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.

Brazen Belligerents Bound for Blood over Borders?: India, Japan and China

Remember Samuel Huntington? The theorist behind the “clash of civilizations”? One of his comments that has stuck to me is the “bloody borders” of civilizations. For him, he pointed to “Islam’s” bloody border as evidence to the veracity of his hypothesis. Quick note: I’m not a big fan of Huntington’s theory, primarily from the point view of the modifiable area unit problem (MAUP alert!). Like any theory its over-extrapolation of… humans. As any person over the age of 20 knows, people are wildly different even within small communities.

But I also believe in salvaging aspects of theories that could still be useful. From Huntington, I like the idea of the bloody borders. Why? Mostly because it makes sense and I like reason and logic. While no one is going to be able to define what constitutes a “civilization” (unless you’re Sid Meier), we have plenty of states to examine. And states’ borders are just as bloody. I could fly into a nice tangent about the organic state in regards to bloody borders, but I’ll save that, but in addition to the unclear and missing state presence in borderlands, there’s also the issue of population. Population groups in borderland regions are apt to be very different from population groups in the capitals, there’s bound to be a number of minority groups (some might actually be the majority), and there’s also likely to be population groups in one country whose brethren (I use this term very loosely) are the majority group in another country. For one example, consider the Chakma/Marma population in Bangladesh (who are loosely related to Burmans in Burma) or the Rohingya population in Burma (who are loosely related to Bengalis in Bangladesh).

One state making headlines (depending on the paper you read) is China. And its borders are bloody. Yet. But they seem to be getting hotter. And I’m not even talking about the South China Sea. China grabbed (Indian) headlines this past weekend with a 10-kilometer incursion into the disputed territory of Ladakh in India. While a Times of India article noted that there have been 600 border violations (across all three sectors: Ladakh, Uttarakhand/Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh) India’s Ministry of Defense is concerned about the “brazen military assertiveness” of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. An official noted that the PLA is going increasingly deeper into Ladakh, in particular, with a potential aim to stake “claims” in the disputed area (planting the flag). In this latest incident, the PLA erected a tent. And haven’t moved. Another Times article notes that the act of erecting a permanent structure (a tent) violates a “Sino-Indian” agreement on managing the disputed border.

In other words, its an escalation. Typically, both sides would retreat to their respective lines after a face-off and flag-waving. While the Indian border guards did so, the PLA pitched a tent and spent the night. The Indian border guards pitched a tent as well, a tit-for-tat escalation (guess the agreement’s void now). Senior military-leader meetings are being held but they have been inconclusive in resolving the dispute. India’s is keeping the option of “rushing troops” to Ladakh, if needed. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs points out that it did nothing wrong and is merely patrolling the line of actual control (LAC, which nominally divides China and India).

In the BBC’s headlines, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that Japan would respond, with force, “if any attempt is made to land on disputed islands” in the East China Sea. As the article points out, the issue over the Senkaku/Diaoyu (Japanese and Mandarin names respectively) islands was reignited last year when the Japanese state purchased three of the islands from a private owner (“nationalizing” them).

Are these two groups of countries, India-China, Japan-China, heading for a violent conflict? Hard to tell. Violent inter-state conflict is becoming harder to discern these days. Gone are the days when an ambassador was summoned and war declared by a representative body or person of the body politic. I doubt anyone could predict such a cataclysmic event like the beginning of a war. What we can say, however, is that tensions are getting hotter (how hot would be the subject of a research paper, not a blog post). New lines are being crossed: China pitching a tent, Prime Minister Abe mentioning force. But these are a long way from someone pulling a trigger (or pushing a button). But as tensions raise, we have to wonder – how many other levers are there to pull to escalate a situation? And which lever, pulled with the intention to demonstrate resolve, accidentally ignites a conflict?

A lot of this is outside the scope of (political) Geography, of course. For me, the real interest is how these tensions are manifesting in the physical and human landscapes. Why Ladakh? Why the Senkakus? These are discussion points worth their own posts, but to me, Ladakh because there are so few people (civilians) there. Of the four areas listed (Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh) Ladakh has the lowest population density (less than 10 people per square mile). If violence were to erupt, due to a miscalculation by the Chinese or the Indians, it would be largely isolated in a far-flung region dominated by mountains and glaciers. The Senkakus are more than just a set of rocks in the Pacific. They have potential economic value, thanks to local fisheries and underwater petroleum reserves. Beyond this they are symbolic, they are tied up in the turbulent history of East Asia, especially between China and Japan. Though I haven’t read it yet, Council on Foreign Relations published an article this month for “contingency planning” purposes.

Bangladesh and Hindus: A Geography of Cleansing

A special edition post reflecting the news from Bangladesh on the execution sentence issued to one of the primary leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB). For those not in the know, the JIB is an Islamist political party (a party seeking to replace the “democratic” state of Bangladesh with one based on shari’a [Islamic] law). While I could write at length (and have elsewhere) on Bangladesh, the salient pieces of information here are the country’s lack of coherent state identity (are we Bengali or Islamic?) and it’s history of accommodating Islamist ideology (that the center-left Awami League is attempting to reverse). The execution order comes on the heels of a trials focused on accusations of war crimes (genocide) committed by senior JIB leaders during the country’s independence conflict in 1971 (independence from Pakistan). Estimates vary but between 1 million and 3 million people in what was East Pakistan lost their lives. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the JIB, including party activists and the party’s student wing (Islami Chhatra Shibir), have started rioting in the country.

