Africa Adio.

A while ago, you wouldn’t have thought that Sub-Saharan Africa would become a hot-bed of Islamism. In culture, it was African, rather than Arab; in religion it was Sufi, rather than Wahhabist.[1] Sufi leaders—many of them not particularly well-educated and perhaps similar to the village priest of the European Middle Ages or the mountain reverend of the Appalachians–preached accommodation with formally secular governments and co-existence with Christians. People sought the consolation of religion mainly when they grew older.

However, the situation has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. As was the case before with post-liberation Arab states, Sub-Saharan governments have failed to deliver higher living standards or respectable authority. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has sponsored conservative Sunni evangelists throughout the Muslim world. Sub-Saharan Africa was no exception. Thousands of eager young theology students from the region have studied in Saudi “universities.” Modern telecommunications allowed for the rapid spread Wahhabist preaching.[2] As a result, in recent years vast numbers of the Muslims of Sub-Saharan Africa have switched affiliation to Wahabbism.[3] More mosques are attended by larger congregation of younger people.[4] Many of those mosques have been built with Saudi money.

Then the American overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 opened one pathway between the ISIS caliphate and Sub-Saharan Africa, just as it opened a pathway in the opposite direction for migrants driven by poverty between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean sea-route to Europe. The migration to Europe and the rise of Boko Haram are two sides of one coin.

As a result, pro-Western governments have been operating in an increasingly difficult environment. Boko Haram turned to armed struggle in northern Nigeria in 2009. In 2013, an Islamist movement partnered with an indigenous Tuareg rebellion in Mali.[5] French troops beat back that threat. When the president of Niger openly sympathized with the victims of the Islamist attack on “Charlie Hebdo” in early 2015, mobs burned down forty Christian churches and the French cultural center. Additional British, French, and American special forces soon joined the fight, while the US set up bases for observation drones in Cameroon and Niger. On the other hand, ISIS seems to have increased its support for the Islamists, both remotely through the Internet and directly through dispatching advisors. Driven off the battlefield, Boko Haram resorted to terrorism. In January 2016, Islamists terrorists killed 86 people in Dalori, Nigeria, 32 people in Bodo, Cameroon, and 30 people in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.[6] In early February Boko Haram suicide bomber killed 58 at a refugee camp in Dikwa, Nigeria.

Yes, these bastards need killing. However, mowing the lawn isn’t going to solve the problem over the long term. It will take sustained economic development and good government.

[1] Basically, esoteric (focused on individual communion with Allah and loosey-goosey about assimilating elements of traditional African religion), rather than exoteric (focused on the strict observance of rites).

[2] In a different context, the American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki offers a good example. See: “Just like imam used to make.”

[3] See Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2003).

[4] Would it force the analogy to see the supporters of Bernie Sanders and of Donald Trump in the same light? Angry or idealistic people who see the system as rigged against them is one common feature. That isn’t meant to denigrate either the young Islamists or the supporters of the American candidates denounced as “populists” in the mainstream American media. Nor is it an endorsement of their policies.

[5] See: “Sahel of a Good Song.”

[6] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Jihad Comes to Africa,” WSJ, 6-7 February 2016.

A Geographer Reads the Newspaper 2.

Attacks by the military forces of other countries, notably of Chad, have driven Boko Haram off the conventional battlefield in northern Nigeria.[1] Two things have resulted from this military success. On the one hand, Boko Haram has turned to ordinary terrorism: suicide bombings in villages, along with attacks on hotels frequented by Westerners in states neighboring Nigeria. Suicide attacks happen almost daily now. The attacks have disrupted the local economy. Food has become scarce. Famine is a real danger. About 2.8 million people have fled the region for safety in the south.[2] However, there is no organized system for dealing with these refugees. Some have gone to live with relatives, some are housed in makeshift camps. Much of the income of these states comes from oil, so the fall in prices has squeezed budgets.[3]

On the other hand, many of the estimated 2,000 captives seized by Boko Haram in the last several years have been liberated. While Westerners transiently mobilized behind the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag (and then largely forgot about the 200 captives), the actual families of the returnees are not so enthusiastic. The women among them have been labelled “annoba” (epidemics) or “Boko Haram wives.” There is a suspicion that they were radicalized in captivity. They might have been allowed to return as recruiters of new jihadists. Moreover, many had been raped or forced into marriage with Boko Haram soldiers; some are now mothers of children or are pregnant. This adds to the difficulties of reintegration.

