Geography Basics: U.S.-west Africa-Boko Haram

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that human knowledge could be organized in three ways. First, one could study the object specifically, toxicology, chemistry, geology, botany, and so on. Second, one could study an object based on time, history. Third, one could study an object based on its spatial relationships, Geography.

In the news this week was the revelation that the United States will be expending geopolitical power (i.e. deploying military personnel, via Voice of America) in checking the growth of violent Islamist movements in western Sub-Saharan Africa, to include Boko Haram.

(U.S. troops being deployed to northern Cameroon to assist fighting violent Islamists [Lake Chad in blue], via Voice of America)

In doing so, the U.S. is wading into the middle of an internationalized civil conflict that has some geographic and historic roots (as they all do). The civil conflict is simply (at the risk of oversimplifying) the lack of proportionate inclusion of a minority population in the political, economic, and social fabric of the states of which they are a part. This, hopefully, sounds familiar. The minority population is the Kanuri ethnolinguistic community, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim (as are other groups in the region), and who are primarily located in Nigeria but also in several neighboring countries, like Cameroon, Niger, Chad.

Kanuri linguistic groups, Lake Chad in blue, via Wikipedia using sources from Ethnologue

Geographically, two themes are relevant. First there is the ever-present legacy of colonialism. No, I’m not going to launch into the expected tirade about North-South relationships (at least not today). For this conflict, one relevant Geography of colonial history is the decline, fall, and subsuming of the Bornu Empire into the British colony in Nigeria, and the French colonies in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. According to wikipedia, the Bornu empire was comprised of (primarily) of the Kanuri community. This is largely evident in a “visual analysis” of the maps above and below this paragraph.

Bornu Empire ca 1750, via Wikipedia

Having their own polity, the Kanuri people had (until the community’s nadir, just before absorption into the European colonies) control of their political, economic, and social destiny. How far this control (read: freedom) extended to lowest strata of society is an important question. With the empire’s break-up, the Kanuri were divided into several colonies, which eventually became independent states. These independent states, partial democracies (at best), were comprised of several (hundreds, in the case of Nigeria) other ethno-linguistic-sectarian groups – each seeking to maximize political, economic, and social influence.

The other relevant geographic point is, which follows on the earlier one, is the transnational nature of the Kanuri people. As Z Geography has written elsewhere, deconstructing the myth of the homogeneous nation-state (see popular writings on East Asia and Scandinavia for great examples) occupies a significant portion of geographer’s writing. Suffice to say that the transnational nature is, again, evident in the above maps and should be kept in mind while review the below – highlighting the distinct ethno-linguistic identities in Nigeria. Note that the map is from 1979 and is likely to have changed considerably.

Linguistic Groups in Nigeria (1979), via University of Texas

So the Kanuri used to have an empire and are spread across several states, what does that have to do with a violent Islamist insurgency in 2015?

Probably a lot, which brings me to history.

The other principal ethno-linguistic group involved in the Boko Haram violent Islamist insurgency are the Hausa-Fulani. Boko Haram is a loose translation from Hausa, “Fake Forbidden” and signifies that western education should be forbidden. In the place of the partially-free liberal democracy, the group (which was founded in 2002) advocates an Islamic caliphate (a theocracy) based on Islamic laws and jurisprudence.

The BBC article containing this information also mentions the Sokoto Caliphate, a primarily Hausa-Fulani project that also played a direct role in the decline of the Bornu Empire. If wikipedia is to be believe, Sokoto invaded Bornu because of the lapsed nature of their religiosity. The victory was shortlived (around a century) and the Sokoto Caliphate fell to the British by 1903 and elements within the former communities comprising the former caliphate (the Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri) has resisted British (and western) education since.

Boko Haram, however with a few notable exceptions, has primarily involved itself in the Kanuri areas of Nigeria (see map below). This implies, to Z Geography, that the Hausa-Fulani community is not quite on board with the combination of violence, Islamism, and (potentially) Kanuri-specific economic and political grievances.

Probable Boko Haram Attacks (Jan-2010 to Mar-2014), via Business Insider, data from ACLED)

Demographically, why should they be?

Based on the 1952/3 and 1963 censuses, the Hausa-Fulani population (combined) is probably the largest ethno-linguistic group in Nigeria (see reproduced table from a University of Oxford paper, 2005). To put it simply, under a democratic or republican system the largest ethnic groups can simply divide scarce state resources (say, rents from oil production) among themselves. After all, the 3 largest (in 1952) comprised 51% of the population.

