Nigeria’s Boko Haram

Nachiket Khadkiwala is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Dr Saurabh Misra is Associate Professor at Amity Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Noida.
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  • July 10, 2014

    Boko Haram has recently emerged as one of the deadliest and most brutal terrorist groups with growing international dimensions and repercussions. The group, after its origin in 2002 as a puritan Islamist movement, initially retreated from the mainstream Nigerian society calling it corrupt and deviant from religion. It considered the Muslim leaders of Nigeria as corrupt and perverted who had colluded with Christians and the West. Initially, under the leadership of Muhammad Ali, Maiduguri’s Ndimi Mosque and the neighbouring areas were under its influence which expanded with the passage of time despite occasional overwhelming suppressive responses by the Nigerian government against the anti-establishment activities of the group. The group came back to the society and unleashed a campaign to purify it on Islamist lines. Recently, on April 14, 2014, Boko Haram abducted around 300 teenage girls, mostly Christian, from a residential school and has threatened to convert them to Islam or sell them to slave markets. The incident has exposed the ineffectiveness of the Nigerian Government to contain the terror activities by Boko Haram and a slow reaction by the international community to a problem which is gradually attaining global dimensions. The Nigerian domestic socio-economic and political dynamics as well as the conditions in the neighbouring countries have supported the movement which has now turned extremely violent and ambitious ultimately threatening the Nigerian state and stability in the Sahel region. The group has developed links with the global jihadi movement.

    Domestic Dynamics: North-South Divide

    One of the most important reasons used to explain the rise of radical Islam and Boko Haram in the northern parts of Nigeria is the disparity in socio-economic conditions between the southern and the northern parts of the country. In relative terms, the southern regions of Nigeria are economically more prosperous than the northern regions. The beginning of oil exploration in the 1970s has shifted the economic focus from north to south. On one hand, the Niger Delta in the south has become the fulcrum of the Nigerian economy with more than 80 per cent of revenue being derived from oil and remittances by Yoruba and Igbo ethnicities that reside here and form the majority Nigerian Diaspora. On the other hand, the agricultural and pastoralist economy of the north has suffered due to government apathy. Moreover, the north has also witnessed de-industrialisation. Many state owned enterprises that existed in the region have closed down due to government neglect and competition from abroad.

    The GDP per capita of the south is twice the GDP per capita of the north.1 While GDP per capita of north is around US$718, the GDP per capita of south, south west and south east is US$2010, US$1436 and US$933 respectively.2 The operational area of Boko Haram in the North-East has the worst poverty rate of all the six official zones in Nigeria.3 Even in terms of infrastructure, the south is relatively better than the north. The northern state of Borno, the site of the recent kidnappings, has the lowest per capita power supply in the country at seven watts.4 The north also fairs poorly on many social indicators. For example, in the northern states of Yobe and Borno, less than around 10 to 19 per cent of one year old children have access to all basic vaccinations.5 A study by Nkechi Catherine Onwuameze shows disparity between the north and the south in terms of education.6 The Northeast region has the lowest rates in reading and numeracy assessments (16.8 per cent and 27.15 per cent respectively), whereas the Southwest region has the highest (78.07 per cent and 88.01 per cent respectively).7 Children from the south are more likely to achieve in reading and numeracy than their counterparts from the north.8

    Mohammad Yusuf, the second leader of the group, was a vehement critique of the corrupt Nigerian state and its patrons.9 According to Yusuf, the social and economic milieu that had infected the Nigerian state could be cleansed only through puritan Islam. His ideology rooted in Islam as means of progress and attracted many supporters among the youth in the north. He even started a credit scheme in which he used to offer unemployed youth money to buy taxis, motorcycles and rickshaws in return of monthly contribution to his foundation. However, the Boko Haram of the present is devoid of such mobilisation capacity. It does take advantage of economic circumstances of the north by offering people money to do tasks, yet its disproportionate violence has eroded any active support among the northern Nigerians.

