In this article the author assesses the rising threat of the Nigerian terrorist organisation, Boko Haram. The most recent spate of bombings and executions has raised questions over the unity of the Nigerian state and the future of security on the continent. It is therefore necessary to understand why Boko Haram is increasing in popularity as their attacks become increasingly barbaric.
By Jack Hamilton, 14 Nov, 2011
Brutal attacks in Nigeria over the past week have left over 100 people dead. A single small religious group has transmogrified into a dynamic terrorist organisation capable of rapidly changing tactics and targets in a pattern of violence responsible for over 1000 deaths in northern Nigeria since 2009.
Last week the gunmen wandered around the northern town of Damaturu killing any Christian who could not recite the Islamic creed on the spot. Nigeria’s Defence Minister Bello Halliru Mohammed has stated that the security forces once again have control and that there is nothing to fear but his words have assured few.
The fact remains that there is still no coherent strategy to combat Boko Haram.
The nature of recent events has shocked many, even in regions where Boko Haram attacks are frequent. Residents expressed rage at the ease with which gunmen were able to take over the city and leave bodies littering the streets. Police stations, mosques and churches were reduced to rubble before the security forces mobilised a response. At that point members of the group engaged in gun battles across the city that lasted for hours.
The situation in northern Nigeria is degenerating rapidly. International observers fear that Boko Haram may already have links to al-Qaeda and al-Shabab and that the campaign of terror shows no signs of abating.
In order to understand Boko Haram it is first necessary to look at who they are, what they want and how they believe they can achieve it.
Boko Haram colloquially translates as “Western education is forbidden”. It is a claim to reject all things Western from the theory of evolution to Western-style banking. This has manifested itself in different tactics since the emergence of the group in 2002. Before 2009 there were no signs that the group desired the overthrow of the state and rather preached to withdraw from the institutions of the non-Sharia Nigerian nation. It was a law banning the riding of motorbikes without helmets that would prove to be the catalyst for violence.
In July 2009 the central government sought to enforce the law on helmets. Boko Haram flouted the legislation and was subjected to police brutality which in turn set off an armed uprising in Bauchi, later spreading to Kano, Borno and Yobe. By the time the army had suppressed the situation over 800 people were dead across the north of the country.
Since 2009 the group has spread rapidly. The majority of the attacks have taken place in Borno state but Boko Haram have also expanded to the northern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Gombe, Kaduna, Katsina and Sokoto as well as the attacks on Abuja and threats against Lagos. In addition to the geographical spread there has been a change in tactics from the localised skirmishes to strategic suicide bombing campaigns and massacres directed not only at Nigerian security forces but also international targets such as the UN.
Boko Haram have changed their tactics over the years. Under their previous leader, Mohammed Yusuf, the group staged mass uprisings against the police and suffered hundreds of casualties. After Yusuf’s death at the hands of security forces in 2009 they began using tactics more in line with jihadist terrorism including the first suicide bombings in Nigeria’s history.
The attack on the UN may have been an attempt to pressure the international community or perhaps it was simply to embarrass the Nigerian state but it succeeded in drawing global attention to a burgeoning problem. Boko Haram may be diffuse but it is expanding geographically with increasing tactical sophistication.
As Boko Haram expands the questions over their composition complicate. According to Paul Lubeck, an expert on northern Nigeria, Boko Haram is not a single group but a collection of splinters banded under one name by the Federal Government. One section appears willing to negotiate while others remain determined to intensify the bombing campaign.
Some statements reflect a strict adherence to Islamic law while others cite a determination for a smaller Nigerian state as their raison d’être. If the group is as amorphous as Lubeck claims it will make it very difficult to negotiate with let alone combat.
The structural issues of northern Nigeria have allowed Boko Haram to thrive in recent years. In addition to acute poverty the region has a high birth rate and 50% of the population are below the age of 30.
Inequality, unemployment and industrial stagnation have exacerbated the perception that the north has been marginalised by the liberalisation of the Nigerian economy. The question of who owns the land has not been answered since independence and the Federal State seems too far away and blighted by corruption to deal with such issues.
Grievances in the north were compounded by the election of a southerner, Goodluck Jonathan, as President earlier this year. Jonathan assumed the office following the death of the northern Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua and many northerners believe Jonathan should have stepped aside to allow another northerner to take Yar’Adua’s place. This would have been in line with the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that the Presidency should rotate between the north, the south-west and the south-east every two terms.
The administration is treating Boko Haram as a security issue rather than tackling the divisive subject of poverty in the north. Abuja’s response has been to flood the north with heavy-handed military and police forces that now stand accused of human rights violations against civilians.
Politicians in the north have begged for the numbers of security forces to be reduced as police corruption has become rife. For many in the north the police are the face of the central government. The people feel alienated from a force they perceive to be corrupt.
Responding to Boko Haram
For many the heavy military presence in the north is the single most important hindrance in securing any negotiated peace. The failed attempt to destroy the group in 2009 was the greatest recruitment drive Boko Haram could have hoped for, especially the controversial extra-judicial killing of the leader Mohammed Yusuf.
The current strength of Boko Haram is largely a result of such poor foresight by the Nigerian state. As a result there is now a security vacuum in the most heavily militarised region of the country.
Flagrant myopia has created martyrs and swelled the ranks of the guerrillas. The legal response to the killing of Yusuf is a good first step but it does little to combat the issues of poverty and corruption that are integral to Boko Haram’s recruitment.
Opposition leaders in the north claim that the government has failed to understand the amount of support Boko Haram has amongst the population. By stating their opposition to central government and corruption the group has grown far beyond their initial religious doctrine and the government will need to find a response to the structural inequalities in Nigeria if the terrorists are to lose their supporters. It does not appear as if this is going to happen any time soon. It is possible that Boko Haram may actually be growing beyond the borders of Nigeria.
The Anti-Social Network?
Many experts have questioned whether the increased tactical sophistication of Boko Haram is evidence of the group branching out to international terrorist organisations, especially al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A change in tack to target international organisations with large high-tech bombs has caused concern. General Ham, head of US Africa Command, believes that the worst case scenario already exists and that Boko Haram are working in tandem with AQIM and al-Shabab in a “loose” partnership.
Hard evidence for any such link is still to be produced. The geographical distance between AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabab make such a partnership unlikely and the possibility remains that the increased military technology may have come from within Nigeria itself. Alex Thurston, an expert on terrorism in the region, has posited that it is more likely the sophistication came from disaffected Nigerian soldiers than any international training.
The Future State of Nigeria
The failure of the government reactions have meant that Boko Haram has been successful in achieving one of their primary goals: the weakening of the legitimacy of the state. Attacks on international organisations have created increased pressure on Jonathan to find a solution to the problem. The short-term solution of heavy military deployment may eventually yield similar successes to those against the militant groups in the Niger Delta but it would also undermine the cohesion of Nigeria. This would also act to provide momentum for Boko Haram.
The failure to develop a clear strategy to combat the small Islamic group in 2009 has forced the Nigerian state to face up to the larger structural issues concerning the north. A solely military solution is no longer feasible.