The riots themselves are the subject of this special edition post for they betray the JIB’s view of Bangladesh and their answer to the “state identity” question. This current view conforms to the reason its senior leaders stand accused of war crimes, as we shall see. Generally, these riots highlight the nexus between identity, geography, and people, in other words, human geography.

As reported in Bangladeshi press, JIB activists “torch[ed]” a Hindu temple in the southeastern district of Noakhali of Chittagong division. Tensions between the Muslim and Hindu communities have been long standing (since at least the early 1900s) and due, in part, to British imperial policy. As most colonial and imperial powers learned, it was easier to govern areas by empowering a community (often a minority) over the others. The history of Islam of India (and Bengal) extends much before the arrival of the British, of course, generally Islam came via the sword (Mughal and Turkish conquerors) who were generally Persian and elitist. The other avenue were through Sufi monks, who often adapted Islam to local practices, it was this latter avenue that generally won converts among local population groups. However, the most “Indians” (keep in mind a unified political entity of India didn’t exist until the British left, and technically still doesn’t). Because of the existing bureaucratic and administrative structure of (Muslim) Mughal “India”, it was easy for the imperial power to co-opt as it replaced Mughal authority with British authority. And it just so happened that the Muslim community was, based on the entirety of Bengal province, a minority.

As the population of the province grew, attracted by potential economic gains thanks to Calcutta’s link to the wider British empire, the British decided to sub-divide Bengal to more easily govern it. The province underwent two or three “partitions” before being officially partitioned in 1947, during Indian/Pakistani independence. Generally, the partitions and combinations angered one community or another (as land, power, and people are inseparable). But the big wrench was the 1947 partition.

At this point Indians had to answer the question, based on Pakistan’s departure, are we a country of Indians (despite Pakistan’s removal, and adjusting for the north-south divide) or are we a country of Hindus (because of Pakistan’s removal, though allowing for a north-south regionalism). Pakistan, until 1971, had it easy – “we are a country of Muslims” – united. Of course, in practice the government was dominated by Punjabi Muslims in West Pakistan. In 1970-1971, when East Bengal managed to elect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a Prime Minister, he wasn’t allowed to take his position. Bangladesh, with India’s help, gained its independence in 1971 after enduring a civil war that killed millions and accusations of atrocities against the Pakistani Army and Bengali collaborators (bringing us to the trials against the JIB leadership). However, Bangladesh now had an existential crisis – what defines the state? Are they Bengalis? Perhaps not since West Bengal state (primarily Hindu) is part of India. Are we Muslims? Perhaps not since we just broke away from “Pakistan”.

Obviously, the JIB sees the answer as Bangladesh is a “nation” of Muslims, pan-Islamism in regards to Pakistan. This is why their senior leadership committed war crimes against Bengali civilians during the independence movement as part of the al-Badr and Razakar militias. This is why JIB activists targeted a Hindu temple during this unrest, because they are not a legitimate part of the body politic (to the Islamists) . The situation for Hindus is so bad in Bangladesh that a number of academics have discussed the “missing millions” in Bangladeshi Hindu population. While some are murdered, most are forced out of their homes, their lands and property confiscated, and wind up in India. While the JIB may certainly engage in this activity there’s bound to be additional culprits. A systematic study of the links between political parties and social organizations with this problem has yet to be undertaken by Bangladeshi academics (and if it has I don’t know about it).

The geographical link lies in the relative concentrations of the Hindu community within Bangladesh. Primarily, according to past Census data (1991 and 2001), the community is concentrated in the country’s southwest in Khulna division (see map below), which shares a border with West Bengal state. This relatively large concentration of Hindus was actually used as a reason to include that division with India before the 1947 partition. While the countries were largely organized along social lines (Pakistan being Muslim, India being non-Muslim), there were notable economic exceptions. In the case of Bengal, urban areas were allowed to control their hinterlands. Thus, Calcutta ended up receiving hinterlands in Murshidabad that were primarily Muslim, while combined Pakistan (through Chittagong) received non-Muslim hinterlands in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Khulna was somewhat of a surprise decision, assigned to Pakistan despite having a large Hindu minority population.

Hindu Community in Bangladesh, 1991/2001 (via wikipedia)

This geographic disconnect between monolithic state identity and local-level realities continue to be a source of instability for both countries. Indeed, another Bangladeshi press article reported that hardline elements of the “sizeable population of Urdu-speaking Muslims” (interesting since Bengali is a separate language) sympathize with the JIB. Moreover, West Bengal “hardline Islamist radical” elements are attempting to enter Bangladesh.  The article reports that India is calling for the sealing of the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh.