I wrote this on a personal blog a few months ago in response to Rinsola Abiola’s post titled: Boko Haram – Muslim Army? I’ve brought it here because it relates very well with environmental crises, especially in the Niger Delta.
Three things shape the propaganda that Nigeria’s crises are ethnic or religious:
1. Power Dynamics and Media Representation.
2. Left overs of colonialism.
I attended a session during a Conference on World Affairs in April where after an hour and fifteen minutes of semi-fantastic illustrations of African peace initiatives by Africans in Africa for Africans in Africa, the only statement that a member of the audience could utter was:
“Africa’s greatest curse is her diversity of tribes and religions so I think models of peace are not feasible among people who are historically different and incapable of co-existing.”
This is the type of commentary that stems from portrayals of African crises, especially those in Northern and Central Nigeria, as religious. Because of power dynamics, the West is able to selectively present (as news) scenarios that perpetuate the model of First World vs. Third World, Developed vs. Undeveloped, West vs. East, etc. It is through the representation of Africa as the ‘other’ that the West was able to validate its authenticity. That’s why during colonialism, Africans were described as ‘uneducated’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘irreligious’ and so on; described only by how the West differed from Africa, vice versa. Long after colonialism is no longer official, the remnants still direct the course of action in many African situations. Especially in Nigeria. Neo-colonialism is arguably worse than colonialism of old because it is subtle and power is most effective when it is unrecognized. This kind of relationship wields power over one without a gun or a law on paper. And the media is one of such.
The Boko Haram menace has been reported by mainstream media as a war between Christians and Muslims whose religions disable co-existence or tolerance. Why? Without yielding to the temptation of simplifying this complex phenomenon of power dynamics, when there is a state of unrest among Nigerian groups, they are usually along religious or tribal demarcations. It is easy to write the causes of these disputes as, therefore, religious or tribal. In some cases where they have not been drawn so neatly along such lines, new forms of separation are created. For instance, the Niger Delta crises was constantly portrayed as greedy locals against wealthy and well-meaning expats. Granted, they were drawn along those lines but the political and environmental catastrophes that led to the ultimate violence exhibited by Niger Delta ‘militants’ are not juicy enough for an African story. Nigerian crises hardly, if ever, start out as religious ones. The terrible bombings and violence in much of the North and Middle Belt are manifestations of terrorism as displayed by an EXTREMIST group (Boko Haram). Boko Haram self-identify as a Muslim sect and at best, are an extremist form of Islam. In fact, Boko Haram acts against the principles of the religion it claims obedience to. Any religion, whatsoever. How? Boko Haram literally translates to ‘Western education is taboo’ and acts against what they perceive to be non-Muslim cultures (in Nigeria’s case, mainly Christianity, western education, non-sharia legal systems, etc.) It is important to make this distinction because in order for the West to make sense of crises, they typically portray them as religious, ‘tribal’ or inherent instability. And in a country like Nigeria, where truly independent traditional sources of information are few and far-between, even Nigerians are constantly fed with news stories from imperialist sources. In many ways – with the Niger Delta crises and the Boko Haram menace as examples – Nigerians are so used to buying information about ourselves from those who know the least but sound the best. Africans are neither the peaceful, puppet, gatherers we are portrayed to be (thanks, Gods Must Be Crazy) nor savage. We are humans; prone to harmonious living as well as conflicts. Muslims in Nigeria are not fighting against Christians neither are Christians fighting against Muslims. ONE extremist group is terrorizing the entire country.
Regarding environmental issues, the poster child for the junction of environmental crises and conflict is the Niger Delta. Ever so often, we forget to acknowledge the origin of the unfortunate militancy in the region and instead label it as unwarranted violence. When Niger Delta rebellions began prior to independence, they were peaceful and for the greater good. Now, things have escalated beyond what Saro-Wiwa and the like would be proud of yet we must not forget that there is a reason for these instabilities. While we tackle the insanity of how, where and upon whom militants are exercising terror, we cannot ignore for what they are doing so.
So, do we blame the West for our woes and forsake our agency? Absolutely not. Colonial mentality has left us worse than we realise. Credibility is granted to others telling us about our own stories, especially since they tend to be more efficient at news coverage than our home grown media outlets. Who is quicker to report local crises – CNN or NTA? Who is more efficient at corresponding in unstable areas – BBC or Channels? Who is quick to make multiple documentaries about Welcome to Lagos, This is Lagos, Lagos…this, Nigeria…that? And our own warped ideas of everything non-Nigerian (as a result of Power Dynamics) reiterate the unfortunate discourse that Nigerian-made anything including stories (in this case, news) are somehow substandard. We rely on outside sources to tell us what goes on in our backyards and what they tell us, we take in hook, line and sinker. Disputes rarely start out as religious wars but many times they evolve into just that because of propaganda. In Nigeria, where we believe we know and our faithful to our religions more than those who gave them to us, it isn’t hard to utilize this propaganda.
In Nigeria, where people paint their walls and change their roofs when their pastor is coming to visit, it isn’t difficult to incite retaliatory attacks. Tell people that Muslims are fighting them because they want to see the eradication of Christianity, and see Christians return the favor. Nigerians are not inherently prone to dispute over peace but we know how to skim over our religions and protect them with the little we have. Boko Haram is a menace and must be regarded as such. Boko Haram is about terrorism by extremist insiders who are enabled by the laxity of a weak government. It is based on extreme interpretations of the Q’uran and extreme interpretations have occurred with all religions.
For the Christians and other Nigerians who are interested in resisting, the target should be Boko Haram not Islam. This needs to be clear in order for Nigeria to fix her disease not running circles with symptoms.
For the environmentalists who understand that development is a facade until it is sustainable, the time to act is now. Both grassroots (bottom-up) and top-down efforts must work hand-in-hand for the resurrection of our ‘Green-land’. The problem of instabilities and conflicts include (but are not at all limited to) media representation.
We’ll have to own our own stories before we can reject those incomplete or incorrect ones being told on our behalf.