Conspiracy theories will always be popular. But in Nigeria they are more popular than they should normally be for various reasons – bad education, religion, ‘legacy’ of colonialism. The problem is compounded when leadership fails to lead and open up gaps for the populace to speculate on answers.
Nowhere is this is more pronounced than in the ongoing Boko Haram saga. Questions are rightly being asked as to how what was supposed to be a rag-tag bunch of insurgents is able to run rings around the Nigerian Army and even have better weapons. Clearly someone is funding them. The question is who? And how?
Here, people are prepared to believe anything and as such will work backwards to the answer once they find an explanation that confirms what they already believe. It’s the Americans! They want Nigeria’s oil and are sponsoring violence to break us up. It’s very hard to argue such arguments as the facts don’t usually matter to people who believe them anyway.
The President and the ruling PDP – notably the loquacious Olisa Metuh – in their utterances have the habit of sending Nigerians on a wild goose chase identifying nameless (usually opposition) politicians as the sponsors of the insurgency.
As someone who gives short shrift to conspiracy theories, I think the answers are simpler/different from what a lot of people imagine. My own opinion is that we are dealing with a bog standard extremist Islamist insurgency in the image of Al Qaeda. They do not particularly need a motive – the violence is the motive and the means of fighting for whatever it is they are fighting for. These groups are also usually riddled with hypocrisy – like the 22 steps for dodging drones handed out to Al Qaeda operatives as a manual.
So how do these groups get funded? Most terror groups are very skilled at crime and laundering the proceeds of crime through the ‘normal’ economy. Over the years they have gotten better and better at integrating their funding into the economy in ways that make it very difficult for such flows to be detected. Thankfully the Americans have some considerable talent in tracking such flows.
Last year, the US Justice Department released its findings after a lengthy investigation of the Lebanese Canadian Bank. The investigation was around how Hezbollah – classified as a terror organisation – was obtaining its funding and moving the money around the world. They concluded that the money started from drug trafficking in America before finding its way to Lebanon via West Africa.
First, the report states that approximately $13.5bn worth of drugs is transported to Europe from West Africa every year (42, Page 22). We can agree that Boko Haram and other such groups only need a fraction of that to mount an effective insurgency against the Army.
The report then goes on to name several Hezbollah operatives who control this drug trade from Venezuela and Colombia to West Africa. They have sophisticated shipping boats and all sorts of equipment to move the drugs around as well. One particular Hezbollah chap called Ayman Jouma was said to be doing $200m worth of drug business per month. This business is very lucrative indeed – a half container of cocaine costs around $17m and can sell for $230m in Europe if you can get it there.
But the bit I found most interesting related to used cars. To clean up this drug money, they used Bureau de Change controlled by other Hezbollah operatives. The idea was to use the money to make legitimate 2nd hand car purchases from the US, sell them in West Africa and cleanly move the money to Lebanon to fund Hezbollah.
Between 2008 and 2010, according to the report, used cars worth $1bn were bought by these guys from the United States to Benin Republic. Given how small the Benin economy is, who is buying these cars? No prizes for guessing:
This is how drug money is transformed to clean-looking cash. People buy used cars innocently and pay the market price without knowing they might be aiding (not funding) terrorists to move their money around to avoid detection. This is important to confuse the Americans who might be trying to follow the money – sometimes the money is moved in ways that make no sense and for no reason before it is finally sent to Lebanon to buy weapons or fund terror in some way or the other.
The report goes on to say how the cash is transported to Lebanon via Togo and Ghana. You can imagine how easy it will be to bribe poorly paid corrupt officials at airports to look the other way – this is a billion dollar business and even if they dedicate just $1m to bribing officials, their road will be smooth.
You can read the rest of the report which has a lot more interesting detail. The Americans like to investigate these crimes as it allows them to slam heavy fines on banks and companies found guilty. But this does not mean their investigations cant tell us something useful.
While this example relates to Hezbollah, I am pretty sure that Al Qaeda wont be much different – assuming Hezbollah and Boko Haram don’t have some kind of working relationship already. Recall the arms shipment linked to Hezbollah that was intercepted in Nigeria last year:
Nigerian authorities arrested four Lebanese men in the northern city of Kano on suspicion of being members of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Soldiers uncovered a hidden arms cache containing 11,433 rounds of 7.6 mm ammunition, 76 military grenades, one SMG rifle, nine pistols, 17 AK-47 rifles, 44 magazines, 103 packs of slap TNT, 50mm anti-tank grenades, 123mm artillery guns, four anti-tank landmines, 21 rocket-propelled grenades, an RPG, 16 RPG chargers and one RPG tube. The arms and ammunition were concealed under several layers of concrete and placed in coolers, drums and bags, neatly wrapped. The arms and ammunition were intended to target Israeli and Western facilities in Nigeria.
As far as I am aware, there has been no direct link between these guys and Boko Haram but I am sure where under the very big tent of terror, common interest can be found between different groups, even if temporarily.
[For the record – I think the vast majority of Lebanese families in Nigeria are law-abiding and contribute very usefully to the Nigerian economy. Indeed many of them are as Nigerian as can be, no matter how you define it]
The point of all this is to understand that people who are motivated by an ideology of terror can run perfectly legal looking businesses solely with the aim of funding terror. While politicians will almost certainly do anything to win elections, funding terror is counterproductive for politicians who want to attain power.
In other words, there is no great mystery to this. Like I said, I am convinced Al Qaeda is behind Boko Haram and their ways and means of funding them wont be much different from that outlined above – the money will start from some illegal activity say, opium from Afghanistan, and then after plenty of zig-zaging, find its way into a legitimate business to clean it up before ending up as terror funding.
Just last week, the BBC spoke to some young men who said they had been paid $3,000 to join Boko Haram as fighters [If they have to pay that much to recruit fighters, then there’s an element of good news in that as it suggests there is a ‘scarcity’ of available fighters pushing up prices]. This is consistent with drug money.
Conspiracy theories are a waste of time as they stop us from properly thinking through the problems and how we should tackle them. When the government comes out to ‘finger’ nameless opposition politicians, we are none the wiser and the bigger worry is whether the government actually believes that line of thought as opposed to just taking Nigerians for a ride.
In fact conspiracy theories are worse than useless in this case because clearly the work that needs to be done in tracking down these money flows is very hard and requires plenty of international cooperation. It is one thing for politicians to deceive us – that is what politicians do – but it is unforgivable for us to go along with them and deceive ourselves.
I strongly suspect that the ousted CBN Governor was on to something with tracing Boko Haram funding before he was removed from office and perhaps with a bit more time, would have gotten somewhere useful with it, especially with his international clout.
Do we have the capabilities to track these kind of money flows? Are we even trying to find these sources of funding? With a wall to wall corrupt system like ours, even if we find where the money gets to Boko Haram, can we really stop it? The answers are blowing in the wind.
One thing I am certain of though is that Boko Haram and their likes can achieve very little without a steady supply of funding. It is this funding that brings up to the level where they become an army able to confront and even defeat the Nigerian Army.
Find the money and all other things will be added unto the fight against terror.