Spotlight Interview with John Campbell
President Trump welcomed Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari to the White House this week. The visit provided an opportunity for President Trump to address the increase in religious persecution by extremist groups in Nigeria at the urging of various non-governmental organizations.
We recently had the opportunity to talk on Connecting Faith with Dr. John Campbell, expert on Nigeria and senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, for an in-depth discussion on the situation in Africa and in Nigeria, in particular.
Our interview is transcribed below (or you can listen to the podcast here). To learn more about how you can encourage the Trump administration to support the rule of law, as well as human rights and religious freedom for the people of Nigeria, visit here. To learn more about how to pray for and support our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe, see our series on the persecuted church which starts here. Learn more about the situation in Nigeria and how to help visit here.
Carmen LaBerge: All right friends. We’re going talk here this afternoon about Africa. My conversation partner in just a moment is going to be Dr. or Ambassador John Campbell. He’s the senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C. He’s the author of several books on Africa. His forthcoming book, Nigeria, What Everybody Needs to Know is due out in July. He writes for a blog called Africa in Transition and he edits both the Nigeria Security Tracker and the Sub-Saharan Security Tracker. And so we’re gonna be talking with Ambassador Campbell about what’s going on in Africa and so I thought as a starting point, we just talk about Africa in general, and if you were to Google the news on what’s happening in Africa right now, one of the things that would emerge is a conversation about population. And so I’m reading here from a piece posted on Public Discourse, the title is “The Future of the Pro-life Movement is in Africa”. It’s by Stefano Gennarini and his second paragraph says this, ‘If’ … Listen to this because … Let me just tell you, this is gonna shock you. This statement is going to shock you, I’m warning you in advance. ‘If demography’ … You know, demographics, ‘If demography is destiny, then the destiny of humanity is black.’
Carmen LaBerge: He talks about the growth, the population trends and the growth of the population in the continent of Africa. Here’s a paragraph, ‘Africa is the fastest growing region in the world, the only one where population is expected to more than double over the next few decades. The total population of every other region will either peak or decline by mid century according the projections of UN demographers.’ Now let me tell you, the United States and Europe, they’re flat-lined by comparison actually, much of western Europe is in actual decline. But when we think of the west and we think of Asia, neither of these is gonna be a match for Africa’s youthful and increasingly sophisticated population. And so it’s important for us to be thinking about what’s happening in Africa politically, what’s happening in Africa educationally, what’s happening in Africa in terms of who’s investing there. Because who invests there? Who builds the roads? Who builds the schools? Who builds the hospitals? They’re going to be the ones who influence the thinking of those places as well.
To help us understand all that, I’m joined by Ambassador John Campbell. He’s the senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Campbell, welcome to Connecting Faith.
John Campbell: Thank you very much. It’s good to be with you.
Carmen LaBerge: So I’ve already told my listeners you have a forthcoming book entitled Nigeria, What Everybody Needs to Know, but we’re gonna back up from Nigeria specifically and ask an opening question to give us a little bit of an overview of the African continent. What do Americans need to know about Africa in order to understand temporary conflicts and challenges?
John Campbell: The first thing is that Africa is huge geographically. It’s the second largest continent in the world. It has probably a billion people. There are more than 50 countries in Africa and it is extremely difficult to generalize. A couple of other points that are worth bearing in mind, most people in Africa remain very poor, Africa’s contribution to world trade remains relatively small and the economies tend to be too dependent on the export of primary products, rather than manufacturing. The information economy is only just arriving in parts of Africa.
Carmen LaBerge: Well … And part of making that even possible is going to be that electricity needs to get to a whole lot more places.
John Campbell: Indeed. Absolutely. What is the figure? The city of Edinburgh with several hundred thousand people, generates more electricity than Nigeria does with 200 million people.
Carmen LaBerge: Okay. And I think that Americans listening to this are North Americans ’cause we do have some Canadian listeners. I think they’re thinking to themselves everything that I do is electricity dependent and they’re trying to imagine for a moment competing in the global marketplace of ideas with a burgeoning population, without access to the things that we consider the most basic. So let’s zero in on Nigeria so that we can talk about a particular country, because as you say Africa is too big to really get our arms around or our minds around, and we don’t want to generalize. So let’s zero in on Nigeria. Help us understand the variety of conflicts there.
John Campbell: Well, let’s start with some basic facts. The population of Nigeria is a bit more than 200 million. The various UN agencies predict that by 2050, there will be more than 450 million Nigerians, and Nigeria will in fact have displaced the United States as the third largest country in the world by population. China and India will remain larger. So we’re talking about a very big place. We’re also talking about a place that’s very divided, at least 350 different ethnic groups. It is the one country in the world where Nigerians like to say, neither Christians nor Muslims are a minority, because the two world religions have the adherence each of about 50% of the population. More than … In most African countries, the levels of economic development vary tremendously from one part of the country to another, Lagos for example with 22 million people. Parts of Lagos are very much in the modern world, participate in the modern economy. On the other hand, if you’re talking about the northeast, where in the aftermath of the Boko Haram insurrection against the Nigerian government, there are at least two and a half million internally displaced persons. So huge diversity throughout the country.
