Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis – Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos

50 min read


Nigeria has a history of Islamist sects within its borders. Not all have been violent movements, some existing peacefully in parallel with the state. And not all of Nigeria’s violent sects are Islamist; one such is the Ombatse cult, which clashed with security forces in Nasarawa state in May 2013. Until Boko Haram’s transition to extreme violence, perhaps the most virulent of the radical Islamic movements was the Maitatsine uprising in the 1980s or the Yan Shi’a movement in the 1990s. But all of these movements could be described as international in some respect: their members or ideologies all crossed beyond Nigeria’s northern borders, or they referred to global models of Islamism in Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Now defined as an international terrorist organization, Boko Haram is no different in this regard. There is a lot of speculation about the sect and its links with foreign jihadists. But it is its splinter group, Ansaru, that exhibited much more potential to become Al-Qaeda’s Nigerian affiliate. Unlike al- Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram has no known connections to Nigeria’s diaspora. This northeastern violent extremist sect has fused itself to external ideological influences and the tools of global communication but, while benefiting from porous borders, it has remained focused on Nigerian targets and has echoes of other African uprisings that grew out of social grievances. It mutated into a fanatically violent terrorist movement with shades of cultist and criminal motivations over a period of years of mishandled responses by government and security forces.

A peculiarity of Boko Haram in Nigeria is not its criminality but the sectarian nature of its agenda, which is distinct from the dynamics of resource-driven localized violent conflicts between different ethnic groups in Plateau state, or the ethnic claims of insurgent groups such as the O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Based in Nigeria’s semi-arid northeast, Boko Haram does not have access to the economic leverage of oil to pressure the government. It adopted the iconography and some of the tactics of foreign jihadist movements, in particular suicide attacks, which had never before been seen in Nigeria. But while this and the extreme nature of its violence, including against children, is of such significant international concern that more countries are becoming engaged in the security response to the crisis, Boko Haram’s ideology and tactics do not prove sustained international operational connections and coordination. International interests were much more threatened by MEND in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta.

This paper examines Boko Haram’s roots and charts its evolution, exploring apparent contradictions and highlighting uncertainties, including around the nature of the group and its links beyond Nigeria’s border. The paper assesses the consequences of the group’s development and actions, and the flawed responses. As the Boko Haram crisis has persisted through the years as opportunities to address it have been missed, so the situation has become more entrenched, resulting in a seeming reduction in the policy options available to respond. But there are steps that can be taken, primarily by Nigerian state and non-state actors, but also by Nigeria’s neighbours and international partners.

Defying Definition: The Multiple Classifications of an Amorphous Movement

Boko Haram has been variously described as a radical religious sect, a violent insurgency, a terrorist organization, a network of criminal gangs, a political tool and a cult. In its early days, some saw it as a social movement for the poor. It has always been anti-state and has always purported to pursue an Islamist agenda. It has not always been so extreme or so indiscriminate in its violence. It is possible to ascribe multiple definitions and motivations to the movement since it comprises a complex set of individuals and interests that have been evolving for over a decade. Therefore responses to the crisis must be attuned to what can be seemingly contradictory interests and actions.


The movement remains mysterious, with little evidence to substantiate different allegations about its true agenda. Since the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in Borno state in April 2014, which drew an unprecedented level of international media attention to the movement, Boko Haram has been portrayed as anti-women, anti-Christian, anti-education and terrorist. According to the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) to President Goodluck Jonathan, ‘the sect is ideologically linked to Al Qaeda’ and ‘it rejects peaceful coexistence with Christians’. While these facets related to gender, religion and politics are all correct, they paint an incomplete picture and on their own limit the understanding of a group that has mostly killed Muslims and young men. This incomplete focus also detracts from a contextual understanding of how the movement developed and became increasingly criminalized over a period of years during which civilians have also been killed by security forces.

The sect’s real name is the ‘Sunni Community for the propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’ (Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad). Nicknamed Boko Haram (‘Western education is prohibited’), it was founded around 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a radical preacher based in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Its original source of inspiration came from the Movement for the Eradication of Heresies and the Implementation of Sunnah, known as the Izala (‘Eradication’),  a Nigerian Wahhabi Salafi organization created under the aegis of Sheikh Mahmud Abubakar Gumi in 1978.4  The difference, however, is that the Izala reject armed struggle. While they have security personnel, the yan agaji (‘those who help’), to police their religious meetings they favour negotiation over confrontation with the state.

Yusuf himself was inspired by Saudi Salafi scholars: the Ninth Lesson of his book is a copy of an anticolonial publication condemning the ‘Westernization of education in the Land of Islam’, written by Sheikh Bakr bin Abdullah Abu Zayd, formerly of the Saudi Ministry of Justice and a member of the Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas.  Boko Haram combatants still refer to the Salafi Creed of Monotheism (Tawhid). In 2013, for example, they beheaded a policeman in the name of a prominent Saudi Islamic scholar.

Like many Salafi organizations, Boko Haram believes that the full implementation of Sharia requires a change of political regime because a democratic and secular constitution contravenes and is an affront to the law of God. For Mohammed Yusuf, the model of revolution was the jihad of Usman dan Fodio and the Sokoto caliphate established in 1804. The main difference from other radical Islamist movements in Nigeria is that Boko Haram publicly confronted the state; an approach established by Mohammed Yusuf. Unlike the Izala in Jos, Kaduna or Kano, Mohammed Yusuf did not advocate voting in elections and forbade his followers from working in the civil service. He did, however, compromise with the state government of Ali Modu Sheriff in 2003–04 in a short-lived foray into politics.