Partly, there appears to be a widespread belief that character is transmitted through the blood or genetically.[4] Local people have said that the children—born or not-yet-born—carry “bad blood.” They have been described as “hyenas among dogs.” One mother said that “When I think of the baby that will come, it disturbs me a lot because I always ask myself this question: will the child also behave like [Boko Haram]?”

Partly, one wonders if traditional notions of “honor” and “purity” are involved. Are the women now seen as not fit for marriage and likely to be permanent economic and psychological burdens on their families. The food shortages and displacements would only compound these anxieties. That’s not pretty to say and may have no basis.

The two different strands of this problem entwine in the female suicide bombers who carry out some of the suicide attacks. On 9 February 2016, two girls killed 58 and wounded 78 at a camp in Dikwa, Nigeria.[5] Some of them appear to be captives who were turned into weapons. Theories about these suicide bombers vary. Some believe that the women have been “brainwashed” in some fashion (like Patty Hearst with the Symbionese Liberation Army). Others believe that the women are unwitting (like the “muscle hijackers” on the 9/11 flights) or extorted in some way, and that the bombs are detonated by remote control. A third possibility is that the female captives share the “bad blood” or “honor” assumptions of their fellow villagers and believe that their lives are effectively over. Some recent female suicide bombers wore their hair pulled back away from their faces in a local burial style.

[1] Dionne Searcey, “Women Freed From Boko Haram Face Rejection at Home,” NYT, 17 February 2016.

[2] In comparison, Germany has taken in about a million refugees in the last year in what is generally regarded as an eye-catching human catastrophe.

[3] The propensity of government officials in Nigeria to steal everything that isn’t nailed down or red-hot adds to the problem. Moreover, many of the Nigerian refugees are Muslims in a predominantly Christian country.

[4] John Locke and his “tabula rasa” haven’t penetrated much here apparently.

[5] Usam Sadiq Al-Amin and Dionne Searcey, “Young Bombers Kill 58 At Nigerian Refugee Camp,” NYT, 11 February 2016.

Lessons and Questions.

Boko Haram first rose to the attention of people in Europe and America in mid-2014.[1] Then Nigeria occupied the center of attention. However, the Nigerian military appeared incapable of defeating Boko Haram. The military has been used as a source of income for politicians, rather than as a fighting force. Furthermore, the Nigerian government largely spurned Western offers of assistance.[2] Boko Haram also spilled into the surrounding countries of Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. It conquered a territory the size of Belgium. So the Western countries (France and the United States) turned to those same neighboring countries to lead the fight against Boko Haram. American Special Forces troops were assigned to assist the African military forces actually willing to fight Boko Haram. The Americans established a base for drones in northern Cameroon. From this base surveillance drones have been hunting Boko Haram forces throughout the whole four country area.

Chad has played an important role in this process. Chad has a troubled recent history, to put it mildly.[3] As a result, its troops have a lot of experience at fighting armed opponents (as opposed to shooting at civilian demonstrators). Unlike Nigeria, Chad had devoted most of its defense budget to training and equipping the soldiers. Having already battled the Islamist uprising in Mali in 2013, troops from Chad helped roll back Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger during 2015. Recently, this strategy began to pay off as Boko Haram was forced out of territory it had controlled and lost much of its ability to wage “conventional”—if irregular–war.

However, the armies of Chad and Cameroon can defeat Boko Haram, but they are too small to hold all the ground and to provide security. So, defeat in one form of warfare has caused Boko Haram to turn to another form: suicide bombings and road-side IEDs. For example, since July 2016, Boko Haram has carried out at least 40 suicide bombings in northern Cameroon alone. Recently, a pair of suicide bombers struck in Chibok in northern Nigeria, killing 12 and wounding 15. So far, Boko Haram’s campaign is working. An estimated 100,000 people have fled the Far Northern region; driving from one village to the next requires a military escort; and the local economy is hardly functioning.

With the regular armed forces strung out on other operations, the government of Cameroon has had to improvise. One response has been to organize self-defense groups called “comites de vigilance” in each village. These local militias aren’t—yet—particularly well-armed. They possess a mix of what amount to “zip guns,” machetes, and bows and arrows. However, their chief role is to be alert to any strangers who appear, then to inform the army.