John Campbell: One general factor to bear in mind, is that Nigeria is very much affected by climate change. The Sahara Desert is moving south at the rate of roughly 30 miles every year. What that does is it displaces people who have traditionally earned their living through herding, particularly herding cattle, and it pushes them towards the south. When that happens, they collide with small farmers. Now this gets very difficult indeed because those herdsmen are mostly Muslim, the farmers are mostly Christian. The herdsmen are mostly from a particular tribe of the Fulani, the farmers are from a variety of different small tribes. The result is that when there is conflict, it becomes very hard to parse out whether the conflict is caused by religion, quarrels over the use of land or ethnicity. In the southern part of the country where the oil comes from, the Gulf of Guinea is … the sea levels there are rising faster than in almost any other parts … part of the world. The result is persistent flooding, which also causes a displacement of population.
Carmen LaBerge: Okay. I’m writing some of these things down because I’m trying to imagine just using America as a visual reference point, I wanna … I’m just trying to imagine like an ice flow pushing Canadians over the border and them bringing their caribou with them. Now I have offended everyone and in the people in the northern states of the U.S. are saying, “Hey, hey. Private property. We got things going on here. Who are you? What are you doing? You’re not … What’s going on?” And then I’m trying to imagine it from the south. Let’s say Florida, Louisiana, I don’t know, other parts of Texas, they are … If the water is moving north as the ice is moving south and people are internally displaced as you have described it, but really what we’re talking about is probably permanently needing to move. And once we start having people on the move and they are people who come from different faith backgrounds, maybe even people … here we would think of it as different nationalities, there we’re talking about historic tribalism. You have these conflicts that take place, that when we read them in the U.S. press, we’re reading about Boko Haram, we’re reading about the kidnapping of girls from schools and we’re trying to understand what’s going on there and we’re … And we’re even trying to imagine how could anybody flee into the woods and the federal government couldn’t flesh that out and figure that out.
Carmen LaBerge: So when we come back from the break, I want you to tell us specifically about Boko Haram, how it’s viewed differently there than it is viewed here. All right friends. We gotta take a quick break. I’m Carmen LaBerge, this is Connecting Faith. My conversation partner is Ambassador John Campbell. We’re talking about Africa and everything you need to know.
Carmen LaBerge: All right friends. This is Connecting Faith, I’m your host Carmen LaBerge and we are talking today about Africa. My conversation partner is Ambassador John Campbell. He is a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C. He’s the author of several books on Africa. His forthcoming book is Nigeria, What Everybody Needs to Know. It’s due out in July. He writes at lots of blogs. I think that of these, you should be checking out Africa in Transition and the Sub-Saharan Security Tracker, because you know, we need to know what’s going on in Sub-Saharan Africa. All right. Ambassador Campbell received his BA and MA from the University of Virginia and his PhD in 17th Century English History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So a big shout out to all of our listeners in Wisconsin today. Dr. Campbell, welcome back to Connecting Faith.
John Campbell: Thank you.
Carmen LaBerge: So before the break we talked in sort of sweeping ways about Africa in general and then more specifically about Nigeria, and the situation there on the ground. Most Americans would think of Boko Haram in reference to Nigeria. We would think about the kidnapping of Christian girls we’ve heard about. Tell us who Boko Haram is and how people in Nigeria respond differently to the tactics of Boko Haram than we do here.
John Campbell: Boko Haram is a movement. It has many millenarian elements to it. It’s much more a movement than it is a political party or entity. If you ask Boko Haram what it wants, its response is the creation of God’s kingdom on Earth through justice for the poor by the strict enforcement of Sharia or Islamic law. And if you parse those words, you will see that they virtually all refer to something which is religious, rather than political or economic. Boko Haram does not have a five point program for the renovation of the economy of northeastern Nigeria. It’s a movement. Its focus is the destruction of the Nigerian state. It sees the Nigerian state as essentially secular and because it’s secular as essentially evil, and because it’s evil, anyone who is associated with the state is therefore evil. And following certain seventh century precepts, Boko Haram will argue that they deserve to die.
John Campbell: A very important point to bear in mind is that most of Boko Haram’s victims are Muslims, not Christians. Part of that is because there are relatively few Christians in the parts of Nigeria where Boko Haram is active. But there’s also a certain ambiguity about Christians amongst at least parts of Boko Haram. How much support does Boko Haram have? We don’t really know. You can extrapolate from polling data that of some 70 million Muslims in northern Nigeria, maybe 10% have some sympathy of some sort with radical Islamist movements. If that’s anywhere near being accurate, that means that there would be some seven million in northeastern Nigeria who would have some sympathy for Boko Haram, and who might well serve as a kind of pool of recruits. It’s one reason why many observers including myself, don’t think that Boko Haram can be defeated militarily. Instead there has to be some kind of transformation of political and economic life in northeastern Nigeria from what it is at present, which tends to be highly exploitative of the poor into something that’s new and different. That’s hard to do and it’s why I think it’s going to take a long time before Boko Haram is brought fully under control.
