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The ‘War on Terror’ has provided US-NATO commands in Stuttgart and Brussels with justification for securitising ‘dangerous’ West African Muslim states, writes Caroline Ifeka. But competing with China to control strategic resources from oil to subterranean water around the Sahara and Sahel, they’re also quietly manoeuvring leases to exploit resources vital to US and EU capital accumulation. The principal cause of youth militancy around ethnicity and Islamic reformism in these regions, says Ifeka, is the ruling classes’ failure to share the rental incomes from – traditionally – community-owned resources. Community capacity building and restoration of a sense of agency and ownership rather than the militarisation of development, says Ifeka, is better strategy for diminishing discontent and building trust in democracy among the youth.

The aim is no longer to transform the world, but (as the heresies did in their day) to radicalise the world by sacrifice. Whereas the system aims to realize it by force.
– Baudrillard (2002: 10)


West Africa was of secondary military-economic interest to the US in the mid-1990s, compared to North Africa (Libya) and the Horn of Africa, but continuing difficulties in Middle Eastern oil supplies encouraged the US to seek petroleum providers elsewhere – the Caucasus, the south Atlantic ocean, and West Africa’s oil rich Gulf of Guinea states, especially Nigeria. Twenty years ago China was just beginning to prospect in West Africa for business and construction contracts, and so was not viewed then as a serious contender for access to and control over important African resources as oil and gas (Obi 2008). Today, nearly 750,000 Chinese are resident in Africa; 300 million emigrants to Africa may be planned (Michel and Beuret 2009: 4-5). The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 opened US eyes to the strategic advantage of relatively ‘safer’ West and West-Central African, especially Nigerian, sources of high quality crude oil rapidly transportable across the Atlantic ocean to refineries in populous cities on the North American eastern industrial seaboard. This major shift in US policy regarding West Africa took place at a time when arms sales by the world’s top arms exporters – the US, Russia and Germany – rose by a further 22 per cent between 2005-2010 (Norton-Taylor 2010).

Since 2001 renewed religious riots, outbursts of alleged ‘terrorism’ in the Sahara-Sahel and northern Nigeria, and militant threats to African oil exports have spurred the US to establish US African Command (AFRICOM) in collaboration with NATO’s Special Forces (Keenan 2009). From 2006 onwards the US has carried out military and naval exercises in selected African states, including the Cape Verde archipelago proximate to oil blocks off Senegal, targeted for leasing to US multinational corporations (MNCs). AFRICOM was fully operational from 2008 (AFRICOM 2009; AFROL 2009a).

The Pentagon appears to be intensifying plans in 2010, partnering with selected West African states (e.g. Senegal, Cape Verde, Ghana, Cameroon, Sao Tome and Principe, Mali, Niger), for further military exercises, training programmes and sales at discounted prices of modern fighter aircraft, automatic machine guns, and possible robotic aerial vehicles (US AFRICOM 2010). AFRICOM has in view certain locations in northern (e.g. Kano, Bornu, Bauchi, Yobe, Jos, Kaduna states), and southern Nigeria, principally the Niger Delta core oil producing states (Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta) as well as Lagos, the country’s sprawling commercial capital – estimated population 15 million, headquarters of MNC oil corporations, banks, and major Nigerian companies as Dangote Ltd and new light industries in partnership with Chinese companies.

Militarisation is taking place in selected West African states whose pre-industrial economies are still geared, as in the colonial era, to export raw materials with little value added to the advantage of Western and Asian industrialised economies. For example, partial modernisation in Nigeria reflects the country’s status as a rentier state relying on oil revenues (Karl 1997). Its late emergence in the 1970s as West Africa’s potential industrial power was aborted by a military regime in the mid-1980s, following pressure by international financial and trade institutions (e.g. International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organisation) that West African states remove tariff barriers on consumer and light industrial goods. An emerging Nigerian working class largely lost its economic base in factories producing clothing, shoes, matches, iron and steel products, buses, lorries, etc, that fostered class identity and action.

Abortive economic modernisation in Nigeria, and Francophone Sahelian states such as Niger and Mali, seems to have sustained perceived ‘traditional’, i.e. customary community values and identities. Until recently, when mobilising in political protest subalterns did so, by and large, through religious or ethnic, rather than class, identities (c.f. Laclau 1977: 155 ff). Many dissident youth movements based on ‘customary’ ethnic and/or religious identities have a long tradition in rural communities; they seek to reclaim land, water, resource management, rental incomes, and to purify ‘governance’ in favour of just land reform and resource distribution (Parker & Rathbone 2007: 91ff) Yet militant groups may also be referred to locally by globalising tags that suggest community familiarity with struggles elsewhere; for example, northern Nigerian communities nickname Islamic fundamentalists ‘Taliban’ or ‘al-Qaeda’, indicating (hearsay) knowledge of the US ‘War on Terrorism’. Equally, there are stories of politically alienated educated young males training in al-Qaeda camps, though the 25 December 2009, Nigerian (‘Detroit’) suicide bomber’s field training appears inadequate.

When resisting repression, youth coalesce around kin-based ethno-religious and clan identities that cohere around two dominant poles – ‘us, small people’ (clients) and ‘them, big men’ (patrons/godfathers) (Ifeka 2001b, 2006; Smith 2007). The ‘people’/’power’ opposition draws on a repertoire of customary representations and practices (e.g. initiation rituals, war gods, charms against bullets, juju ‘medicine’, language, religious texts, shrines) that authorise subaltern militant organisation. More recently, since the return to democracy in 1999, the growth of poverty and shared meanings of suffering, and on-going political violence between rulers and ruled, is contributing to a revival of representations of class identity and consciousness that elderly working men, peasant farmers, traders, teachers and petty clerks knew in the 1970s.

Adopting a political economy approach, I disaggregate that over-used neoliberal concept of ‘the people’ into social classes; that is, groups differentiated by their unequal relationship to the means of production (capital) and power as owners/workers, but who yet express their socio-political worlds through customary institutions of patron-clientship. For example, subalterns and rulers construct the social formation in terms of unequal relations of power expressed in terms of relations between client (subordinate) and patron (dominant)– almost everyone is a patron and/or a client to someone else. Clientelistic relations cross cut but do not erase economic class divisions: For instance, on one level ministers and senior civil servants in command of the state and its revenues are the top patrons or men of mega-power, those lacking such access are their clients, but on another level middle ranking civil servants, company administrators, junior army officers are themselves patrons to many lesser others. Thus, power relations between patrons and clients defined in terms of upward and downwards informal and illicit flows of money/services constitute the country’s ‘real’ political economy (Joseph 1987; Ifeka 2001a, 2006, 2009; c.f. Laclau 1977). Fundamentalist religious movements or ethnic nationalists may draw on a mix of ‘traditional’ cultural symbols as well as those of economic inequality (‘big’/‘small’ men) to express under-class frustration and a strong desire, backed by force, for cleaner, more just governance with improved ‘dividends of democracy’ for the masses.

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