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.

Organic State: New Nexus, encroaching state?

Elsewhere, Z Geography has argued that the lack of the state’s presence has facilitated the rise of (often violent) alternatives to the state. If I haven’t then now I have! The corollary, of course, is that once the state expands into an area then, presumably, the environment is less conducive to a violent insurgency (file all of this under: The Organic State).

This is my hypothesis for the latest Indian state of Telangana, which became the 29th official state in that country’s union (see BBC). As we can see from the two maps below (a little bit of map analysis) the state of Telangana is inheriting a bit of a problem with the naxalite/Maoist insurgency. Back in 2010, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called naxalism (named for the West Bengal town that birthed the movement, Naxalbari) the “biggest internal security challenge” facing India. Much of the Telangana (if not all of it) were declared severely Maoist/naxalite-affected by a government study in 2007.

However, the creation of Telangana could be a potential solution for the insurgency, at least in those districts. Like all insurgencies, the naxals thrive in areas inaccessible to state power, in May the Times of India noted a landmine blast in a forest in eastern Maharashtra killed 7 security officers. The other side of the equation, of course, is local support of which Indian tribes provide some support to the movement, not necessarily ideological. Another article from an independent news site suggests two reasons (basically unanticipated policy effects) for tribal support to the Maoists (here).

Telangana could be a solution in that it brings the state, India, closer to the insurgency. It brings a, theoretically, representative government to a smaller number of people in a smaller geographic area. Eventually, the people of Telangana will not have to compete with the local interests of voters in other areas of Andhra Pradesh. This sounds good on paper, the new state government will have to contend with official corruption (always an effective recruitment tool for an insurgency) and a much smaller budget.

On this last point Maharashtra, a state to the west (capital: Mumbai), is reportedly developing infrastructure in naxalite-affected districts to promote tourism (as reported by Times of India). This may be an effective short-term solution, tourism may provide additional employment for locals while also investing them in a wider economy, not to mention that the state security vehicles and tourist buses can use the same roads. Longer-term slaving the local economy to tourism is almost begging for violent disruption (see The Telegraph: Egypt).

Over the next decade, Telangana will slowly come into its own as a state. By then, Z Geography thinks that the naxalite insurgency will disappear from the state or, at least, be driven into obscurity like Spain’s ETA.

India’s New State: Telangana (via BBC)

Maoist Presence within India (2007, via Wikipedia)

Shock and Yawn

Foreign Policy is a terrible magazine. As of today I promise to never, ever link to another FP article (yay!) and it is officially being de-listed from my reader (hip-hip!). This is all for my personal health, you understand. In a world increasingly characterized by violence, chaos, and genocide, to say nothing of persistent poverty and “reality” TV, I need to find small ways to tap the ridiculousness of this planet, offer a geographic perspective that “elevates the discipline”, but in a way that won’t see me dead of a heart attack by 35. Challenge ACCEPTED!

But first, I need to comment on “Silicon, Iron, and Shadow” or as I would sub-title it: “We learned nothing in a decade!” The author, educated at the U.S. Military Academy (grad. ’76) and born in 1954, betrays the biases associated with that earlier generation. This isn’t necessarily bad, but to project these biases forward as the “three wars that will define America’s future” is short-sighted and probably, wrong. The three wars are, wars of Silicon, of Iron, and in Shadows (couldn’t continue the “of, sad). Of course, this tells you nothing and keeps with the long “Western” academic and political tradition of coining phrases and sound-bites that are catchy, but short on substance.

Besides bias for glitz and show, the article focuses on American’s penchant for glitz technological fixes. Need to win a War of Silicon (i.e. cyber)? Ensure (through “aquisition” – read new toys) access to long-distance standoff for naval, ground, and air forces. Not just “cyber” though, Wars of Silicon are a “deadly trifecta of cutting-edge technology, advanced military capabilities, and substantial financial resources.” Isn’t that every new conflict, ever? Harnessing and promulgation of gun-powder? Sail? Steam? Rail road? I could imagine a similar sentiment issued at the birth of the “tank” in World War I – a new cutting-edge technology, an new advanced military capability, that happened to require substantial financial resources. My point is that this definition of Wars of Silicon is a truism, not good analysis or prediction. If I were to say that the U.S., or anybody’s military, needs to be ready to confront new technology, capabilities, whilst maintaining financial resources you’d probably say “duh.”

