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Monday, September 1, 2014

Boko Haram and The Lord's Resistance Army

As the blog evolves I will introduce features that I feel enhance the overall product.  On Mondays I will comment on issues that are a bit distant from the mainstream news.  I did not include any links today because the subject matter can be researched on any variety of sources on the internet, including Wikipedia.  In fact, the information I present will probably not differ with what is available from a simple Google search.  But since this is my blog, and I find both of these groups fascinating, I exercise blogger's prerogative and introduce to you Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group, and The Lord's Resistance Army, a terror organization that claims adherence to Christian principles.

Boko Haram is a Sunni Islamic Fundamentalist Sect based in northern Nigeria, that advocates strict Sharia Law.  In order to understand the genesis of this organization, a quick review of Nigerian history is necessary. After achieving independence from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria suffered through a period of confusion as attempts were made to continue the regular functions of a state (as exemplified by the British during colonial rule).  Like most African states, Nigeria is comprised of many different tribes who speak different languages and practice different religions.  Northern Nigeria has always been home to a majority of the nation's Muslim population.  Nigeria itself suffered through a Civil War from 1967 to 1970, as certain eastern states seceded from Nigeria and formed the short-lived state of Biafra.  This fractious, bloody war left behind a distrust throughout Nigeria for the idea of a central government based in Lagos.  Since independence, corruption has always been an issue in Nigerian society, particularly in politics and the military. Many northerners resent the fact that the majority of wealth in Nigeria is centered in the southern states, particularly around Lagos.  Lack of economic development has resulted in great suffering in many northern districts.  A number of Muslim-based groups became involved in providing assistance to those in need.  This assistance was accompanied by an education in fundamentalist Islam.  No one can blame the people of the north from aligning themselves with these groups.  The government was seen as totally corrupt and disinterested in the welfare of the people.
Nigeria suffered through a series of military dictatorships from 1960 until 1999.  The advent of Democracy did little to end the suffering of the northern districts, and a number of the Islamic Fundamentalist groups began to look for a military solution.  Boko Haram (BH) was formed in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf.  The group did not declare itself in open rebellion until 2009.  Yusuf was arrested and died in police custody.  He was succeeded by his first lieutenant Abubakar Shakau.  The name "Boko Haram" is translated as "Western Education is Forbidden".  BH has never been a large movement, but has many supporters throughout the Muslim north of Nigeria.  The group states that its goal is the creation of an Islamic State under Sharia Law in Nigeria (not just in northern Nigeria).  BH has been able to purchase arms and supplies through a campaign of bank robberies and kidnappings/ransoms.  BH traditionally moves  in small units, and is intent on consolidating it hold on the northern districts of Nigeria through fear and intimidation.  As kidnappings and aggressive actions have become common, BH lost much of its support from northern Nigerians.  But the Nigerian Army, which is obliged to defend Nigerian citizens from terrorist groups, commands no respect whatsoever.  The Army has conducted repeated military operations against BH, not only to free hostages but to damage the organization to the point of ineffectiveness.  But every military effort has met with either limited success (whatever territory cleared of BH was quickly reoccupied immediately following the Army's departure) or complete failure.  The problems within the Nigerian military stem from a culture of corruption and a complete lack of discipline.  Although the Nigerian Parliament votes substantial funds for the military in every budget, most of that money is skimmed off and into the pockets of one military official or another (or politician).  Sometimes troops go extended periods of time with no pay, and weapons are carried w/o ammunition.
The recent kidnapping of hundreds of young girls by BH brought the problem to the international stage for a limited period of time.  The Nigerian Army has vowed to rescue the girls and a number of operations have been conducted.  But the story seems to have fallen from even the last page of western newspapers, and the parents of the missing girls are left with little hope.  At one time the Nigerian military was respected and trusted by the people.  But the issue of corruption in Nigeria goes far beyond the military. Most Nigerians are honest, hard-working folks who deserve an honest, representative government that does not utilize Sharia Law as its system of justice.  Lets hope a leader exists just beyond the horizon who can bring the Nigerian people together regardless of religion and institute a government dedicated to serving the people and fighting corruption at its source.

