Thoughts on Secretary Kerry’s Trip to Nigeria

On August 23-24, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Nigeria. He visited the capital, Abuja, as well as Sokoto (map), a major city in far northwestern Nigeria. Sokoto has special significance as the seat of one of the largest Muslim polities in pre-colonial Africa, an empire whose territories extended throughout much of present-day northern Nigeria and into parts of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon. Sokoto has continuing relevance in post-colonial Nigeria, where the Sultan of Sokoto (a direct descendant of the pre-colonial ruling family) is the country’s highest-ranking Muslim hereditary ruler.

Trying to shape Nigerian efforts to counter “extremism” – read, Boko Haram – was clearly the thrust of Kerry’s agenda in Nigeria. But I think the trip was executed in a way that muddled its message, in three domains:

  1. Security Trumps Human Rights: U.S. policymakers have long stressed, in public remarks, that Nigerian politicians and military leaders should work harder to ensure that the anti-Boko Haram fight is not marred by systemic human rights violations. But Washington’s actions toward the Nigerian government have only sometimes indicated that human rights are the U.S. government’s major concern. The same was true on this trip – in Sokoto, Kerry said, “To effectively counter violent extremism, we have to ensure that military action is coupled with a reinforced commitment to the values this region and all of Nigeria has a long legacy of supporting – values like integrity, good governance, education, compassion, security, and respect for human rights.” But that line was buried in the middle of his speech. Meanwhile, one of the big “deliverables” of his trip to Nigeria was a near-promise to increase U.S. military aid to Nigeria. Given that actions speak louder than words, I think Nigerian elites will hear the message that the military’s well-documented abuses against prisoners, militants, and civilians will not, in the long run, be a barrier to receiving more aid from the U.S. If Kerry had intended to send a serious message about human rights, he should not have promised new aid, or he should have made it explicitly conditional upon human rights reforms.
  2. A Top-Down, Risk-Averse View of Religious Engagement: In a sense, it is fitting for the top-ranking U.S. diplomat to meet with Nigeria’s top-ranking hereditary Muslim ruler. But in another sense, Kerry’s trip to Sokoto represented the most clichéd form of religious engagement that the U.S. might attempt in northern Nigeria. Since 1903, when British forces killed Sultan Muhammadu Attahiru I at the Battle of Burmi, Sultans of Sokoto have been largely deferential to Nigeria’s political authorities. The Sultan wields little influence, in my view, over the type of people who join or sympathize with Boko Haram; such people already have real doubts about the integrity of hereditary Muslim rulers. Who, then, was the intended audience for Kerry’s trip to Sokoto? If it is Muslim youth, or fence-sitters thinking about joining Boko Haram, are they meant to be impressed by Kerry praising the Sultan as a model of inter-faith tolerance? In my view, it was fine for Kerry to go to Sokoto, but he should have also met with a spectrum of Muslim leaders in Abuja, including mainstream Salafis.
  3. A Misreading of Boko Haram: Should the U.S. government decide who is a Muslim and who is not? In Sokoto, Kerry argued that Boko Haram has nothing to do with Islam – “Boko Haram boasts no agenda other than to murder teachers, burn books, kidnap students, rape women and girls, and slaughter innocent people, most of whom are Muslims. It has a complete and total disrespect for life, the opposite of every religion. It has a complete nihilistic view of the world. It fears knowledge. It fears education. It fears tolerance.” The idea that Boko Haram is nihilistic is empirically false, unless you are willing to dismiss virtually every statement that Boko Haram has ever made. I’m not saying that Boko Haram is “Islamic,” but I am saying that they consider themselves to be such. And if you discount that, then I don’t think you can really counter their ideology. I believe Kerry should either have avoid trying to imply that he has the authority to give a normative definition of Islam (this is the better option, I think), or he should have acknowledged and addressed some of Boko Haram’s core ideas.

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