The radical Islamist group Boko Haram poses an increasing threat to the Nigerian state in the country’s north. How has it become so powerful and effective? The ingredients of an answer lie in the complex history, power-relationships and social inequalities of this marginalised region, says Morten Bøås.
The tradition of Islamic radicalism that exists in northern Nigeria has mainly been non-worldly: the advocacy of a purer way of Islamic life. This changed at the turn of the millennium with the emergence of so-called “Taliban” groups. They both had a more coherent worldview (which sought the establishment of an Islamic government in Nigeria) and were willing to use violence to further their objectives.
These groups were crushed by the Nigerian state in 2004, but Boko Haram - which had been established in 2002, and which the government saw as an unthreatening religious organisation - continued to exist. After the group turned violent, its original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was arrested and killed in 2009. At the time this was seen as having put an end to the organisation, but this proved not to be the case. Boko Haram has re-emerged from the ashes of the death of its original leader as an avant-garde organisation embracing the strategy of hyper-violent, spectacular and deadly terrorist attacks.
The question is how this could happen. The marginalisation of northern Nigeria within the context of the country as a whole, and the inequality between the north and south of Nigeria and how this may have alienated some northerners, must be taken into consideration as part of the answer. This article, however, seeks also to place Boko Haram into a broader context, by exploring three factors:
* historical forces leading to its emergence
* issues concerning internal collusion between Boko Haram activists and well-connected Nigerian “big men”
* external support for the organisation through emerging Af-
rican jihadist networks.
A movement reborn
The long tradition of Islamic radicalism in northern Nigeria notwithstanding, actual organised armed struggle against the state is new. It first appeared around 2002, though the nature of the multiple bomb-attacks in Kano on 25 December 2011 (targeting churches and Christian worshippers) and 20 January 2012 (targeting police stations and other government buildings) suggests that this struggle has entered a new phase.
What changed between 2002 and 2011? In short, an evolutionary process occurred which connects the first “Taliban” groups of the early part of the decade to Boko Haram - but that this group’s activities can be divided into two distinct phases. The first phase ended in 2009 with the arrest and extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf, while the second (which I call “Boko Haram II”) started with a well-planned attack on Maiduguri prison in September 2010 that freed hundreds of prisoners.
Boko Haram’s most recent attacks have taken place in a Nigeria characterised by social protests and turmoil over the government’s attempt to remove the fuel subsidy (resulting in dramatic increases in the price of fuel). This unpopular decision caused considerable social tension. This tension, however, was between the people and the state, and not between different groups of people of the kind that Boko Haram tries to provoke: the protests against rising oil prices were a social event that unified Nigerians across religious and ethnic divisions.
The Boko Haram that has re-emerged from the death of its original leader is better organised than its predecessors, but also a different kind of organisation compared to the original “Taliban” groups and Yusuf’s Boko Haram. The Taliban groups and the original Boko Haram focused on a combination of preaching, recruitment and violent resistance against the state; by contrast, the strategy of “Boko Haram II” is the spectacular drama of hyper-violence.
The aim is to create a situation where its high-profile attacks provoke a combination of repression against Muslims from the state and reprisal attacks against Muslims from the Christian population at large. The motivating belief for this approach is that as religious violence brings the Nigerian state to brink of anarchy, Boko Haram will emerge as the leadership of the Muslim masses.
Boko Haram II is clearly dangerous. But an even greater cause for concern is the emerging rumours of collusion between Boko Haram and various so-called “big men” in politics and the state apparatus. This is evidence not of key players embracing Boko Haram’s ideology, but rather another sign of the extreme measures that some Nigerians are willing to use to gain power, position and wealth.
A ruling legacy
When Nigeria achieved independence in 1960, the north was described by the outgoing British colonial administration as “The giant in the sun of immense potentialities” - potentialities that could only be realised if roads, bridges and power-stations were built; young men were educated and trained; and factories were established. This may still be the case, but developments that have taken place since 2000-01 also suggest that this giant is awakening in a way not foreseen by the agents of British rule.
When the architect of “indirect rule”, Lord Lugard, gained full control of northern Nigeria after the fall of the Sokoto caliphate in 1903, his system of governance relied on alliances made with the representatives of the various emirates that existed there. These people and their children therefore came to represent the local elite, initially under British rule, but this did not change with the end of colonialism. Thus, over a century later, and despite its oil resources, Nigeria is ranked by the United Nations as one of the most unequal countries in the world - and nowhere is this more evident than in the country’s north.
