The abduction by the Islamic fundamentalist Boko Haram group of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok in the north of the country and the way the Nigerian government has reacted to it has highlighted the truly corrupt nature of the regime. It has revealed its utter cynicism in the face of the real suffering of the masses. Fred Weston comments on the contradictions in Nigerian society.
The abduction by the Islamic fundamentalist Boko Haram group of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok in the north of the country and the way the Nigerian government has reacted to it has highlighted the truly corrupt nature of the regime. It has revealed its utter cynicism in the face of the real suffering of the masses.
Initially the Nigerian military stated that most of the girls had been freed, and for several days contradictory and confused statements were issued by the authorities, all claiming that most of the girls had either escaped, at one point on April 16 stating that only eight of the girls remained in the hands of the Boko Haram guerrillas, or that they hadn’t even been abducted! The authorities initially went so far as to say that what was taking place was just a political game.
Meanwhile desperate parents went into the forest looking for their daughters, as they were perfectly aware of the fact that the military had done nothing to find the girls. The headmistress of the school, Asabe Kwambura, appealed to the government to do more.
So scandalous was the behaviour of the authorities, that even once it had been established that the girls had in fact been abducted the local state governor claimed that no more than eighty girls were involved!
By April 23, in the face of complete government incompetence, ordinary Nigerians started to express their anger via social media, such as the twitter campaign around hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Street protests also started to take place.
It was only on May 4, two and a half weeks after the abduction, that the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, issued a public statement in which he also stated that he was seeking help from the US and other major powers to deal with the problem, and a few days later “experts from the US and UK were sent to Nigeria.
News then started to come out that the army chiefs had been warned in advance of an impending attack on the school in Chibok several hours before it took place but they did nothing.
Finally, the President had decided that he should carry out a face saving operation by actually visiting Chibok, in a desperate attempt to limit the damage he has done to his own image. Then at the last minute he thought better not and decided to fly directly to France to discuss the Boko Haram crisis with President Hollande of France!
As a result of all this, the regime is much more hated now than before. The masses have also completely lost faith in the military and local people are taking things into their own hands as they don’t trust the state to do the job. This explains the rise of self-defence groups, such as the so-called “Civilian JTF [Joint Task Force]” in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, last year.
Armed, sometimes with only clubs, swords, bows and arrows, and occasionally with Dane guns, thousands of local youth in Maiduguri began working with security forces to hunt down members of Boko Haram. President Goodluck Jonathan had only recently declared a State of Emergency in Borno in May, 2013, sending in the Armed Forces.
Boko Haram was operating as a typical guerrilla organisation, attacking and then disappearing into the local population. With the excuse of hunting down Boko Haram terrorists, the Nigerian military were in effect involved in brutally harassing whole communities, arresting and killing many innocent local residents, particularly among the youth. Local people suffered the consequences of “emergency rule” such as the highways being closed and mobile phone networks being turned off.
Emergence of the ‘Civilian JTF’
These conditions explain why the youth in Maiduguri began to organise into self-defence groups against Boko Haram forming what has now become known as the “Civilian JTF”.
The emergence of the ‘Civilian JTF’ – which was later extended to other areas – was an important setback for Boko Haram. The Civilian JTF’s collaboration with security forces has not eliminated Boko Haram, and in the recent period there has been a resurgence of bomb attacks. However, the fact that the local youth were prepared to organise and fight back sent a message that the local people do not want the Boko Haram militants in their communities.
Since the formation of the Civilian JTF there have been attempts by the state to regulate it, and bring it under the control of the military. A register has been set up by the official military JTF for these youth. According to the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in Borno State, Barrister Kaka Shehu Lawan, the state government, recognising the role being played by the ‘Civilian JTF’, had already trained close to 2000 youth and the aim was to train up to 20,000 and get them to work closely with the security personnel.
Most of those making up the Civilian JTF are unemployed youth, and some commentators have pointed to the fact that they can easily fall prey to desperate bourgeois politicians who, with the promise of jobs and money, can use them for their own purposes. This is all very true, but it does not deny the fact that there was a spontaneous reaction from below of local youth to get organised and fight the fundamentalist militants, and also that they had the backing of the local people in this.
The links with the military and the involvement of dubious bourgeois political patrons are used by some on the left as an argument to justify their claims that the emergence of the Civilian JTF is a reactionary development and therefore they give it no support. The truth is very concrete and one has to start out from the fact that the ordinary working people in the area felt defenceless in the face of continued Boko Haram attacks. The official Joint Task Force was failing to defend them. On the contrary, it was actually involved in harassing the local communities.
Villagers fight Boko Haram
This line of argument of simply writing off these attempts at self-defence as reactionary is very abstract, for the fact remains that the Civilian JTF is confirmation that the local communities do not want Boko Haram in their midst. The local people – both Christian and Muslim – look on the Civilian JTF as saviours. People are being killed on a daily basis and local communities need to act now.
What happened on Tuesday in the Kalabalge Village in Borno State confirms this. Boko Haram gunmen attempted to carry out an early morning attack on the village, but on this occasion the local people were waiting for the militants, and killed several of them. According to some reports, up to 200 of the Boko Haram militants were killed in the fighting. They also captured ten of them and handed them over to the security forces. A member of the village vigilante group is reported as saying that:
“They wanted to attack us just the way they did in Bama, Konduga and Damboa, but we got the wind of it and all of us laid ambush for them; when they neared the village, we opened fire using our Dane guns, double barrel rifles and bows-and-arrows, most of them who were shocked took to their heels, but many of them died, some that were injured have been caught alive and are with the security people…”
Turmoil within the rank and file soldiers
Another important element in the equation is the state of turmoil within the rank and file soldiers of the army. On Wednesday, in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, soldiers in the Maimalari barracks opened fire on the car of their commander Maj-Gen Ahmed Mohammed, who managed to escape unhurt. This sudden turn of events took place as bodies of the soldiers’ comrades were being brought back into the barracks. The soldiers had been killed in a Boko Haram ambush while driving back from Chibok town, where the schoolgirls had been abducted.
