My last week’s column, ‘IPOB is an insurgency, not a terrorist organization’, elicited a remarkable number of comments – kudos and criticisms as one would expect when one throws one’s hat onto the public space.
Space will not permit me to reproduce some of the articles, many of which brought some interesting perspectives to the conversation. I will summarise and respond to three key issues raised about the article:
First issue: In a very articulate post on Facebook entitled, ‘IPOB, Paddock, Rohingyas: Who is a Terrorist?’, Hussaini Hussaini argued that my article “set down the conditions that persons must satisfy to be regarded as terrorists” and “though, IPOB satisfied all those conditions”, I still insisted that IPOB is not a terrorist organisation. He then accused me of writing “a rich and analytic column with a contradictory conclusion”. Hussaini also accused the West and the media of biased reporting and Islamaphobia.
While I agree with the general thrust of Hussaini’s article, I believe he must have made some mistakes in reading my piece. In that article I mentioned that a key feature (or definition if you like) of an insurgency is that it is “a group which aggressively contests the legitimacy of the existing authority” and, “enjoys the support of a significant population of where it operates with the overall aim of gaining control of a defined area to rule it themselves”. On the other hand I noted that terrorist groups must have all of these features – they are part of an international terrorism franchise, they operate either in cells or as individuals, they are driven primarily by revenge and renown and they often measure the success of their activities by their media impact and ability to generalize fear in the civilian population. Some insurgencies also use terrorist tactics.
I honestly fail to see how IPOB, which at least was not publicly armed, despite crossing the line and its unacceptable rhetoric, can be said to have the above features.
Let me illustrate this further with a little digression:
On February 12 2012, I was invited by the Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, South Africa, (one of the leading institutes for security studies on Africa) to “articulate a theoretical frame for understanding the Boko Haram phenomenon in Nigeria”. It was at a time everyone lived in dread of Boko Haram, even to mention its name. I was invited together with the late Dr Rauf Mustapha from Oxford University. Rauf (May his gentle soul rest in peace) made his presentation via video conferencing. It was a well- attended conference in which virtually all the Embassies and High Commissions in South Africa sent representatives.
A key question at that conference was whether Boko Haram could be called a terrorist organisation. My paper borrowed from the position of several scholars and influential Westerners (including former US Ambassador in Nigeria John Campbell) to argue that it was not a terrorist organization despite its terrorist activities, (including the bombing of the UN building in Abuja in August 2011) because it had no proven affiliation with international terrorism networks. The paper critiqued the position of the government which was eager to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organisation. In fact in June 2009 the Nigerian State Security Service claimed that members of Boko Haram were being trained in Afghanistan and Algeria by members of al-Qaeda. President Jonathan reiterated that much a day after the bombing of the UN building in Abuja on August 26 2011 when he declared that “Boko Haram is a local group linked up with terrorist activities”.
In my paper, which was entitled ‘Boko Haram as a Symptom of the Crisis in Nigeria’s Nation-building Project’ I critiqued the government’s position as follows:
“It can be argued that the Nigerian government has a vested interest in presenting Boko Haram as having such a linkage. One, it will make it easier to attract international sympathy and technical assistance from European countries and USA which since September 11 have been especially sensitive about the name Al Qaeda and can get quite paranoid about any group rumoured to be linked to it.
“Two, linking Boko Haram to Al-Qaeda will be face-saving for the government, making it easier for President Jonathan to rationalise his inability to contain the group and its activities – after all, if the USA and the European countries, with all their resources and capabilities have not been able to effectively contain Al Qaeda, why will anyone see it as a sign of weakness that his government has not been able to defeat an organisation it sponsors?
“Three, by linking Boko Haram to Al Qaeda, the government may hope to use innuendos and name-dropping of US involvement to frighten the sect and help to pressure it to the negotiating table.”
The Jonathan government later came around to also oppose labelling Boko Haram as a terrorist group – perhaps as it came to realize the implications of such designation (such as the possibility of profiling of Nigerians in Western airports, cutting off remittances of Nigerians abroad to their relatives and organisations, possibly sending unmanned drones etc). In essence, despite Boko Haram’s terrorist activities, America was not quick in labelling it a terrorist organisation because it could not be proven that it had that crucial link with international terrorist networks. It was only in 2013 – clear three years after the group became radicalized and after almost a consensus that such international linkage existed – it was designated a terrorist organisation.
I share Hussaini Hussaini’s accusation of Western bias and Islamaphobia in Western reportage of terrorism. In fact in an article in the academic journal African Renaissance in 2012 entitled, ‘Terrorism in Africa: Beyond Essentialism’ I did an extensive critique of the West’s essentialist construction of terrorism in the continent.
But there is another reason why most Western countries appear to have a bias against Islam in terrorism reportage. David Rapoport’s book, The Four Waves of Terrorism (2004) has been influential in shaping Western thoughts on terrorism. According to Rapoport, the four waves are the Anarchist phase, (1880s-1920s – when anarchists assassinated several Western rulers including the 25th President of the US William McKinley who was assassinated on September 6, 1901), the anti-colonial phase , (1920s-1960s when many of the nationalists fighting to free their countries from colonial yoke were labelled terrorists), the New Left wave, (1960s-1990s – when radical Marxists were designated terrorists) and the current religion-inspired wave which started in Iran in 1979. It could be argued that because Rapoport believed that we are in the ‘religious wave’ which started in Islamic Iran, there is an inbuilt bias against Islam in their designation of groups to be called terrorists.
My friend Mukhtar in a private correspondence argued that given Kanu’s rhetoric and hate speech, he must not be treated with kid gloves. He also argued that there is a “thin line of demarcation between IPOB and Boko Haram”. He equally echoed the President’s Independence Day speech that Igbo leaders have not done enough to rein in IPOB rascals.
I have agreed to disagree with Mukhtar on several issues (including over sumptuous meat in his house during sallahs). I will agree with him that IPOB and BOKO Haram are similar but only to the extent that I see both groups as symptoms of the crisis in our nation-building process. In fact in several writings on Boko Haram and separatist agitations in Nigeria, (including for the Brookings Institution), I argued that Boko Haram and separatists are groups alienated from the state by a combination of state failure, crisis of underdevelopment and the crisis in the country’s nation-building processes and who consequently seek to de-link from the state, which they regard as an enemy. I called this process ‘de-Nigerianization’.
Given the international norms and what it took to designate Boko Haram a terrorist organisation, the question is raised of what the government really wants to achieve by designating IPOB a terrorist organisation which its proscription and the presence of the military in the Southeast cannot achieve? By the way I also do not share the position that Igbo leaders have not done enough to rein in the IPOB militants. Such a position in fact will be counterproductive as it could alienate several Igbos who stood against IPOB’s groupthink.
Another important issue raised on the piece was why I failed to take provisions of the Nigeria Terrorism Prevention Act 2011 (as amended) into account in my article. My opinion is that any country can adopt any definition of any concept it wants in its laws. But if it is a concept that has international resonance, international actors will seek to subtly discredit such laws if their basic definitions fall short of international standards. I believe this is what the USA and the European Union have done with their refusal to accept the designation of IPOB as a terrorist organisation.