Then there’s the “Wars of Iron” which are supposedly different from Wars of Silicon, but aren’t really. I suppose its a different focus of the more general War. Whereas Silicon Wars could include cutting-edge tech (Silicon), Iron wars are all the stuff we’re “familiar” with tank battles, division, brigades, and so on. Think Operation Desert Storm. That our military leaders continue to emphasize that this will be the “bulk of potential conflicts” is alarming. In a human activity driven by the need for asymmetry (which is why “asymmetric” always bugged the shit out of me), to think that we’ll have something like Desert Storm in the offing is wishful thinking. I’m sure there are plenty of crazy tin-pot dictators who think their military can go toe-toe with the U.S. military in a stand-up fight, but that’s not who we should be concerned about. After all, by this very scenario we have little to fear except the casualties (of which war produces an abundance). Certainly other militaries are going to go toe-toe with each other (Georgia-Russia, 2008) but is that going to persist with U.S. involvement? Perhaps, until the conflict changes to account for U.S. superiority in a “war of iron.” The problem of our predominance is, of course, presented in material terms. We’re not investing in fighting “other wars” notably the silicon one.

Finally we have the “Wars in Shadows”, popularized by the movie Zero-Dark-Thirty. The first utterly farcical notion is that we are “well-prepared” to fight in this domain. I suppose it depends on your definition for “fight”. Can we go in and gun down folks, cowboy-style, at midnight, from helicopters, producing scores of new “terrorists” overnight without regard for implications of our actions at a more strategic level? You betcha. Can we address the roots of why we’re there in the first place? We could, probably, but it doesn’t look we’re trying very hard. There’s a counter-insurgency manual (FM 3-24) that’s a great cultural geography resource (not kidding, its in my thesis!), but given our lack of sticky success in Afghanistan and Iraq we either haven’t applied its lessons or, worse, don’t care to refine and update it. Part of the reason lies in this FP article. We’re obsessed with tech. In this example the focus is on “drones”, though it makes the case for “special operators” with actual human skills, it caveats this with adding planes and helicopters and conventional forces. And finally, this who “wars in the shadows” are presented as reactive, rather than proactive. You see the problem, the author wants you to pay for stuff to fight other states (wars of silicon/iron), while maintaining a capability for preemptive wars in the shadow.

Rather than repackaging this model of state-state conflict with the occasional state-actor conflict, the author missed an opportunity to actually tie all of these things together.

Let’s start with definitions. War, you think of World War II or Vietnam. Easy, identifiable, fits into a nice little box. This isn’t historically accurate. So I abandon that in favor of something more historical, conflict. What do you think of? Perhaps the French or American revolutions, perhaps Darfur, Rwanda or Bosnia. But let’s expand it further, include the cyber “warfare”, the Silicon war, into this conflict. We can add in things like the Abbottabad raid and other one-off sorties. Conceptualizing conflict in this way we can break out of the out-dated (from World War II) model of warfare. That model witnessed the “West’s” superiority, so its understandable why we would want to cling to it (irrational, but understandable). But since every, rational, state seeks to gain unfair advantages in conflict (asymmetry) we should expand our own model to account for, let’s face it, the things we suck at: cyber (Silicon) and insurgency (not really shadow). That the article doesn’t even address this type of warfare leaves me speechless, perhaps they couldn’t figure out a catchy name?