    Moreover, the north-south disparity alone cannot explain the rise of Boko Haram. There is widespread poverty throughout Nigeria. Officially, 70 per cent of the population is characterised as poor or absolutely poor. Seeking solace in primordial identities of ethnicity and religion has been a norm in Nigeria. In a country where state has failed in providing welfare and security, primordial identities play an important role in fulfilling these functions and also challenging state authority.10 In this sense, Boko Haram is a part of the norm rather than a deviation.

    The North-South Political Struggle

    The economic disparity in Nigeria gets aggravated with the perception of northerners that southerners are politically marginalising the north, especially in the event of Goodluck Jonathan becoming the president against the traditional ‘zoning’ arrangement agreed by People’s Democratic Party (PDP) elites.11 According to this arrangement the Nigerian presidency will be held on rotational basis between the North and the South. But after the untimely death of the northerner president Yar'Adua, while still in office in 2009, Vice President Goodluck Jonathan took over the presidency and used his tenure to gain nomination for 2011. After winning the elections, he secured his presidency till 2015.The northerners feel that Goodluck Jonathan has usurped the president’s office and is using it to marginalise the northerners. Northern politicians induce religious identity in what really is a disparity in economic wealth and political power between south and the north. However, the fact remains that President Goodluck was elected and the Northerners were not effectively able to challenge his candidature. Hence, several theories say that the politicians in the north raised Boko Haram to destabilise the south. This is true to a certain extent since Mohammad Yusuf was sought by many politicians due to his ability to mobilise huge support especially among the youth. The All Nigeria Peoples Party’s (ANPP) Ali Modu Sheriff had helped finance Yusuf’s organisation by using his connections. He also appointed Yusuf’s relative Buji Foi as religious affairs commissioner after becoming the governor of Borno State. Yet after the elections of 2007, Mohammad Yusuf turned against Northern politicians as they failed to fully apply Sharia in the North. Since then, the support for the group among northern politicians has waned. Many politicians fear Boko Haram’s violence as the group has targeted politicians in the north.

    Operational Environment

    The group is grounded in a region where it can tap into ethnic ties and take advantage of weak security environment, generic condition of lawlessness and socio-economic marginalisation. Linkages at regional scale due to porous international borders, shared ethnicity and associations among non-state actors have aided in spreading the conflict within Nigeria and create security challenges for the region as well. The Boko Haram mainly operates in the north-eastern border states of Borno, Yobe and Admawa bordering Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The porous borders provide conducive operating environment to the insurgents as they can transport men, material and loot. The ungoverned territories bordering Niger, Chad and Cameroon are sources of worry for the security services in the region. Mohammad Yusuf had claimed in police interrogation in 2009 that the group sources weapons from private sources in Niger, Cameroon and Chad.12 Even in the recent case of the mass kidnapping of teenage girls the group took full strategic advantage offered by porous borders. The kidnapping took place in Chiboko village near the Cameroonian border and girls are being held in Sambisa forest bordering Cameroon. They could be divided into three or four groups and straddled from Nigeria to Cameroon making the task of Nigerian forces difficult.

    Boko Haram’s shared ethnic connections of the dominant Kanuri community as well as other ethnic groups along the border provide it safe havens for its members. Abubakar Shekau, the current leader of Boko Haram, has used his Kanuri connections to travel to Cameroon and Niger along the porous border.13 Moreover, Cameroon, Niger and Chad also have Nigerian refugees from the north escaping Boko Haram violence. The presence of Nigerian refugees and Boko Haram has increased the fears of radicalisation in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Niger and Nigeria have agreed to joint patrol of borders as part of security agreement yet Niger has been reluctant to suppress the group forcefully fearing radicalisation.14 The border towns also offer fertile recruitment grounds for the group. For example, a border town of Diffa in Niger has become a common place for Boko Haram to attract new recruits.15 The border between Nigeria and Niger is mostly demarcated by Komadougou Yobo River.16 In the summer months, it is easy to cross the knee-high waters of the river. Shared cultural and ethnic ties here also provide community linkages. In Diffa, teenage boys are recruited from the existing criminal gangs.17 The recruits do not have any ideological affinity with Boko Haram and join purely due to economic incentive as they are offered a payment of approximately US$3085 for joining Boko Haram.18 In July 2009, Nigeria expelled dozens of Boko Haram members who were citizens of Niger.19 The group reportedly has developed rear bases in the south of that country, which it considers a safe haven and recruitment area. Niger security services regard the group as a bigger threat to stability than the Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

