Since independence, Nigeria has been through economic and social hardship. Despite its wealth and abundance in natural resources, the country does not seem to benefit from it, as large shares of income derived from this same wealth have disappeared, more specifically deviated by Nigerian elites. Indeed, corruption and nepotism have been widespread across Nigeria’s history, severely damaging the country’s high potential of becoming Africa’s most prosperous nation.
In poorly developed areas, the majority of which are located in the northern states, where levels of employment are low and where the government fails to be present by not providing basic services, such as health-care and education, people tend to get closer to their traditional loyalties. By traditional loyalties we can say individual identity, i.e., religion, ethnicity and tribalism, since it is via this same loyalties that one individual acquires protection and, ultimately, safeguards its survival. In other words, mass poverty, unemployment, low levels of education and lack of opportunities, crime, the collapse of the Nigerian judicial system and inadequate law enforcement, further hardened ethnic and religious identities. One can make an analogy with those Prisoners of War who are broken to such an extent that after a certain time they become susceptible to be converted to their captors’ side – yes, I took this example from the “Homeland” TV Series.
People became closer to their traditional ties, namely to their respective religions – the population majority in the North is mostly Muslim, whereas in the South it is mostly Christian. Ultimately, religious tensions between Muslims and Christians escalated during the 1980’s and 1990’s, leading to violent clashes, with ethnic militias engaging in constant fighting – two hundred ethnic clashes in 1999 – and politicians attacking each other. Moreover, some northern states adopted Sharia Law as their fundamental law, in order to calm down rising popular agitations in favour of greater integration of Islamic Law in those states. The outcome of this action was the usage of religion as a political tool aimed at gaining support and pursue individual interests.
The rise of Boko Haram
As a consequence of the social and economic instability, in 2002 a group of Islamists set up a separatist community under hard-line Islamic principles. Its ideology was based on opposing the state and implementing a non-corrupt, perfect society under a ‘pure’ Islamic Law, at the same time condemning Islamic clerics and preachers who were considered to follow a corrupted version of Islam, mainly by adopting Western habits, ignoring the population’s needs, and being corrupt.
In December 2003 a community dispute where the Islamist group had a strong presence, led to a clash with Nigerian security forces, culminating in the Islamists victory. Finally the army intervened, launching a violent campaign and laying siege to a mosque where the group was based, resulting in the killing of most of its members, including their leader. The military campaign was successful and the group went underground.
It is widely agreed in the hawkish sects of every government that military campaigns are successful in eliminating rebellious movements. However, it cannot be taken out of consideration that it works at first, but fails to offer a medium and long-term solution. Evidence of this is the fact that the group re-organized under a new leadership, taking advantage of the over-confidence the Federal Government had, which made it to ignore evident signs that the movement was gaining life once again.
The group reappeared even stronger, expanding to other Northern States – Bauchi, Yobe and Niger State. It is widely agreed that the group’s expansion was made possible due to the lack of government presence in the region and its failure to provide basic services, such as aid to impoverished and unemployed people. As a matter of fact, the Islamist group replaced the government’s role, thus getting the much needed supply of militants and finance. As the group grew and expanded its presence, people began naming it “Boko Haram”, meaning something like “Western education is forbidden”.
July 2009 marked the beginning of fresh clashes between the two sides. Boko Haram (BH) targeted the first instance of local defences – police stations – across north-eastern states. The Bauchi State government responded by arresting and executing BH group members, culminating in the imprisonment of its leader, whom was later executed – supposedly when handed to the military.
Once again, a period of discretion followed. BH recommenced its operations in 2010, executing renewed attacks on police checkpoints and appropriating their weapons. However, it was not until the 2010 Christmas Eve that the group became a serious threat for Nigeria’s stability. This day marked a new level of tensions between Islam and Christianity, something which had been present in the region for centuries. Bomb detonations took place in churches in the Middle Belt region, a melting pot of Muslims, Christians and Animists, where previous ethnic and religious violent clashes had occurred since 1999.
Boko Haram Weakens
The group’s strong reappearance led to a military crackdown by the Nigerian Federal Government, which proven to be quite successful in weakening Boko Haram presence and operations. As part of the operation, on October 18, 2012, Nigeria signed a defence pact with Niger’s government, which established joint border patrols along Borno’s state border with Niger. In Niger’s President, Mahmadou Issoufou, own words, “whoever attacks Niger, attacks Nigeria”. Furthermore, Nigeria also sealed off its borders with Cameroon and Niger.
