Tackling Nigeria’s kidnappers

Boko Haram, the group behind recent kidnappings and massacres of schoolchildren, derives much of its strength from Nigeria’s opaque politics. International intervention could make the problem worse, not better


There is growing international pressure to take action against Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist extremist organisation that almost four weeks ago took more than 230 girls from their school.

That there is more focus on Boko Haram, which been terrorising northeastern Nigeria for years, is positive. But the moral compulsion to do something doesn’t answer the critical question of what is to be done; the kind of action taken now matters enormously and could either save or cost more lives.

The US has sent a small team to Nigeria of hostage negotiators and intelligence, logistics and communications experts. The UK has also sent a small team to complement the US expedition, and Canada, France and China have all offered assistance. This kind of support is specific to the abductions and focused on locating, and rescuing, the missing schoolgirls. This is not about addressing the wider Boko Haram crisis, at least not yet.

Nigeria’s federal government has been very reticent in seeking outside support to tackle Boko Haram. But this reticence applies to all of its security crises.

Prestige plays a role here: Nigeria is a regional power, with Africa’s biggest population – estimated at 177 million – and its biggest economy. Like any sovereign state, it brings its own solutions to its internal problems, however ineffective others may view them to be. Its requests for outside support are always very specific, relating to equipment and training. The government and its international partners do not always agree on what kind of support is the best.

The international community, too, seems to be approaching this crisis with caution. This is to be commended. Boko Haram is a Nigerian-born organisation, and making it into an international fight may make the group take on a more international dimension and deepen the crisis. More than this, there is no simple or quick way to defeat the faction.

Boko Haram is not a narrow security threat. The product of one of Nigeria’s poorest states, it is grounded in complex politics with economic drivers; the legacy of corruption, bad governance, state violence and impunity have had as much of a role in its transition to extreme and indiscriminate violence as has external radical religious ideology.

Boko Haram, which roughly means Western Education is Forbidden, is not the group’s real name. It calls itself Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad, or People Committed to the Propogation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. It was founded around 2002. Although it was always extreme in its ideology, it was not extreme in its use of violence. That aspect developed later.

The group is opposed to western education, westernisation, secularism and corruption. In its early days it garnered some local sympathy. Its founder and first leader, Mohammed Yusuf, a gifted public orator, won credibility in preaching against state corruption. In the absence of justice, the movement could argue the legitimacy of its cause. At this time the group really was an identifiable organisation: its leader was a public figure and its members were still connected to their communities.

A confrontation in 2009 between Nigeria’s police force and members of the group was a turning point. There was an escalation to violence in four northern states, which led to a crackdown by state authorities.

Mohammed Yusuf was captured and killed in custody. Suspected members were also extrajudiciously killed. What was left of the group re-emerged in 2010, a much more lethal and vengeful organisation, under the leadership of Yusuf’s second in command, Abubakar Shekau.

As time has gone on, and the activities of Boko Haram have not been effectively addressed, and as state security agencies have continued to act with impunity in Nigeria’s northeast, the group has become ever more violent and ever more diffuse.

Stopping the slaughter
This is the challenge for those seeking to stop the slaughter and kidnap of innocent civilians, including children; in February of this year 59 boys were killed at their boarding school in cold blood. How is it possible to confront something when it is not clear what you are fighting?

Boko Haram is not a cohesive organisation; it has different moving parts, not necessarily all with the same motivations. It is also not the only extremist group in Nigeria, nor the only violent extremist group. Ansaru, an offshoot of Boko Haram focused on international targets with closer ties to other regional actors, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, will be watching recent developments closely.

Directly or indirectly, Boko Haram is bound to Nigeria’s opaque politics. In the group’s nascent days Mohammed Yusuf was engaged with local and state political actors. The instability in the northeast plays into wider federal politics of elite competition between an increasingly mistrustful north and south. Not that Boko Haram has the support of Nigeria’s largely Muslim north: its cause is not the wellbeing of any of Nigeria’s citizens, regardless of region or religion.

The lack of information about Boko Haram, the paucity of even the most basic facts – it is still not clear exactly how many girls were taken or how many are still missing – and the ineffectiveness of the state’s response so far are not just about institutional weakness and capacity limitations. They are also about the triumph of vested interests over the collective good, enabled by a lack of political accountability. Progressive actors in government find themselves stymied by internal forces as much as external.

This means that the coming international attention and assistance must be attuned to the realities of how Boko Haram plays into the wider national political context: a quagmire that international decision-makers will need to avoid as Nigeria approaches elections in February next year.

Targeted assistance to resolve the tragedy of the 230 or more missing girls will need to be complemented by wider strategies to foster transparency, accountability and justice to undo a threat long in the making.

Elizabeth Donnelly is assistant head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London

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