The Political Phenomenon Of Boko Haram In West Africa (II)

Part I

As for the question of the reasons for the radicalization of Boko Haram, there is no common agreement, the same contestation exists about the problem of how the emergence of this religious sect could be explained. Up to now, there are several hypotheses about this problem. For many local observers, the phenomenon of Boko Haram is, basically, a symptom that the Nigerian state became – i.e., either a falling state or already failed. For other researchers, the general social poverty and very poor public administration policy are to be blamed firstly. The third group of people locates the emergence of Boko Haram in an aggressive frustration thesis. In other words, the members of Boko Haram’s sect are generally and constantly frustrated with the state of things in Nigeria from economy to politics but particularly with the position of Northerners and the Muslims in North Nigeria concerning the current configuration of economic and political power in this oil-rich but socially poor West African state. Consequently, according to the third group, the terrorism of Boko Haram is, in fact, misplaced aggression.

Nigerian farmers
Thousands of Nigerian hunters, armed with charmed amulets and intimate knowledge of harsh terrain, are preparing an offensive against the Boko Haram extremists who have ravaged the northeast for a decade, calling it “high time” they help soldiers end the deadly insurgency, Nigeria,

Nevertheless, other analysts of Boko Haram’s phenomenon will stress that this sect is a symptom of the failed policy of the nation-building process in Nigeria. It is argued that this failure has triggered a serious process of de-Nigerianization as the state of Nigeria was understood as something artificial from the ethnic point of identity (like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia). Therefore, many people in Nigeria started to retreat into primordial identities. It is claimed that those withdrawing from the project of Nigeria and Nigerian state (political) identity see the state as such as an enemy and, therefore, they are attacking the state by using all possible means including and classical terrorism against the Nigerian state and its public institutions.

External factor

Similar to the problem of the explanation of the reasons for the emergence of Boko Haram, there is no common agreement as well as about whether this religious-military sect has linkage with al-Qaeda – the most notorious terrorist organization after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. and/or other international terrorist groups. On one hand, the Nigerian Government thinks that it is true and trying to convince the international community that it is true, but on other hand, so far there is no firm empirical proof of such alliance. Nevertheless, many researchers believe in some hidden Boko Haram-al-Qaeda connections for the very reason of the increasing sophistication of the sect’s used methods.

It is argued that for several reasons the Nigerian Government itself has a great political interest to present Boko Haram to the world as having such linkage with some international terrorist organizations but in the first place with al-Qaeda:

  • It will make it easier to attract international sympathy and support especially from the USA and the EU which since 9/11 are particularly paranoid about any person or group be even under rumors in any linkage with al-Qaeda.
  • Linking Boko Haram with al-Qaeda will be face-saving, making it easier for the Nigerian Government to rationalize its failure in struggling with this sect and its activists for domestic purposes and self-image especially at the time of elections.
  • The logical thinking is that if the USA and the EU together are not able to cope successfully with al-Qaeda why somebody can see it is a sign of weakness of the Nigerian Government to defeat a branch of al-Qaeda in West Africa?
  • By linking Boko Haram with al-Qaeda, the Nigerian Government may hope to use innuendos and name-dropping of US involvement to frighten the sect and help to pressure it to the negotiating table.
  • By using an approach that Boko Haram does not have linkage with al-Qaeda or any other internationally (in)famous terrorist organization will go directly to the favor of the sect’s interest as Boko Haram in this case can simply portray itself as an organization working independently getting support only by domestic people of Nigeria who are unsatisfied with the policy of the Nigerian Government. In this case, the Government will have big problems explaining the reasons for the popular support of the sect.
  • If Boko Haram does not have external support by any Islamic fundamentalist group it will only increase the awe with which it is held but may as well assist the sect to attract the attention and, therefore, support of al-Qaeda or some other Islamic terrorist organization.