Mohammed Yusuf either quit or was expelled from the Izala when his spiritual mentor, Sheikh Adam Mahmud Jafar, called on his followers to vote for opposition candidate Muhammad Buhari in Nigeria’s 2007 presidential elections. As voting legitimizes secular democracy, Yusuf regarded participation in elections as heresy. Sheikh Jafar was killed in Kano in 2007, most likely by the sect, and Mohammed Yusuf probably wrote his book in 2008 to reshape the Izala doctrine according to his more radical interpretation. It is thus difficult to identify the different sources of inspiration of the group. Some scholars claim that Boko Haram is a mix of the Saudi Wahhabi movement, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian Shia Islam, though with little evidence to back this. The leader of the Nigerian Yan Shi’a, Ibrahim al-Zakzaki, strongly denies that Mohammed Yusuf was his student.

Whatever the mix of inspirations, Boko Haram is a sectarian movement. In its original form, it had a welfare system that attracted the poor. Mohammed Yusuf would arrange ‘cheap marriages’ for his followers in otherwise very ‘costly’ environments.10 The original smaller group, with its grassroots following, acted as a cohesive unit and retaliated to avenge killings of its members. For this reason and its rejection of Western education, Boko Haram is often compared to the Maitatsine movement of the 1970s and 1980s, also in northern Nigeria. But in his book Mohammed Yusuf does not absolutely denounce all modern things: Boko Haram makes use of Western technology, while Maitatsine was a Luddite heterodox Islamist movement that spoke out against the use of radios, watches, bicycles and cars. Moreover, Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad is closer to the Salafi doctrine, a position that may partly explain its resilience and capacity to survive longer.

Nicknamed Maitatsine, that movement’s founder Mohammed Marwa came from a pagan community of northern Cameroon. Likewise, Boko Haram has always straddled Nigeria’s porous boundaries with the Republic of Niger, Chad and Cameroon, as borders drawn by the British, French and Germans towards the end of the nineteenth century have little social relevance set against the cultural unity of the old empire of Kanem-Bornu. Since its inception in 2002, Boko Haram has had connections in Nigeria’s neighbouring countries. So it has always been ‘international’ in the same way that communities around Nigeria’s porous northeastern border region are. Yet the focus of radicalization and of the movement’s objectives has been within Nigeria’s borders.

Adaptation and motivation

A combination of structural and circumstantial factors explains the radicalization of the sect and its transition to violence. Boko Haram took root against a backdrop of poverty. But this does not explain why it emerged in Borno state and not in Kaduna or Kano states, which were the epicentres of radical Islam and religious violence in the 1980s and 1990s. The neighbouring region of Diffa in the Republic of Niger is much poorer. But Diffa is better governed, less corrupt and less affected by a sense of marginalization and social injustice (see section on the role of the international community). In Borno state, the development and endurance of Boko Haram is linked to the skill and charisma of founder Mohammed Yusuf and political manipulation by the former state governor Ali Modu Sheriff, who temporarily gained the support of the sect by promising to strictly apply Sharia law and won the state elections in 2003.

In the same vein, there is no evidence that Boko Haram has particular support from the poor, or  in 2014 is fighting for economic justice. It has been alleged that the Almajirai itinerant students of Koranic schools are Boko Haram foot-soldiers because they are beggars, have no access to modern education and are easy to indoctrinate to carry out suicide attacks. Such an argument assumes that there is a causal connection between poverty or illiteracy and participation in terrorism, but studies show that this is not always the case. Within Boko Haram and its splinter groups, some elements went to university, including the British-born Nigerian Army deserter, Aminu Sadiq Ogwuche, allegedly involved in the 2014 bombings at Nyanya, Abuja. It is currently not possible to draw conclusions on the extent to which poverty is a driver or a feature of Boko Haram’s membership since the social profile of the group remains unknown, as does the balance of membership, interests and hierarchy.

Poor governance, frustration and a sense of injustice among those who live at Nigeria’s peripheries, be it geographically or socio-economically, were certainly important in the establishment of Boko Haram. Sharia law was seen as a way to restore social justice, and the radical lectures of Mohammed Yusuf appealed to youth from Maiduguri and smaller towns as well as remote villages. Boko Haram is also the product of a rural exodus that uprooted traditional communities. One Borno state capital resident observed that ‘[Boko Haram’s] militants hate people from Maiduguri with a passion’, identifying and executing those from Maiduguri stopped in passenger vehicles and burning trucks transporting goods to and from the city. Before widening its targets, Boko Haram directed its frustration at educated urban dwellers, seen as corrupt, accused of being bad Muslims and inevitably compromised because they are wealthy.

The movement grew out of socio-economic flux that came with a process of democratic transition, coupled with the consequences of decades of mismanagement resulting from military rule and corruption. In a sense, Boko Haram too has been in a constant state of flux: it has always adapted to changing circumstances, with methods and membership reflecting this. This has allowed for its multiple definitions to endure, bridging different narratives of terrorism, insurgency and criminality, where different drivers of conflict and instability have converged.