But if there is a stark contrast between the north and south, one also exists within the north. Here there is a small but rich and well-connected elite, whereas the majority of the population lives in poverty, and most pathways to social mobility and progress are effectively blocked.
The currents of Islamic radicalism in the region have tended to be unworldly, motivated by the search for a purer way of Islamic life. Young men inspired by charismatic preachers would withdraw into a communal existence devoted to studying the Qur’an in isolation from society. Sometimes these groups would take to the streets in violent protests, but these were short-lived and never evolved into an organised armed struggle against the state and its local allies.
This changed with the emergence of the Taliban groups. These were more focused in their organisation and ideas, and they recruited mainly among young men who had received some education but could not find work. Even the name Boko Haram speaks to such experiences: in the local Hausa language it means “Western education is forbidden”.
Education in the western sense is haram because it does not deliver anything that makes sense, and it represents a state and its traditional allies that only prey upon the Muslim people of the north. As such, the emergence of these groups should be read as a reaction against a double betrayal by the state and traditional Muslim leaders of the youth of the north.
The initial Taliban groups were destroyed by the Nigerian state in 2004, but Boko Haram survived. Its initial manifestation was mainly in the form of a religious complex, which included a mosque and an Islamic school; these made it appear relatively harmless to the state. This continued until the group suddenly started to attack police stations and government buildings in Maiduguri, leading to many deaths and eventually a response by the Nigerian government that ended with the capture and extra-judicial killing of the Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf.
Most observers concluded that this was the end of the Boko Haram saga, as the initial movement had never shown any interest in aligning itself with other forces of resistance to the Nigerian state. This was clearly a wrong assessment, leaving the question as to how a movement declared dead could make such a spectacular comeback.
A lot remains to be discovered before a full answer can be found, but two competing stories are emerging. The first suggests that internal factors are decisive, whereas the second argues that external support and linkages are key.
A question of collusion
The first argument suggest that the re-emergence of Boko Haram is connected to one of the main faultlines in Nigerian politics - the north-south divide - and the bitter conflict over positions, power and money that this cleavage creates. This is not in essence a religious conflict, as it evolves around everything from access to land and political positions to the distribution of oil revenues. However, it also exists within state institutions (the police and the military included) and within political parties (among them the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan).
In fact, Jonathan himself has warned against the presence of Boko Haram supporters in his government and the country’s security agencies. The question is what these big men stand to gain from assisting Boko Haram.
But Nigeria is a country where big men have long tried to manipulate violent discontent for their own selfish purposes. This happened, for example, during the long struggles in the Niger Delta. It cannot be ruled out that certain individuals and groups - gripped by a sense of having lost a power-struggle when Jonathan became the PDP flag-bearer - have an interest in undermining the legitimacy of his presidency to make certain that he will not be allowed by the party to seek a second term. In this perspective, Boko Haram’s spectacular comeback could be entirely homegrown.
The second argument places Boko Haram in a regional context. It insists that a network must be in place that facilitates the flow of finance, arms and training between Boko Haram, al-Shabaab of Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This cannot be ruled out, but two critical points need to be addressed.
First, there is little credible evidence that AQIM has managed to move so far south of the Sahara. Second, there are indeed rumours about Boko Haram activists travelling to al-Shabaab camps in Somalia to learn bomb-making and other terrorist tactics, and some may have actually made this long and difficult journey. But why travel across the continent for this purpose when there are plenty of former combatants in the Niger Delta who are increasingly disillusioned by the amnesty and rehabilitation packages they have received, and consequently may have few scruples about whom they share their expertise with as long as they get paid (even if they may have no appetite for Boko Haram’s ideology)?
A credibility match
Nigeria has not been brought to the brink of anarchy by Boko Haram, but it has clearly been shaken by recent events. The major dilemma for the Nigerian state is how it should respond to the challenge this organisation and its activities represent. The state must react firmly, but also even-handedly. To target young people in the north as suspects, for example, will only strengthen Boko Haram.
There is a trade-off of credibility at work. Ultimately, Boko Haram will lose credibility only if the state gains some of its own. This means that any long-term solution to the problem must involve a developmental effort that reduces the inequality experienced by the youth of the north, and thus also their sense of alienation. Such an effort does not need to make people wealthy, but it must make it possible for them to believe that social progress within the framework of the Nigerian state is possible.