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.

Geopolitical Cartoons: Monroe and Roosevelt (1900s)

Resurrecting a previous Z Geography series, this week we’ll take a look at the geographic significance of cartoons related to the Monroe Doctrine, specifically the Roosevelt Corollary. As the wikipedia article summarizes, the President James Monroe’s doctrine (articulated in the 1820s) sought to limit European influence in the emerging revolutions in Central and South America. Since the U.S. lacked a “credible” military response at the time, the policy was mostly enforced by the British Empire – who would benefit from new markets for their free trade schemes. At the same time that the U.S. sought to limit European interference in the New World, the U.S. also pledged to respect the internal sovereignty of European countries, to include what colonies remained in the New World.

Of course, perceptions of the doctrine changed with the times. The cartoon below (dated after the U.S. Civil War) depicts a “crippled” American Eagle conversing with an amused British lion and French cock. The context is evident, in the aftermath of the destructive war between the states – the U.S. was in no shape to uphold and enforce the Monroe Doctrine. But by Roosevelt’s presidency, the U.S. had regained its military strength.

a “crippled” American Eagle, unable to uphold the Monroe Doctrine? (post-U.S. Civil War)

President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (from 1904) moved the doctrine from non-interventionism to hardly-disguised imperialism. The corollary was couched in the language and intent of the earlier doctrine in that the U.S. would intervene in conflicts between European countries and Latin American countries in order to press the “legitimate” claims of the Europeans, rather than have the Europeans attempt to enforce their claims directly. More succinctly, the Roosevelt Corollary promoted the United States as the “hemispheric policeman.”

The two geopolitical cartoons below communicate these points. In the first, we see a President Roosevelt aboard one of the “Great White Fleet” ships resting defiantly on a naval gun pointed at a European monarch. The monarch carries “claims” and reaches to across the Atlantic to a sobbing representation of the Republic of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republican). The naval gun is marked the “Monroe Doctrine”. In the distance, Roosevelt is backed by the power of the U.S. Navy (represented by ironclads). The cartoon effectively illustrates the growing strength of the United States. Where before the U.S. required British support to uphold an American doctrine, by Roosevelt’s presidency the U.S. has become a hemispheric (or regional) power in its own right.

Monroe Doctrine as Roosevelt’s “Big Gun” (unknown date)

The second geopolitical cartoon, from 1904, evokes slightly different imagery to explain the Roosevelt Corollary. In it a larger-than-life Roosevelt patrols the Caribbean Sea, which is framed by countries that border it (Santo Domingo/Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, and so on), pulling along the U.S. Navy’s ironclads which are labelled “debt collectors.” In his right hand Roosevelt carries his now-famous big stick, which was his favorite proverb (“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”).

Roosevelt and his Big Stick, patrolling the Caribbean with the U.S. Navy (probably 1904)

The Monroe Doctrine was “reinstated” as it were by World War II, as seen in the geopolitical cartoon below. The cartoon depicts an Uncle Sam with a wet paint brush posting a sign in the Caribbean with ink from a “restatement of the Monroe Doctrine” bucket. The sign reads “Positively no hunting.” Glaring closely at the sign is Hitler’s Germany who sports a smoking gun and the corpses of France, Holland, and Denmark – symbolized as adult ducks. The sign is meant to ward off German and Italian (Mussolini is just behind Hitler) poaching of the remaining possessions of those countries, the ducklings, in the Western Hemisphere.

A renewed Monroe Doctrine, warding off Hitler and Mussolini? (World War II)

These cartoons illustrate historical and geopolitical points. Historically, the Roosevelt Corollary illustrated the United States abandoning of the non-interventionism of the Monroe Doctrine for the active asserting of a regional (and soon to be global) power. This couldn’t have happened without a much stronger U.S. Navy. From a geopolitical perspective, the Roosevelt Corollary represented an assertion of American dominance in the Western hemisphere; rather than a European one. The last cartoon, a renewed emphasis of an 1820s doctrine during World War II, chronicles the ascendancy of American power through a defiant Uncle Sam determined to resist Nazi and fascist aggression.

Safe and Sound: a Carolinian Salamander!

The last few weeks I’ve devoted my time to a new geographic and cartographic project.

The project’s objective is to identify characteristics of “safe” districts for the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. There are two sub-questions: where are these safe districts located (if they exist at all) and; what are their significant characteristics? In terms of parameters for the study. I shall only be using results from the 2010 Congressional election (for the 112th Congress, 2010-2012), though I’d prefer a longitudinal approach – digitizing the necessary data from the one election took some time. Within that election, I will be examining results for the House of Representatives, since this body (theoretically) rolls over every two years and the seats are proportional representations of population. My hope is that the results are more applicable to district characteristics than a similar study of the Senate, since that chamber’s seats are tied to perspectives and politics at a state-level rather than a more local level. To be explicit this is the previous Congress, which sat from 2010 to 2012.


Results for the 2010 election to the House of Representatives (via ME!)

