When Boko Haram’s murderous campaign got to a head in Nigeria, and the media is everyday awash with, largely, uninformed commentaries, I kept mum. I refrained from saying anything. It was the period of confusion and blame game. The accusing fingers were (still, are) being pointed across divides and everyone was coming up with conspiracies that suits the person’s idiosyncrasies and alliances. Saying anything at the time would earn one a label as a bigot or traitor. It was a good thing for the terrorists. Confusion usually afflicts people faced with new incomprehensible things such as terrorism, on the scale of Boko Haram. It is the confusion and the buck passing that the terrorists, in turn, feed on to grow and defy measures. It is a good thing that the theories are now piping down, and the theorists are on sabbatical.
Boko Haram, like many trending isms, is a product of globalisation. It is a global phenomenon that borrows from many backgrounds and climes. The idea of militant Islamism, has ideological roots in the Middle East but was nurtured, most ironically, in the mosques of London by preachers from the Middle East who moved to the United Kingdom in the 1980s and the 1990s. It is in UK that many would-be terrorists, hot-headed young men, imbibed the ideology whose complete circle ends with full indoctrination in Yemen and elsewhere. There is no pointer to the global nature of what is presently the world’s highest security risk than this. The growth of Nigeria’s Boko Haram followed almost a similar pattern.
The present anti-modernity version of extremism we are witnessing in the Northern part of Nigeria started when just two Nigerians, a certain Mohammed Ali from Borno State and Abu Umar from Kano, met a Syrian preacher, Abu albasir al Dardusi in Yemen. It was this preacher who indoctrinated them in the line of rejecting western education and all the symbols of modern governance, based on a corrupt interpretation of a single hadith. Al Dardusi was one of the preachers who settled in the UK.
When the duo of Ali and Umar returned to Nigeria, they started converting people, especially young Sunni preachers who already had an extreme interpretation of Islam. Two smart and intelligent local preachers, a certain Bello Doma and Mohammed Yusuf were among their early converts. By his charisma, education and followership strength, Yusuf quickly got frontline prominence within the circle and, subsequently, emerged the leader of the group. From 2001 onward, the group passed evolutional stages in nomenclature, structure and base. Disagreements on methodologies and other egoistic reasons also lead to the formation of factions within the larger group which, however, reunited at a later time when Ali was killed and Abu Umar captured. Most of the known figures of the movement were variously arrested and jailed. But, ironically, the consensus on jihad and the decision to begin an offensive was reached while some of the ring leaders were in custody in one of Nigeria’s major prisons.
Because many of the arrowheads were influential clerics in their own rights, recruitment was initially through persuasive preaching and sermons, as well as one-on-one brainwashing encounters. Some of the leaders would go on itinerant preaching tours to towns and villages, recruiting largely frustrated young men already disenchanted about life. At the initial stage, the group survived on contributions from members, some of whom were traders or engaged in menial jobs. In fact, many of them sold off their assets to contribute money towards keeping the movement alive. However, when the violent campaign commenced, and to maintain a growing number of recruits, the group took to kidnapping for ransom, bank raids and armed robbery. The money was also used in inducing recruits and settling families of deceased members.
Of course, the level of illiteracy and endemic poverty among the populace of Northern Nigeria provided a fertile ground for Boko Haram to quickly expand. This, as we shall come to see, also played a role in fuelling the confusion and conspiracy theories that have come with the insurgency.
Some of the early fatalities of Boko Haram operations were some of their own teachers in the past, who voiced disagreement with the weird theology of the terrorist group. Members deliberately used terror to intimidate all other preachers and dissenting voices. With this tool of terror, opposition to their ideological position from a theological standpoint became difficult as scholars became afraid of the fate that befell some of their colleagues. On the other hand, the group was consolidating its own ideological incursion through the production and distribution of sermons and propaganda materials in print and electronic forms. It was also, at the same time, reaching out to similar groups within Africa and the Middle East, including al-Shabab. This culminated in the allegiance paid to Isis, which was coordinated through the effort of one Abu Basir al-Barnawi, a Boko Haram member from Nigeria.
As pointed earlier, because Boko Haram was a new phenomenon, it created a lot of confusion both in security and government circles, as well as among the citizenry. Understanding the motif and workings of the group became a problem. Many took advantage of it, including politicians, to throw blames at each other. In fact, the insurrection became a potent mirror of Nigeria’s ethnic tensions as conspiracies were tailored along ethno-religious lines. Coincidentally, the Boko Haram’s declaration of jihad came at the time when a Muslim northerner died in office and a Christian southerner became the president. At various points, Northern Nigeria was blamed for creating Boko Haram to make the country “ungovernable” for a president who was not from there. Some had a theory that says it was the government that was supporting the insurgents in order to diminish the numerical strength and, ultimately, political influence of the northern part. The Muslims contended that it was the work of the Christians. The Christians blamed the Muslims for it. Even within the Muslim community there were accusations among sects. The buck has kept being passed.
