20 March, 2015

Boko Haram: the Heart of Darkness

[slightly edited version] published in 

Geopolitics, Vol V, Issue X, March 2015, pp 68 - 71

Abstract: As Nigeria gears up for the Presidential elections, the incumbent Jonathan government faces more than a challenge in the form of the grotesque terrorism-cum-insurgency of Boko Haram. The Islamist group acts as a serious destabilising force in the region around Lake Chad. The world can hardly afford to ignore the notoriety of these African fanatics who have links with Al Qaeda and the ISIS. If Charlie Hebdo incident was significant, then Boko Haram surely is. 


In the first week of the new year, on 7th January, the office of the French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, located at Paris, faced the brunt of the assault rifles. There were 11 casualties and 11 others were injured. A couple of men shouted "Allahu Akbar" while firing the shots. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda's wing in Yemen. And on the same day, over 4000 km away, the terrorists of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams [ISIS] attempted to occupy the Syrian city of Kobani, and the essay of the torchbearers of terror was in its 115th day. 7 members of ISIS were confirmed killed in that foray.

The reaction of the French government to the Charlie Hebdo incident was understandably strong. January 8 was declared a day of national mourning. The whole world decried the dastardly act and the global media followed up with extraordinary alacrity. The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius termed the act of the Qaeda terrorists as plain and simple “barbarity”. And at a far distance away, the war with the ISIS was thoroughly being covered by the media across the world.

Nonetheless, a place went virtually unnoticed. Geographically located at extreme north-east of Nigeria, a town called Baga – in the province of Borno, the town is less than 200 km away from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno.  The town is close to Lake Chad. Between 3 January and 7 January 2015, a series of mass killings were committed in that fateful town by the ‘truly barbaric’ Boko Haram. Amnesty International reported close to 2000 dead. “Hundreds of bodies – too many to count – remain strewn in the bush in Nigeria from the Islamist extremist attack”, wrote the Guardian.

However, kudos to Simon Allison as he articulated the massacre perpetrated by the African Islamist terror group through a touching title : “I am Charlie, but I am Baga too………..”. Even he was a bit late, as it was already 5 days past the gory saga. He could very well be exonerated when one reads more into his article. The nearest journalists are situated hundreds of kilometres away from Baga. Information that reaches them is naturally delayed. But that definitely does not acquit the entire media of not focusing more on the carnage by Boko Haram. Is this the Africa-Europe divide with the latter receiving the attention which the elite is supposed to?

Interestingly, turning towards the militancy in question, this bloodbath happened just over a month before the national elections in Nigeria where current President Goodluck Jonathan will be running against Buhari, a candidate from the north. STRATFOR’s vice president for Africa analysis Mark Schroeder, tells clearly that the Jonathan government has really not emphasized a very strong or very efficient response to Boko Haram insurgency. It is southern Nigeria that possesses most of the oil and gas and has the commercial capital Lagos. “And so the absence of an efficient response to Boko Haram by the Jonathan administration will continue if Jonathan were to be re-elected”, surmises Schroeder. On the other ‘firm’ hand, Muhammadu Buhari is a northerner Nigerian, a former general, and it would be expected that if he is elected as president of Nigeria, he could turn out to be the much required nemesis for Boko Haram. The January attacks by Boko Haram on the Nigerian military base near Baga and the concomitant mass murders could be seen in that context. 

And further credence is lent to such theorisation when it is coupled that the worsening insecurity in the northern parts of Nigeria would mean that few international observers would likely get clearance to oversee voting in an area that is traditionally been supporting anti-incumbency. Moreover, around 1.5 million people have been displaced by the violence, many of whom will not be able to vote in the polls under Nigeria’s current electoral laws. All of these suit Boko Haram insurgents the most. To the contrary, the ultras have orchestrated bomb attack on Abuja in 2014 which shows that they are eager to push into core Nigeria and such events ought to perturb even the Jonathan government.

The Rise and ‘Another’ Rise of Boko Haram

It was in the 1990s, as the International Crisis Group [ICG] writes, that the Boko Haram grew out of a group of radical Islamist youth who worshipped at the Al-Haji Muhammadu Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri. Its leader Mohammed Yusuf, began as a preacher and leader in the youth wing, Shababul Islam (Islamic Youth Vanguard), of Ahl-Sunnah - a Salafi group. Yusuf was a charismatic and popular Quranic scholar who spoke widely throughout north Nigeria. His literal interpretation of the Quran led him to forbid aspects of Western education he considered in contradiction to the holy book - such as the big bang theory of the universe, and elements of chemistry and geography. However, as the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations [CFR] opines, the Boko Haram was formally created in 2002 in Maiduguri, by Mohammed Yusuf. The sect’s core beliefs are strict adherence to the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), and their interpretation as sanctioned by Ibn Taymiyyah - the preferred scholar of Mohammed Yusuf. Functionally, the group aims to establish a fully Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of criminal sharia courts across the country. Importantly, it has concrete links with al-Qaeda and to an extent ISIS.

