I began my studies for master’s and licentiate degrees in theology at the Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada in September 1989. It was a few weeks before the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire. In the summer of the following year, while writing my thesis on the theme “La corrélation entre l’histoire et le royaume de Dieu dans la théologie de Paul Tillich” (The Correlation Between History and the Kingdom of God in the Theology of Paul Tillich), Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Kuwait. In one of the chapters, I was reflecting on what Tillich had to say on the origin of empires. According to Tillich, a nation constructs an empire under the inspiration of what she interprets to be her vocational consciousness, that is, her consciousness of what she is called to become. A nation begins to build an empire when she begins to conquer territories and subject the peoples who live on these territories to her interpretation of her vocational consciousness.
Thus, Romans constructed their empire under the inspiration of Roman law to which they forcefully subjected the peoples they conquered. The British professed their belief in spreading a “Christian civilization”. Americans were inspired by their principle of liberty, their desire to live in a “free world”. Americans saw the Soviet Union as a threat to their liberty. The Soviets and the Americans fought proxy wars on every continent, a war in which either side propped up some blood thirsty tyrants and kleptocrats around the world. On the African continent, for example, there would have been no Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire without the inspiration and support of Americans. Thus, President Ronald Reagan, on an occasion when he welcomed Mobutu to the White House, would describe the Zairean dictator as “America’s most trusted ally since the time of President Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson was President when Mobutu overthrew the regime of President Joseph Kasavubu in 1965. In the same way, there would have been no Augustino Neto of Angola without the support of the Soviets. According to Tillich, “the tragic consequences of their conflict [conflict between the Americans and the Soviets] are noticeable in every historical group and every individual human being, and they may become destructive for mankind itself.” But I should perhaps go back by way of a little but illustrative digression. During my early years in secondary school, our Principal, Fr Denis Slattery, SMA, would tell us about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets, in the midst of the Cold War, imposed a Communist regime on Afghanistan. The Americans propped up the Taliban to fight the Soviets. By providing military aid, Americans used the Taliban to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
But, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. The Taliban were not friends of Americans. They and Osama Bin Laden worked together to bring about the horrendous attack on America on September 11, 2001. In retaliation, the Americans invaded Afghanistan, drove away the Taliban, and spent trillions of dollars to train an Afghan army of 350, 000. But what came out of this was not a good outcome for America. Money meant to build a strong army ended in the pockets of corrupt Afghan civilian and military leaders. And so it was that, by the time the Americans decided to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban marched into Kabul with the ease of a hot knife cutting through butter. As at the time I was concluding my MA thesis, the Soviet Union had become increasingly weakened, while American troops were already in the Gulf to drive Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait.
In fact, by the time I arrived in the United States end of May 1991 in preparation for the commencement of my doctoral studies, Americans were welcoming their troops home from their victory over the forces of Saddam Husein. The Gulf War turned out to be a mismatch to the detriment of human lives and infrastructure in Iraq. Reflecting on the words of Tillich I have just quoted on the conflict between America and the Soviet Union, I wrote these words as footnote commentary in my MA thesis in 1991: “One might refuse this example today which is the day after the Cold War. However, one observes the growing influence of the Islamo-Arab world in world politics. Finding its inspiration in an Islamic vocational consciousness, and relying on the petro-dollar, Islamo-Arab countries like Iran, Iraq and Libya, not to mention but these, are becoming military powers who insist on speaking in the name of the Islamo-Arab nation (an Arab empire) in the comity of nations.
The taking of Americans as hostages by Iranians in 1979, as well as the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq on August 2, 1990 furnish us with illustrations. And if, before the end of the Cold War, the world was in a state of tripolarisation (NATO, the Warsaw Pact and the Islamo-Arab block), today, the weakening of Soviet power leaves us in a state of bipolarisation.” In that footnote commentary, I was already foreseeing a clash between America and the Islamo-Arab world. And, since I wrote those words in 1991, we have witnessed the 9-11 attack on America and the tragic exploits of Al-Qaheda, the seemingly unending bloody insurgency of Boko Haram in Nigeria and of Al-Shabab in Kenya. I do not want to say my prediction was right. But it is worth noting that these are movements who claim to take their inspiration from an Islamic vocational consciousness, and, at least in the cases of the Taliban and Boko Haram, express the intention of forcefully conquering territories and subjecting those who live withing such territories to the religion of Islam, that is, to their own version of Islam.
What then can Nigeria learn from Afghanistan? Could Boko Haram be Nigeria’s equivalent of the Taliban? If so, is there a possibility that Boko Haram may one day overrun Nigeria the way the Taliban overran Afghanistan? The ingredients are there: a right or false claim to Islamic vocational consciousness, a militant disposition towards conquest in the name of a version of Islam and a threat to impose this version on those who live on conquered territories, a Nigerian military in whose name a lot of money has been spent without seeing credible results, a civilian ruling class that is either unwilling or incapable of providing requisite leadership in a multiethnic and multi-religious entity, a civilian ruling class that is willing to mismanage our religious and ethnic diversity for what it perceives to be its advantage. I pray I am wrong. To be noted in this narrative is the fact that it took the Taliban 20 years to return to recapture Afghanistan. Movements such as the Taliban and Boko Haram have the enduring strength of long-distance runners.
• Rev. Fr. (Prof.) Anthony Akinwale, OP, is the Vice-Chancellor, Dominican University, Ibadan, Nigeria.