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.

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.