Carmen LaBerge: Well, because what you’re talking about is the need for really world-changing levels of investment in infrastructure and education. It’s not just about building them a power grid. It’s about actually helping them develop the kind of industries that would be necessary to become a thriving economy that’s not just exporting, as you described, primary goods. But actually becomes a vibrant … democracy might be beyond hope, but becomes at least a vibrant self- governing system of some kind.
John Campbell: Education is a particularly difficult issue. Many in northern Nigeria, not just adherence to Boko Haram, but many in northern Nigeria reject altogether, western education. Why? Their concern-
Carmen LaBerge: Well can you pause there because we hear that and I’m not sure we understand what western … how western education differentiates from however it is they think people should be educated. We’re like fish in water and you’re telling us we’re in water. So can you tell me what western education is?
John Campbell: Yes. Western education which is based very often on scientific principles, mathematics, so forth, is anathema to many in northeastern Nigeria, because they see it as non-Islamic. Let me give you a specific example. Boko Haram says that the world is not round, it’s flat and the basis for that statement is that nowhere in the Koran does it say that the world is round. Anything which is not directly tied to the Islamic sacred scriptures as interpreted in the 7th and 8th centuries is seen by that particular faction as being non-Islamic. There are also practical dimensions to it. What does western education do? Western education, that is to say learning the English language, being introduced to modern mathematics, to modern science, it has the effect very often of alienating children from their parents and from their communities. What happens? If you’re educated in a western way, are you going to stay in a village in the farthest reaches of Borno? It’s unlikely. More likely you’re going to try to go to Abuja or even to Lagos and make your way.
John Campbell: So for many, what western education does is it takes their children as well as being fundamentally ungodly, as promoting secularism, and therefore putting their immortal souls in danger. Now we’re talking really heavy and difficult things here. There’s some 12 million children in northeastern Nigeria enrolled in madrasas. Essentially, madrasas teach only the Koran. There are even instances though in northeastern Nigeria, where children are essentially taught to memorize the Koran in Arabic, but they’re not taught Arabic, so that from a certain perspective, what they are doing is memorizing nonsense syllables. So to bring about a different way of thinking about the relationship between education, individuals, society and their whole place in the universe is really a tall order.
Carmen LaBerge: Oh my. Okay. So that’s not hopeful. So let’s …
John Campbell: Well I think-
Carmen LaBerge: I mean that’s just not … No, I mean I’m not saying that to be in any way discouraging. I’m reflecting to you what I suspect some of our listeners are thinking right now, which is wow. The issues are far more complicated, the issues are far more complex than I ever allowed myself to imagine. Let’s-
John Campbell: They are indeed.
Carmen LaBerge: Let’s have a conversation if we can about the growth of Christianity because it’s my understanding that part of the conflict is this 50/50 business, and we … Christianity is an inherently evangelical faith and it would seem to me that traditional Islam is also an inherently evangelical faith, in terms of the desire for people to convert. And so talk with us a little bit about the growth of Christianity in Africa and maybe Nigeria specifically, and how that sort of complicates the conflicts.
John Campbell: Yeah. It’s actually easier to make specific reference to Nigeria because we have pretty good data on it. One figure is that in 1900 of the territories that now make up Nigeria, about 2% of the population was Christian and about 27% of the population was Muslim. Now the saying is that it’s 50/50. That means that while Islam has grown, the growth of Christianity has been absolutely exponential. It’s been far more rapid than the growth of Islam. Where did all these new Christians come from? By and large they appear to be converts from African traditional religion … African traditional religion which tends to focus essentially on nature worship. Why Christianity? Well, it varies from one part of the country to another. But in the middle belt, the middle part of the country, minority tribes when they were prepared to give up traditional religion and adopt one of the two world religions, they tended to adopt Christianity because historically they had been preyed upon by Muslim Fulanis for the slave trade. So they adopted the world religion that was not associated with slavery.
John Campbell: Many, many different factors like that which vary from one part of the country to another, in the area around Lagos the boundaries between Christianity and Islam are not particularly fixed. In other words, lots of intermarriage between people of the two faiths. People of the two faiths keep each other’s holidays, for example. A former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was a born again Baptist spoke in very favorable terms about his Muslim sister. And in his particular case, he fasted both during Ramadan, but also during Lent. In the northeast of Nigeria, that kind of mixing of the two faiths is almost inconceivable. So huge variations from one part of the country to another and indeed depending on what the issue is, even huge variations between one village and another.
Carmen LaBerge: All right Dr. Campbell, we might have to leave it right there. I have … I’ve got a list of questions for you and I feel like we could continue pursuing this conversation at length. Let me encourage folks again to plan on getting the book, Nigeria, What Everyone Needs to Know. It’s due out in July, we’ll certainly remind you in July when it comes out. It’s by Ambassador John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C. Ambassador Campbell, thank you so much for joining us today on Connecting Faith.
John Campbell: And thank you so much for having me.