The 2009 Turning Point: From Extreme Ideology to Extreme Violence

Mohammed Yusuf’s sect cannot be reduced simply to a revolt of the rural poor or the urban destitute against the rich. The military repression of Boko Haram’s July 2009 uprising and emergency rule in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states since May 2013 certainly contributed to an intensification of violence and the movement’s transformation into a terrorist group.

A first consequence of the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf in police custody in July 2009 was the fragmentation of Boko Haram and marginalization of the ‘doves’ within the sect. Under the aegis of Abubakar Shekau, the ‘hawks’ now dominate. Those who were keen to negotiate with the state authorities were killed by the security forces in an effort to crush the movement entirely. These moderates were more easily identified and located – and some even had surrendered to the security forces. Such members included Bugi Foi, who until his resignation in 2008 was the Borno state minister of religious affairs under former governor Ali Modu Sheriff. Other moderates were eliminated by the group itself.

A second important consequence of the military repression of 2009 was that the movement went underground. Security forces destroyed its mosque in Maiduguri, Markaz, and some of the leadership went into exile and made contact with foreign jihadist groups. The sect also established or consolidated underground cells in Kano, northern Nigeria’s most populated urban centre, Okene in Kogi state, its most southern outpost in Nigeria, and Kaduna city, where Aminu Tashen-Ilimi, the former student leader of the Nigerian Taliban, allegedly retired after the killing of Mohammed Yusuf. But the main consequence was clear: the government no longer had a leader to negotiate with for peace and Boko Haram survived the 2009 offensive by adapting to a diffuse structure. Decimated and having lost its uniting ideological axis, the Supreme Council of Boko Haram, the Shura, was renewed with younger and more radical elements; it allegedly grew from 17 to 37 members, a process which would complicate decision-making and factionalize the sect into autonomous cells.

Boko Haram also fragmented as dissenting groups emerged. The most prominent of these is Ansaru, founded in 2011 by Abubakar Adam Kambar, which demonstrates a greater degree of ideological convergence with Al-Qaeda than its parent movement does. Unlike Boko Haram, which counts women and children among its members, Ansaru is a professional terrorist organization rather than a sect, and all of its members are combatants. Ansaru distinguished itself by attacking international targets and criticizing Abubakar Shekau for massacring ‘innocent Muslims’.19 Killed by the security forces in Kano in 2012, its leader Abubakar Adam Kambar was replaced by Khalid Barnawi, who is said to have served as the link between Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

In August 2009, barely one month after Yusuf’s death, an individual named Thani Umar claimed to have taken over the leadership of Boko Haram, making reference to Al-Qaeda. But in a video released in June 2010 the self-proclaimed Imam Abubakar Shekau resurfaced after having been declared dead by the authorities. He instructed his followers to target security forces and traitors but to spare civilians. The change was dramatic: for the first time Boko Haram carried out suicide attacks and extended its operations beyond Borno state. In August 2011, in something that remains an anomaly in its targets, it bombed the UN’s Nigerian headquarters in Abuja. It also began to attack churches, which it had not done before 2009. On 2 January 2012, Abubakar Shekau gave a three-day ultimatum to Christians to convert to Islam or leave northern Nigeria. The following week, Boko Haram members attacked a bishop in Gombe state, as well as a church in Yola and an Igbo community in Mubi, both in Adamawa state.

Boko Haram also increased its criminal activities through multiple bank robberies to compensate for the loss of revenue from local political sponsors after the election of new governors in Borno and Kano in the 2011 elections. Because it does not follow the orthodox Salafi model, it is unlikely that it received substantial funding – if any at all – from wealthy Saudi or Qatari individuals. Furthermore it probably requires relatively little funding for the types of attacks it has hitherto carried out. For supplies and weapons, the group relies on the Nigerian Army, local extortion and the microcredit system set up by Yusuf before 2009, when the sect invested in transport, car washing or selling clean water, extending its commercial network from its mosque in Maiduguri to neighbouring markets and up to Diffa in the Republic of Niger. In Maiduguri, Baga fish market and its motor park became a focal point of violence because traders resisted extortion and informed the police against Boko Haram.

The sect retaliated, executing ‘collaborators’, while the security forces reacted by carrying out more raids on the market. In 2013, the group took advantage of a local group’s kidnapping of a French family from northern Cameroon, accepting the hostages in its first involvement in the abduction of foreigners. The post-2009 Boko Haram is thus very different from the original sect and Abubakar Shekau now rarely refers to Mohammed Yusuf in his videos.

Despite its extreme violence and will to foment chaos, Boko Haram appeared to have no clear strategy to destabilize the state. Its attacks were largely retaliatory: responding to military assaults, assassinating its opponents and terrorizing local Christian minorities. It is certainly careful in its planning and demonstrates some skill. It has taken advantage of public holidays for its attacks, for example carrying out a prison break in Bauchi during Ramadan and two days before Eid al-Fitr in September 2010, the bombing of a church on the outskirts of Abuja on Christmas Day in 2011, and a bomb attack in Kaduna during Easter 2012. With the exception of the bombing of the national police headquarters in Abuja in June 2011 and telecoms base stations in September 2012, it was only after the Chibok abductions and its growing profile in 2014 that Boko Haram began to attack strategic targets like bridges. The December 2013 destruction of the Nigerian Air Force base in Maiduguri is most likely to have been a reprisal attack. Boko Haram has not focused its attacks specifically on any one group; it had not, for example, exclusively targeted the southern Igbo living in the northeast.