    Partnership with Non-state Actors

    The tactical evolution of Boko Haram displays partnership between regional non-state actors. Boko Haram’s use of kidnapping as a tactical tool has evolved due to the group’s co-operation with Ansaru, a splinter group of Boko Haram.20 The group members like Abubakar Adam Kambar (alias Abu Yasir) and Khalid Barnawi (alias Abu Usamatal Ansari) were trained in Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) camps in the Algerian dessert.21 There along with sophisticated battle skills, they also acquired a global jihadi outlook. The reason of the split was Boko Haram’s indiscriminate use of violence.22 Ansaru tactically preferred more high profile attacks on Western targets rather than indulge in indiscriminate killing. The Ansaru group has been involved in kidnapping of many Westerners as a means of raising funds through ransom.23 The rapprochement between the groups happened due to strategic reasons as French intervention in Mali made it difficult for both Boko Haram and Ansaru to source weapons and forced them to co-ordinate efforts.24 After rapprochement, Boko Haram provided manpower for security cover while Ansaru carried out the kidnappings.25 In February 2013, Boko Haram with help of Ansaru carried out its first kidnapping inside Cameroon when they kidnapped a French family visiting Waza National Park.26 Since then, kidnapping has become a part of Boko Haram terror tactics. On May 2013, it attacked police barracks in Bama in Borno State where it took women and children as hostages.27 The partnership with Ansaru has lead to transfer of tactics and the AQIM has become common supply conduit for both Boko Haram and Ansaru.28

    International Response to Boko Haram’s Activities

    The group was noticed by the international media for the first time in December 2003 when a siege of the Maiduguri’s Ndimi Mosque by the Nigerian Army followed a violent fight by the group members over a local fishing rights issue. This ended up in violent clashes with the Army in which most of the members of the group within the mosque were killed which included its first leader Muhammad Ali. The survivors of the army operations fled from Nigeria to different parts of the Sahel region. The incident caught the attention of the Embassy of the US in Nigeria as the locals termed the group as the Nigerian Taliban. Wikileaks cables also reveal that in 2004 the Embassy of the US in Nigeria did not find the group as an international threat with any likely links with the global jihadi movement; and assessed it as focused on the domestic politics of Nigeria.29 The group reorganised and came back to Nigeria in the leadership of Muhammad Yusuf. In fact, the sojourn of the group members in the different part of Sahel expanded its reach and linked it to the other Islamic extremist movements and ideologies. Muhammad Yusuf is said to have visited Saudi Arabia several times for Hajj which has also benefitted him in terms of finances for the group.30 The group acted parallel to the government of Nigeria and unleashed a series of assassinations and killings in the areas of its influence to avenge the past setbacks. The group clashed with the Nigerian authorities and forces in 2009 after it targeted government institutions and symbols after an issue with the local police over a funeral. Its members attacked police stations in Yobe and Bauchi and killed many policemen. The government cracked down on them heavily as they threatened the state explicitly. More than 700 ‘members’ were arrested, many executed without trials and scores of them were tortured. The Nigerian Army captured the leader and handed over to the police that killed him without any trial. The heavy handed response of the Bauchi government to the group’s violence dissipated its strength and forced the surviving members again to escape to the neighbouring countries (Mali, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon) and also to the other parts of the Sahel region. Although, earlier, there had been claims that the group had links with Al-Qaeda, they were not given much heed in the lack of clear substantial evidence and acceptance. The group, after the 2009 crackdown by the government, remained elusive till 2010. This period is believed to be productive for Boko Haram in terms of training with the global jihadi groups in the Sahel region, particularly Mali. The group members had realised that without these connections it would not gain anything in Nigeria and would suffer near wiping out defeats at the hands of the government. It not only trained with the Al-Qaeda related groups in the region but also participated in some of their activities in return. They registered a huge and ferocious comeback with their attack on the Nigerian Police Training Academy in Abuja in June 2011. Prior to this, in May 2011, they had drawn international attention for allegedly kidnapping two Europeans who were later killed in March 2012 in a failed joint effort by the United Kingdom (UK) Special Forces and the Nigerian forces. However, later these kidnappings were attributed to a splinter group of Boko Haram. By this time the group started getting attention of the international community and especially the Western powers. It invited major international attention and a call for action by the international community; when it attacked the United Nations (UN) compound in Abuja in August 2011 killing at least 21 people and injuring a lot more.31 January 2012 attack by the group in Kano killed more than 200. Goodluck Jonathan, The President of Nigeria, controversially stated that the Boko Haram had infiltrated into the high military ranks. The statement was highly disputed by the military and a section of commentators termed it as an attempt by the President to attract foreign sympathy and aid as well as settling political scores. In March 2012, public schools in Maiduguri were burnt imperiling education of thousands of students. By the end of 2012, it was clear that Boko Haram had significant links with the AQIM that Abubakar Shekau also acknowledged. It became inevitable for the international community to downplay the group anymore. It expressed its concern on the growing viciousness and brutality of the group. The recent mass abduction of the girls has led to a major international outcry and the UN, US, UK, EU and France have finally promised for significant coordinated help to the Nigerian government to deal with the group.