These developments raise a number of questions. First, most of Chad’s troops are Sunni Muslims. Why will they fight against an ISIS affiliate, when the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria will not fight against ISIS? Second, both Chad and Iraq get most of their income from oil, but the price of oil has fallen. Will this affect their ability to sustain the struggle? Third, will a defeat of ISIS forces lead to the same switch to relying purely on terrorism within Iraq and Syria?

[1] Yarolsav Trofimov, “ Nations Turn to Chad to Fight Jihadists in West Africa,” WSJ, 22 January 2016; and “After Losing Land, Boko Haram Responds With Bombs,” WSJ, 29 January 2016

[2] Probably the two are related. The former French territories have maintained contact with France. In addition, Israel has provided some training in Cameroon.

[3] See:

State Failure Warning.

After the Second World War, West Germany “worked its passage” back to international respectability by building a dynamic economy and eschewing militarism in favor of good works. Part of those good works came in the form of assisting developing countries with technical assistance and by participating in international agencies. That meant that Germans popped up in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One of these Germans was Peter Eigen (1938- ), who worked on economic development projects for the World Bank for a quarter century. That gave him a lot of exposure to the corruption endemic in many developing countries. In 1993, convinced that corruption posed a formidable barrier to development and democratization, Eigen and some others formed “Transparency International.”[1] This Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) does a bunch of things to expose and counter corruption world-wide. One of the things it does is publishing an annual index or ranking of Least Corrupt to Most Corrupt countries.

Last year Nigeria ranked 144th out of 177 countries.   As a country, Nigeria is wealthy. It has huge oil reserves, ranks seventh among oil exporters, and has the largest economy in Africa. However, most Nigerians are very poor: 62 percent of its people live on less than $1/day. How is this possible? People in authority are as crooked as a dog’s hind leg, that’s how.

In early 2014, the head of Nigeria’s Central Bank announced that he had found that the state oil company couldn’t account for a missing $20 billion and that the government’s special reserve from oil revenues had dropped by $9 billion in only a year. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan immediately suspended the indiscreet head of the Central Bank. But wait, there’s more! Somehow, criminals manage to steal 100,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil a day, often by tapping into pipelines. Somehow, the police never catch up with the gangs. In a rare case of a Nigerian politician convicted for corruption, the governor of one state piled up $250 million in bribes in eight years.[2] As any plumber will tell you, “shit runs down-hill.” Every layer of Nigerian government is permeated by corruption that enriches government employees while robbing Nigerian citizens of services and even simple dignity.

Another facet of the corruption appears in the inequitable division of the national wealth between the Christian South and the predominantly Muslim North.   In 2002, the hostility to government theft combined with a Muslim religious reform movement to create Boko Haram. “Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden.” That sounds very anti-modern and anti-progressive. However, if you were living in some poverty-stricken village that was constantly being robbed by a government filled with people holding fake BAs from “Western”-style universities, you might well think that the return to a more traditional morality was just the ticket. In any event, this movement sought creation of an independent state by peaceful means. By 2009, when Boko Haram had gained many followers, the Nigerian government had become alarmed. Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was arrested and died in police custody.

Yusuf’s successor abandoned peaceful means for armed struggle.   Often, that violence is atrocious, eye-catching, and directed against civilians. The April 2014 kidnapping of 300 school girls from Chibok is the least of Boko Haram’s crimes. Curiously, however, observers don’t believe that radical Islam drives most of its soldiers. Rather, they hate the government of crooks.[3] This doesn’t match well with the standard story on radical Islam versus the West.

[1] See:

[2] The prosecution of James Ibori can be traced to the election of his political opponent Goodluck Jonathan as president. See:

[3] “Africa’s troubled giant,” The Week, 20 June 2014, p. 11.

What would Bismarck drive? 2.

Israel (and therefore the United States) is going to have to decide some things pretty soon.[1] First, would Israel rather have a whole Syria under Assad (weakened for a long time by its terrible civil war) or would it rather have a Syria partitioned between a mini-state headed by Assad and the rest of Syria run by ISIS? Second, is there anything that Israel can do to shape the outcome? I don’t know. Israeli intervention might bring down on the head of Israel all sorts of hostility from the Arabs, just because. The governments of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt probably wouldn’t object to Israel beating up on ISIS. How would Saudi Arabia view such action? Then, there is the tension in many Arab countries between “the Street” and “the Palace.” How would ordinary people respond to Israeli attacks, regardless of how sensible those attacks might seem to the rulers?