But the situation is changing again, the ramifications of the Chibok abductions proving a catalyst for the next phase in Boko Haram’s evolution. In May 2014, the group attacked Sabon Gari in Kano, an area inhabited by Christian Igbos. The victims of such attacks are buried in their home states, which could provoke reprisal attacks against Muslim minorities in the south, risking a cycle of escalating retaliatory attacks. That same month, during an insurgent attack on Limankara in Borno state, a bridge linking Borno and Adamawa state was destroyed, and around the same time, explosives were detonated on a highway bridge linking Nigeria and Cameroon during an attack in the Ngala local government area. Another bridge was destroyed during an attack in Yobe state in July. Such a cluster of attacks on infrastructure suggests the movement is evolving a more strategic approach. In August 2014, it took this a step further, declaring a ‘caliphate’ having taken the Borno local government area of Gwoza, home to an estimated quarter of a million people. Whether or not Boko Haram is drawing inspiration from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL), this is significant as a signal that the movement is growing in confidence and ambition, while Nigeria’s military insists that the country’s territory remains intact. Abubakar Shekau also claimed responsibility for an explosion in the port of Apapa in Lagos in June 2014, the sect’s southernmost attack. Any subsequent attacks in the geographically opposite side of Nigeria may point to a capacity for sustained extended reach and Boko Haram’s transition into a national rather than local aggressor.

The Use of Force: For What, for Whom?

The implementation of emergency rule in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states constituted another transition point in Nigeria’s Boko Haram crisis. For the first time since the Biafra war of 1967–70, the Nigerian Air Force bombed its own territory. In 2009, the police and the armed forces of the Joint Task Force (JTF) were deployed to urban centres to quell Boko Haram violence. But from 2013 they began to operate in rural areas, generating an increase in collateral damage. In April 2013 more than 200 people were killed and hundreds wounded by the JTF in the village of Baga in Borno state. The actions of Nigeria’s security forces have been a significant determinant in the trajectory of the crisis. Since the July 2009 repression, continued massacres, extra-judicial killings and arrests without trial have widened the gap between communities and the armed forces, to the point where some civilians have sought the protection of Boko Haram, even if they did not initially sympathize with, support or subscribe to the actions and doctrine of the movement. As result of repression and forced conscription, the sect has allegedly grown from 4,000 members in 2009 to between 6,000 and 8,000 in 2014, against 15,000 soldiers deployed in Borno state.

One product of emergency rule has been local militias acting against Boko Haram, which have been brought into the government offensive as the ‘Civilian JTF’, or Yan Gora (‘those who hold the cane’). The Civilian JTF serves not only as a source of intelligence but also as a proxy force to avoid a direct confrontation with the movement. This is the same tactic used by the Nigerian Army in Liberia in the 1990s, when it supported various factions against Charles Taylor.  But in response Boko Haram simply escalated its strategy of terror and increased attacks on entire villages to deter them from cooperating with the security forces. In a video released on 25 March 2014, Abubakar Shekau tells his followers not to spare women, the elderly, the mentally disabled or false converts. Boko Haram used to target individuals such as informants, bootleggers who broke the Sharia ban on alcohol, Muslim clerics, Christian pastors and others who condemned the actions of the sect. Some of the early attacks were only symbolic, destroying buildings representing the state, Western education or the traditional establishment, but avoiding large numbers of civilian casualties.

The role of and abuses by the Nigerian security forces are a critical factor in efforts to address the crisis. In addition to the failure of the JTF to protect civilian life and property, it lost the trust of the people, an important resource in the battle against Boko Haram, as communities were also abused by the armed forces. The JTF were replaced by the 7th Division in September 2013. Nigerian security agencies do not have a track record of protecting civilians or informants and Nigeria does not have witness protection programmes. Local Muslim clerics no longer dare to condemn the movement because they risk being killed. There is a long list of sheikhs who have been assassinated by Boko Haram, including prominent radical Salafists such as Muhammad Auwal Adam Albani in Zaria in January 2014. Despite the aggression of the security forces in communities after 2009, fomenting fear of repercussions if suspected of supporting the movement, Boko Haram continues to be able to recruit new members – for instance from the Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, from which it freed hundreds of civilian detainees in March 2014.

The upward trend in violence suggests that the more security forces have intervened, the worse the crisis has become (see Figure 1). Even if Abubakar Shekau is killed – a claim previously made but disproved, serving to undermine the credibility of the security forces – the autonomous cells of Boko Haram are likely to adapt and remain active, as they did after the killing of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. Governments typically use both the carrot and the stick to win asymmetric wars against nebulous enemies, and in 2012 there were talks about an amnesty for the movement. But Boko Haram does not have the economic leverage of oil to press the government to sign an amnesty deal – unlike MEND in the Niger Delta – and there was less of an incentive to negotiate while it was still seen to be active only on Nigeria’s periphery.

Since 2013, emergency rule and Nigeria’s proscription of Boko Haram as an organization, as opposed to individual terrorists, the US, the UK and the UN, have seemingly sanctioned repression as the solution. The important ‘soft approach’ of the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, which outlines a holistic strategy including deradicalization programs, community engagement and economic regeneration,28 has ostensibly been lost in a process that has seen more extreme and widespread attacks by Boko Haram in 2014. Yet the situation will not improve without such strategies.