    UN Response: The UN Security Council occasionally acknowledged, recognised and condemned the problem of terrorism in Nigeria through press and Presidential statements. But no major step of action was taken till the mass abduction of the teenager girls in April 2014. After the incident, on May 22, 2014, the Security Council put Boko Haram in its Al-Qaeda Sanctions List on demand by the Nigerian Government. It is to note that “any individual or entity that provides financial or material support to Boko Haram, including the provisions of arms or recruits, is eligible to be added to the Al-Qaeda Sanctions List and subject to the sanctions measures”32 that intend for “targeted financial sanctions and arms embargo set out in paragraph 1 of the Security Council resolution 2083 (2012), adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter”.33 The action by the UN became indispensable so as to warn the terror groups that acts like mass abduction of girls and threat to convert them or sell them to slave markets can be seen as ‘crime against humanity’ under certain circumstances.34

    US Response: The US has been relatively slow in its response towards the Boko Haram. The US and international attention had started focusing on the group with more references to its linkages with the AQIM and other global jihadi organisations. For a long time, a section of analysts in the US believed that Boko Haram is no threat to international and especially to the US interests as it is focused within Nigeria. Some of them saw the attack on the UN compound by the group as an outlying event in gratitude to their training by the global jihadi groups. The US had been engaged in this Nigerian problem at some levels of investigations regarding different attacks since the beginning but its major response came only in June 2013 when it declared Abubakar Shekau as individual terrorist and announced a reward of US$ 7 million for information about his location. Later, on November 13, 2013, the US Government declared Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) as well as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.35 This will help the US justice and treasury departments for the possible trials of the members of Boko Haram. The recent mass abduction of girls pushed the US to offer help to the Nigerian Government to find their whereabouts. It has sent 30 military and technical advisors to Nigeria for help in surveillance, communications, logistics and intelligence planning.36 Fifty US military officials who were already present in the Embassy of the US in Nigeria and other twenty US personnel for training in Nigeria are also helping the Nigerian Government. The US has committed further help of similar nature to counter Boko Haram in Nigeria.

