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Canada's colonial misadventures in Africa have strengthened Boko Haram's hand

| January 14, 2016
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Blowback. Karma. Unintended consequences. A corollary to the golden rule. We have many words to describe the concept: doing harm to others often results in bad things happening to us or people we "care" about, sometimes many years later.

Since the November attacks in Paris, Boko Haram has killed nearly twice as many people as ISIS did in the City of Lights. But the carnage in northern Nigeria has received much less attention -- and Canada's connection to it has received none at all.

Five days after the Paris killings Boko Haram claimed responsibility for suicide attacks in Yola and Kano that killed 50. Ten days later the group killed 22 at a Shia Muslim procession near Kano, another 11 a few days later just over the border in Cameroon and 27 on an island on Nigeria's border with Chad a week later. Last week they killed 52 in Maiduguri and Madagali. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, Boko Haram killed more people in 2014 than ISIS.

Largely ignored in North America, the 2011 Canada/France/Britain/U.S. war in Libya benefited Boko Haram. It destabilized that country and now ISIS is in control of Sirte and other parts of the country. In 2012 the Libyan conflict spilled south into Mali. Last March Boko Haram announced its affiliation with ISIS and the Nigerian group is thought to be receiving fighters and media support from ISIS camps in Libya. The Libyan war also increased the availability of weaponry in the Sahel region. A few months after Gaddafi was killed a Reuters headline explained: "Arms from Libya could reach Boko Haram, al-Qaeda: UN"

During the Libyan war the African Union predicted as much. In opposing the joint NATO and Gulf monarchies invasion of Libya, AU Commission Chief Jean Ping said "Africa's concern is that weapons that are delivered to one side or another...are already in the desert and will arm terrorists and fuel trafficking." When the Libyan conflict spilled southward in 2012 then Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo voiced similar concerns. "Part of what is happening in Mali is part of the fallout from Libya, and we should not expect that Mali will be the last."

Canada played a significant role in the 2011 NATO attack in Libya. A Canadian general led the bombing campaign, seven CF-18 fighter jets participated and two Canadian naval vessels patrolled the Libyan coast. Additionally, Canadian special forces were reported to be operating in the country while a Canadian drone maker armed the anti-Gaddafi forces and Montréal private security firm GardaWorld aided them.

Beyond Ottawa's role in Libya, Canadians long ago contributed to the political and religious tensions that have given rise to a group named (loosely translated) "Western education is a sin." While in no way justifying Boko Haram's wonton slaughter of innocents, the violent colonization of northern Nigeria and aggressive evangelizing efforts partly explain Boko Haram's existence.

A lieutenant in the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) Canadian Gore Munbee Barrow was one of 25 white officers who led a 1000-strong expedition in 1903 to conquer the Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria. With four rapid firing Maxim guns and four 75mm cannons, it took a 90-minute battle to capture the capital of Sokoto, which had been West Africa’s largest single state in the nineteenth century.

According to Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914, "as the WAFF column neared the city, hordes of horsemen and footmen armed with swords, spears, old guns and bows and arrows appeared, charging the square over and over again, only to be mown down by machine gun and carbine fire.” Boko Haram regularly references the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio.

A number of Canadians played a role in the colonial administration of Northern Nigeria. After taking part in British military campaigns in Sudan and South Africa, Montréal’s Percy Girouard was appointed high commissioner and governor of Northern Nigeria from 1906–09 (then a separate colony). The Royal Military College of Canada trained governor allowed compulsory labour to be used on some public and private projects.

Canadian missionaries also played a central role in Christianizing the now fervently religious country split between a mostly Christian south and Muslim north. In 1905, the Ontario Conference of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ sent Toronto's Alexander Woods Banfield to proselytize among the Nupe of northwestern Nigeria. Banfield took it upon himself to learn the language and translated the Bible into Nupe. He also founded the Niger Press, which aimed to secure "in printed form the word of God in Nigerian languages."

Rising to become general secretary for West Africa of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Banfield supported the colonial authorities and his personal writings were not free from outbursts of racism, including an assertion that "people along the banks of the Niger are almost wild...almost entirely untouched by the white man."

In 1893 Torontonians Walter Gowans and Rowland Victor Bingham established the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), which became the largest Protestant mission in Nigeria. (At the time "Sudan" generally referred to the area south of the Sahara and North of the equator from the east to west coast of Africa.) Writing about northern Nigerian missionaries, Brad Faught surmises that "[British Governor Frederick] Lugard and the colonial state were the guarantors of the SIM's operations."

On top of supporting colonialism, SIM  openly and aggressively criticized Islam. In a 1943 book titled From Cannibalism to Christ: a story of the transforming power of the gospel in darkest Africa, SIM missionary John S. Hall claimed "the 10 or more millions of pagans" in southern Nigeria were "threatened from the north, by Moslem invasion and absorption."

SIM was boldly fundamentalist. In a book about the organization titled Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel, Barbara M. Cooper notes that to be a SIM missionary one had to accept that "the Bible is the 'inerrant' word of God" and that "to be a Christian is to evangelize." Interestingly, Boko Haram has listed a church SIM built in the 1930s in Kano as a target.

Northern Nigeria's missionary and colonial history partly explains Boko Haram's depravity. Canada contributed in a small way to the British colonial project in northern Nigeria and Ottawa played a significant role in the recent military intervention in Libya, which has strengthened Boko Haram's hand.

Blowback. Karma. Unintended consequences. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you or they might do unto you what you did to them.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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