The Lord's Resistance Army is a quasi-religious movement that many also consider to be a cult.  It was originally based in northern Uganda but has since extended its presence into southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC).  During the 1970's Uganda was engulfed in one civil war after another.  The only period of relative calm was the beginning of the Idi Amin Administration, which quickly descended into a quagmire of violence and repression itself.  After Amin's ouster, a number of factions fought for control of Uganda.  The lack of stability and complete ineffectiveness of whatever government sat in Kampala at the time led the people of Uganda to lose faith in centralized government.  The administration of Dr. Milton Obote was rampant with corruption and tribal nepotism.  Obote was overthrown by the current President of Uganda (and sometime darling of the West), Yoweri Museveni, in 1986.  During the strife which brought Museveni to power, another personality was creating a niche for herself in the far north of Uganda.  Her name was Alice Lakwena, and she claimed to be the recipient of messages from The Holy Spirit.  The repeated conflicts had left a vacuum of authority in the north of the country, and Lakwena filled the space with her own particular civil resistance movement.  She was able to raise an Army (by then Lakwena was a self-identified Prophetess who could make her adherents impervious to bullet fire) and after a few surprising initial successes, met defeat at the hands of the regular Ugandan Army at Jinja in 1988.  Her followers dispersed and Lakwena sought asylum in Kenya.  During this time another group of civil resistance fighters was evolving, led by the charismatic Joseph Kony.  Kony was able to rally what remained of Lakwena's forces and set up camp in Acholi tribal land in north Uganda.  Kony immediately established his own "cult-of personality" and led his supporters in acts of violence against government and civilian targets.
Kony and his group, now calling itself "The Lord's Resistance Army" (LRA), decided to copy the methods of the Ugandan Army by forcibly "conscripting" children (kidnapping) into the ranks of the organization.  During the 1990s an occasional story reached the western press about massacres of children who refused to join LRA.  At the time, though, Rwanda was about to descend into genocide and Africa as a whole seemed to be at war with itself.  President Museveni proved to have something no previous Ugandan leader had.....staying power.  Buoyed by a growing economy and a booming capital city, Museveni became the darling of the IMF and the west.  Ugandan elections appeared to be much more free and Democratic than what was routine in sub-Saharan Africa, and Museveni actually kept corruption down to a minimum.  Even the once-proud University of Kampala regained some of its former glory.  But as was the case in Nigeria, the largesse created by the economic good times seldom reached the northern districts.  Nevertheless, the people stayed relatively loyal to the central government, which brought regular retaliation from the LRA.
Eventually, a well-funded and organized military operation pushed the LRA out of Uganda and into Southern Sudan.  In return for support against Christian elements in southern Sudan, the Muslim-fundamentalist government in Khartoum agreed to assist the LRA.  The LRA set up shop in the border region between Sudan and Uganda, and indiscriminately raided settlements on both sides of the border. Eventually the LRA became active in the never-ending conflict in eastern DROC, attacking a Catholic Church-sponsored concert, killing 143 and kidnapping 180 in 2008.
Some of the real mysteries surrounding the LRA are its motivations and aspirations.  In the beginning, the struggle was couched as an effort to redistribute Uganda's wealth more evenly, instead of allowing the south to grow richer and richer.  Since the turn of the century, Kony has become more and more of a cult figure to his followers.  He is seen less and less, but will occasionally make an appearance in order to remind us all that hes still alive.  The LRA continues to be a thorn in the side of the Museveni government, but their lack of resources and adequate supply mechanism has diminished their ability to create havoc. But for the poor, suffering Acholi of northern Uganda, the LRA remains the greatest threat to peace and stability. The big questions remains...what does Kony want?

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