Home > The Thinking > Articles > Boko Haram - Freedom fighters or Islamist terrorists?

Boko Haram - Freedom fighters or Islamist terrorists?


A+ A-

The bomb blast near Abuja, Nigeria's capital city, on 14 April 2014 that killed at least 75 people, and the kidnapping the following day of what is now believed to be more than 230 schoolgirls from their school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, have both been blamed on Boko Haram. This has elevated the Nigerian terror group sharply up the agenda of many security agencies across the word, causing analysts to ponder whether Boko Haram remains an essentially indigenous group fighting for equality and self-determination, or if it has finally mutated into a fully-ledged Islamist terrorist group, aligned to al-Qaeda.
In a video released to Agence France-Presse on 20 April, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the bomb attack warning: We are in your city, but you dont know where we are. and challenging the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathon, to find him. Shekau claimed that the bombing was in retaliation for the government's collusion with the US and for its killing of Muslims and that the bombing was merely a prelude to more attacks. Some analysts suggest that as Shekau did not claim responsibility for the kidnapping of the school girls in the video, this may indicate that the operation was carried out by separate wing of the Boko Haram movement not under his operational control. Others suggest that Boko Haram's long history of attacking schools and churches (Boko Haram translates into: Western education is sinful and since 2012 alone, according to an Amnesty International report,"..at least 70 teachers and over 100 schoolchildren and students have been killed or wounded. At least 50 schools have either been burned or seriously damaged and more than 60 others have been forced to close. Thousands of children have been forced out of schools across communities in Yobe, Kaduna, Adamawa and Borno states.") .  Accordingly, the seeming disregard for the targeting and killing of children and civilians, mark Shekau and Boko Haram as being the likely protagonists. To date, there is no evidence that any of the pupils have been murdered; rather, it is surmised that the girls were kidnapped specifically to provide services for the insurgents, as porters, cooks or even sex slaves. Nonetheless, the perception that the government has failed to commit resources to search for the children and indeed claimed (though this was quickly retracted) that the Nigerian Army had rescued the girls, has reinforced the sense amongst local people, mostly Muslims, that they are being ignored and marginalised by a distant Abuja government.
In its latest report, 'Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency', the International Crisis Group (ICG) examined the emergence, rise and evolution of a movement whose four-year insurgency has killed thousands, displaced close to a million, destroyed public infrastructure and weakened the countrys already poor economy, particularly in the North East. By May 2014, Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states in the north-east, will have been in a state of emergency for one year. Major military offensives under emergency rule have succeeded in forcing Boko Haram members out of urban centres, particularly from the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, yet the group appears to be unhindered and undaunted, and appears to be strengthening in its remote rural heartland.
The history of Northern Nigeria has been profoundly influenced by religion and politics, particularly Islam, which previously was used as means of uniting people in the region. Once the Borno Sultanate and the Sokoto Caliphate - which ruled parts of what is now Northern Nigeria, the Republic of Niger and southern Cameroon - came under British colonial control in 1903, resistance to Western education among the Muslims of the area emerged as a political issue.
Despite the complex matrix of political, economic and historical trends which developed in the north of Nigeria through the latter part of the 20th century, Boko Haram began as a simple local dispute. A decade ago, the radical Kanuri cleric Mohammed Yusuf organised a popular and effective alternative government that provided welfare and jobs to locals who lacked (or who were denied) access to state and national government support. Yusuf was a figurehead among the region's impoverished and disaffected youth, and his subsequent death in police custody in 2009 after an altercation at a funeral prompted many to take up arms and begin attacking police stations to avenge their dead leader. Yusuf's position was taken over by the more militant Shekau, and an Islamist insurgency began to spread west and south.
Five years on, Boko Haram seems to have morphed from a local rebellion into part of the pan-Sahel insurgency (or "Sahelistan," as some have begun to refer to the region) with a diverse and increasingly ambitious list of terrorist targets, as illustrated by this months attack on the local school and the bombing in the country's capital city  the first such Boko Haram attack in Abuja in more than two years.  The movement seems to have formed linkages with al-Qaeda associated groups in Mali and Libya, sharing expertise, training camps and equipment.  Boko Haram itself is assessed to have split into six distinct factions, including Ansaru - which has the most direct links with Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, it is judged that Shekau does not exert full control over all these groups, such is the fluidity of alliances and loyalties.
Arguably, Boko Haram's rise has also been aided by economic decline in the north of Nigeria, caused by both human factors and nature itself.  A recent survey has concluded that Lake Chad has shrunk by 90 percent in the past 40 years, drastically affecting fishing livelihoods and irrigation farming for the surrounding population of 30 million.  It is also assessed that desert incursion claims more than 770 square miles of agricultural land in the region every year.
Boko Haram has emerged in the poorest part of Nigeria, where 71.5 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty and more than half are malnourished. Growing violence has led many to flee Nigeria: the UN refugee agency UNHCR says that more than 50,000 people have now crossed into neighbouring Niger seeking relief from the environmental toll and the threat posed by Boko Haram. As a result, Niger, itself a target from Islamist extremists, now has a growing refugee crisis. However, it seems that Nigers authorities are reluctant to allow camps to be established, fearing they could become new targets, or worse, recruitment centres for Boko Haram.
