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Experts Weekly: Boko Haram

What are the key questions that must be answered about the poorly understood and violent Boko Haram?
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Boko Haram, the Nigerian radical Islamic sect, has increased its campaign of violence claiming hundreds of lives across the north of the country and in the central belt. As President Goodluck Jonathan seeks dialogue with the group it is clear that the group's structure, motives and organisation are very far from fully understood. Think Africa Press asks seven experts from our panel: What are the key questions that should be answered about the sect and how should these feed into a strategy to combat the violence?


Oge Onubogu, Programme Officer, West Africa, National Endowment for Democracy:

Boko Haram’s increasing coordinated attacks reveal an insurgency group growing in confidence, sophistication, and ambition. It has evolved into a major security threat and the Jonathan administration will have to work twice as hard to restore faith in his government amid widespread criticism that not much has been done to identify and solve the root causes of the problem, or to prosecute individuals in the government alleged of being sympathetic to the group’s cause.

The uncertainty of Boko Haram’s demands, and the security challenges its actions present, requires a conscious government effort to separate paranoia from actual fact to avoid further exploitation of this situation for personal or political gain. The government will have to ask sincere questions as a first step in proposing feasible solutions to this problem. It has to invest in genuine collaborative intelligence and investigative work at the community level to truly understand the origins, structure, motivations, and grievances of Boko Haram.

President Jonathan recently acknowledged that military force alone cannot solve this threat, and has called for dialogue with the group; however his administration is yet to articulate a clear strategy of how this will happen. Where will these discussions take place? Who will mediate them? What plan exists between the state governors and national government to facilitate this discussion? After years of mistrust between the government and Boko Haram it is important that a clear framework for dialogue and engagement is defined to ensure constructive participation on both sides. A security or law enforcement strategy alongside dialogue is also essential so that persons found guilty are prosecuted, however, the government should ensure that its actions are conducted in accordance with human rights standards and respect for the rule of law.

Boko Haram might have a sizeable following, but it does not enjoy large public support especially in the north. There is a growing number of young men and women in civil society and the legal profession across northern Nigeria – many of whom I met with in Kano about two weeks ago – who courageously promote respect for human rights and government accountability in their respective states. They engage in civic education activities, conduct town hall meetings, voluntarily organise themselves as peer educators, and have established youth networks to interface with their local councils and state legislatures. Their approach targets youth at the grassroots who are most vulnerable to social vices and political manipulation, and those who are tech-savvy continue their advocacy online through social networking sites. These young men and women understand the region and the issues that drive youth into joining groups like Boko Haram. The government should create a conducive avenue to engage them and other well-meaning individuals in the region in discussions to identify recommendations that will enrich the proposed dialogue process.

Resolving immediate security challenges will provide a much needed short-term solution. However, the government must ask itself if it has a well-thought out strategy for combating the root causes of these reccurring violent trends that are premised on corruption and a growing sense of injustice. It is increasingly evident that security cannot prevail in Nigeria until corruption is effectively addressed, and a concise strategy for strengthening institutions is put in place.


Zach Warner, Research Analyst, Bowdoin College:

Much talk has been made of ‘what Boko Haram want’. In this sense, discussion has focused on the agency of those behind the attacks. Perhaps more enlightening, however, would be a discussion of the structural changes in northern Nigerian society that have allowed this insurgency to gain currency. Thus we might ask, ‘how is it that such violence has (again) become an acceptable form of political discourse among certain circles of young Muslim men?’

The Boko Haram movement is the most recent incarnation of a crisis of political exclusion and Islamic authority in the North over the last half-century. By focusing on this historical background, policymakers can understand the changes to societal structures in the past 15 years, particularly the breakdown of the entrenched Emirate elite, that have given rise to Boko Haram. If the Jonathan administration can use this knowledge to ameliorate the sense of frustration and disjuncture among such extremists, it would go a long way to stopping the violence.


Tolu Ogunlesi, Features Editor, 234 Next:

Who are the leaders of Boko Haram? There appear now to be various factions, not connected in any way beyond the use of the Boko Haram (brand) name to generate terror. Who are the leaders of the various factions, and how do they differ from each other in ideology? If there is any lesson to be learnt from the al-Qaeda experience, it is that leadership and organisation are as key to terrorist groups (in spite of their typically loose structuring) as they are to corporations, and that crippling the leadership will have a far-reaching effect on the foot-soldiers.

Who are the religious leaders, moderate Islamic scholars and ex-terrorists that are able to influence Boko Haram? The government is not currently doing anything to tackle the indoctrination at the heart of the spread of Boko Haram through the use of influencers. Google Ideas is currently doing some interesting work (here, and here) along the lines of de-radicalisation, to which the Nigerian government might want to pay serious attention.

What kind of security/intelligence reform does Nigeria require to successfully fight Boko Haram? 9/11 produced the Department of Homeland Security. Boko Haram has not inspired any serious reassessment of Nigeria’s security apparatus, beyond the creation of an office of a counter-terrorism advisor to the President. There is no evidence of any clarity or cohesion in the way Nigeria’s security and intelligence agencies are set up; the current intelligence structure dates back to the military era, when the biggest 'enemies' were potential coup-plotters and pro-democracy activists. A confused government cannot win the fight against a determined terrorist group.