Select Ethnic Groups in Nigeria ca. 1952/1953 (from Mustapha, 2005)
Ethnic Group Population Percent
Hausa         5,548,542 17.8%
Igbo         5,483,660 17.6%
Yoruba         5,046,799 16.2%
Fulani         3,040,736 9.8%
Kanuri         1,301,924 4.2%
Tiv            790,450 2.5%
Ibibio            766,764 0.3%
Edo            468,501 1.5%
Nupe            359,260 1.2%
Smaller Groups         8,349,391 29.0%
Nigeria      31,156,027 100%

Indeed, this is the assessment of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja (the capital of Nigeria):

Today, political power in Nigeria has become a tribal zero-sum game. The popular assumption is that if the Hausas are in power, they are eating well while the Yorubas and Igbos are losing out. So, the Yorubas and Igbos simply endure and wait until it is their turn. Little wonder, political positions in Nigeria have become fiercely contested. Since Independence, Nigeria has been ruled by a handful of power-wielding oligarchs who, according to John Campbell, “have held power, lost power, and lived to play again.” Those who aspire to the highest office in the land cultivate the friendships of these oligarchs. Whether from the military, politics or business, these oligarchs seek to protect the parochial interests of their subordinates and clients to ensure their continued access to the spoils of office. (via Nigeria’s Guardian News)

But if the Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo – through sheer demographic weight – are able to sway elections and enjoy the benefits of the state’s patronage, where does that leave smaller, “major” minority groups like the Kanuri? To Z Geography, there are some potential political and economic grievances here.

But these grievances can be a call to action, not necessarily violent action. Leaving aside the nature/nurture debate, it is the contention of some academics that the Nigerian government’s violent crackdown on the group, especially in its early years, was disproportionately violent and served to justify the group’s narrative (see Serrano and Pieri: the Nigerian State’s efforts to counter Boko Haram, pages 194, 199): that the Nigerian government is illegitimate and should be replaced.

Into this complex conflict enters 300 U.S soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen who will be conducting “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights [as well as] enabling operations, border security, and response force capability.” In other words, the United States seeks to address the superficial effects of (at least one) corrupt and rapacious state, by supporting it.

In 20 years, when the Boko Haram group is (finally) stamped out, at the cost of millions of U.S. dollars, and (probably) hundreds of civilians’ lives. Another violent extremist group will take root in Borno state, espousing some ideology promising equitable access to resources and freedom from the yoke of an uncaring government dominated by an enemy ethnic group. This very same government will once again demonstrate that it is not beholden to this minority group, and violently repress it.

***

Organic state update: First, notice also that this violent insurgency in Nigeria has, and has before, cropped up quite far from the capital in Abuja. Second, there may also be an element of “effective capacity” here as well. The Serrano/Pieri chapter, noted above, also discusses the inability of local Nigerian police to effectively deal with local instability due to lack of training and equipment.

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A marathon

Today your Geographer is running his first marathon.

By way of honoring this event, Z would like to relate the story (thanks to wikipedia, of course) of why running 26.2 miles is called a “marathon.”

The popular story goes something like this: following the battle of Marathon, the Greeks who had just defeated a Persian army, sent a runner to Athens to report the felicitous news. The battle of Marathon is acknowledged as the turning point in that first conflict between the Persian Empire and Greek city states. Athens is approximately 25 miles (about 40 kilometers) from the plain of Marathon. Upon reaching the city and shouting out the good news, the runner promptly fell over and died.

As wikipedia tells it (with a pair of sources who are second hand sources themselves) this popular story is actually a conflation of two stories surrounding the battle. There was a runner, Pheidippides, carrying a message. However, he left Athens as the Athenian army left for Marathon. Pheidippides covered 140 miles (225 km.) to reach Sparta the day after he left (otherwise known as ultrarunning) and bade the Spartans to make haste for Marathon to assist. As the heavens would have it, the Spartans were observing a religious festival requiring peace and would be unable to march until the following full moon (some days later). Following the battle, the Athenian army marched back the 25 miles back to Athens from the battlefield at Marathon. The Athenians marched quickly, they were carrying gear and were probably exhausted, in an attempt to reach Athens before the Persian fleet could Cape Sounion (to the south). If the Persians rounded the cape, they could have conceivably landed the survivors directly in Athens – since the city was undefended with the army in Marathon. As you may have guessed, the Athenians reached the city first.

Thus, our modern marathons (eventually set at 26 miles, 385 yards or 42.195 km.) commemorate the Athenian army’s march and race against the Persians.

National Myth Making and Geography: Tarle-who?

