George H. Wittman is an American author who writes a weekly column on international affairs. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.
There is a tendency for high-ranking former government officials traveling around the world as honored and highly paid guests to give simple solutions to complex problems. Former President Bill Clinton recently stunned politicians and journalists in Nigeria by stating that the terrorism problems in the north of that country could be overcome by the government investing more in developing agriculture in that region.
Clinton's intent clearly was to suggest that the Islamist groups such as Boko Haram were not terrorizing the northern Nigerian communities for religious reasons. He went on to state that Nigeria’s violence may appear to be rooted in religious differences, "…but the truth is the poverty rate in the North is three times what it is in Lagos" — as if that explained everything.
The suggestion that Lagos, the historical commercial and banking center, was disproportionately better off than the rest of the country — particularly the traditionally impoverished North — was as irrelevant as comparing the richness of the Nile River valley from Cairo to Alexandria to the rest of a vast and mostly barren Egypt, and then blaming that on the Egyptian government.
Clinton must have known that his statement was a direct attack on Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan who had earlier responded sharply to CNN's Christiane Amanpour when she suggested poverty and corruption were behind the rise in Nigerian terrorism. President Jonathan had vigorously replied that Boko Haram was "definitely not a result of poverty.…Boko Haram is a local terrorist group."
The Associated Press chose to ignore the implied challenge to President Jonathan while emphasizing Bill Clinton's insistence that the murder of innocents, bombing of public buildings, and numerous kidnappings can only be stopped "in the nation's predominantly Muslim North" by alleviating the widespread poverty. Clinton's simplistic solution called for greater cooperation between local, state, and federal governments — a more equitable division of the profits from Nigeria's substantial petroleum resources — and a greater emphasis on rural development projects. Of course, none of these steps could find disagreement. In fact these are the themes of every political campaign at all levels in Nigeria, and have been for years.
The inequities between the development in the North and South Nigeria have existed since even before the beginning of British colonial rule in West Africa. The religious divide of Moslems in the north and Christian/animist in the south tended to mirror the fertility of the tropical and moderate climates of the south and central regions and the parched savannah to desert areas of the north. During colonial days — if Clinton had cared to find out — the Royal West African Frontier Force was strongly tilted among their Nigerian units toward northern Moslem recruiting. The Hausa and Fulani tribal communities of Moslems appeared to the British as more amenable to military organization. A tough people from a tough land. That contemporary anti-government, anti-Christian organization centers about the northern provinces is hardly a surprise.
The question exists as to why former President Clinton would go to the trouble to ignore historical lessons while doling out his not-so-free advice to his host government. The answer appears to be linked to the Obama Administration’s desire to seek explanations of Islamist terrorist behavior as not linked to ethno-religious beliefs. While such a theme may have an arguable validity within the Islamic community residing in the U.S. or Europe, it is clearly not the case in the Middle East or Africa.
As Prof. Bernard Lewis and other scholars of Islam have written, the Muslim world has never forgotten that it was once the greatest military power on earth. For the adherents of Islam this is a memory for many of them along with a longing for the return of the caliphate and shariah law. This objective continues to be the principal driving force behind Islamic terrorism that many Muslims view in contemporary terms as "justified" military action. Wishing this matter were not so, as Clinton and Obama appear to desire to do, just does not change the facts of history.
Bill Clinton, with his own history of moral and ethical shortcomings, too numerous to list, has the potential of creating considerable trouble around the world where he has found many politically active billionaires eager to host the Clinton traveling circus. Perhaps Bill is preparing the way for his wife's second run for the American presidency. Perhaps he just enjoys the applause and money. Whatever the reason, he would do well to put extra effort into hiring more knowledgeable researchers before he makes his pronouncements on foreign affairs.
Nigeria always has had trouble with using its oil wealth to launch itself as a nation beyond the collection of privileged tribal interests that have for centuries controlled life in that part of West Africa. Buying, selling and renting political and business favors are a way of life — not unlike many other areas around the globe. That's how former-president Clinton received his invitation to come to Nigeria in the first place. Yes, some could refer to this vast African nation as "corrupt". But what other nation or its representative wants to "throw the first stone"? Certainly it should not have been William Jefferson Clinton!