On hindsight, if anywhere in Nigeria was going to breed a neo-Islamist insurgency; it was perhaps always going to be its long neglected north-eastern frontier, a region historically prone to cross-border banditry and a gateway to the strife-afflicted and drought-stricken Sahel. The Sahelo-Saharan zone is a borderless dark economy of organized crime, drug, human, weapons and diamond traffickers, and rebel groups. Boko Haram exemplifies a geopolitical phenomenon featuring transnational non-state actors with scant regard for national boundaries. Its insurgency has been enhanced by Nigeria’s porous borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon and is unlikely to be defeated without significant international collaboration.
The group’s increasing methodological sophistication since 2009 (from motorcycle-borne ride-by shootings to using improvised explosive devices) and the evolution of its demands from previously locally-centred grievances against state and federal authorities to a more nebulous neo-Islamist anti-state agenda, indicate contact with foreign insurgent groups. If globalization is characterized by borderless transactions and the free flow of capital, information and culture, it is also defined by the transnationalization of strife. Domestic conflicts in sovereignty-deficient states tend to escalate into transnational security emergencies. The internet enables the transmission of insurrectionary tactics, theologies and technologies across far-flung locales. An aspirant Nigerian mass-murderer can access the preachments or bomb-making expertise of a Yemeni extremist online. The net has also aided the formulation of a grand Jihadi narrative in which Jihadists, whether in Nigeria, Indonesia or Somalia, see themselves as comrades in a global revolt against secular sovereigns.
The transnationalization of conflict cuts across religions. Consider the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the spearhead of an insurgency that was launched in Uganda in 1986 and which aims to establish a society based on the Ten Commandments. The LRA’s rebellion is originally rooted in the discontent of the Acholi of Northern Uganda but has long since become synonymous with mass murder, rape and abductions in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo. Indeed, Boko Haram’s serial abduction of young girls for forced marriage and sexual slavery mirrors the LRA’s fiendish tactics.
In 1994, when the Nterahamwe, the Hutu extremist paramilitary that carried out the Rwandan genocide was dislodged by Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, it fled deep into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 1994 and 1997, the Nterahamwe waged a deadly insurgency against Rwanda from the DRC while another rebel group, the Allied Democratic Front also launched a campaign from there to oust Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. To this day, Rwanda and Uganda continue to face anti-state actors based in the DRC.
The LRA, the Nterahamwe and al Shabab in Somalia mutated from local insurrectionists into transnational anarchists. None of these groups can be defeated without international partnership. Should Somalia utterly fall to al Shabab, for example, it would become a hub for international terrorists in the Horn of Africa and would undoubtedly destabilize Somalia’s neighbours. Kenya, Eritrea and Ethiopia cannot contend successfully with al Shabab without taking an active interest in Somalia’s stability.
Ever since Afghanistan served as a nursery for al Qaeda in the early 1990s, international terror groups have sought ungoverned spaces and weak states where to sink their roots. However, they are not content to stay confined in such enclaves; they see them as bases from which to export terror. Thus, al Shabab is not just an enemy of Somalia; it is ultimately an enemy of the East African Community. Likewise, the DRC’s weak central government and its perennial chaos have made it a haven for transnational anarchists and a destabilizing vortex in the Great Lakes region. If Boko Haram is not liquidated in Nigeria, it is likely to further evolve into an al Qaeda in the Sahel and could plant a subversive foothold in Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
The transnationalization of conflict is not about a clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world as famously posited by Samuel Huntington. It is a clash between the formal sovereign authority of nation-states and non-state actors in regions populated by sovereignty-deficient states. In many places, this clash also ties into the tension between colonial cartography and resurgent micro nationalism. Colonially-imposed borders are being tested by transnational actors. The Tuareg rebellion in Mali in 2012 was only the latest iteration of a decades-long campaign to create Azawad – a Tuareg homeland that will span a number of Sahelian countries. The 2012 edition was sparked off by the return of over 2,000 Tuareg mercenaries that had previously been retained by Muammar Gaddafi. They left Libya after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime with an impressive arsenal and grand ambitions.
Parts of Africa today are not unlike 19th century North America – a resource-laden frontier with weak governments, where the lines between banditry and subversive dissidence are dangerously blurred. In these parts, post-colonial state formation has either stalled or is proceeding slowly. The Oxford scholar Paul Collier once predicted that future civil wars would pit governments against private extralegal military groupings that will variously be called rebels, terrorists, freedom fighters or gangsters. These wars, he said, will be a throwback to the time before nation-states cohered. Perhaps that future is now upon us.
Transnational anarchists have been bolstered by the decreasing legitimacy of nation-states, especially those in which national solidarity remains aspirational, and which suffer from weak institutions, a democracy deficit, severe poverty and inequality. African states have to forge regional security strategies but these groups cannot be destroyed solely by military means. Political leaders have to strengthen inclusive national institutions, deliver developmental dividends and starve such groups of the oxygen of deprivation which helps foster their depravity.
Chris Ngwodo’s professional profile is on linkedIn