Boko Haram’s activities have been escalating steadily in Nigeria; the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in Borno earlier this year being the most recent indicator of the group’s growing threat to Nigeria’s political stability. Indeed, the group is viewed by many experts as a direct challenge the state’s corrupt nature and its general inability to address the expanding economic North-South disparity within Nigeria.
Nigeria encompasses 350 ethnic groups that speak more than 250 languages, with the primary division taking place among the Muslims and the Christians groups of the country. Political tensions over the equal distribution of political power and economic prosperity have long been key points of dissension between the two groups. The economic division between northern and southern Nigeria is expanding as well. Despite continuing growth in GDP, according to a recent report by the World Bank, 100 million Nigerians live in poverty in a country with a population of approximately 174 million.
Oil also plays a crucial role in the country’s economic inequality. Muslim elites who dominate Nigeria’s formal politics benefit inordinately from state oil revenue, while the region from which the oil is extracted is often at a direct disadvantage owing to the government’s failure to reinvest oil revenue back into regional development.
Boko Haram, designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States (among others), was established in 2002 in the state of Borno by Mohammed Yusuf. A fundamentalist cleric heavily influenced by Salafist thought, Yusuf explicitly promoted the use of jihad as a means to gain political and religious power. Today, the group seeks to establish Islamic law in Nigeria, including the full implementation of Sharia law. The Nigerian government is viewed as fundamentally illegitimate, corrupt, and prone to cater to the economic and political interests of the country’s Christian population. As such, the only viable solution is the establishment of an Islamic state that will adhere to the codes of Sharia law.
The group’s increasing radicalization only became apparent to the Nigerian government in 2009, after reports emerged that the group had armed itself in order to overthrow the Nigerian government. The state launched an investigation into the group’s activities, which included arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention of the members of the group. The crackdown on Boko Haram by the Nigerian government led to numerous human rights abuses, including torture, extortion, and extrajudicial killings, as well as cases of sexual assault for those held in police detention. In response, Boko Haram mobilized its forces in the northeastern city of Bauchi in July of 2009, which resulted in violent confrontations between the country’s Christian and Muslims populations that killed more than 50 people.
Nigerian security forces attempted to quell the activities of Boko Haram, killing 90 members in Maiduguri alone, including Yusuf himself. The group re-emerged in the aftermath of Yusuf’s death and continued its violent campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations across Nigeria. Since 2010, the group has shifted its tactics to target a myriad of different groups, including security forces, government officials, politicians, Christian groups, as well as Muslim leaders critical of Boko Haram.
The intensity of the attacks carried out by Boko Haram have also increased since 2013. Students and secular students are now targeted by the group, as well as heath workers in villages and staff members of international NGOs. In February of 2014, Boko Haram targeted the Christian villages in northeastern Nigeria that led to the deaths of 100 people. The most recent and notable campaign carried out by Boko Haram has been the Chibok kidnapping of schoolgirls in the state of Borno. In accordance with the group’s opposition to secularism and Western education, more than 200 female students were taken captive in April of 2014, with the majority continuing to be held by the group.
The Nigerian state responded to Boko Haram’s escalating violence by declaring a state of emergency in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in May 2013. Troops were deployed to these regions. Yet, despite this federal effort to reduce the political threat posed by Boko Haram, many experts argue that the group’s political influence has only been on the rise. Notably, the group has been able to acquire access to better weapons while external fighters are increasingly opting to join the group in order to conduct political jihad against the Nigerian government.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) has even warned that political instability in northern Nigeria may threaten the legitimacy of the 2015 presidential elections. The ICG also suggests that Nigeria’s federal government should reduce its militaristic approach towards Boko Haram, which has so far only encouraged frustrated, unemployed youths in those regions to join the vigilante group. Additionally, it recommends that the federal government prosecute the officers involved in the extrajudicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf, one of the key demands of the group, and investigate additional crimes reportedly committed by Nigerian security forces.
The federal government should also work towards improving the issues of bad governance, corruption, and lack of transparency that constitute the core grievances of Boko Haram. The investment of resources that address the issues of economic inequality will also aid in effectively eliminating political manipulation at the state and local levels. The ICG further outlines recommendation to the state governments in northern Nigeria, encouraging cooperation of state governments with the religious elites in those states most affected by the political violence – this would help disarm, de-radicalize and reintegrate radical militants
External actors have shown little desire to undertake direct intervention in Nigeria, nor has there been much interest from Nigerian elites for such an expanded international role. In its place, the United States and other key donors have placed growing pressure on Nigeria to increase law enforcement and military personnel in areas that could best deal with Boko Haram. Despite the increased state effort to contain the political violence, however, the group has been increasingly successful in its operations and its member base has expanded beyond the borders of Nigeria. In order to address the threat of Boko Haram, the Nigerian government must directly focus on eliminating the core grievances of the group and its followers, which include corruption, lack of transparency, and income inequality.
Lema Ijtemaye is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.