A perfect storm: Boko Haram, IS and the Nigerian election

Boko Haram’s alignment with Islamic State adds to mounting insecurity in Nigeria. A fortnight ahead of the already-deferred election, what does this mean for its democratic prospects?

Richard Howarth
12 March 2015

Return of the strongman? The former general Muhammadu Buhari is once again challenging the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, in the presidential election, running on a 'seccurity' platform. Demotix / Michael Tubi. All rights reserved.

The news that Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) makes for sombre reading. The conflict raging in west Africa has taken thousands of lives, destroyed homes and destabilised a fragile region. The human cost is a tragedy and the political ramifications alarming. Nigeria’s presidential election, already postponed, is close to being unhinged as the conflict with Boko Haram becomes a focal point of the campaign.

Indeed, should it go ahead?  If the election were to be deferred again, it would not guarantee against  a scenario of riots, authoritarian twists and political manoeuvring. A second postponement would send out two signals: that Nigeria is not ready for democracy in action and that it is weakening in the face of Boko Haram’s assault. 

The political system in Nigeria has often been marred by corruption and lack of transparency, and elections there have had a history of violence, with contested and unaccountable results. A further deferral would only compound these associations, which prevent the most populous African country from being a natural regional leader.

Not only would this embolden Boko Haram; it would demonstrate that the Nigerian state cannot guarantee national security through a critical period. Conflicts such as these are often swayed by events which shift the political momentum and this could alter the delicate balance of forces.

Yet if the election does go ahead and it follows the trend of Nigerian presidential polls, the aftermath could be chaotic, with widespread civil violence, increased ethnic tension and a breakdown of order. In such a fraught milieu, Boko Haram could find fertile ground for recruitment and would most likely take the opportunity to seize key areas in the mainly-Muslim north and further solidify its position. The outcome could be decreased security, control and territory for whichever government emerges.

Boko Haram now operates outside of Nigeria, in Chad and Niger—states which had relied on Nigeria’s military strength to hold back the insurgents. And if the civil conflict in the country were to extend to the predominantly-Christian south, the consequence for west Africa as a whole would be troubling indeed. This could issue in a return to a single-party, authoritarian regime in Abuja, claiming to have the political strength to hold the country together and tackle Boko Haram.


So much of politics is about signals and counter-signals, and by announcing its alliance with IS Boko Haram has ‘stepped up’ its game. In the last few months the insurgent group’s communication strategy has become far more sophisticated. And the announcement, three weeks before the election, allows certain narratives the time to gain momentum to disrupt the election cycle. These are, first, that being a de facto branch of IS, Boko Haram may well expect increased recruitment, bolstering its offensive. And, secondly, this has made IS’ war a more ‘global struggle’ against ‘the west’—Boko Haram roughly means ‘western education is forbidden’.

IS and Boko Haram have always had similar political aims and ideologies and have for some time been viewed through the same lens in the US and Europe. But by mutually aligning they add to each other’s credibility and strategic abilities and fuelfears of a belt of extremism stretching from Nigeria to Syria.

IS’ activity in the Middle East has however monopolised attention—associated with a media representation of a clear strategic threat while African counterparts are just protagonists in another conflict. And so while the governments of developed democracies have been preoccupied with IS, Boko Haram has been able to emerge and strengthen at a key strategic node. It sits on the doorstep of one of the west’s most important strategic partners, an oil-producing state, with the ability massively to disrupt elections and democracy—the cornerstone of the west’s purported moral impetus abroad—and potentially it could make large territorial gains following a turbulent election. This election may well prove to be a win-win in symbolic terms for Boko Haram.

Understandable antipathy

In many respects, this is the outcome of years of failed policy towards Africa in general and Nigeria in particular on the part of advanced capitalist countries. Political patronisation and harsh economic strictures on African states over the last 50 years have led to an understandable antipathy towards western governments and a desire for African states to stand on their own feet, on their own terms.

Yet if the election does go ahead and it follows the trend of Nigerian presidential polls, the aftermath could be chaotic, with widespread civil violence, increased ethnic tension and a breakdown of order.

In the ‘war on terror’, the stance towards Africa has always been to ‘play hardball’. Nigeria has accepted military assistance and troops, principally from the US, on ‘counter-terrorism’ operations but it has always resisted a permanent presence. Many times the US has attempted to establish its permanent African Command headquarters (AFRICOM) on Nigerian soil but this has been denied.

For many, western troops waging war on violent non-state groups has only escalated conflict and added legitimacy to the latter. Many also feel the west’s interests are only strategic and do not have peace at heart. The history of western states manipulating state insecurity, supporting coups and exploiting weakness to promote their own interest is not easily forgotten. And so they now have only limited involvement, reduced to sitting on the sidelines and watching what unfolds.

Naturally, state sovereignty should not be undermined, and western military assistance and intervention should only come when asked for or absolutely necessary. But one can’t help feeling that a softer and more equitable foreign policy would have enabled the west to have greater influence to combat Boko Haram and fundamentalism—after Syria and Iraq, Nigeria is in danger of being the next major victim.

The US has a dim history of overt military engagement in Africa, notably Somalia (1992-94), and had been reluctant to become heavily involved in the continent until the announcement of AFRICOM by the then president, George W. Bush. Now, the secretary of state, John Kerry, has announced that the US will do more to combat Boko Haram—but previous announcements of all kinds of engagement in Africa by the administration of Barack Obama have done little to change a decades-old stance.

The announcement of a major military offensive by the Nigerian and Chadian armies against Boko Haram clearly signals a show of regional strength to prevent disorder as the election looms. Yet it is also a signal of how serious a threat the fundamentalists are—in Nigeria western foreign-affairs monitors have missed a beat and there should be universal trepidation about the outcome at the end of the month.

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