The military operation is not spared from these disjointed criticisms, which confounded the problems of an institution already bedevilled by corruption and incompetent leadership. The mutual suspicion created by Boko Haram was extended to the military, with attention given to the tribes and religions of officers and men in ascribing motives to what the military had done, or failed to do. While Boko Haram would wipe out an entire village or stop commuter buses and execute all their occupants, the harshest criticism was spared for the military on any slight operational lapse or excess. International organisations, such as the Human Rights Watch and, more recently, Amnesty International also got entangled in the wave of the anti-military/government conspiracy theories, which substantially affected their reports. This demoralised the army and created international anathema for the military. However, this is not to discount the fact that the military’s blunders and panic in facing a new challenge also played a role in alienating it from the civilian population and gave credence to most of the allegations.
International response followed the pattern of the local reactions, largely in line with the narrative in the press and the undue, even unguarded, utterances by some otherwise respectable elders. The West, especially the United States, was looking for reason to escape engaging in military operations abroad. Thus, it was convenient for the international community to take the position not to help Nigeria, which has always been a hard sell for international support in the first place. The leadership then also failed to convince the world of its competence and seriousness in fighting the war. The West, particularly the United States, was looking for excuses and they got one in the lack of consensus among Nigerians. These distractions and lack of support make Nigeria lag behind while the terrorists became emboldened and began annexing territories, with alarming cruelty against defenceless victims.
Boko Haram as part of the global terror network, has always been loosely connected to al-Shabab, Alqaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and Isis. Most of its weapons have come from Libya and its fighters have fought alongside Mujao in Mali. Therefore, tackling a group like Boko Haram requires global action. It cannot be treated in isolation of, say, al-Shabab or Isis. Several countries that passed through insurgency, at one time or the other, have to be supported by the world in containing the insurrection. Countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Afghanistan and Somalia are still battling with their own versions of Boko Haram. The global support for them has also been overwhelming, helping in reversing the tide in most cases, as seen in Mali more recently.
Nigeria, on the other hand, got no support as it was left alone to face the music. The political pressure on the government and the pressure on the military to deliver necessitated the evolution of other measures, including the need to get weapons by all means, as well as involve civilian vigilantes. These measures helped greatly in liberating captured territories, with the support of neighbours, especially Chad – at a heavy financial cost to Nigeria.
In the last two months, the Nigerian military has gotten back on track with better equipment and other logistical support, leading to major successes of flushing out the insurgents from most of the towns and villages they hitherto occupied. What is needed now is a consolidation on the victories and to further push out the terrorists from every inch of Nigeria’s land. The dislodging of the terrorists from their bases, as being witnessed currently, comes with the challenge of suicide bombings and drive-by attacks – the same pattern noticed in many other countries. This may continue for a while until training bases and recruitment opportunities are denied the terrorists. To achieve the latter target, there is the need to come up with strong community participation strategy. Religious leaders and opinion moulders need to be brought on board for the purpose of ideological warfare, as a long term strategy.
Since we now have a new government with a leader who is from the Muslim North, largely affected by the insurgency, there are new windows. The world should, for once, come together and help Nigeria in all aspects necessary to tackle this problem. We still need the weapons and the know-how to route the terrorists from their remaining enclaves and to begin de-radicalisation and reconstruction programmes in earnest. The government needs help urgently in restoring the lives of the affected victims, in terms of economic and social wellbeing. As the terrorists resort to suicide attacks, the security strategy also has to shift significantly to intelligence-based operations.
For Nigerians, it is imperative to be united as one nation and fight a common enemy. And in fighting the enemy that is Boko Haram, Nigerians have to realise that no one can do it for them other than the security forces. We cannot afford to vilify our military, as any condemnation of the fighting forces demoralises the military and empowers the terrorists. We have to collectively fight to stop Boko Haram. If we fail to end Boko Haram we are going to be left with a failed, disintegrated state.
Nigeria, like all nations faced with similar challenge, needs help. Terrorism is a fight beyond borders, the response has to be beyond the shores of Nigeria. And your true friend, as the saying goes, is the one who is there at your hour of need. I therefore anticipate something positive to come out of the G7 Summit that the Nigerian president is invited to attend. This should be the turning point.
This was a talk on “Fight against Religious Extremism: What Role for Diplomacy?” given at the Global Diplomacy Lab hosted by German Foreign Ministry in Istanbul, Turkey.