What will happen inside the Cauldron? ISIS can (but may not) tear apart the carcasses of Iraq and Syria. Then its advance slams up against both strong states (Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Israel) and hard cores of enemy peoples with their back to the wall (Kurds, Shi’ite Iraqis, Alawite and Christian Syrians). At this point, the going will get a lot tougher. Will ISIS pause to regroup or will it attempt to maintain the momentum? I don’t know. They’re a bunch of fanatics. They might try to topple a bunch of other governments. On the other hand, the original armed expansion of Islam came in stages. Maybe that analogy will authorize ISIS to pause to consolidate its base in preparation for a renewed advance. If ISIS does pause to consolidate its base, it isn’t going to have a lot with which to work. The caliphate will consist of landlocked desert without much oil. Most of the world will be hostile toward the caliphate. Still, in their own particular way, they’re “Goo-Goos.”[2] Perhaps they’ll find a way.

If ISIS can’t swamp the surrounding strong governments, does that mean it can’t do any harm? That’s hard to tell. Governments find it useful as a heuristic device to link every new outburst to some earlier example. Start listening to the newspeople on the Devil Box, count how often they refer to an “Al Qaeda-affiliated” or “ISIS affiliated” something or other. On the other hand, radical Islam has a wide appeal in certain geographic and psychological realms. (See: The Islamic Brigades I, II.) So it is hard for me to tell what ISIS or Al Qaeda really controls. What does seem clear is that Islamist uprisings will continue to occur and that “foreign fighters” will continue to flow toward where the fighting is taking place. Libya, northern Nigeria, and Mali already have their share of troubles. Cameroun, Niger, and Chad are feeling the effects. Tunisia is a small place with limited ability to defend itself. Algeria survived one bloody civil war between secularists and Islamists: it could flare up again. (If that happens, the fleets of refugees crammed on fishing boats will be headed for Marseilles instead of Sicily. See: The owl and the pussycat I, II.) Whatever the formal links between ISIS and the Islamist movements in these countries, ISIS will do whatever it can to support them. Pretty much on the principle of setting fire to a neighbor’s barn so that they themselves can sleep better at night.

[1] One of those things is NOT the creation of a Palestinian state. There isn’t going to be one. The current version of Fatah is a spent force. There is no way that Israel will agree to put a Hamas-controlled government endowed with all the trappings of national sovereignty in charge of the West Bank. No Arab government has ever shown a real concern for the fate of the Palestinians. If Egypt and Jordan, for example, had wanted a Palestinian state, they could have created one on the West Bank and Gaza when they controlled thos territories between 1948 and 1967.

[2] “Goo-Goos”: derisive late 19th Century American reference to “Good Government” reformers who preceded the Populists.

Your country gets an F.

In days of old when knights were bold and Nationalism was in flower, the sociologist Max Weber defined a State as a government that maintained law and order within the borders of the country, provided basic services to citizens, managed the economy, and dealt with foreign countries. Some countries do this really well. Who wouldn’t want to be a Canadian, eh? Other countries do this less well. Weber was discussing European countries at the end of the 19th Century.

However, in the 19th and 20th Centuries Western imperialism gobbled up a bunch of territories that had never been countries (notably in Asia and Africa), then divided them in to “nations” when the tide of imperialism ebbed after the Second World War. The imperial powers had not had the time to do very much to turn these places into “nations,” so some of them have come unglued in the years since independence. Tribal or religious loyalties may be stronger than patriotism; corruption may be so bad that the government can’t provide adequate public services; or rebels, war-lords, or terrorists can operate without much hindrance from the government. When these things happen, a country can be called a “failed state.”

The ten worst-off countries in 2011 were: Somalia, Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, and Cote d’Ivoire (Coat Dee-Vwar). Most of them have made the Top Ten list since 2005. (See: rut.)

You know how people try to cheer you up by saying that there’s somebody in the world with worse troubles than you? Well, Somalia is the last guy in that chain. Somalia is in the “Horn of Africa,” on the east coast across from the Arabian Peninsula. It is close to the equator, arid, with very little land to farm. Herding and fishing are important to the economy. Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia all conquered chunks of the territory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Mogadishu has some Art Deco buildings worthy of South Beach.) Much of it became independent in 1960, although Ethiopia held on to important chunks. An army general named Siad Barre seized power in 1969. He became a Communist, started a war with Ethiopia, and ran the economy into the ground by 1990. Just to get even, Ethiopia stirred up various tribes against the government. Siad Barre got chucked out in 1991, but no one could agree on who to put in his place. Northern Somalia declared its independence, various soldiers tried to seize power elsewhere, and civil war broke out.

