Nigeria: How Boko Haram has evolved over the past ten years
Last month marked ten years since Mohammed Yusuf, founder of Boko Haram, died in police detention. His death led to the radicalisation of the sect and a declaration of Jihad against the Nigerian state.
In an earlier paper on the sect I argued that before 2009, its operations were more or less peaceful, but that it was radicalised in 2009 after a confrontation with Nigerian security agencies. The police cracked down on the group setting off an armed uprising in Bauchi State, Northern Nigeria.
Opinions differ on the reasons for the government clampdown. But some believe that the government intervened based on intelligence that the group was arming itself.
The crackdown led to an uprising that soon spread to other parts of northeastern Nigeria and 800 members of the group were killed by the Nigerian security services. Yusuf was arrested during this period but died in police detention. The police claimed that he died while trying to escape.
Yusuf’s successor, Abubakar Shekau, vowed to exact revenge on the Nigerian government. A violent campaign against the state was launched. A year later in 2010, Shekau sought to make it a Jihad against Christians.
In a message he reportedly broadcast over the Internet in July 2010, Shekau was reported as saying:
This is a message to President Goodluck Jonathan and all who represent the Christians. We are declaring a holy war! We will fight the Christians, because everyone knows what they have done to the Muslims!
It is now estimated that by 2018 Boko Haram had been linked to the deaths of over 37,000 people.
The United Nations Children’s Fund has reported that the group has kidnapped more than 1,000 children in northeastern Nigeria since 2013 to spread fear and show power. Similarly, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre believes that over two million people have been displaced in the North East as a result of Boko Haram’s terror activities.
Boko Haram has survived thanks to its ability to reinvent itself, change tactics, and adopt different strategies. Going forward, conventional military solutions will not work on their own. Other interventions, such as de-radicalisation and rehabilitation are necessary.
Fighting the sect
The government of Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015) adopted measures to combat the group including declaring a state of emergency in the three most affected Northern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa. It also initiated a four-nation regional force that included Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
These measures had varying degrees of success. They would appear to work initially because Boko Haram would lay low for a while, only for it to adopt a different terror strategy.
The Jonathan government even suggested amnesty but Shekau reportedly mocked the offer, saying:
Surprisingly the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you pardon.
Before he issued this audio statement the military had claimed to have killed him.
Some of the factors that affected the fight against Boko Haram, especially under the Jonathan government, were pervasive conspiracy theories that played on the country’s fault lines of religion, ethnicity and regionalism.
For instance many supporters of Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria, believed that Boko Haram was created by the Northern political class to undermine Jonathan’s government.
In the same vein, according to many Muslims in the North, the Jonathan government was either fighting the group halfheartedly, or propping it up in order to depopulate the North ahead of the 2015 election.
The conspiracy theories probably played a role in the Jonathan administration’s lethargic handling of the kidnapping of 276 girls from a Chibok boarding school in April 2014.
What was obvious was that Boko Haram had become a menace. By the beginning of 2015, the group reportedly controlled about 20 local government areas, a territory the size of Belgium.
In 2015, when Muhammadu Buhari, a Northern Fulani Muslim and retired Army General, defeated Jonathan in the election, he gave Nigerian military chiefs three months to defeat Boko Haram. This was probably based on a wrong assumption that fighting terrorism was just like conventional warfare.
In December of that year, his government claimed it had recovered all territories previously held by Boko Haram, saying it had “technically defeated” the group. However, there has recently been an upsurge in the sect’s activities. It is now armed with better weapons and controls four of ten zones in northern Borno state near Lake Chad.
What seems obvious is that Boko Haram has shown the capacity to reinvent itself: it has evolved from being a group fighting the Nigerian state, to targeting Christians, attacking Muslims it regards as infidels and collaborators, and now, taking the fight to the military.
For instance, in December 2018, it sacked two military bases – a naval base and a multinational joint task force post – in the fishing town of Baga after a fierce battle.
The group claims that its ultimate aim is to establish a caliphate where it can rule according to its version of Islamic law.
Meanwhile, the Buhari government continues to live in denial, maintaining its posture that it has “technically defeated” the group.
Boko Haram today
Over the years, different factions have emerged. One of the earliest splinter groups was Ansaru, which emerged in 2012 after Boko Haram attacked Kano city killing about 185 civilians, most of them Muslims.
Today, Boko Haram is believed to be made up of at least two main factions, one led by Shekau and the other, known as the Islamic State West Africa Province, led by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi who is said to be one of the sons of Boko Haram founder Mohamed Yusuf. However, there appears to be two people with the same name or aliases, one of whom is not linked to Yusuf.
It is obvious that given the nature of Boko Haram, military solutions will not work on their own. A robust programme of amnesty, de-radicalisation and rehabilitation will have to go hand-in-hand with counterinsurgency and military solutions. All told, it will not be an easy victory for the Nigerian government.