The soldiers have been complaining that Maj-Gen Mohammed was putting at risk their lives and those of their families by not supplying them with adequate weaponry to deal with the well-armed Boko Haram fighters. There have also been complaints about wages not being paid while the top army officers have been creaming off funds for their own personal benefits.
Thus, what we have is a mood of rebellion among the rank and file soldiers, combined with widespread mistrust in the army chiefs on the part of the local population that has started to take into their own hands the task of defending themselves.
These two elements alone are an indication of the revolutionary potential among the ordinary working people of Nigeria. The local people do not trust the state forces, but the rank and file soldiers are also sons of working class and poor families. They are at breaking point! While the rich elite grow fat on the backs of the millions of poor, the country is descending into barbarism.
The Boko Haram group was sponsored, set up and financed by sections of the Nigerian elite in the north as political thugs. The response of the Goodluck regime was simply to militarise the north-east, sending poorly armed soldiers to fight the Boko Haram militants. The truth is that the conflict has been used to justify declaring States of Emergency in several states, a means of simply increasing oppression and harassment of the local population. Now, the government has raised the prospect of calling in foreign troops.
Imperialist intervention cannot solve the problem
Imperialist intervention in former colonial countries has always been presented as a “humanitarian” endeavour, this time the excuse being to “save the girls”. However, if we look at other imperialist interventions, we see that far from solving the problems, they merely worsen them. It is sufficient to look at the mess in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to understand this.
As far as Syria is concerned, we have the spectacle of imperialism first backing the opposition, then backing off as they saw the rise of extreme jihadist groups emerging on the ground. Let us not forget that extreme Islamic fundamentalism was seen by imperialism, in particular US imperialism, as a means of defending its own interests in places like Afghanistan. They promoted, financed and backed these groups in the past. Now they shed crocodile tears when these fundamentalists carry out acts of barbarism.
The truth is that groups like Boko Haram can thrive in conditions of utter poverty, such as those that exist in Nigeria, in particular in the north of the country. It is also true that the ethnic/religious divide in the country was consciously promoted by the imperialists. The classic “divide and rule” method was used when forming the state of Nigeria as the British left. This was so that the imperialists, who had been forced to abandon a direct military presence, would be able to continue dominating the country economically after independence.
What the imperialists are primarily concerned with in Nigeria is to guarantee the flow of oil. They are concerned that any major destabilisation of the country could put at risk the oil industry in the country. In the past they had problems with local militant armed groups in the Delta region. This problem was temporarily resolved by basically buying off the leaders of these armed groups. To set a precedent with a direct military presence on the ground in Nigeria would prepare the ground for future military operations to guarantee the oil fields keep functioning.
However, at the same time, to send in imperialist troops would only serve to further internationalise the conflict. There are already extreme jihadist fighters from other countries helping Boko Haram in Nigeria. To see “infidel” imperialist troops on the ground would serve as recruitment propaganda to attract more of these. Thus, rather than stabilise the situation, it would make it even worse. The working people of Nigeria have nothing to gain from any such “humanitarian” intervention.
Role of the labour movement
Just as imperialist intervention cannot solve the fundamental underlying problems, the policies of the Nigerian bourgeoisie cannot answer the burning needs of the people. The problem is that Nigeria is a potentially rich country, literally floating on oil and gas, but none of the wealth extracted from the ground serves to alleviate the terrible poverty that millions are suffering. This explains why some sections of the ruling elites use the ethnic/religious card in trying to manoeuvre to defend their own selfish interests against those of other sections of the same ruling class.
This ruling class has plundered the wealth of the country together with their imperialist masters who have taken the lion’s share of the loot. The Nigerian working class, through its organisations, the mass trade unions, the NLC and TUC, must offer a way out. That way lies on the road to socialist revolution; a revolution that would take hold of the wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and use it to the benefit of the working people.
In the specific conditions of the north, this means stepping in and explaining that self-defence groups such as the Civilian JTF must be transformed into organs of the working class. Units of the Civilian JTF should be built in every workplace, every village and neighbourhood, in the schools and colleges. However, the running of these self-defence groups cannot remain as it is now. What is required is for workplace and neighbourhood committees to be elected to run the self-defence force.
Equally, within the army itself, the demand for the election of officers by the rank and file soldiers should be raised. These officers should not earn more than the average wage of Nigerian workers and they should be subject to recall, i.e. to being changed if they do not respect the wishes of the ranks who have elected them. The NLC should also promote a trade union for the soldiers, so that such questions as unpaid wages can be properly dealt with.
The events in the north contain within them the potential for terrible barbarism. If it is left to the bourgeois politicians, this could lead to brother killing brother in a nightmare of ethnic conflicts. They also provide a view of the potential of the working people for self-organisation and revolution. This can be seen in the fight back against Boko Haram and in the brewing discontent within the army itself.
What is required is a party of the Nigerian workers that can bring all this together. The January 2012 Occupy Nigeria movement showed us what the Nigerian masses are capable of. The people in the north are today fighting on two fronts, against the Boko Haram fundamentalists and against the corrupt Nigerian state and its apparatus.
The abduction of the schoolgirls in Chibok has produced widespread national indignation across all language, tribal and religious groups. This gives us another view of Nigeria, that of the unity in struggle of all workers and poor. The potential is there. It is the duty of the Marxists to base themselves on these developments to indicate the way forward.