Boko Haram and the ‘harassment hypothesis’

By Steve Onyeiwu   |   18 December 2015   |   4:40 am  

Boko-HaramABOUT two weeks after the election of President Muhammadu Buhari, I wrote an article in The Guardian Newspapers titled: “Will Buhari #BringBackOurGirls?” (The Guardian, April 12, 2015). In that article, I highlighted the insinuation by proteges of former President Goodluck Jonathan that the kidnap of the “Chibok Girls,” and the ascendancy of Boko Haram, were masterminded by a cohort of northern political elite in order to “harass” Jonathan out of the 2015 presidential race. I then postulated that the veracity of the “Harassment Hypothesis” can only be tested ex post, rather than ex ante.

Even the most ardent ideologue would agree that both hypotheses are flatly false. First, the whereabouts of the “Chibok Girls” (I detest this inanimate phrase, by the way) are as murky under Buhari as they were under Jonathan. The sect was “magnanimous” during Jonathan’s era to show us video clips of the innocent girls, but its leaders have now decided to shut the girls completely out of view of the civilised world. Second, Boko Haram has become more ferocious and egregious in its attacks, and for the first time is now using grossly under-aged suicide bombers. Third, the sect is not only unafraid of Buhari, but also appears to take delight in provoking him by bringing terror to his doorsteps in Abuja. Indeed, Boko Haram has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that it is not cowed by Buhari’s election. These facts should finally lay to rest the widely held notion that Boko Haram’s raison d’etre is political.

Each of the above hypotheses has created its own problems. The “Harassment Hypothesis” was so pervasive and compelling under the Jonathan administration that decisive measures were not taken urgently to rescue the girls. It also led to the most inhumane claim by some of Jonathan’s acolytes that the “Chibok Girls” never existed at all, and that their existence was the fictional imagination of Jonathan’s political enemies. Thus, valuable time was dissipated debating whether the girls were real or imaginary. We now know that the girls are not only real, but also that they were not kidnapped to harass Jonathan out of the presidential race. Those who fed unsuspecting Nigerians this baloney should cover their faces in eternal shame.

In the same vein, the “Fear-of-Buhari Hypothesis” has unwillingly created an aura of over-confidence in the current administration. The epitome of this over-confidence is manifested in the claim that Boko Haram will be completely annihilated by the end of 2015. That deadline is around the corner, and Boko Haram is still roaring like a mortally wounded lion. The famed General Patton must have turned in his grave at the suggestion that a sect so ferocious like Boko Haram will be decimated within six months! The over-confidence by the present administration in a military victory also appears to be delaying urgently needed economic solution. While the Buhari administration recognises the synergy between military and economic solutions, it has yet to outline a comprehensive blueprint for promoting socio-economic development in Boko Haram’s sphere of influence.

Since these two competing hypotheses have now been discredited, a null hypothesis is needed. I hereby propose one: “The Stomach Infrastructure Hypothesis.” I need Governor Fayose’s help here. For those who missed my April 12 article, I wish to rehash the relevant parts: “As if the economic desolation and institutional incapacity of northern Nigeria are not serious enough, living conditions in the Boko Haram sphere of influence are dire. While about 70 per cent of Nigerians live below $1.25 per day, the percentage is over 80 per cent in the north. Nigeria’s official unemployment rate is about 24 per cent, but the unofficial rate of over 50 per cent is concealed by the high incidence of underemployment and a bloated, unproductive informal sector. The official unemployment rate in the north is said to be as high as 40 per cent, while the unofficial rate is close to 70 per cent.

Thus, the kidnappings and spate of violent attacks by Boko Haram may be a smokescreen for resentment over several years of socio-economic neglect and marginalization of the vast number of the talakawas (a Hausa phraseology for the poorest of the poor or the equivalent of Franz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth.” Economic deprivation and disempowerment in northern Nigeria are so deeply entrenched that it would take a minimum of 20 years of sustained and sound economic policies to transform the region. Economic challenges in the north are difficult to address by the region’s extremely low literacy rates and lack of skills. The illiteracy rate in northern Nigeria is as high as 80 per cent, while the average number of years of schooling is as low as two years. Poor education in the region is made worse by the fact that several parents enroll their children only in Arabic language schools, where secular subjects like science, literature, mathematics and social studies are forbidden.

The North’s economic predicament has also been exacerbated by the fact that most of the major corporations in Nigeria are located in the south, due to historical, economic and cultural factors. With corporations increasingly embracing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), most corporate handouts and philanthropy are going to southern residents, with very little going to the north. This has further marginalised the north and provided a basis for their resentment. Even if President-elect Buhari were genuinely interested in pacifying and providing succour to the talakawas, there are few economically efficient conduits through which economic largesse could be filtered to the poor in the north, at least in the short-term. In the past, the Federal Government of Nigeria had sought to pacify the north by offering its political elite juicy contracts and political appointments. But proceeds from those contracts have not been used to foster economic development in the north, but have rather enabled the elite to purchase private jets and luxurious mansions in the capital city, Abuja. This has caused considerable inequality in the north and accentuated resentments by the talakawas.

Again, only time shall tell whether the “Stomach Infrastructure Hypothesis” is unassailable. One thing is clear, however: military onslaught per se is not the long-term panacea for a socio-economic problem that has been allowed to fester for too long.

• Steve Onyeiwu is the Andrew Wells Robertson Professor of Economics at Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania, USA.



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