The official name of the Boko Haram group is actually Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "People of the Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad Group". But the Hausa-speaking residents of Maiduguri, named it Boko Haram, tells BBC News. And the name translates from the local Hausa language to mean "Western education is a sin" – in fact, not very antagonistic to its actions and goals. Hardcore members of the group detest such a nomenclature though.
Yusuf didn't have complete control of the group, and after his alleged extra-judicial execution by the Nigerian police sometime in July 2009, his followers splintered into five to six factions. In fact, 2009-10 was the period of the second rise of the group, and in a far more deadly trajectory. Originally directed mainly at security forces and government officials, the insurgency-cum-terrorism has expanded to include attacks on Christians, Muslim clerics critical against their acts, suspected collaborators, UN agencies, and importantly schools. It has turned more into terrorism, targeting the innocent students at state secular schools and even health workers involved in polio vaccination campaigns. Boko Haram was arguably at its apex in early 2013, when it took control of large areas of Borno province. The military build-up of the Joint Task Force of the Nigerian government, the subsequent military offensive and use of vigilante groups have hurt the movement, but not quite impeded its rise. Boko Haram reportedly has resorted to forced conscription and recruiting of criminals and thugs in order to expand its base.

One of Yusuf’s unruly lieutenants was Abubakar Shekau. Presently, he supposedly holds the reins of the most lethal and deadly faction of the original Boko Haram. Interestingly, Nigeria's military claimed to have killed Shekau at least three times, yet videos of the leader threatening his enemies, congratulating his jihadi comrades in Iraq and Syria, and declaring an Islamic state continue to emerge. And as CFR argues in its backgrounder to the group, Nigerian officials and many experts are convinced that Shekau has become a brand adopted by leaders of different factions of Boko Haram, and that the men in the videos are actually look-alikes. Nevertheless, Boko Haram aka Shekau has repeatedly ruled out talks with the government, despite claims by some purported sect members that these were ongoing. Members who proposed dialogue were killed on ‘Shekau’s orders’, silencing other pro-dialogue individuals.

Nigerian soldiers in Goniri, Yobe state. Photo: 16 March 2015

Can the Violence be Curbed?

Boko Haram cannot be neatly characterized as an insurgency or terrorist organization, posts CFR, and quite correctly so. Though Boko Haram qualifies as an insurgency as per the rigors of the definition of the term set by political scientist Bard E. O’Neill : “Insurgency may be defined as a struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the former consciously uses ……………………….violence to destroy the ruling group and its legitimacy.” Moreover, the origins of Boko Haram are rooted in grievances over poor governance and sharp inequality in the Nigerian society. And as Nigeria analyst Chris Ngwodo writes, “……..the emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long-festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of northern Nigeria”. It’s also a fact that terrorism is a form of warfare through which the violent aspect of insurgency is manifested. However, one cardinal principle which separates insurgency from terrorism is that insurgents do not intend to harm innocent civilians at large, not at least deliberately. And that’s where Boko Haram appears more terror-like, from rebellion towards apocalypse. Out of 2000 odd killed during their attack on Baga, most were hapless children and women. And not to speak of the 250 plus schoolgirls kidnapped by the group at Chibok in North-eastern Nigeria in April 2014. Over 13,000 people have been reportedly killed in the five-year-long mayhem.

Analysts are sceptical about Nigeria’s current military strategy for defeating Boko Horam. Corruption inside the Nigerian army, unpaid wages, and mutinies among troops has all facilitated Boko Haram’s rise, specifically since 2009-10. However of late, African Union [AU] leaders have agreed to send 7,500 troops to fight the Boko Haram as the international community, including the US and Iran, have agreed to cooperate. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon also supported the deployment of AU troops to fight Boko Haram, which is increasing its attacks in the backdrop of the ensuing general election in Nigeria on 14 February.

Again on 25 January 2015, Boko Haram launched a major offensive on Maiduguri and two other towns. The attack, which left more than 200 combatants dead, was repulsed by the Nigerian military, but it shook the security apparatus of the government and further gave a nightmare to the people of Borno. Moreover, Boko Haram dancing in the northern parts of Nigeria means that its neighbours hardly can sleep peacefully. It has created regional security instability around the Lake Chad region, affecting Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Of late, on 29 January, three soldiers and 123 Boko Haram militants were killed when the Islamist group attacked a Chadian army contingent in northern Cameroon.

Whether it is through conventional Nigerian military, along with the aid of international forces or through the ground level vigilante self-defence militias, or fundamentally through proper governance, the comprehensive defeat of Boko Haram is an imperative. Another epicentre of violence and butchery, more so in the name of Islam, needs to be trammelled. Ignoring the movement is not only ethically unjustified, but ill-advised for the world community. The time is ripe when Baga and Maiduguri have to be equated in the same security plane with Kobani and yes, Paris.

Dr Uddipan Mukherjee is an IOFS [ADMIN] Officer. Views expressed are personal.