The paradox

Nevertheless, the focal paradox in this matter is that if the USA becomes openly involved in the struggle against Boko Haram in Nigeria, it can provoke the direct support of anti-American groups across the globe followed by domestic support by all of those who have anti-American sentiments. Additionally, in the case of US involvement against Boko Haram, it could fire off a wave of nationalism and inter-confessional struggles within the Nigerian society that may cause winning additional sympathies for Boko Haram at least in the Islamic North Nigeria. There are those analysts who argue that, for instance, Boko Haram’s attacks on the UN office in Nigeria and the Christian churches were aimed to increase the internationalization of the problem and to trigger a religious war which will be a veritable source of membership recruitment for the sect.

Mass media and reality 

Although the mass media portrayed the conflict as a Muslim vs Christian issue, there is another ethnic dimension in which the conflict is being waged as a case of reinforcing fault lines. Whilst the Islamic Boko Haram may be targeting Christians living in North Nigeria, the perception is that Boko Haram is targeting the Igbo ethnic group resulting in perceptions by the Igbo that this is a systematic ethnic cleansing policy. It is concerned in this matter that the Igbos should just secede. Obviously, Boko Haram is targeting and killing people in North Nigeria based on their religion and ethnicity. Nonetheless, in response to a Boko Haram ultimatum that all Christians should leave North Nigeria or face death, the Igbo group gave all Muslims living in North Nigeria two weeks to leave or face death. Some Muslim communities took the warning to heart and were soon leaving the area by the truckload.

Nigerien soldiers
Nigerien soldiers stand guard outside the Diffa airport in South-East Niger on December 23, 2020

Why does Boko Haram survive? 

It is clear that the Nigerian Government in the struggle against Boko Haram possesses the insufficiency of intelligence and consequently a lack of successful military actions. With an aim to restore order in North Nigeria, the epicenter of Boko Haram’s activities and recruitment, the Government of Nigeria in June 2011 established a special combat Joint Task Force (the JTF), composed of the most important components of the armed forces of Nigeria. The focal military task of the JTF was to counter the increasingly sophisticated terror attacks by the insurgent group of Boko Haram. Since the emergence, the JTF launched a massive crackdown on Boko Haram and arrested or killed a huge number of the members of the sect even including its main leaders. For instance, on September 24th, 2012, there were 156 members of the sect arrested and 35 killed, including one of their main leaders. In October of the same year, 30 Boko Haram’s members have been killed in one battle with the JTF. Other major clampdowns happened on different occasions in March 2013 when 72 members of the sect were killed. However, taking into consideration the success in those military actions followed by the high number of either killed or attested terrorists, the Government of Nigeria announced its success in the war on terror in North Nigeria but soon it became clear that the war was not over and that Boko Haram was much stronger as thought.

Nevertheless, despite the acclaimed success of the Nigerian anti-terror military actions against Boko Haram, it is very paradoxical that the campaign of terror by this sect is yet to abate and is rather becoming more sophisticated and producing some other splinter groups. As a matter of fact, a new terrorist group emerged from Boko Haram with fiercer attacks in Nigeria. This new group claimed the abduction and killing of seven foreign nationalists in Nigeria. With such kind of situation developed on the ground, consequently, it is very clear that the acclaimed success of the counter-terrorism campaign in North Nigeria by the Nigerian Government is, after all, not totally reliable. Therefore, it can be concluded that Nigeria as a state so far is not winning the war against Boko Haram. Logically, the next question is in the line: Why is Nigeria not winning the war on terror against Boko Haram in North Nigeria?

One thing is quite clear: the Nigerian Government is still struggling to get proper information and form general knowledge about its focal enemy in the country. Probably the most incredible fact was that even at least 5 years after the public emergence of Boko Haram as North Nigeria’s social phenomenon, the central Nigerian Government still was dealing with the sect as faceless without identity as a “ghost”. Nevertheless, such facts explain the real reason why the Nigerian Government is, in fact, clueless on which particular group represents the authentic sect of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram and north-south division of Nigeria