The war caused a famine, bandits (called “technicals”) molested the humanitarian aid workers, and the US sent troops to stop the parts of the violence that might accidentally get on American television. This didn’t work out and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth about intervening in humanitarian crises. (See: “Black Hawk Down”; see: Rwanda a little while later.) Civil war dragged on to the point that government just disintegrated; after 9/11 the US got very hostile to “Islamists,” of whom there are a great many in Somalia and encouraged people to fight them; many Somali fishermen and soldiers turned to piracy on the Indian Ocean; and drought hit the country in 2011. There are probably a million refugees and internally displaced people. Curiously, it has some of the best internet and cell-phone service in Africa. What about Nigeria?

Bozo Haram.

Religion can have internal (esoteric) and external (exoteric) components. The esoteric approach is essentially mystical. The exoteric is essentially about adherence to the law. As institutions, churches are usually satisfied with the exoteric. Sometimes true believers want the esoteric in order to achieve union with God. In Islam, those who pursue the esoteric are often called “sufi.”

Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1956. The new nation divided between a Christian South, with access to rich oil resources, and a Muslim North, which suffered from poverty. Bitterness arose in the North, where people complained of both the evils of the Christian government and the failings of their own clergy and traditional leaders to obtain justice. A religious protest movement arose around Mohammed Marwa (c. 1920-1980, knick-named “Maitatsine”) that led to violence and deaths. The government never entirely managed to suppress support for it. Then, during the 1960s and 1970s, Sufism began to make in-roads among Muslims in northern Nigeria. Inspired by the Saudi Arabian Wahhabist-funded World Muslim League, Sheikh Ismaila Idris (1937-2000) began to push back. In 1978 he founded the Izala Society to advocate a traditional form of Islam. One of the bright lights of this movement was Ja’afar Mahmud Adam (1960-2007). He was trained as a teacher in Nigeria, then studied at the Islamic University in Saudi Arabia. From 1993 to 2007 he preached in a mosque in Kano, Nigeria. One of his followers was Mohammed Yusuf (1970–2009). About 2002, Adam and Yusuf fell out.[1]

Yusuf went his own way to found Boko Haram. He seems to have recruited many of the same sorts of people with the same sorts of grievances who had followed Marwa twenty years before. Yusuf concentrated his mission on building support in the far northeast of Nigeria, near the borders with Chad and Niger. Yusuf may have aimed at the creation of an Islamist state. Certainly, he gathered arms and young men with nothing to lose. One of these was Abubakar Shekau.[2] Shekau became Yusuf’s second-in-command.

In July 2009 Boko Haram clashed with Nigerian security forces and Yusuf was killed “while trying to escape.” Shekau took command of Boko Haram. In September 2010 he opened war against the government with a prison break that freed over a hundred members of the group. Beginning in 2011 Boko Haram has used bombings (suicide and IED) and shootings to drive the police off the street and then out of towns. As a result, general lawlessness spread throughout the north. The Army and police reacted violently, but usually against civilian target that came to hand rather than against the Boko Haram militants. Reports of massacres, rapes, and pillaging carried out by the “forces of order” became common. During 2013 the conflict spilled over into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. In 2014, Boko Haram transiently caught the attention of the world when it kidnapped several hundred girls from a school at Chibok.[3] The gory fight goes on.

As is the case in Syria and Iraq, the Islamists are up against corrupt or incompetent or non-existent governments. They aren’t fighting real soldiers: they’re fighting men with guns hired to prop up the government. They’re “filled with a terrible certainty,” while their opponents “lack all conviction.” Probably because the courts are rigged.

See: for a more detailed account.

[1] In 2007 someone shot Adam to death in his mosque. The whole area was too violent to pin the blame on Yusuf.

[2] He may be anywhere from his mid-30s to his mid-40s.

[3] I haven’t seen a lot of “Bring back our girls” posts of late on my FB feed. First there was the “ice bucket challenge,” then all the memes sent out by groups like AddictingInfo to denounce the enormities of the Republicans.