Much like the communities in the region, Nigeria’s armed forces operating in the northeast are ensnared in a worsening crisis, and knowledge of this, coupled with reports of lack of resources and malfunctioning equipment, are likely contributors to low morale, desertions and more recently, mutinies. It has been suggested that the deployed forces operate with less than $100 million a year, which pales against the $2 billion central allocation to the armed forces, the highest proportion of the national budget since the Biafra war (the military regimes of the 1980s and 1990s were not as generous). While there have been reports of non- or late payments to deployed troops, senior Abuja- based officers and contractors have also reportedly been making substantial financial gains from Nigeria’s new war on terrorism. Nigeria’s Federal High Court in June 2014 ordered an investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission into a $470 million deal for the installation of CCTV security cameras, a failed project. The entrenchment of vested interests of influential individuals in Abuja in an on-going insurgency in the northeast presents a significant threat to the effective implementation of policy responses.

The purpose of the presence of the armed forces needs to change: the only sustainable way to combat Boko Haram is to protect civilians. Without a reordering of priorities and visible efforts to regain the trust of communities, Nigeria’s military will be caught fighting an interminable insurgency.

Global Ambitions and International Reality: Boko Haram’s External Links

There has been speculation about potential operational links between Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda.31 In February 2003, Osama bin Laden named Nigeria as a country to be ‘liberated’. A former US ambassador to Nigeria then warned that armed jihadist groups in northern Mali could spread to Nigeria.32 Unlike Somalia and the Sahel, however, Nigeria is not geographically contiguous with the Arab world. Moreover, no Nigerians are known to have fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Foreign preachers were more likely to go to Nigeria. In 2006, for instance, Mohammed Yusuf was arrested with an envoy of Pakistan’s Tablighi Jamaat,33 Mohammad Ashafa, and accused of sending youth for military training in Mauritania, Mali and Niger. The two men were released in 2007 by President Umaru Yar’Adua for lack of evidence.

Boko Haram uses Banki as its main entry point to Cameroon and has established camps on Lake Chad islands including Madayi and Mari.34 Yet its members have continued to concentrate their violent struggle within Nigeria. A greater military involvement of Cameroon, Chad and Niger could incite the movement to open another front. In May 2014 suspected Boko Haram militants attacked a police station in Kousseri and a camp run by a Chinese engineering company in the far north of Cameroon.35 However, it is not clear whether the organization has the capacity to sustain conflicts on multiple fronts (see Map 3).

In northern Mali, the success of AQIM and MUJWA (the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) was clearly a source of inspiration for Boko Haram. In December 2011, it mounted a failed attack on Diffa in the Republic of Niger, to demonstrate that Borno jihadists were also capable of going beyond borders.36 It is possible that some Boko Haram members even went to fight in northern Mali in 2012. There were reports of Nigerians in Timbuktu and Gao, with a local witness claiming that 200 members joined AQIM.37 However, with the exception of a few witnesses including Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was kidnapped by AQIM in the Republic of Niger in 2008 and who saw a Nigerian while being held captive, it is difficult to find hard evidence of a massive arrival of Boko Haram combatants in northern Mali.

Contact between individuals to acquire weapons or train bombers is very likely. But this does not mean coordination or even friendly cooperation. The French Army found no trace of Boko Haram when it launched Operation Serval in northern Mali in 2013. Abubakar Shekau never pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda; in turn, he was disregarded by a movement that focuses more on Christians, ‘Crusaders’, Jews and foreigners. The doctrine of Yusuf was quite different from Osama bin Laden’s in this regard. As for Abubakar Shekau himself, he appears to be too unstable, impetuous and unreliable to attract professional terrorists, even if he does now control territory, a prerequisite for Al-Qaeda support.

Responses to the crisis have suffered from mistranslated and misquoted video footage.39 The fact that in 2010 Abubakar Shekau and AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel both expressed sympathy and solidarity for their struggling ‘brothers’ in northeastern Nigeria or northern Mali does not prove much. One Boko Haram communiqué from 2010 was put on AQIM’s media platform, Al-Andalus. However, there was no follow-up. The movement has also produced videos in which Abubakar Shekau affirms its African struggle and denies the support of ‘White and Arab mercenaries’.

Boko Haram adopted the rhetoric and tactics of foreign jihadist groups. Abubakar Shekau recently stated his support for ISIL.41 But while demonstrating an ideological link, references to conservative Saudi Salafi scholars or foreign jihadist groups do not prove an operational link with Al-Qaeda.

Expressions of support for Boko Haram and its kidnapping of the Chibok girls on Chechen jihadist or Somali al-Shabaab websites do not mean that it is becoming internationalized; rather that it is drawing international attention.42 Such statements of support by violent non-state or extremist actors attest to the globalization of extremist anti-state models.43 A strategy of terror requires combatants to create fear: in this asymmetric conflict, the movement benefits from promoting an image of a behemoth with a wide and growing network that can strike anywhere.

The splinter group Ansaru, however, is certainly more aligned with the doctrine of Osama bin Laden. Its targets are more international and its original name was Al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel. In 2012 its videos claiming the kidnap and, later on, the killing of a German hostage in Kano were posted on AQIM’s website.44 Since mid-2013, it has been alleged that the group reconciled with Boko Haram out of necessity, to combine efforts against the Nigerian security forces. A commandant of Ansaru, Babagana ‘Assalafi’, who is close to AQIM, is said to have become Abubakar Shekau’s deputy in January 2013. He was reportedly killed by the army in Sokoto three months later and replaced by Abu Sa’ad, who may also have died in August 2013. But such reports cannot be cross-checked and are difficult to confirm with security agencies.