The apparent failure of President Jonathan to end or curtail the violence emphasises the corruption, ineptitude and weakness at the core of the Nigerian state. Nigeria is not known for its transparency, and decision-makers in all sectors - as well as the international community - struggle with a paucity of reliable data. A lack of verifiable information facilitates corruption, and groups like Boko Haram exploit the systemic weaknesses and resentment which arise from the Nigerian state's inability to deliver proper accountability or effective governance.
The massive increase in federal military spending on the counterinsurgency effort (the annual military budget is now $6.25 billion) is believed by many to have created a perverse incentive within Nigeria's military to continue the conflict. The ICG report referred to ..allegations that substantial sums are pocketed from defence and security appropriations by government officials, security chiefs and the contractors supplying military hardware. There have also been allegations of extreme violence, torture and casual brutality by Nigerias security forces.  Far from stabilizing the State of Emergency, it seems that the palpable failure to win Hearts and Minds is only exacerbating the situation and providing Boko Haram with licence to continue its insurgency.
Boko Harams insurgency is tapping into governance, corruption, impunity and underdevelopment grievances shared by most people in the region says EJ Hogendoorn, Deputy Africa Program Director at the ICG. Its a serious challenge and a manifestation of more profound threats to Nigerias security. Yet, the governments response is largely military. The heavy-handed and often indiscriminate response of the Nigerian security forces to the Islamist insurgency continues to be criticised, and, far from stopping the cycle of violence and killing, the militarys blunt counter-insurgency efforts seem have contributed to it. During one army raid on the town of Baga, in early April, it is reported that as many as 200 people were killed and more than 2,000 homes burnt. Misdirected airstrikes also struck villages, and human rights groups report that many hundreds of young (Muslim) men, with no obvious ties to Boko Haram, have simply been rounded up and imprisoned. Some have simply disappeared, believed killed by the military.
In terms of international security assistance, Nigeria has already appealed to France, and neighbouring countries Chad, Niger and Cameroon for help. French President Franois Hollande has agreed to help the Nigerian government but currently French forces are already fully committed to counter-insurgency operations in Mali and Central African Republic. US Africa Command has supported the establishment of Nigerian Army Special Operation Command intended specifically to combat the threat and transform Nigerian troops into a force capable of tackling the threat - yet with restraint and a real understanding of their effect on civilians. However, as Boko Harams network expands into Cameroon and Niger and beyond, a military response alone is no longer enough.
In the short term, the priority for Nigeria and the international community is to provide humanitarian support in this key and volatile border region, in order to ease the poverty and sense of isolation which feeds the insurgency. In the longer term, improved governance, eradication of corruption and a genuine commitment to addressing the issues of the impoverished north-east of Nigeria are essential. However, there is little realistic expectation - internationally or domestically - that Nigeria's government, even despite next years elections, will produce an answer to the challenge posed by Boko Haram. The movement has established international supply routes and funding sources. Caches of recovered Boko Haram weapons have been traced to Libya, and Ansaru, at least, has established links with AQIM and Al-Shabaab. Nor is a "hearts and minds" approach likely to succeed when ideology may not be the key driver of the insurgency. Fundamentally, the government in Abuja seems most unlikely to divert resources to address host of issues that are spawning and accelerating Boko Harams insurgency.  Rhetorically, one might ask how many more bombs in Abuja it will take before the government is finally forced to take proper action?
To date, Boko Haram's attacks have all been within Nigeria. However, there are two main factors which are feeding growing concern in the global security community that the group could export its conflict. Firstly, the continued sense of isolation and seemingly deliberate deprivation of the north-east of Nigeria by the government is increasing the potential for a civil war along religious lines. Secondly, the emerging evidence of foreign supply and funding connections, appear to be coalescing the Islamic insurgencies of North Africa with those of west Africa to form a 'Sahelistan', ripe for exploitation by al-Qaeda. Whilst many countries, including the US and some European countries, need to be mindful of the potential for ill-conceived involvement in the crisis, well-conceived and targeted international support for improving Nigeria's security and its government is essential to avert further escalation of the threat, both within and without Nigeria's borders.
Radical reform of governance and political culture is a big agenda, one some Nigerian elites have not yet demonstrated they have the will to address ... but if they do not, Boko Haram, or groups like it, will continue to destabilise large parts of the country. 
Comfort Ero, Crisis Groups Africa Program Director



Image credit: Bohr, Wikipedia.

Map depicts the 12 Nigerian states with Sharia law

Receive more b'huth articles

Login to Comment

Don't Have Account? Create New
Forget Your Password? Click here
Enter Email Address

Also by Same Author

Boko Haram - Freedom fighters or Islamist terrorists?
Afghanistan 2014: post NATO

Most Read Articles

The Economic Effects of Ramadan: An Analysis
Elizabeth McKinney-Bennett
Cyber Attacks: what we know and what we can do about it
Kay Wise
A Report on the Implications of the Global Financial Crises for the UAE and Dubai in Specific - Nov 2008
Ibrahim Karsany

Receive more b'huth articles

Recent Comments: