OPINION: ‘Good times’ for terror groups?

Thursday May 16 2019

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

This week secondary school students have been demonstrating in Mogadishu, after Somalia’s education minister postponed national examinations, saying test papers were sold and leaked on social media.

A BBC report on the exam leak had what seemed like an innocuous paragraph, saying; “Large parts of south and central Somalia are controlled by al-Shabaab, who have imposed their own parallel education system which teaches hardline Islamist doctrine.”

The story didn’t say, but it didn’t need to - the exams in the Shabaab-administered areas don’t leak. Not only because the terror group is more disciplined, and the price of doing it would be very high (at best a hand off, but perhaps more likely the head).

However, saying Shabaab’s “education system which teaches hardline Islamist doctrine” only tells half the story. The jihadist group introduced a new curriculum in 2017. The most striking thing about it was how nationalist it was, as it replaced foreign elements that dominate the national curriculum used across the country with mostly Somali content.

And, also, it removed English in the new curriculum and replaced it with Arabic. Beside the debatable issue of Arabic, Shabaab did what many education reformers and nationalists in Africa have spoken of and done nothing about, or tried and largely failed.

The long-running problems with exam leaks that the government in Somalia, and indeed many parts of Africa, points to yet another area of failure by states that extremist groups have exploited to advance their cause. Shabaab, for one, uses the “social capital” it gets from doing better in these areas to trade for the support of the population in its terror campaign, the means by which it seeks power.

Reading the small print, and being more nuanced, might help better understand the elusive factors fuelling the rise of extremist Islamist groups in even unlikely places like Mozambique, to the “good” run of terror form they are having in new territories like Burkina Faso, and their resurgence in old hunting grounds like Mali.

For some of the West African and Sahel countries, the small print is very uncomfortable reading. There is a book entitled Women And The War On Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses, by researcher and writer Hilary Matfess.

The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, was on rampage then, visiting mayhem on the border areas of neighbouring countries, and seeking to control the Lake Chad basin.

And there were #BringBackOurGirls campaigns in many cities in the world, demanding the return of the 276 female students kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014, from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Nigeria’s Borno State, Nigeria.

There were reports that some of the girls were reluctant to return, and had fallen in love with Boko Haram. It was inconceivable, and the world explained it away as “Stockholm Syndrome”, where captives eventually identify with their captors.

Some things didn’t add. Could Boko Haram have advanced as far as it only through terror? Were they really monsters to everyone? Matfess chose to look.

I have not yet laid my hand on the book, but have read many reviews and they are fascinating. A notable one was published on the London School of Economics “Africa at LSE” blog, written by Richard Moncrieff.

“The shared view of Boko Haram as a small group of deranged men, whose women are almost entirely victims, may have provided coherence and motivation to the security response since 2015”, it said, but as” the book clearly lays out, ignoring the group’s roots in the ‘structural violence’ of northern Nigeria will make successful post conflict reconstruction near impossible.”

Being a young woman in northern Nigeria is hellish; early marriage, domestic violence and lack of educational opportunities.

In Boko Haram, the structural violence of northern Nigeria is both reproduced and challenged.

“But in other ways Boko Haram has created an original space for women, providing them with female companionship while their men are away fighting, with fragments of cosmopolitanism---and, most intriguingly with some relief from field labour.”

Controversial, and provocative, an apt word the reviewer uses, but the book makes the point without confronting the uncomfortable truths.