While a more internationalized and networked Boko Haram may evolve, framing the problem through this international prism brings significant risks to policy responses. The continuing lack of basic facts and evidence even while there is an urgent need for credible information has created space for speculation, which may also be leveraged by particular interests. But Boko Haram is strongly connected to its domestic context and grew out of confrontation with the Nigerian state: it is host to a multiplicity of actors and interests and operates in a complex political environment in Nigeria. Any external actors seeking a more active engagement in the crisis, for whatever reason, including self-interest, risk becoming entangled in what is ultimately a Nigerian crisis.

Regional governments that emphasize the international dimensions of non-state or terrorist actors may be seeking international support, such as military equipment and training, to help tackle what can seem intractable security challenges. But this may also be a route to international legitimacy: in power since a coup d’état in 1990, Chadian President Idriss Deby, for example, gained greater international standing because of Chad’s participation in Operation Serval in Mali in 2013. The Chadian army, which is part of a Multilateral Joint Task Force (MJTF) with Niger and Nigeria against Boko Haram, is now regarded as the most effective African armed force to combat AQIM. Yet it was only in 2008 that this force was defeated during the battle of N’Djamena.

Cameroon’s army is not part of the MJTF. It has a tense and complicated relationship with Nigeria, owing to a long-standing border dispute regarding the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula in the Gulf of Guinea. But the Boko Haram crisis has served as a means for Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, to win back French support, particularly with Cameroon’s facilitation of (and alleged payment for) the liberation of the French Moulin-Fournier family, kidnapped from northern Cameroon in February 2013. Yaoundé has also deployed a special Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) to its border with Nigeria and negotiated a reciprocal right of hot pursuit along 8 kilometres of the border. One of the main objectives of the Paris Summit for Security in Nigeria in May 2014 was to involve President Biya in a common international military response to Boko Haram.

The war-torn Central African Republic, which has no border with Nigeria, presents a different case altogether. Some of its Seleka rebels claim to be members of Boko Haram simply because the Nigerian sect has come to be regarded as a model of resistance. It serves the interests of the anti-Balaka Christian militia to purport to be fighting jihadist terrorist organizations to win international support. Were Boko Haram members seeking to hide in western Central African Republic,46 it would be very difficult to do so because of the activities of the anti-Balaka and the expulsion of Muslim minorities.

Despite some reluctance to accept foreign assistance and risk external interference, the Nigerian federal government has claimed that Boko Haram is no longer solely a national security challenge, defining it instead as a transnational terrorist organization with links to Al-Qaeda. Such a position legitimizes the government’s acceptance of foreign support, and shares the burden of responsibility, including for any unsuccessful responses.

But narratives placing Boko Haram in a terrorist arc from Somalia to Mauritania, as coordinated jihadist movements with the same targets under a joint central command somewhere in the Sahel region, are misleading. The sect is still a local problem and the solution has to be Nigerian first.

Improved cooperation with neighbouring countries and closer monitoring by the international community is certainly important but will not, on their own, be enough to eradicate the sect. The long-term solution rests with the performance of critical state institutions, in particular with regard to local government, policing and criminal justice, and the armed forces.

The 2015 Elections: The Dangers of Playing Politics

The Boko Haram crisis remains first and foremost a national challenge within Nigeria. The general elections in February 2015 will further politicize and entrench the challenge domestically. Although the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has said that elections will be carried out in the three northeastern states currently under emergency rule, securing polling stations for credible elections could prove an impossible task should Boko Haram focus its energies on disrupting the process. This would have significant implications for the legitimacy of the polls and perceptions of multi-party democracy in Nigeria, since two of the three incumbent state governors are members of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), while Adamawa state will hold a by-election for the governorship in October 2014.

Rising violence is anticipated but this is likely to be at least as much related to untreated wounds from past violent elections as to Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks and military repression. In Borno state it is likely that some of the clashes in Maiduguri are not related to the movement but to the dispute between former State Governor Ali Modu Sheriff and his former protégé and now incumbent Governor Kashim Shettima, who is seeking re-election. As elections approach it will become more difficult to distinguish between ideologically or grievance-driven Boko Haram attacks, politically manipulated attacks and violent political militias that may or may not claim to be Boko Haram affiliates.

At the national level, the insurgency has exacerbated regional tensions, particularly the north-south divide, infusing it with religion. The fear and misperception that Boko Haram has stoked have politicized religion. In this constitutionally secular state, Nigeria’s political parties have not been grounded in any one religion, but rhetoric emerging from the crisis could push parties towards religious bias. The expansion of Sharia law across 12 northern states between 1999 and 2002 fuelled speculation over creeping Islamization of secular politics. During the Boko Haram crisis and the administration of Goodluck Jonathan there has been a visible Christian bias within the presidency, influenced by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). In 2012 the Catholic Church in Nigeria suspended its participation in CAN, stating that the umbrella organization had become too politicized and partisan. This trend presents a dangerous challenge to the secularity of the state and risks further polarizing Muslim and Christian citizens.