    British Response: One British hostage was killed suspectedly by the Boko Haram as the UK Government failed to give ransom for his release. The British Special Forces were involved with the Nigerian forces in the failed rescue operations of two Italian hostages suspected to be kidnapped by Boko Haram since May 2011. The UK Government’s interest in Nigeria grew after the “Woolwich incident” in which a British drummer was brutally killed on road by two British converted Muslims of Nigerian descent. UK has more than 500000 Nigerian immigrants. Although they are mostly Christian, the Government does not want to ignore the possible repercussions in future. After the incident, the British Foreign Affairs Committee included Nigeria in its focus. The UK Government advised the Nigerian Government for use of non-military approaches and regional collaboration to deal with the socio-economic aspects of the growth of Boko Haram. It is also involved in intelligence and technical assistance against the group. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) wants to deliver more for the Nigerian people in the north to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.37

    French Response: The French involvement comes as a coordinator of the consolidating Western and regional efforts against Boko Haram. French operations against the Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Mali had weakened Boko Haram and affected its operations. France organised a summit conference of the Sahel and Western powers on May 17, 2014 to resolve the problem in Nigeria’s North and search for the abducted girls. A comprehensive action plan against Boko Haram was chalked out at this conference. Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin in presence of the US, UK and other EU powers pledged to cooperate, including joint border patrols and intelligence sharing. François Hollande, the President of France, said that “Boko Haram has become a major threat for whole West Africa and now for Central Africa”.38 He also supported the idea of a global action plan against Boko Haram. Earlier, France had also announced that it would build a 3000 troops strong cross-border anti-terrorism unit in the Sahel region.39

    Other responses: President Jonathan has highlighted that China has also offered assistance in the search and rescue of the abducted Nigerian girls. Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan also condemned the act of girls’ abduction. Some sections in Sweden also criticised the slow international response to the threat of Boko Haram in general and to the abduction of the girls in particular. Now the world community in general is criticising both the Boko Haram and the Nigerian Government for their roles regarding the abduction of the girls. Sections in the international community are also critical about the powerful states for their indifference for the Sahel region.

    Conclusion: In general, the rise of Boko Haram seems to be the result of adverse and complex domestic socio-economic and political dynamics within Nigeria that is vexed by the support of the global jihadi forces. Although the group originated as a domestic movement, it grew with the help of the external forces. This is to be noted that the group faced near wipe-out in face of the heavy response by the Nigerian forces twice until it developed proper links with the external global jihadi forces. Since its comeback in 2010-11, Boko Haram is ruling the terror roost in the Sahel region. It has brutally and indiscriminately killed thousands, including hundreds since the abduction of the school girls only. The international response to the problem of this group has been slow as initially the Western powers did not see it threatening their interests. However, the successive revelations of the group’s relationship with the global jihadi movement attracted attention and action by the international community. The attacks on the UN compound and the mass abduction of the girls generated an international public outcry compelling the international community to act substantially against Boko Haram. It is quite difficult to say how beneficial would be the steps taken by the UN, US, UK, France and others as they are only assisting the Nigerian Government. The US personnel in Nigeria are already frustrated with the failure of the Nigerian forces and institutions in responding effectively to the intelligence provided. The international community has become very critical of the Nigerian Government’s handling of the Boko Haram problem since its beginning. The Government forces’ handling of the problem with extremely heavy hands has boomeranged and helped Boko Haram to harness the anger against the Government and find new recruits. However, although they are able to maintain themselves with external support and generating fear among the masses, the group’s indiscriminate brutality and bizarre killings have led to a decrease in its popular support. Another reason for the slow response by the international community has been the tendency of the political factions within Nigeria to play it against each other for their personal and narrow benefit. The outcomes of the responses and steps taken by the international community remain uncertain and one cannot have much hope given the nature of the responses by the international community and the state of domestic factional, tribal, ethnic, religious and institutional politics of Nigeria. However, it was imperative for the international community to take certain steps at the current juncture to help Nigeria enable its institutions and assist it somehow in the fight against Boko Haram. The international response was necessary after the April 14 incident to pressurise the terrorist group and let it realise that there will be consequences for such acts. It was also necessary to tell them the incident should not set precedence for future as such incidents may be interpreted as crime against humanity. An overview of the history of Boko Haram, its activities and the pace and nature of the international response shows that the Sahel region is demanding greater attention by the international community from the perspective of the growth of religious fundamentalism and terrorism. The region, in the long term, is going to be very important from the counterterrorism perspective and demands greater attention and effort; with Nigeria’s Boko Haram being one of the important elements to deal with.