Two weeks ago, on January 3, Islamist militants in northeastern Nigeria committed what may be one of the single largest massacres of civilians in decades anywhere on the planet. Eyewitness accounts are horrifying, suggesting that 2,000 people were murdered by Boko Haram, although Nigeria’s government, reeling, says the total was less than 200. Reports out of the area are sketchy, because the insurgency that Boko Haram has waged there for the last several years has made the region inaccessible to Western aid workers and journalists. But satellite images show that at least one town, Baga, was completely razed, and it appears that virtually all of its residents who were found by the terrorist group were summarily executed.
Like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram pretends to caliphate status, having declared a purist Islamic state in the Sahel, the semi-arid crossroads where the Sahara and tropical West Africa converge. Also like ISIS, Boko Haram has few opponents who are either willing or well prepared to stop its atrocities. The group has overrun military bases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and in neighboring Cameroon. The ruling elite, hailing from those countries’ Christian south, have been accused of neglecting ill-defended populations in the mostly Muslim north.
Boko Haram has been operational for several years but leapt to notoriety after its irregular fighters kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls last April. “Boko,” meaning “fraudulent belief” in the local Hausa language, is often used to describe Western education, and “haram” is Arabic for “forbidden.” The group’s nominal ideology is one with the most radical segment of Islamist movements throughout the world.
The West’s reaction to Boko Haram famously sparked the invention of a new term, “hashtag diplomacy.” The futility of the #bringbackourgirls meme, which instanced a picture of a dour-looking Michelle Obama demanding the same, led to the effort’s ridicule. It is a sad example of the West’s failure to back up its rhetoric — if a hashtag can even be called rhetoric. And this month’s Baga massacre, because it neither occurred at a location vital to Western strategic interests nor involved any Western value as particular as the free press or women’s education, has been a footnote to a news cycle dominated by other Islamist-inspired mass murders in Paris.
Islamic states are nothing alien to northern Nigeria. Before the 19th century, the region was ruled by a hodgepodge of emirs who governed under the banner of Islam, until in 1809 the encompassing Sokoto Caliphate was formed. While the century-long rule of the caliph was hardly benign, neither was it Boko Haram’s reign of terror. Its self-styled sultans nearly all belonged to brotherhoods associated with Sufism, the mystical brand of Sunni Islam. Accommodations were made to local beliefs, just as Christian dogma, whether Catholicism and its saints or Pentecostalism and its miracles, syncretized with an indigenous reverence of ancestors and the material rewards that such reverence could yield.
The last caliphate persisted a century until British colonizers abolished it, but the new rulers thought better than to make northern Nigeria’s political fabric a tabula rasa. The system of “indirect rule” they instituted had a place for the country’s traditional rulers, while giving the colonial state a kind of veto power over important decisions. British rule held in Nigeria, despite there being no more than a few hundred colonial officers in the country at any time, because the British appealed to local notions of tradition and honor as sources of legitimacy. As one colonial governor opined, “A great chief is a very valuable possession. His authority is an instrument of the greatest public utility which it is most desirable to keep in full force.”
Britain’s was a cynical political strategy, but at least it leveraged the diversity of Nigeria. Since independence in 1960, the attempt to create a nation out of a mishmash of ethnic groups has led to a central government in which the reins of power pass between northerners and southerners, each side alienating the other in turn.
Meanwhile, traditional lineages of authority — the sultan of Sokoto still exists, for instance — are viewed skeptically, either as tools of a distant government or as impure because the office’s theological views do not comport with the insurgent, populist brand of radical Islam, which appeals to the youth but has heretofore been alien to Nigeria. So northern Nigeria, like Iraq and Syria, has joined the list of places where the alienation and listlessness of a population have proved ample fodder for hard-line Islamist groups, which have put their elders and co-religionists to the sword.
The tragedy is a useful reminder that globalization cuts two ways. At the same time that the petroleum economy and cellular networks have created a wealthier, interconnected Nigeria, those same economies have funded and propagated a retrograde ideology that makes Nigeria’s 19th-century rulers look enlightened. Some might call that ironic, but that’s the case only if you think globalization means everyone is marching hand-in-hand toward a world where human rights are ever more respected. What has happened in recent weeks in Nigeria is only the latest indication that this is just not so.
— Travis Kavulla, a former associate editor at National Review, has been a Gates Scholar and worked as a journalist in Africa.