Wars of the Flea, to borrow the book title. Could you imagine one military, say the U.S., facing off against another state’s military with an established policy to immediately go insurgent? States built upon previous insurgencies, like China, have literally written books on that method of warfare. THAT should be a future war of concern to the U.S., because it combines the resources (economic, political, demographic) and power available to a state (which isn’t typically available to a non-state entity) with the novelty of being a method of warfare that we not only have demonstrated ineptitude at dealing with, have now disavowed as a possible future. Appalling is one word to describe it. Part of the problem, moreover, is that the article’s (and the U.S.’s) fascination with techy fixes. Insurgency isn’t solved with techy fixes. The “hearts and minds” approach does. But one wonders if the U.S. military is the right organization to engage in this approach, or if it even wants to.

The U.S. needs to figure out what the military does, or doesn’t. After this the government needs to figure out a unified conflict strategy that accounts for the various levers of American power and how it can be used to bend another country’s political will, at least in situations when negotiations and direct engagement (diplomacy) fail. Violent conflict using the military is just one facet of U.S. power. For a unified conflict strategy to work, it needs to have the right components to apply the various forces. If the U.S. decides that the military is for killing and maiming, only, then so be it. But will such an organization beat an insurgency? Yes, if it breaks the Geneva Conventions. Since the U.S. isn’t looking to break those documents, it won’t. So some other organization needs to fill that role. Taken one way, the FP article doesn’t talk (at all) about things like development. Yet “development” exists within the military, there are doctors, corpsmen, and civil affairs, not to mention the “special operators.” One wonders if the author is silently agreeing with the point that the U.S. military can’t, and doesn’t want to, deal with non-combat aspects of insurgency.

In my thesis I talk about the need for development and security to solve an insurgency puzzle. The application here is obvious. The U.S. military needs to be involved in counter-insurgency, at least in what it does best, killing and maiming (read: provide security). But perhaps USAID and the State Department need an expanded role in counter-insurgency? The practical application of that question is more money for non-security “counter-insurgency” operations.

Conflict, to include “war,” is the application of multiple levers of state power, to include new military technologies and tactics, to bend another country’s government to a desired political outcome. The funny thing is, this has been war/conflict all along. But we’ve forgotten or unlearned that (very old) lesson. The U.S. wanted its independence so colonists refused to fight on-line with the British. Why would we stand toe-to-toe with drilled regulars? If your people know the land, are better shots, and there’s fewer, play to your strengths. In the end this new “tactic” bent the British political will to our desired outcome. In the next war, perhaps a government threatens to shut off the power in New England during Christmas, or Russia decides to switch off the oil to the Baltic (wait a second…), aren’t these acts of aggression? To illustrate our unlearning this lesson, see Vietnam. Militarily the U.S. and its allies smashed the Tet Offensive, yet ultimately lost the war. Why? Because North Vietnam “won” American hearts and minds. They understood, after all they beat French years before, that shaking the political power in the “West” isn’t through a military defeat, which would be largely impossible, its through making the public believe it was plausible. With the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam convinced Americans that it was a pointless, fruitless affair.

The Geography of Conflict (War) has changed, the Vietnam War exemplified this. And the U.S. still hasn’t caught on. It hasn’t caught on to the real geographic meaning behind Abu Gharib, it understands that people are upset with the atrocities there. But it doesn’t grasp the geographical and temporal implications. Those pictures got out and immediately reached eyes from Los Angeles to Phnom Phenh. A singular tactical engagement, say an attempted bombing of the British High Commissioner in Sylhet, Bangladesh, can be disseminated throughout the known world, immediately. These incidents might seem to be militarily, tactically insignificant. But a string of these “minor” events, have meaning at a much smaller (wider) scale. Drawing back on the Bangladesh example, the 17 August 2005 countrywide bombings (a bomb went off in almost all 63 districts) resulted in 2 deaths and limited damage to businesses or anything else. Militarily these bombings were completely insignificant. But the coordination to make them all explode within 30 minutes of one another, across the entire country, was an obvious strategic statement. What about less obvious things? Examining the wealth of data (which simply takes time, a pair of eyes, and half a brain) bombing patterns emerge. In Bangladesh, bombs typically targeted one of only a few venues: the main (at the time) opposition party, the Awami League, movie cinemas and local celebrations, and offices of Bangladeshi-run non-governmental organizations. Of course, this data was only available in hindsight and the bombings themselves occurred over years. But the lesson was still there: whoever was doing it had a strategic goal in mind. The group was targeting the center-left, most “secular” political party. It was targeting symbols of a “decadent” Bengali culture, films and “obscene” village plays. It was targeting NGOs working for the advancement of… women.

