WND Smear Piece on Obama and Boko Haram

banner headline on WND:

Obama: Slaughter of Christians a Misunderstanding

Those unfamiliar with WND‘s yellow journalism practices might be led to infer from this that Obama had made a statement in which he claimed that the slaughter of Christians was a misunderstanding – obviously suggestive of a dismissive attitude towards terrorism and its victims. However, WND hack Steve Peacock delivers rather less:

The violence in northern Nigeria is mistakenly viewed as a religious conflict rather than simply a tribal dispute over land, according to the Obama administration.

Despite the ongoing Muslim destruction of churches and the slaughter of Christians – including many murdered during worship services – the U.S. Agency for International Development claims that the misunderstandings make it difficult to administer aid programs.

USAID, therefore, has launched a program titled Project PEACE – an acronym for Programming Effectively Against Conflict and Extremism.

PEACE says it will hire contractors to help the agency analyze the “true” causes of conflict and consequently provide more effective humanitarian and conflict-resolution assistance, according to planning documents that WND located via database research.

…Nigerian media have reported that the Muslim jihadist group Boko Haram has pledged to “eradicate Christianity.”

The USAID documents, however, contend that Boko Haram simply shares with other groups anger “over the nation’s poor governance.”

Efforts to “improve state service capacities and working to enhance the service delivery capacity of local governments” would help reduce such anger and resultant conflicts, the agency says.

…Attempts to focus on the theological nature of the fighting have failed to halt the ongoing clash, since those parties purportedly ignore the underlying motivation for feuding, according to USAID: “Those who perceive the conflict as a religious war have been unable to gain traction in resolving the conflict because, at its root, it is more about the governance of contested resources.”

The implication is that USAID is denying the role of Islamic extremism in Nigeria, as a matter of policy at the behest of Obama. Inevitably, reader comments below the article rail against “Hussein… the militant muzzie” and such. Careful readers will note that headline, as well as being factually misleading, is not even consistent with the text that follows: the headline has Obama claiming that Christians have been killed as the result of a misunderstanding, while the text claims that USAID believes that the reason why Christians have been killed has been misunderstood.

The exact document quoted above is a pdf titled the USAID Conflict Assessment Framework, revised version 2.0. It carries the notice “Draft for circulation as of February 21, 2012”, and a statement that it “does not represent final guidance from USAID”. The document is 55 pages long and somewhat technical; the passages discussed above are as follows (emphases added):

…in Jos, Nigeria, Christian and Muslim communities frequently clash in episodes of violence. Yet, although the symptom of conflict is intercommunal violence along sectarian lines, the source of the conflict will not be found in theology. Rather, the conflict‘s source competition for land between a group that perceives itself as indigenous to the area and another seen as more recent settlers. Those who perceive the conflict as a religious war have been unable to gain traction in resolving the conflict because, at its root, it is more about the governance of contested resource.

…In Nigeria, for example, the conflicts around Jos are frequently characterized as being between largely Muslim settlers and Christian ?indigenes, but, in fact, there are important distinctions among the Berom, Afizere, Anaguta, and other Christian groups. Similarly, the conflict in the Niger Delta hosts a bewildering array of armed groups and, although the conflict is ostensibly against the Nigerian state, in reality it is a complex system of inter-connected conflicts over the distribution of resources, political power, and even simply turf. Whether the salient identity is religious, tribal, regional, or politically-based depends on the context, as well as on how the various armed groups are framing the issue. There is nothing inherently conflictual about particular identities, but, under certain conditions, identity can turn from a relatively neutral organizing principle into a powerful tool for mobilizing mass violence.

…For example, the overwhelming source of vulnerability to conflict in Nigeria remains the poor performance of the Nigerian government itself at all levels, and its corrupt neo-patrimonial overlords. Pro-violence groups from Boko Haram to militias in the Niger Delta all share a common narrative of anger over the nation’s poor governance. Thus, a natural response would be to infuse USAID’s overall country strategy for Nigeria with adherence to principles for good engagement in fragile states. Two illustrative goals include continuing and expanding the USAID state-focused strategy to improve state service capacities and working to enhance the service delivery capacity of local governments in lead states. However, a technical approach may also be complicated by political factors that might resist and prevent positive change (i.e., a ‘negative resiliency’). A systems approach would help assess any negative resiliencies that may hinder the effectiveness of a USAID program and set appropriate expectations for change.

Nowhere in the document is violence against Christians dismissed as “a misunderstanding”.

In any case, it’s unclear why WND is attempting to discern Obama’s attitude to conflict in Nigeria from phrases extracted from an obscure USAID draft document for potential contractors. Most likely, it’s a strained attempt to jump on a bandwagon with some new material; in April, Front Page complained of “Christian blood on Obama’s hands“, and attacked Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson for claiming (drawing on an AFP report) that “despite Boko Haram’s repeated statements about its goals and its very name… this conflict was not driven by religion, but by social inequities”.

It seems sensible to take account both of fundamentalist ideology in itself and socio-political factors; Carson and USAID would certainly both do well to pay more attention to the former. However, the claim of “blood on Obama’s hands” is excessive, given that the US is providing practical assistance to Nigeria; Carson recently explained to African journalists that the country had been offered

a wide variety of training to help them to improve their investigation skills, their ability to collect information on the Boko Haram threat, on forensics, to be able to do investigations on post-blast situations.  We have also offered them advice on how they can better defend against car bombs and IEDs, and we have worked with their security services, the police, and the military.

In April, Daniel Benjamin at the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism stated that:

In Nigeria, elements of the group known as Boko Haram (BH) have launched attacks in northern and central parts of the country, including one in August against the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, signaling their ambition and capability to attack non-Nigerian targets… Boko Haram is not a formal AQ affiliate, but is rather a loosely organized collection of criminals, and militants, and terrorists. BH has historically focused on local Nigerian issues and exploits long-standing political and socio-economic grievances in the north. We remain concerned by reported communications, training, and weapons links between AQIM, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which may have strengthened Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks. Through border security and other assistance efforts, we are working to disrupt the ability of these groups to share information and training.

Long-standing and still neglected political and socio-economic grievances are some of the drivers feeding the violence in the North. Eliminating this threat requires us to address these issues. U.S. counterterrorism strategy is closely linked to the broader strategy of support for the Nigerian government’s reform efforts, and increased respect for human rights. Through high-level engagement, including through the established U.S.- Nigeria Bi-national Commission, we are working to strengthen the Nigerian government’s resolve and capacity to address the broader issues and to press for a change to its heavy-handed approach to the security threats in the north. We are also providing limited law enforcement training assistance to the Nigerian government under the auspices of the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership… The goal of this training is to increase the professionalization, enhance interagency communication and expand the capacity of the police to more effectively prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

In the light of this, it is perhaps strange that the State Department has not yet added Boko Haram to the official list of “foreign terrorist organizations”, despite coming under pressure to do so. According to Reuters:

A senior State Department official said the department was “very concerned about violence in Nigeria” and added that it was “looking at this very carefully.”

The official insisted the department was “not stalling or dragging our feet.” But he noted that adding a group to the sanctions list is a “rigorous process which has to stand up in a court of law.”

This is certainly frustrating, and one could make reasonable criticisms – but it does not amount to a dismissive attitude towards Boko Haram.

For other examples of WND‘s distorted journalism see here and here, plus on-going work from Terry Krepel at ConWebWatch.

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