with their “market-oriented” and budget balancing agendas have made matters worse. Until recently there were some state industries in Kano and Kaduna but these have been shut down on the grounds of “inefficiency” despite the fact that the debt burden of the Nigerian state is now only 12% of GDP. Since 2007 manufacturing and agricultural production have both declined as contributors to overall GDP and have been replaced by a growth in telecoms and “other services”. It seems a bizarre world where most have a mobile phone but only half have access to a toilet or clean water. But this contradiction is nothing compared to the glaring gulf in wealth and opportunity. Whilst the mass of the population’s lives are dominated by illiteracy, malnutrition, disease (Nigeria is one of the few states which has not yet eradicated polio) and squalor, a few of those in the corridors of power cart away cash in billions of dollars. Public officials steal without a trace of repentance, since nobody is punished and nobody is jailed.[8]

It is not therefore surprising that in such material conditions an organisation should spring up which claims to identify the source of all Nigeria’s problems. Sometime after the US attack on Afghanistan a group calling itself “Taleban” was formed in the north east of the country. About a year later, in 2002, this obscure Salafist group was led by a charismatic, but not too well-educated preacher called Mohammed Yusuf. It called itself the People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad. Hausa locals found that a bit of a mouthful so nicknamed it (perhaps satirically) “Boko Haram” (or “Western education is forbidden”). To say that it is obscurantist is no exaggeration. It looks backwards to an idealised Islamic past although like other modern Islamic radicals, such as those who tried to destroy the centre of Islamic learning in Timbuktu a couple of years back, it does not revere the scholarship of that past. It campaigns for an extension of sharia law to all Nigeria, blaming all Western influences for the situation in which the country finds itself. It was not originally violent but its anti-western agenda appealed to many young (men) who found themselves without jobs or lives without meaning.

In 2009 the group seems to have become frustrated that the local government in the north-eastern state of Borno would not adopt sharia law so launched an armed uprising there. The Nigerian Army reacted with brutal and indiscriminate ferocity, killing innocent civilians as well as Boko Haram members. They captured Mohammed Yusuf and murdered him, declaring that Boko Haram had been defeated. In fact it now passed under the leadership of Yusuf’s deputy Abubakar Shekau who formed links with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, probably involving some training, financing and weapons procurement. However these links should not be exaggerated and judging from the silence in 2014 Boko Haram’s atrocities have not won the approval of other jihadists linked to al-Qaida. Indeed it appears that they are increasingly divided with a new group Ansaru being formed which has condemned Boko Haram’s indiscriminate killing of both Muslims and Christians as “un-Islamic”.

The civil war that has now raged for 5 years has now gone beyond the three poverty-stricken north eastern provinces (Yobe, Borno and Adamawa) where Boko Haram is based. The Army is now deployed in 25 of Nigeria’s 36 states. The consequences of the civil war for the local populations have, as always, been dire. 12,000 have been killed and at least 300,000 have become refugees both within and without Nigeria’s borders. The Army which began the campaign with brutal bravado and indiscriminate massacres (all denied by the Government but all confirmed by Amnesty International) is regarded by north-easterners as no better than the insurgents. Now soldiers are so scared to enter Borno that troops posted there recently mutinied after 11 of them were killed in an ambush. The corruption which is endemic to the society is nowhere more obvious than the Army. Once seen as the “best” in West Africa and deployed on many peace-keeping missions it has degenerated over the last few years, despite an increase in its budget to $5.8 billions. No-one seems to know where this money goes. They spent $15 million a few years back to buy drones which have heat-seeking devices from Israel. They would have been useful in tracing the Chibok girls but they have never been used because no maintenance has ever been carried out on them. And now they seem to be outgunned by Boko Haram, which includes child soldiers in its ranks, and seems to be getting more sophisticated weapons believed to have crossed the Sahara after the fall of the Ghaddafi regime in Libya. With the Army’s reputation for committing atrocities such as summary execution, rape and mass murder well documented[9], Western states have been more reluctant to send arms and know-how compared to the good old Cold War days when massacring Biafrans was no problem.

But the hashtag campaign #Bringbackourgirls initiated by the parents of the kidnapped girls which began as an attempt to pressure the Nigerian Government may have stirred consciences amongst the rich and powerful in the West. Unfortunately this has not really been good news for the girls. Boko Haram (or at least one faction of it) was prepared to negotiate their release (in exchange for releasing the families of Boko Haram members) but by this time Jonathan was in Paris in a summit of the leaders of Nigeria and its neighbouring states. This was called by President Hollande who has already committed French troops to Mali. Chad, and the Central African Republic to fight Islamist groups. Whilst there Goodluck Jonathan called off negotiations with Boko Haram presumably with the advice (pressure?) of his host in Paris. If this is true it is piece of hypocrisy on Hollande’s part as the French Government have already paid out millions of dollars to Boko Haram to free French people abducted in Cameroon. Presumably such (never acknowledged) payment has given a huge boost to the insurgents’ arms funding. The hypocrisy of imperialist policy doesn’t just apply to France. The hash tag campaign has also given the US and Britain the excuse to get in on the act in the form of sending troops (“advisors”) and “assets” (drones) to the area. For the US it suits the plans of its Africom (United States Africa Command) which in 2013 carried out 546 “military operations” throughout the continent. These are not humanitarian missions but are intended to support US interests in Africa in its increasingly global rivalry with China.[10] Another drone campaign like that in Pakistan is all Boko Haram need to win more support.

In January Goodluck Jonathan sacked a number of military leaders for their failures against Boko Haram. However, after more disasters like the Chibok abductions, it has now finally dawned on the government that the Army cannot defeat an insurgency in a jungle terrain of thousands of square miles and which has its roots (and support) in the socio-economic malaise of the northern states. Late in the day they have now decided to launch a multi-billion dollar so-called “Marshall Plan” for the north to create an infrastructure and develop agriculture. But first they have to send in relief as the Department for International Development estimates that 4.3 million people’s food situation is described as “dire”.[11] Given the chronic corruption of the Nigerian state we can only assume that the bureaucrats in Abuja will be rubbing their hands in anticipation. If any of this actually makes any difference it will be a triumph of optimism over history. Nigeria is just one of the grossest examples of how the greed of a local élite, inextricably linked to the global capitalist system in an epoch of rampant imperialism, is capable of inflicting misery on millions of their “own” citizens to hold onto their wealth It is just one of the many reasons compelling internationalists to continue to fight for a better world than this rotting system can ever offer.



[1] See It should be pointed out that many educated Nigerians think that this sudden discovery of a doubling of GDP (including an additional 30% for the “informal economy”) is not credible and that what is more significant is that elections are due in 8 months time.


[3] According to the CIA. See

[4] J. Sachs The End of Poverty: How We can Make it Happen in Our Lifetime (Penguin, 2005)

[5] Benjamin Selwyn “The working class does the job” in Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition March 2014)

[6] Terisa Turner “State Power and the Nigerian Military” reprinted in Sub-Saharan Africa (edited by C Allen and G Williams) Macmillan 1982



[9] Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission in June 2013 reported that troops went on a rampage in the northeast of the country after a soldier was killed in April in the fishing village of Baga. Quoting police sources, the soldiers "started shooting indiscriminately at anybody in sight, including domestic animals.” the report said, as quoted by AP.

"The Commission equally received several credibly attested allegations of gross violations by officials of the JTF (joint task force of police and military), including allegations of summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention amounting to internment and outrages against the dignity of civilians, as well as rape,". See also