Another phenomenon about Boko Haram is the ethnicization and politicization of the issue which is militating against the Government’s war on terror in North Nigeria. It has to be noticed that the multi-ethnic structure of the Nigerian state and society manifests from all viewpoints the lives of the Nigerian people. The problem of the Boko Haram phenomenon became another ethnic issue in Nigeria which is making a deeper trench between both North and South Nigeria and Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians. The crisis of Boko Haram became fiercer at the same time when there was intense mutual suspicion and tension between the northern and southern elites over the problem of rotation of state power in Nigeria. The issue was that the northern political elites felt to be shortchanged in the current political formula of the rotation. Taking this into consideration, it is a general belief in South Nigeria that Boko Haram is, in fact, more politically motivated than confessionally as a consequence of the general grievance from North Nigeria. However, as a reaction, such belief fueled a continuous distrust in North Nigeria about the sincerity of the central Government’s efforts to pacify Boko Haram.

In North Nigeria exists the opinion that behind terror acts of Boko Haram to a certain extent is the central Nigerian Government for the reason to strengthen the belief that the political elites from North Nigeria are sponsors of Boko Haram and its political concept of federalization of Nigeria on regional and confessional foundations. On other hand, the elites from North Nigeria are accusing Government to be not sincere with efforts to tackle Boko Haram, particularly concerning its military approach. What they think is that it is a deliberate policy of the central Government to destroy the regions of North Nigeria and their economy given that usually innocent people are killed by the JTF. What they suggest as the optimal solution to the crisis is the declaration of a general amnesty for all members of Boko Haram.

Abubakar Shekau stands at the centre of a Boko Haram video from 2014
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau stands at the centre of a Boko Haram, video from 2014

The next problem is that the political will to fight Boko Haram is suspect. Even in January 2012, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan announced that some Boko Haram’s sponsors and supporters are involved in the Government’s structures, some of them are MPs, and some of them are members of the judiciary system of Nigeria. For sure, it is true that some of Nigeria’s “big fishes” are staying behind the terror acts of Boko Haram but the Government is not either able or willing to identify and officially persecute those sponsors and supporters in Government’s circles who have direct or indirect connections with the sect regardless of the fact that even some of Boko Haram’s members have mentioned some names from the Nigerian political elite.

Final words

In dealing with the phenomenon of Boko Haram’s sect in Nigeria one thing is quite obvious: there are several confusing explanations on virtually every aspect of the sect that is evidence that much of what is known about Boko Haram remains within the framework of rather speculations but not proved pieces of evidence based on rigorous empirical research in order to fill the void.

Certainly, the case of Boko Haram is continuing to pose focal security problems to Nigeria. In fact, it is a matter of emergency to Nigeria. The Nigerian Government is about to change its strategy on Boko Haram following the realization of the ineffectiveness of the present military approach. In fact, during the last several years, the Nigerian Government is considering a carrot and stick approach dealing with Boko Haram and jettisoning the so-called “all-around force” approach. Nevertheless, there is a real need for a good collaboration between the Nigerian Government and the local citizens, especially of those living in North Nigeria (Muslims) on the current war on Boko Haram.

It is obvious that it is dangerous to play politics with a serious security issue such as terrorism. In fact, Nigeria needs a national consensus on how to fight Boko Haram. It is only when Nigerians gain this consciousness, and drop ethnic, confessional, and tribal sentiments, that there can be a meaningful solution to Boko Haram’s phenomenon of terror in this West African country.

The counter-terrorism effort of the Nigerian Government is among others being criticized by humanitarian concerns from both domestic and international actors. There are mounting criticisms by different human rights organizations, international organizations, and Western nations over the casualties of the anti-terror activities of the Nigerian Government’s JTF in North Nigeria. For instance, Amnesty International in its reports was stressing unlawful killings, dragnet arrests, arbitrary and unlawful detentions, extortions, and intimidation by the JTF in Borno State of North Nigeria that is the epicenter of the Boko Haram’s phenomenon. As a result, according to many reports (like by Human Rights Watch), there is a great deal of migration of people out of the fighting areas for the purpose to avoid killings and arrests by the JTF. However, one thing is worth to be mentioned. After the Baga military action in April 2013, when 187 civilians were killed by the JTF, the US withdrew its military assistance following the outcome of the action.

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.
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