Geographers, like Historians, sometimes have the unenviable task of informing the general public that their field of study is beyond the question of “What?” Upon learning we’re Geographers, a common question posed is “How interesting! What’s the capital of ______?” Often, we smile, nod, and either a.) answer the question b.) politely inform our questioner that there is more to the social science than where things are located or c.) roll our eyes and walk away. Historians, undoubtedly, are probably asked all manners of questions – “Hey! Do you know about the French Revolution?” or “Hey! What year did America declare its independence?!”

To be sure, the question of “WHERE?!” is central to geo-graphy (writing about the world). But that’s only the first step. “Real” Geography, if I may be so bold, involves deriving knowledge and information from this raw data. Why is it data? And who cares that it’s there anyway? In other words, what does it mean – why does it matter? Below is a graphic illustrating these ideas, via Z Geography’s world map!

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

A bit of boring background on the genesis of this post. I’ve been wanting to write it for some time, not only is it Z Geography’s first foray into field research (!!!) but it’s also a wonderful topic to illustrate these geographic knowledge and education arguments.

National myth making, short-hand for the process in which the imagined community (hat tip to Anderson) is created, is also a geographic process. The objective, of course, is to create and solidify “the nation”. That community of individuals, whom you will never meet everyone, but with whom you share an identity, perhaps you’ll join the military and protect them, or you’ll head over to the pub in the expatriate district of Minsk for a quick drink in familiar surroundings. The “nation” is not only socially defined by geographically, there are places, boundaries, and areas more “sacred” than others. In the United States, we have our own.

A few weeks ago Z Geography popped on south to visit the Yorktown battlefield near Yorktown, VA, site of a British surrender to an allied American-French army in 1781. General Cornwallis’ surrender eventually led to the Treaty of Paris and the attainment of the colonies’ independence (huzzah!).

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

As we can see from the above the battlefield is well maintained. The siege lines, which the Americans and French used to creep closer to the British defensive positions at Yorktown come complete with cannon and mortars. The formerly British redoubts are also maintained though the timber “stakes” have a steel rebar center. The more interesting noteworthy item is the location of the visitor’s center. Smack in the middle of the British defensive lines. Take that lobsterbacks! Not only did you surrender but our tourists can now saunter through your lines!

In effect, the public preservation of the battlefield at Yorktown protects and bolsters the national story – and the myth. The place of Yorktown is commemorated and preserved so that all Americans (and other tourists) can see the place where our independence was won. That Cornwallis surrendered here is well known, less well known is the second garrison, across the York River at Gloucester Point.

The British position at Gloucester Point was commanded by none other than Banastre Tarleton. Depending on your depth of knowledge (and your location) you may have had one of three reactions, 1.) Tarle-who? 2.) ah ok, I know him or 3.) that bastard! Tarleton is a controversial historical figure (as noted in his Wikipedia page). For Z Geography’s purposes, it is sufficient to know that he was an effective commander, accused of atrocities at the Battle of Waxhaws, and absolutely despised by a number of Colonial Americans (particularly Virginians). These accusations persist to the present. What is most interesting is that Tarleton’s command was not at risk of falling to the Americans and French, who were mostly across the river at Yorktown, besieging the main British army under Cornwallis. As pointed out in 1781: The decisive year of the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis had earlier intended on sneaking across to Gloucester Point and attempting a breakout and that most of the remaining British naval assets were on the Gloucester side of the river.

Regardless, Cornwallis included the Gloucester Point garrison within the terms of surrender. Noting that the garrison wasn’t about to fall, Tarleton’s troops were permitted to march out with drawn sabers before being disarmed.

With Clinton sailing from New York to Yorktown a week before Cornwallis surrendered, Tarleton’s continued garrison of Gloucester Point is an interesting “what-if” scenario. Thus, while the victory at Yorktown was complete in the sense that Cornwallis surrendered both positions, Gloucester Point is somewhat, hollow. The surrender terms acknowledge this, Tarleton was permitted to march with saber drawn. In this way, Tarleton maintained his status as the British equivalent to Francis Marion, a perpetual thorn in the side of the colonials.

From a geographic perspective, the national myth is seen in comparing the pristine condition of the Yorktown Historical Battlefield with the town across the river. In contrast, Gloucester Point offers no acknowledgement that Banastre Tarleton bested the rebels one final time, save one:

Tarleton Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Tarleton/O’Hara Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Incidentally, Z Geography is fairly certain that O Hara road is named for Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’ second-in-command. O’Hara officially surrendered the British Army at Yorktown to Benjamin Lincoln (Washington’s second-in-command).