The map above is one depiction of the House results from the 2010 election. It shows potentially “safe” districts (which I defined as over 70% of the available votes going to either the Republican or Democratic party) in the darkest colors, green for Republican, purple for Democratic. It also shows “strong” districts (defined as over 60% of the vote) in a lighter tone of the same colors. By the numbers: 51 districts were “safe” Democratic and 51 were “strong” Democratic. 56 were “safe” Republican and 94 were “strong” Republican. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the House of Representatives is a proportional body based on population. Though the Republican safe districts are geographically larger, the districts more (or less) contain the same numbers of people. Thus giving rise to the common observation that urban areas vote Democratic and more rural locales (with their more diffuse across geographic space populations) vote Republican. That is common knowledge… right?

No? Well, a cursory map analysis elicits a few observations. First, the Democratic Party is hardly a “coastal” phenomenon and Republican strongholds are hardly limited to the American South and Midwest. While this isn’t news to anyone who 1) lives in these areas, 2) has a brain, 3) is a Geographer, one would be surprised by the number generalities made by U.S. media outlets, so-called pundits, and others. Second, some of us thought (myself included) that gerrymandering was dead. I’m happy (because it gives me something to write about) and sad (for the same reason) that its not.

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Meet North Carolina’s 12th Congressional district or the Carolinian Salamander (Caroliander?). Over 60% of the voters in this Congressional district voted for the Democratic Party candidate in the 2010 election. Without a map this statistics does not mean much. We see that four strongly Republican districts on the border (two of which voted over 70% for Republican candidates) and the, rather odd, shape of the district itself is… telling.

Initially I was going to report some demographic characteristics of these districts but since I’ve only done a very limited, cursory analysis (commonly referred to as “eye-balling”) I shall spare you my musings. Suffice to say though, with the appropriate caveats, that there is likely to be some interaction between race/ethnicity and income with the House of Representative electoral outcomes (in North Carolina) in 2010. More explicitly, I think that these districts are shaped to promote these electoral outcomes. Of course, much more research needs to be done on the method and manner in which electoral districts are demarcated in North Carolina.

The above should serve to dispel some misconceptions about U.S. politics. First, there’s really no red-state/blue-state binary. Most states include areas considered strong or safe Democratic or Republican holds, with the notable exceptions of the states with only one representative (Vermont, Montana, and so on). Second, gerrymandering! Taken together, these observations give credence to the idea that the potential spatial concentration of safe districts, say the safe and sound Republican Congressional districts of North Carolina, or Texas, deserve closer scrutiny.

Presidential Geography

In belated honor of President’s day, today’s post focuses on the birth states of our 44 presidents and the dates that those states received statehood.

The most obvious, but yet the most interesting, observation is President Obama. And no, not because I’m a birther (I’m not). President Obama was born in Hawaii, which is also the youngest state in the Union (if only I had started this blog a decade ago!). Besides being the president born the furthest from the capital, he is also the first born off the continental United States.

As you may have guessed, most U.S. presidents were born in one of the original 13 colonies (24 total), primarily Virginia (8 total). Among the original 13 colonies, only Maryland, Rhode Island, and Delaware have never had a son (or daughter) elected president. By way of explanation, I would venture its a combination of low population (decreasing the odds) and the bias in early U.S. politics for either a staunchly “Northern” or “Southern” viewpoint. Before the U.S. Civil War I would imagine that the candidates who had the clearest credentials in supporting either northern and southern political programs would be the best choice. Maryland, just south of the Mason-Dixon line that nominally separated “North” from “South”, nevertheless found itself in the Union during the Civil War. Occasionally two-party political systems (like the U.S.) can become polarizing, leaving natural compromise cultures (like Maryland) abandoned. Of the first 14 presidents prior to the U.S. Civil War, 10 were from the South, and 4 from the North.

The president elected before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, was also the first president not born in one of the original 13 colonies (Kentucky). Of the states outside the colonial core, Ohio has the greatest number of presidents 7. This also makes the state the second highest producer of presidents after Virginia.

Prior to Hawaii and President Obama, the youngest state producing a president was Nebraska with President Ford.

And whereas the original 13 colonies reside in the east of the United States and prior to President Obama, President Nixon from California was the president born furthest west of the Prime Meridian. The furthest north is President Arthur born in Fairfield, Vermont. The furthest south is President Obama, but prior to him it was President Johnson, born in Stonewall, Texas. Below is a listing of the complete information.


For a great map, which includes approximate places AND first ladies, see Looking at the map is telling, as states are added to the Union the United States system delivers on the promise that anyone could be president. Like the demographic center of the country, the places where presidents are born has also moved west. In fact referencing the map at mibazaar with the progression of the U.S. demographic center (below), presidents have first appeared further west than the mean population at the time. One could argue that this phenomenon is evidence of our continued fascination and bias with the “frontiersman” and the “settler.”

Demographic Center of the US, 2010 (via CNN)