None of this made it into the Foreign Policy article. So let’s compare. One scenario of America’s future war is three different conflicts characterized by high-technology enabled warfare, top-down state-state fights, and limited brush-fire engagements. The other scenario is an actual revolution in military affairs, where America finds itself drawn (against its isolationist tendency) into another internal conflict, we’ll arrive late (like Kuwait) but confident of a quick victory. After all, we have technology! We arrive, but the Marines land unopposed. The Air Force enforces a no-fly zone on no one in particular. And the Navy sits, at harbor, bored. Where 50,000 enemy combatants should have at least provided something of a greeting, there are crickets instead. Except they’re not crickets, they’re fleas. And these “fleas” look suspiciously like the locals. They’re militarily-trained but the tactics are completely unfair, they should stand in line! Fight in red, I mean digital camouflage, uniforms like we do! And the U.S. public shall know, via Twitter and Facebook, that there is no hope to fight this enemy that I shall call North Chirania. And we shall leave.

And then like every good insurgency eventually does, they fill the power vacuum. They don their uniforms, and establish their insurgent state which makes use of the existing infrastructure and state apparatuses but isn’t the state.

And the U.S. asks questions of itself, and buys another Joint Strike Fighter.

Geopolitical Cartoons: Mali, France, uranium? (2013)

In this week’s geopolitical cartoon we’re (briefly) leaving the 20th century to take a look at the 21st. More specifically, today’s cartoon is an going issue of which Z Geography has written about previously (see category tag, Mali). The cartoon below reflects a cynical, but perhaps correct, view of France’s intervention in Mali. While some observers celebrate France’s intervention in the beleaguered state to be move to support the Bamako government against separatists and Islamists, the cartoon suggests that France has more selfish motives. In the cartoon, a frustrated militant Tuareg Islamist (or so we assume based on the AK-47 and tagelmust) is attempting to cross from Mali to neighboring Niger but is prevented from doing so by the stomping booted leg of the French military. The goal is a stash of uranium in Niger, implying that French military intervention is meant to prevent violent Islamists from gaining access to radioactive material.

French intervention in Mali, 2013 (via red phoenix)

Based on some cursory research there may be truth to this view. According to analysis at Global Research published late January, France announced that it would deploy its Special Forces to guard the Areva uranium mines near the towns of Arlit and Imouraren, in northern Niger (article calls this “imperialist expansion”). The towns are about to 200 miles from the, probably, porous border with Mali. While I can’t really comment on France’s neocolonial tendencies (ok, I could but this isn’t the space), a brief geologic survey of Niger notes that in 2005 Niger was one of the largest producers of uranium in the world. Further, “Niger’s main uranium resources are all contained in the sediments of the Tim Mersoi sub-basin…of the Iullemmeden basin,” shown in the map below (and taken from that report). Given the proximity of the mines to the Malian border, the likely porousness of that border, and France’s decision to deploy additional military personnel there – it would appear that the French government is at least concerned about the mines. Indeed there are a number of companies operating in this area of Niger mining uranium, as the popup map on this geologic consulting site attests, including the China National Nuclear Corporation, a subsidiary of Ivanhoe Resources (Canada), and other British and South African companies.

Simplified geologic map of Niger

Simplified geologic map of Niger

Despite this, one wonders if the Islamists’ objectives were the uranium mines to begin with, the border has been porous and the Nigerien state just as weak now as it was a decade ago and this is unlikely to change in the future. One could argue that if the violent Islamists sought mined uranium from Niger they would have already been able to acquire it. Ultimately, this continued concern with uranium mines can’t help but to remind me of the Nigerien yellow cake argument put forth by the Bush presidency over a decade ago…