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What does Boko Haram want?


Tim Green under a Creative Commons Licence

Political and economic marginalization

Finally, over two weeks after it first made headlines and brought rare hope to the parents of the abducted Chibok girls, the supposed ceasefire deal between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government has been exposed as a fake.

At the end of last week, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, released a video with a clear message: ‘There is no ceasefire or dialogue with anyone; instead, it is war.’

Even before the video, the doubts had started to set in. Who was this Danladi Ahmadu, the self-acclaimed Secretary General of Boko Haram who represented the insurgency during the negotiation, and why had nobody familiar with Boko Haram ever heard of him?

Ahmad Salkida, a journalist well known for his close contact with the insurgents, instantly dismissed Ahmadu as a fake. News was also flooding in of fresh Boko Haram attacks, even abductions. Two deadlines set for the release of the Chibok girls came and went.

With Nigeria’s international reputation tarnished by Chibok and a presidential election due in February 2015, it seems the government let the political pressure of a deal get in the way of its better judgement.

And yet, despite this setback, the idea of negotiating an end to the insurgency remains attractive.

It’s notoriously difficult to defeat insurgencies using force alone, and even if you do, the underlying causes are usually left to fester and drive future conflicts. So after this abortive attempt, it seems fitting to ask what it would actually take to do a deal with the insurgents – should it ever happen for real.

Bloodlust and fanaticism?

Anyone who has watched one of Boko Haram’s videos could be forgiven for thinking there’s nothing the Nigerian government can offer the insurgents.

Shekau has a habit of communicating in the form of violent, angry rants. In a typical example from earlier this year, he claims that ‘our religion and our way of worship is nothing but killings, killings and killings’. It is hard to discern any kind of concrete grievances or political programme from such messages.

When he’s not talking of killing, Shekau is usually talking about Islam. In a message shortly after the Chibok abduction, he said: ‘If you say, “I pledge to Nigeria my country,” it is wrong and [an] act of paganism. For me, I pledge to Allah.’

‘There is no ceasefire or dialogue with anyone; instead, it is war’

Sentiments like this suggest Boko Haram has transcended tangible political or socio-economic goals and, as such, can’t be bargained with. As Ahmad Salkida has said, ‘the fuse that drives Boko Haram’s terror is the sect’s doctrine.’

Their religious ideology, often described as a form of Salafi Jihadism, focuses on purging Islam of corrupting outside influences and returning to the ‘pure’ Islamic practices of the past. Nigeria’s secular democracy is fundamentally at odds with this vision.

Nonetheless, there is also a broader political and socio-economic context to the insurgency. As in many other conflicts, there is a long history of human rights violations, under-development and marginalization feeding into the insecurity. Understanding these factors and how they can be addressed may hold the key to dealing with Boko Haram.

An army of occupation

Earlier this year, the governor of Adamawa state, in northeast Nigeria, wrote an open letter provocatively entitled, ‘On-Going Fully-Fledged Genocide in Northern Nigeria’.

It referred not to the tactics of the insurgents but to the actions of the Nigerian security forces, and reflected a deep sense of resentment in the north about the tactics of the police and army in their fight against Boko Haram.

Amnesty International has accused the security forces of mass extra-judicial executions, indiscriminately rounding up and arresting young men, burning down houses and torturing prisoners. Following Boko Haram assaults, it has become routine for the security forces to respond by attacking innocents.

As one resident of the northeastern city of Maiduguri explained in a 2012 Amnesty report, ‘They are just killing men, any youth from 16 years old; if something happens in that area you are gone.’

On 14 March this year, the military was accused of executing as many as 600 prisoners on a single day in response to a Boko Haram attack in Maiduguri.

The ceasefire deal between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government has been exposed as a fake

These tactics are not just an unpleasant by-product of the counter-insurgency campaign. They are a major driver of the conflict, and have led to a breakdown in trust between civilians and the security forces.