These actions severely cut-off Boko Haram’s supply lines through which it acquired weapons and militants, while at the same time denying access to safe-havens where Boko Haram leaders and militants used to pull back to and reorganize, due to those places being out of Nigeria’s reach. It was, in fact, the group’s Modus Operandi whenever it was weakened, and later managing to re-appear even stronger and with a more radical agenda.
Moreover, Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Maghreb, know by the name of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have been supporting Boko Haram, by supplying weapons, militants, training and finance. However, the military campaign by the French Army in Mali, aimed at tackling AQIM groups which took control of Northern Mali last year, is likely to cause that same support to become increasingly thinner since more resources have to be allocated to northern Mali. Therefore, it is highly probable that less support will be heading Boko Haram’s way.
One other consequence of the crackdown was the killing of several Boko Haram’s leaders which weakened its line of command and operation planning. Making things worse, some of the group’s strongholds have been taken back by the Nigerian Joint Task Force, seriously undermining its operational sites. Despite their increasingly weakened position, attacks on churches and authorities have continued to take place.
The (im)possibility of a lasting peaceful settlement
Hopes for a peaceful settlement have been fading for the last couple of years. However, on January 29, 2013, a purported commander of Boko Haram declared an unilateral cease-fire, which according to him is a result of several meetings between the two sides. Moreover, the same commander states that the truce has the approval of the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau.
Nevertheless, this announcement should not be taken for granted since there are suspicions – and it is highly probable – that Boko Haram is divided between rival factions. Adding to this, Abubakar Shekau denied in October last year that peace-talks were taking place, undermining the validity of the argument that talks had been taking place between the two sides. Notwithstanding, the group’s leader has not made a public declaration on the unilateral cease-fire, raising doubts over whether it is true or false. Furthermore, Abubakar Shekau’s ideology is indeed a factor which contributes for the doubts over the cease-fire, since he has even more radical ideals than his predecessor, Mohammed Yusuf.
There are reports circulating that Shekau is in Mali receiving treatment for gunshot wounds suffered in Nigeria. Thus, it is not likely that Shekau will be able to leave Mali since the military crackdown by the French army – a smaller Nigerian force is part of the operation -, will make that objective hard to achieve. Boko Haram is one more time deprived of leadership.
Therefore, what will be of Boko Haram? Can Boko Haram survive such unfavourable circumstances? The answer lies in the Nigerian Government response. The probability that Boko Haram will endure, or that it will split in different factions, ultimately forming other Islamist groups, is high. The reason for this is the economic and social situation in Northern Nigeria. In other words, if people do not experience an improvement in their livelihoods, it is likely that the conditions for such extremist organization to gather support will remain strong. Therefore, the Nigerian military crackdown and the resulting weakening of Boko Haram must be followed by a comprehensive plan that targets people’s living conditions. Without it the region might see Islamic extremists prospering and gathering strength once again.
One other factor might influence developments related to the conflict. Unfortunately for Nigeria, the 2015 Presidential elections are closing in. Candidates will most likely try to hold the peace banner up-high in order to gather more support, meaning that these same individuals, and most importantly the incumbent President, will try to settle the dispute with Boko Haram as soon as possible. In other words, a fast and seemingly efficient peace-deal will probably be executed, being the easiest way to do it to create an amnesty program similar to the one applied to the Niger Delta rebels in 2010, which consisted in a subsidy being paid to the fighters, along with the provision of educational programs. The question is: how viable is this program?
First of all, it will place an heavier burden on the struggling Nigerian economy. Second of all, the program’s target is, in many ways, different from the one in the Niger Delta. In one hand, Niger Delta rebels fought, in a great measure, for material benefits and improvement in their livelihoods, i.e., a greater share of oil the oil wealth and oil-extraction-related pollution prevention. On the other hand, Boko Haram leaders fight more for its ideology, than for material benefits. It is common sense that money has more power over the ones who seek material than over those who fight for ideals.
All in all, some kind of agreement between the two parties must never involve a kind of amnesty program similar to the one applied in the Niger Delta, since it is doubtful that it will bring about positive outcomes – even in the Niger Delta the program is proving to be not as efficient as it was thought to be when of the time of its implementation. Moreover, as already referred, the Nigerian Federal Government along with State authorities, must assess the causes of Boko Haram’s exponential growth in such a short time-frame. By tackling such causes – economic, social and political -, it is probable that the North will see levels of extremism decreasing and peace may be able to endure. These goals are not easy to achieve, it will be necessary an increasing accountability by Nigerian government towards their subjects.