Conspiracy theories that have found credence in the opacity of the situation have exacerbated regional and religious splits and suspicions. Many Muslim Northerners firmly believe that Boko Haram is a Christian ploy to justify a religious partition of the country and a US military intervention in order to seize Nigeria’s oil fields in the south. Some perceive the crisis to be a deliberate way to develop a doctrine of necessity that would prioritize security over democracy in the coming elections. Another view is that it is being used as a pretext to mask the incapacity of the government to implement economic and social reforms, in particular with regard to corruption and the management of the oil sector. Locally, Borno state civilians feel that they are being neglected or even punished because they did not vote for Goodluck Jonathan in the 2011 presidential election. They believe that the security forces are doing nothing to protect them in a deliberate attempt to destroy their region. They back up this view by pointing to their Civilian JTF, which is credited with success in pushing Boko Haram out of urban centres in mid-2013 where the Federal JTF failed.

In Abuja the federal government view is that responsibility rests with the state governors and local government chairmen who failed to complement the military response in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, and public statements point to a denial of federal government responsibility in the crisis. The federal government argues that since state-level decision-makers all have access to resources through the ‘security vote’, which is unrestricted and, crucially, unaccountable funding for the restoration of law and order, they carry responsibility. The National Orientation Agency48 has argued more in the vein of a propaganda agency that northern Muslim politicians support Boko Haram as a means to destabilize the government of southern President Goodluck Jonathan. For their part, the opposition points to the crisis as evidence of weak and incompetent leadership at the centre. Despite accusations and counter-accusations of political backing, neither party has presented evidence to support its claims. Suspects have been released, including Borno state senators from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) such as Ali Ndume and Ahmed Zanna Khalifa; the latter was accused of sheltering his nephew, Boko Haram commander Shuaibu Mohammed Bama, allegedly arrested at his house in Maiduguri in October 2012. After his death, Saidu Shettima Pindar, a former ambassador to São Tomé and Príncipe and PDP deputy state governor candidate in the 2011 elections, was also accused of being a financial backer of Boko Haram, though these claims remain unsubstantiated. President Goodluck Jonathan said in 2012 that the sect had infiltrated all branches of government as well as the armed forces.

The reality is that Boko Haram is skilled at exploiting state institutional weaknesses. Knowing the local terrain in Borno state as well as it does, it can navigate around the demoralized and deficient security presence to attack villages with total impunity. Security officials may be bribed to allow vehicles to pass through checkpoints without inspection. In Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states soldiers are under-equipped because of the diversion of public funds. In fear for their lives and a long way from home, the federal forces suffer from low morale. It has also been reported that the insurgents wear the camouflage uniforms of soldiers or claim to be members of the Red Cross to infiltrate local communities. Buying uniforms is not difficult; some officers were reportedly involved in smuggling or selling weapons to MEND in the Niger Delta before 2009. Boko Haram members do not need Libyan suppliers or funding from Al-Qaeda to have access to military equipment. The region has been awash with small arms since the Chad civil wars of the 1980s, and what is stolen from or sold by the Nigerian military bolsters this. Members of the sect repeatedly looted armouries in Baga and Monguno. They also captured vehicles from Giwa barracks in March 2014, and seized weapons left in the border area of Malam Fatouri by fleeing soldiers in August 2013.

Some parts of government still seem to understand the failure to respond effectively to Boko Haram as an international conspiracy led by Al-Qaeda or a local plot of the Nigerian (specifically northern) opposition, or even both. President Jonathan faces a paradox: on the one hand the government strategy has hitherto relied solely on the use of force without complementary policies, and this consolidates the power of the military. On the other hand, this is pushing the armed forces in the northeast to their limits. Desertions and mutinies in the 7th Division could militarize politics, increasing the influence of the armed forces over the civilian government.

What Role for the International Community?

The military option on its own has failed to address the crisis. If foreign nations engage more actively on the ground in Nigeria, they risk exacerbating tensions within the Nigerian Army, pushing Boko Haram to truly internationalize and making themselves targets of attacks. There are signs that deepening the involvement of neighbouring countries, which has accelerated since the Paris Summit of May 2014 and is essential for intelligence cooperation and border policing, is precipitating retaliatory attacks, particularly in Cameroon. Niger and Chad have both been important in the containment of the western Sahel security crises, but are themselves vulnerable to instability.

International involvement is important but must be measured and appropriate. Some international partners are already cautious with their assistance, given the reported violations of human rights by the Nigerian armed forces, and may also seek to avoid legitimizing a flawed strategy and fuelling the politicization of the crisis. Former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson warned that designating Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization could ‘raise its profile, give it greater publicity, give it greater credibility, help in its recruitment and also probably drive more assistance in its direction’. UN sanctions are, for now, symbolic because Boko Haram does not currently appear to need to rely on foreign funding. It still resorts to armed robberies and racketeering, extorting money from local businessmen and traders.

The case for greater international involvement is thus problematic, despite the moral compulsion to engage as well as concerns over Nigeria’s future, given its regional weight and strategic importance. Nigeria’s size and complexity present significant challenges to governance and stability. For now, international assistance is therefore likely to remain restricted to providing expertise and involving neighbouring country troops in border patrols. There is no political space for a peacekeeping operation in Borno state under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union or the UN. Nigeria would refuse any such deployment of foreign troops in its sovereign space, while other African states would recognize the risks of becoming entangled in such a local and multifaceted security crisis.

