Thursday, 5 June 2014

Tragedy in Nigeria

Boko Haram is in the news again today for killing about 45 people in north eastern Nigeria. This organisation has been making the international news for several years now, even though they have apparently been in existence since 2002.

News reporting of Boko Haram tends to follow the same reductionist principles of most non-UK bad news events, focusing on specific details and ignoring context. It is possible to find out more about the history and politics of the organisation, but to the casual news reader they probably just come across as a crazy, murderous band. When seen in that light the response that seems logical for the authorities to take is to do whatever they can to crush and imprison its members, so that the problem will go away. However, further reflection suggests that this approach might not be so effective in the longer term.

Systems concepts can help to throw some light on why Boko Haram are operating. First, we can think about it as a 'wicked' problem. For example:
  • We cannot produce a single definition of the problem; are they terrorists, gangsters or just religious fundamentalists who are really troubled by the world that they see?
  • The current situation is shaped by its history, and will continue to evolve. Every intervention will cause a change in the situation, for better or worse.
  • What is the endpoint? Boko Haram ceases to exist, its members are dead, fundamentalist Islam is no longer a significant force in the region, or what?
  • It is not an isolated problem, and is deeply connected with other problems regionally and internationally.
The last issue is interesting and particularly relates to the systems idea of a boundary. News reporting, as described above, draws a tightly-defined boundary around Boko Haram, separating it from other issues. This gives the idea that we can simply solve the problem by eliminating it (i.e. killing or imprisoning them all). However, if we loosen the boundary other, very significant factors become apparent:
  • The western involvement in destabilising Libya unintentionally created to the availability of large numbers of fighting personnel and heavy weaponry.
  • For centuries there have been tensions between Islamic and Christian communities in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Nigeria is potentially a very wealthy country due to the oil, but this wealth is concentrated in the Christian south. Endemic corruption means that wealth from the oil does not really benefit people in the Islamic north (nor many in the Christian south).
  • Western (which can be seen as Christian) oil companies are implicit in supporting corrupt government regimes and oil company practices.
  • Fundamentalist Islam has been growing in importance for several decades globally, and has been characterised by violent clashes and demonisation in the West.
The list could go on. Each of these is a major problem in its own right, which is feeding into the north-east Nigerian context. A causal flow diagram would show a number of positive feedback loops all coming together to make the situation worse.

From this analysis Boko Haram is just a symptom of huge regional and international forces, and crushing it will not in the long-term solve any problems, but could arguably add a further twist to the feedback loops driving Christian and Islamic peoples apart everywhere in the world.

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