Nigeria: Manipulating Tragedy

June 2014 Editorial for The Red Vine

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan with Barack Obama, via Getty Images

Just over a month after the mass abduction of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria’s northern state of Borno by the Boko Haram (Western Education is Sinful) terrorist group, reports are coming in of another attack. As this article goes to print a death toll has yet to be established, but initial estimates range from 300 to 500 in a grisly situation where the Islamic militants have taken control of the villages where the attack occurred.

In this tragic climate, it’s admirable and heartening that millions of people – particularly in the United States – have lent their moral support to the girls, their parents and the victims of Boko Haram in general. Unfortunately, this honest attempt to raise awareness and drum up support for a solution to their atrocities is doing more harm than good.

Boko Haram is an Islamist sect, but its origins cannot be explained simply as a result of Islam’s inherent evils, as the Christian fundamentalists and so-called “New Atheists” maintain. Countless evils have been perpetrated in the name of almost every ideology – Islam, Christianity, and even Buddhism are not immune to this. For Marxists, ideas are rooted in social reality, not the other way around. Nigeria’s socio-political landscape, like the rest of Africa, is scarred by the legacy of colonialism. The most direct form of imperialism, the colonial period saw nearly all African territory divided between conflicting European empires. As such, borders reflected what the particular groups of imperialists (in this case, the British Empire) were able to conquer.

Under the yoke of imperialism, stunted capitalist property forms were imported from Europe, co-existing to this day with pre-capitalist forms. When the national liberation struggles gained the upper hand in the 1960s, new countries were created using these colonial borders. The Nigerian capitalist class is intrinsically linked both with the global capitalists via the world market and with feudal and tribal leaders based on ethnicity or religion. Colonialism evolved into neocolonialism.

This creates a situation where advanced industry – such as the Shell corporation’s oil operations – sit alongside backward forms of production, with all the inequality that entails. With sixty percent of Nigerians living on less than $1 per day while Nigerian capitalists remain awash in wealth through deals with international capital and the state, it is not hard to deduce why Boko Haram has gained at least a limited hearing for its program of building a pre-modern Islamic caliphate free of “decadent” Western influences, which they portray as the root of the Nigerian people’s ills.

In some ways, Boko Haram is a blessing to the Nigerian government and the U.S. / British imperialists standing behind it. Faced with the potential prospect of losing control over the country’s oil reserves due to mass popular movements1 and the social instability generated by a deeply corrupt government, the Islamists have in effect provided Western imperialism with the cover of “humanitarian” intervention. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is guilty of its own crimes, among them the massacre of 200 civilians in Baga last year and ongoing suppression of democratic rights wielded principally against the labor movement.

In truth, the United States government has no interest in resolving Nigeria’s humanitarian crisis, being no stranger to supporting reactionary and criminal regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia and Israel. As in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it is primarily a question of controlling resources, not protecting local populations from oppression – in fact the results are quite the opposite. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which began as an earnest plea from the family of the kidnapped girls for international recognition and action, has been co-opted by pro-imperialist advocates to lay the necessary ideological groundwork for military intervention. The estimated 1.5 million civillian deaths in Iraq2 and ethnic / tribal warfare in post-intervention Libya are grim warnings of what could await the Nigerian people.

There is no reason to believe that a surge of U.S. or European troops in and around Nigeria will even be able to find and rescue the kidnapped girls, let alone vanquish Boko Haram – just like a plant slashed by a sword will grow back if it is not uprooted. On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that military intervention, either direct or by increased support for the rotten Nigerian government, will only exacerbate the ongoing crisis. If any military orientation could play a role in defeating Boko Haram, it would be a force like the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF), a popular militia made of Borno residents who rose up to free themselves from the Islamists.

The Nigerian people’s best hope is that the Civilian JTF will be able to codify its independence from state control and build links with the communities in which it operates as well as the workers’ movement in general. This would open the road to self-liberation, something that working people in the Western countries could rally around without lending unintentional support to the same “1%” that engineered Nigeria’s despairing conditions to begin with. The Red Party stands with all genuine democrats and anti-imperialists around the world and with Nigerian socialists when we say: No to U.S. intervention in Africa, yes to the international solidarity of the working class to end poverty and exploitation!



1. The most prominent recent example is the 2012 gas protests, which saw Nigerian workers in mass Occupy-style demonstrations against a hike in fuel prices. In the capitol of Abuja, police opened fire on protesters.


(Originally published in The Red Vine.)