The international community may find its best advantage in its capacity to support dialogue, witness protection and the provision of humanitarian relief and shelter for displaced civilians, as well as providing institutional support towards inter-agency cooperation. There is a chance that conscripted, uncertain and fatigued Boko Haram members may be looking for opportunities either to reintegrate into their communities or to return to the former ‘Yusufiyya’ model of a separate, non-violent sectarian community. This is certainly no easy task, requiring the identification of common ground, the right individuals to engage with and neutral mediators acceptable to all parties. The political interests of Shehu Sani and Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, who tried to negotiate a truce in 2012, preclude them now from being effective intermediaries: the former is a senate candidate for the APC, while the latter is seeking the governorship of Kebbi state for the PDP. Some opportunists and individuals falsely claiming to be Boko Haram leaders have tried to profit from a ‘connection fee’ and defraud members of the defunct Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North. Some of them, including Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulaziz, were arraigned before the Maiduguri High Court for this reason.

The critical issue is that the government seems unconvinced that negotiation is necessary. President Goodluck Jonathan claims he cannot engage in dialogue with ‘ghosts’. Yet Olusegun Obasanjo had access to the sect in September 2011 and Abubakar Shekau accepted peace talks in January 2012. Members of the group were allegedly ready to negotiate with Ali Bukur Ibrahim, the former governor of Yobe state, and Dr Shettima Ali Mongouno, a respected Borno state elder, politician and diplomat. But the Army immediately violated the truce, attacking Boko Haram youth in Maiduguri and arresting a leader, Abud Darda, who was thought to be the spokesman of the movement, using the pseudonym Abu Qaqa. The negotiation stalled and the President-General of the Supreme Council for Sharia, Dr Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, withdrew from discussions in March 2012 and accused the government of being insincere and breaching confidentiality.

In November 2012, Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulaziz extended an offer for peace talks with five conditions: negotiations were to be held in Saudi Arabia; Nigeria’s former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari was to arbitrate discussions; former governor Ali Modu Sheriff had to be arrested; Boko Haram detainees were to be released; and the government was to restore mosques destroyed by the state and pay compensation to victims for the death of family members. But Abubakar Shekau no longer wished to engage in dialogue and dismissed the proposal as a fraud.

Each broken attempt at peace negotiations has pushed the government and Boko Haram further apart, with escalating violence on both sides filling that space. Going forward, any attempt at talks aimed at peace will require clear and decisive signals from both sides, trusted mediators and, possibly, some independent external oversight.


The failure of emergency rule to contain and impede Boko Haram violence clearly shows that the military option with an absolute focus on the violent destruction of Boko Haram is not tenable and an alternative must be sought. The offensive failed to neutralize the movement, at the same time damaging and alienating the people, while demoralizing and discrediting the armed forces operating in the region.

For the time being the international community is focused on improving the gathering and sharing of intelligence, training elite units and improving the coordination of security agencies. But corruption and elections threaten to limit progress.

The Nigerian government will need to reassess the role and mandate of the armed forces in the northeast. The international community must encourage a mandate that prioritizes the protection of civilians and witnesses. In the longer term, the government must work towards professionalizing its armed forces appropriate to a democratic context, and in particular its federal police force. But these are deep structural challenges, beyond the reach of the current government.

The National Security Adviser’s soft approach to counterterrorism will only be workable when there is effective protection for those imams tasked with the work of deradicalizing the youth. The authorities will need to plan for the demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of insurgents.

Any effort to destroy Boko Haram without complementary strategies for negotiations and sufficient provisions for alternatives to membership of the movement will fail: the sect will simply adapt, move and continue. Going forward, the crisis may take one of three courses. Conflict fatigue coupled with a genuine negotiation effort on both sides may see the movement transform into a small, separate and non-violent sect – the remnants of the current violent extremist force. Alternatively, it could follow the course of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which left Uganda to take refuge in the uncharted territory of eastern Central African Republic. In this event, Abubakar Shekau’s group would remain a toxic yet weakened organization that could continue attacks from remote rural areas of Borno state or neighbouring countries. At the end of 2013, the emergence of a cultist faction, the so-called ‘Slaughterers’, demonstrated a further degradation from a religious jihad into a virulently destructive and unpredictable conflict. The third course is that Boko Haram, drawing confidence from external attention that brings outside support, internationalizes and attacks neighboring countries and international targets in Nigeria, becoming a direct threat to national and regional stability.

Although the worst of Boko Haram-related violence has taken place in Borno state, obscured in Nigeria’s northeastern corner, which has suffered the heaviest number of casualties, the crisis is having direct and indirect ramifications elsewhere. From its post-Yusuf re-emergence in 2010 to 2014, Boko Haram was never a significant or cohesive enough organization to truly threaten national stability. But its threat to Nigeria overall has been more oblique, continually eroding a still nascent sense of cohesion and will to accommodate and compromise in such a diverse nation. This has served to legitimize reactive and short-term policy responses to one of the most complex, unique, and poorly understood security crises Nigeria has ever faced.

Our Take:The Boko haram movement grew as a result of mismanagement and the socio-economic decay that came with Nigeria’s transition into democracy. Over time, the sect has been transitioning into a new phase with little restraint from security operatives. As their quest to have an ideological representation continues to get stronger, they take advantage of the country’s institutional weaknesses to launch attacks in outrageous numbers on innocent civilians. While there have been speculations about the sect having international supports and networks, tackling them from an international standpoint would be a grave mistake as the primary drivers of their movements are locally driven. Until the institutional loopholes are fixed, and the mandates of the security operatives move from stemming out the sect to protecting the citizens, the web of insurgencies will continue to widen.

Source: Chatman House

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