Finally, we need to ask the Nigerian government: Is anyone following the money? For terrorism to succeed on the scale at which Boko Haram is operating, it requires funding. Where is the money coming from? How much of it is local, and how much international? How is it being passed around?


Richard Dowden, Director, Royal African Society:

It is not clear who is behind Boko Haram. Nigeria’s politics, even when violent, have always tended to be settled by negotiation, ending in a cash hand-out or an enriching position. But in the case of Boko Haram, the government does not appear to know who to pay or even to talk to. Yet the talk on the street is that Boko Haram is backed by important and wealthy Nigerians. So the first question is whether Boko Haram is the Nigerian chapter of a global movement which kills in the name of Islam and includes al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, or is it a local political movement which has adopted their tactics but is driven by local, Nigerian politics?

The second question follows from that. Has it emerged as a result of northern Nigeria losing political power? Ever since independence, Northerners have held power – either total power or a very influential slice of it. But with southerners ruling for nine out of the last twelve democratic years, and no certainty they will ever be back in power, there is deep discontent in the impoverished North. Standards of education, health and general living have declined in recent years. The traditional political and spiritual leaders of the North are largely members of the ruling party, so many young people are looking elsewhere for leadership that will restore the North’s power and prestige. An organisation like Boko Haram, with a simple ideology and money, can easily gather support.

The police are the most despised arm of the Nigerian government. To begin to be effective against Boko Haram, the police will have to be reformed and inspired. It needs to stop its officers killing and robbing civilians and start protecting the people and gathering intelligence about the movement.  In the longer term the government has to invest massively in the North, providing training and skills and investing in the region to provide livelihoods and jobs.


Chris Kwaja, Lecturer, Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies, University of Jos:

At the centre of Boko Haram's calculations is their long-term survival and dominance in popularising and advancing the goal of implementing strict Islamic laws in northern Nigeria, and by extension other parts of the country. This move contradicts the foundational and constitutional principles as well as democratic institutions of the Nigerian state which upholds unity in diversity that can only be actualised through a secular state. These institutions became the prime targets for attack by Boko Haram adherents.

Beyond the dominant narrative – that Boko Haram represents a well-orchestrated agenda for anti-westernisation and Christianity, as evident in the much brandished 'enemies of the cross thesis' – the mayhem and misery the group has inflicted on Christians in northern Nigeria suggests that we need to appreciate the fact that Boko Haram, as a radical Islamic sect, is also at war with itself; after all, its activities do not represent or appeal to the tenets of Islam, which profess peace and goodwill towards humanity. This is evident in the widespread condemnations by adherents of the Islamic faith, who view the ideology and principles of the group as a major deviation from the core teachings of Islam. Interestingly, the group seems to recognise this dissent from mainstream Islam since it has pencilled down Muslims who oppose it as targets of their violence.


Gary K Busch, Author and Political Analyst:

One of the most important aspects of the rise in Boko Haram violence is not only the vagueness of their demands and apparent lack of a leadership structure, it is the ties between what appears to be a terrorist group and the established powers in Nigeria's North. It will be no surprise to most observers that there is a symbiosis of purpose between Boko Haram, several traditional leaders in Nigeria's North, an ex-President, and some Northern governors and national politicians. These politicians and ex-politicians have not openly adopted a terrorist platform, and would probably bemoan the wanton killings of Boko Haram, but it was clear from the outset that some of the financing of Boko Haram came from this political Northern elite. The motives are unclear but derive from the fact that 'zoning' in the ruling PDP party did not allow a Northerner to retain the presidency, and Jonathan was an insufficient compromise.

There have been repeated threats from Boko Haram and from the politicians that they might make Nigeria ungovernable. When viewed from a distance this policy is remarkably self-destructive. Not only will it be likely to lead to the breakup of the Nigerian Federation before the predicted 2015, but it will leave the North in a far worse position than its finds itself today. Without access to the South and West, it is landlocked, essentially without industry, without petroleum resources and will be cut off from the derivation payments and the 'security allowances' which fund its operations. Its only refinery imports oil are from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. It is so bizarre a concept that it can only mean that the North, to survive, will have to attack and occupy the South. Without the South and the West, the North is now, as it ever was, unviable. Many international observers see Boko Haram as a stalking horse of Northern nationalism and the search for Muslim hegemony. This is a very unpleasant prospect.


Olumide Abimbola, Associate, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology:

Members of the Northern elite have mostly kept quiet about the Boko Haram issue. This is unsurprising, given that they have generally contributed to the impoverishment of the North and they are seen to be in the same camp as the ‘infidels’ from the South. This therefore means that they too could be, or already are, Boko Haram targets. Coming out to condemn them might be tantamount to putting themselves in the cross hairs. I am, however, wondering whether it is not possible for the security forces to bypass the elite and work with local religious and traditional rulers to help combat the serious problem that Boko Haram poses. The task would not be easy, but such effort is needed at this point, as it has become increasingly clear that the security forces do not understand Boko Haram. Since I think that any attempt to fight them has to start with an understanding of what they are (not just their history), working with local leaders who are close to the ground, who understand the people, and who know, for instance, why a person would choose to become a member of the sect or not, is a route worth trying.

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