Comparing Small Wars: A Political Ecology of Two Insurgencies

Event details

SSGM Seminar Series

Date & time

Tuesday 24 June 2014


Lecture Theatre 2, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU
ANU Canberra


Michael J Watts


Louana Gaffey
+61 2 6125 8244


This paper compares two insurgencies in contemporary Nigeria: the radical Salafist Islamism of Boko Haram in the north, and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a secular movement for resource control emerging on the oilfields of the southeast. Two regions with differing histories, cultures  and social institutions bathed in the same political order have given birth two seemingly different insurgent politics.  Tijani Naniya, a historian who was Kano State's Commissioner for Information and Culture, makes the point that against the backdrop of forty years of corruption and military rule in Nigeria, the return to civilian rule in 1999 was seen as a great opportunity.  What was on offer was a range of political projects from the redefinition of Nigeria federation, to regional autonomy and resource control, to a return to shari'a.  If Boko Haram invokes a return to a republic of virtue and the ideals of dar al-Islam, MEND proclaims the rhetoric of a renovated civic nationalism, of a new federalism and of community rights. Both are instances of what Nancy Fraser (2000) calls €œthe politics of recognition€.  Each also reflects a common relation to the state: in both cases pre-existing armed groups were deployed (and armed) at a crucial juncture by the political classes for violent electoral purposes, but in each case the militants felt betrayed when their goals (implementation of religious conviction, payments for services rendered and so on) were not met.  But each took form on the larger canvas of the political ecology of an oil state and what Dan Slater calls the "provisioning pacts"  constituted by the operations of what I call the "logics of oil" (nationalization and fiscal federalism) both which have operated to produce a vast class of alienated youth excluded by all forms of authority: from the market order, from the state, from customary (chiefly) rule, and religious authority.  It is from these dynamics that the two insurgencies emerged and took form.


Michael J. Watts is Professor of Geography, and Director of Development Studies at the University of California, Berkeley where he has taught for thirty years. He served as the Director of the Institute of International Studies at Berkeley from 1994-2004. His research has addressed a number of development issues especially food security, resource development and land reform in Africa, South Asia and Vietnam. Over the last twenty years Watts has written extensively on the oil industry, especially in West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea; his most recent book is €œThe Curse of the Black Gold: Fifty Years of Oil in the Niger Delta€ with photographer Ed Kashi. Watts has focused on the political ecology of oil in West Africa and on the relations between oil €“ understood materially, biophysically, socially and symbolically €“ and the field of conflict in Nigeria in particular.  One aspect of this research program is to understand the relations between oil and the rise of an insurgency across the Niger delta oilfields. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 2003 and was awarded the Victoria Medal by the Royal Geographical Society in 2004. He has consulted for a number of development agencies including the United Nations and other development organizations and has provided expert testimony for governmental and other agencies. He was educated at University College London and the University of Michigan and has held visiting appointments at the Smithsonian Institution, Bergen, Bologna, and London. He serves on the Board of Advisors of a number of non-profits including Food First and the Pacific Institute.  He is currently Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Social Science Research Council.

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