By Koen de Hek
For more than a decade, the Nigerian government has struggled to contain an Islamic inspired uprising in the northeast of the country. Behind this rebellion is a group called Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād, popularly known as Boko Haram. The group gained particular notoriety after kidnapping more than 270 girls in Chibok on the 15th of April 2014, selling many of them off to their fighters. The government claims that Boko Haram has been defeated and that the ongoing conflict is largely fuelled by ‘international jihadists’. Indeed, a breakaway faction of the group called the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), has aligned itself with international Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS. However, the conflict is also fuelled by endemic poverty and systematic human rights abuses by the Nigerian army. Moreover, Boko Haram is anything but defeated. In fact, the group seems to gain momentum and the conflict has spilled over into Nigeria’s neighbouring countries, such as Chad.
Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf was a Salafist preacher deeply influenced by Wahhabism (a fundamentalist Islamic doctrine originating from Saudi Arabia), who sought to implement the Sharia in the Northern regions of Nigeria. The first large uprising of the group was in 2009. It was quickly suppressed by the Nigerian army and hundreds of Boko Haram members were killed, including Mohammed Yusuf himself (who was murdered while being in police custody). Since then, the insurgents have carried out countless attacks each year.
A deeply conservative and militant Islamic discourse has contributed to the popularity of Boko Haram. Nigeria is roughly divided into a Christian south, and an Islamic north. Although there is a kind of power sharing agreement between the two religious communities, there have been instances of periodic interreligious violence. I argue that this has fuelled an extremist discourse in Islamic communities that has led to the emergence of – and continuous support for – Boko Haram and other Islamic terrorist groups in some areas.
However, the policies of the Nigerian government and the behaviour of the Nigerian army have contributed to the escalation of the conflict as well. Decades of widespread corruption and mismanagement of Nigeria’s vast natural resources have impoverished a large section of the Nigerian population. Moreover, the Islamic provinces in the north are particularly neglected and poverty is especially rampant there. As a result of this, many Muslims in the northern regions are dissatisfied with the government and more likely to support Boko Haram. Add to this the human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian armed forces, and we might get an understanding of why people take up arms against the Nigerian government without necessarily adhering to Boko Haram’s fundamentalist doctrine.
Deteriorating regional security
The conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government has become increasingly complex over the years. This is partly caused by splits in the group itself. Boko Haram is currently led by Abu Musab al-Barwani, the son of the group’s original founder. He rebranded the group and named it ISWAP. However, a former prominent leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, accused al-Barwani in an online video of staging a coup and attempting to remove him from the scene. He claimed that the ‘original’ group was still operating and seeking to establish an Islamic state.
Other states have stepped in to curb Boko Haram’s power. Since 2015, Cameroon, Chad and Niger have sent soldiers to aid the Nigerian armed forces. The coalition has been able to reconquer territories previously held by Boko Haram. Nevertheless, the organization and its breakaway factions continue to destabilize the security situation in the Lake Chad Basin (which comprises Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger). It effectively exploits cultural, ethnic and religious ties of communities living across the region and has created extensive smuggling networks to finance its operations. Currently, it carries out attacks in Nigeria but is also increasingly present in Chad. Regardless of what the Nigerian government might claim, Boko Haram is here to stay for the coming years.
The current approach to deal with the Boko Haram uprising seems largely ineffective. A focus on military operations, both local and regional, will not solve the conflict. If the root causes of corruption, widespread poverty, and human rights abuses are not addressed, people will continue to seek refuge and support insurgent groups. Perhaps Boko Haram and ISWAP can eventually be crushed, but new groups will jump into the void left behind if communities in the Lake Chad basin continue to be marginalized. The Boko Haram uprising is, in my opinion, mainly a symptom of deeper running problems. Devoting our attention to solving these problems will perhaps bring us closer to ending this bloody conflict in the long term.
© Institute for Security Studies, 2019