In many parts of northern Nigeria, people resent the government just as much as they do the insurgents. As one resident of Kano told a visiting New York Times journalist in 2012, ‘At any time I am ready to join [Boko Haram], to fight injustice in this country.’

Human rights violations by the army have undoubtedly made it easier for Boko Haram to recruit fighters. They have also enraged Boko Haram itself.

The group always had an inclination towards violent jihad, but up until 2009 they had largely been peaceful. In June of that year, the police and army helped light the fire when they attacked a group of Boko Haram members participating in a funeral procession in Maiduguri.

A few weeks later, they arrested, detained, and extra-judicially executed the group’s then-leader, Mohammed Yusuf. The security forces also detained the wives and children of many of the insurgents, with rumours of rape in captivity.

Any peace deal must include a commitment to end human rights violations and ensure accountability for what has happened in the past.

The government will have to release the families of Boko Haram members, draw up a new covenant governing the conduct of the armed forces, and prosecute those responsible for previous human rights violations – particularly the execution of Mohammed Yusuf.

Political and economic marginalization

Visiting southern and northern Nigeria is like stepping into two different countries. The booming economy of the south stands in stark contrast to the poverty and deprivation of the north. In the northeast, three-quarters of the population live below the poverty line and literacy rates are astonishingly low.

Northerners watch as southerners get rich on oil profits and foreign investment, while the government does little to address inequality. It has caused many to withdraw their support from the institutions of the Nigerian state, creating fertile ground for any insurgency.

At the same time, deprivation has also made an army of unemployed youth available to Boko Haram’s recruiters.

Northern marginalization is political as well. The Federal government is dominated by southerners. Where once military heads of state would often hail from the north – Babangida, Buhari, Abacha – the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is a southerner from the Niger Delta.

The military was accused of executing 600 prisoners on a single day in response to a Boko Haram attack

Since Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1999, there has been an unwritten rule that the presidency should alternate between a southerner and a northerner. But Jonathan, determined to run again in the February 2015 election, has broken with that convention. Northerners now feel locked out of power.

This kind of disinheritance and exclusion allows Boko Haram’s message and acts of revolt to converge with popular anxieties about marginalization.

A peace deal with Boko Haram would certainly have to include jobs or payments for its members, but it should also include measures to address the broader sense of marginalization.

Some have spoken of a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the north – a massive programme of investment, public works, education and job creation. It is desperately needed, as is a restoration of the zoning rule that ensured the north and south could share power through the presidency.

Doing the deal

Negotiating a settlement with Boko Haram is easier said than done. When the insurgency first started, its members were on the run and their main demand was justice for Mohammed Yusuf.

Now, Boko Haram controls vast swathes of territory in the northeast. Why should Shekau do a deal when he has the upper hand? The military must regain the initiative if they’re going to force Boko Haram to the table.

The insurgency’s core leadership has also radicalized over time. More moderate leaders have been purged and the group has become more extreme and violent. That said, many fighters are said to be growing weary of life in the bush. If a genuine and ambitious deal is offered, the leadership may find it difficult to resist pressure from below.

The will to address some of the socio-economic and political drivers of the insurgency does exist in the Nigerian government.

Only a few months ago, the former Minister of State for Defence, Musiliu Obanikoro, said that ‘years of mass illiteracy and the politics of underdevelopment in the north has contributed to birthing the scourge called Boko Haram’.

He also said ‘we must… ensure that we never harm civilians and show respect for our citizens in all our military operations’. This new awareness of the conflict’s drivers should give us cause for hope.

A deal is possible. But many questions remain unanswered. How Boko Haram’s religious ideology could be accommodated remains the biggest elephant in the room.

Whatever the case, it’s unlikely this conflict will ever be resolved through force alone. To bring peace to northern Nigeria and bring the kidnapped girls back, negotiation is the only way.

Andrew Noakes is a counter-terrorism expert and Co-ordinator of the Nigeria Security Network (NSN). He tweets @andrew_noakes.


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