Nigeria and Boko Haram conflict analysis

Date: 13 January 2015

2014 brought a sharp and intensified international focus onto the activities of the Boko Haram organisation in north-eastern Nigeria. The kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in Chibok and a sustained campaign of violence brought fierce worldwide condemnation and concern over the group’s activities and the security threat it poses. Although 2014 has marked a particular escalation in the country’s battle against Boko Haram, the organisation has been operational in the north of Nigeria for the best part of a decade. Boko Haram related violence has, to date, caused the deaths of more than 4,000 people and the incumbent Jonathan administration has been incapable of effectively combating the group.

The failure of the Jonathan administration to tackle the insurgent organisation, in conjunction with continued instability and violence in Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa states, represent a notably concerning paradigm for Nigeria, particularly due to the upcoming presidential elections to be held in February 2015. Throughout the current incumbency, the extremity of the group’s actions has increased and Jonathan’s decision to run for a second term has ostensibly reignited ethno-religious tensions within the country. The continued state of emergency in the three aforementioned states, and growing operational reach of Boko Haram, raises the distinct possibility that the state will be unable to hold free and fair elections in large areas of the northeast; due to the fact that the candidates from the opposition group, All Peoples Congress, rely conspicuously upon these areas for popular support, the country could face a constitutional crisis alongside the Boko Haram insurgency that could significantly threaten the integrity of the state of Nigeria. This conflict analysis produced by Kachi Nwokenna, analyst at Bradburys Global Risk Partners, will seek to provide a rounded account of the conflict and offer potential courses of action for the Nigerian state and its regional and international partners to deal with the Boko Haram phenomenon.

This analysis will begin by providing an overview of the origins and aims of the Boko Haram group, providing a brief trajectory of the group from its inception in 2002 to its modern structure and activities in 2014. This section will also provide insight into the initial emergence of Boko Haram, focusing on the socio-economic grievances and anti-establishment tendencies that are present in the north of the country. The second chapter will then provide the current domestic context, and discuss developments within Nigeria. It will begin by focusing on the Jonathan administration, illustrating the role it has played in precipitating the growth of Boko Haram and its failure in mounting an adequate response to the conflict. Moreover, this section will also analyse the upcoming elections in the country, given that the convergence of this process with the Boko Haram organisation represents is axiomatic of this critical phase in Nigerian history. The third chapter of the analysis will focus on the regional aspects and implications of Boko Haram, an important consideration due to Nigeria’s porous borders and the suspected links between the organisation and ‘al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM). The fourth chapter will conclude by assessing the likelihood of either a regional or international intervention in the conflict.

1. Boko Haram Overview

1.1 Origins and Aims

Although there is a lack of clarity with regards to the exact inception and origins of the Boko Haram organisation, it is commonly acknowledged that the group formed in 2002 under the leadership of the radical Islamic cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, who worshipped at the al-Muhammadu Ndimi mosque in Maiduguri. Over time, Yusuf was seen to become increasingly radical in his views, thus causing tensions with fellow worshipers at the mosque. Consequently, Yusuf sought to split from this group and its teachings and form his own sect, and building his own mosque in the northeast for his loyal followers. Hence, the creation of Boko Haram was witnessed.

Boko Haram is the more commonly adopted name for the organization Ahlisunnah Lidda’awati wa’l-Jihad, translating as ‘people committed for the propagation of the prophets teaching and jihad’. Boko Haram is the name afforded to the group by locals in Maiduguri. The Hausa phrase loosely translates as ‘Western education is a sin’. The name of the group in some part encapsulates the central aims of the organisation. Crucially, Boko Haram was formed as a vehicle from which to repel western influence in northern Nigeria and to implement full and proper Sharia Law in the 12 states that had adopted it in their 1999 constitution. Mohammed Yusuf was a popular figure in the north of the country and the organisation soon began to attract radical young Muslims. Yusuf advocated a more literal interpretation of the Qur’an, in particular, the full implementation of Sharia Law, and a corresponding antipathy towards the prominence Western education in Nigeria. In Boko Haram’s embryonic phase, Yusuf was involved with official attempts by the state to implement full Sharia across selected northern states, however, these failed to materialise.

1.2 Current nature and structure

The violent metamorphosis of Boko Haram into the terrorist organisation we see today began in the aftermath of the 2009 uprising, and the abrupt death of Mohammed Yusuf. It is commonly stated that the violent clashes that occurred throughout several towns in the northeast of the country stemmed from a confrontation between local police officials and Boko Haram members, over the latter’s refusal to wear helmets whilst travelling on motorbikes. The flashpoint eventually culminated in the shooting of several Boko Haram members by the police. The organisation retaliated throughout towns in the northeast with attacks on police and state security services. This period of fighting resulted in the arrest of Mohammed Yusuf and his extra-judicial killing whilst in police custody (this event is often argued to be one of the motivational drivers for the actions of the group).

Following the violent repression of Boko Haram in towns across the northeast, such as Maiduguri, the organisation’s remaining members went underground for an extended period of time. The group soon reemerged under the apparent leadership of Abubakar Shekau, announcing his position in a YouTube video posted in July 2010. Under Shekau’s leadership the group shifted focus and began to carry out more violent, indiscriminate, attacks throughout the northeast and eventually in other parts of the country. Rather than seeking to implement Sharia through dialogue with local politicians, the preferred modus operandi under Yusuf, the group became more violently opposed to western influences in the north of Nigeria, and more actively sought to spread its anti-establishment rhetoric. Boko Haram now appears committed to the forceful establishment of a new Islamic state across the north of Nigeria, based on a strict interpretation of Sharia Law.

It is also important to note that Boko Haram is not one uniform organisation, operating under a single hierarchical structure and chain of command. Rather, it is a highly decentralised organisation with various splinter groups. Shekau is overtly one of the most vocal and violent of its many leaders. In addition to Boko Haram, a splinter group named Ansaru has also formed. This group appears to have formed in order to offer an alternative to Boko Haram, particularly, due to the organisation’s continued threat to slaughter and murder innocent Muslims.

1.3 Activities and attacks

Since 2010 the groups’ campaign has drastically grown and Boko Haram now actively engages a wide array of targets, including: security forces, government officials, prominent politicians and clerics, schools, civilians, churches, and traditional leadership. The group has increasingly sought to seize and occupy territory. It is now estimated that Boko Haram has a zone of territorial control that is similar to the size of Wales. The protracted violence involved has had a severe negative impact not only on public safety in these regions, but has also greatly undermined the (already limited) development of infrastructure in the northeast region.

Despite this relative success, the increasingly violent nature of the organisation’s operations is likely to generate long-term doubts surrounding the ability of the organisation to endure in the northeast. The targeting of fellow Muslims invariably exacerbates such doubts, as Boko Haram largely relies upon this demographic to draw popular support. A recent ‘Gallup’ poll illustrated that nearly all Nigerians (95%) view the group as a major threat to the country’s future. Moreover, the majority of citizens in northern Nigeria do not think that Sharia should be the only source of law. This heightens doubts over the long-term viability of Boko Haram as a populist movement.

1.4 What factors have precipitated the growth of Boko Haram in Nigeria?

The rise of Boko Haram as a domestic security threat can be attributed to an amalgamation of different factors and processes of interaction; three of these in particular are of notable interest as outlined below. Understanding the narrative of conditions that have enabled the group to form is central to the prescription of effective policy to combat it.

1.4.1 Socioeconomic

Boko Haram holds its roots in the historic perceptions of socio-economic marginalisation in the northeast of Nigeria. Nigeria is arguably the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, however; the majority of those living in the country have not felt the benefits of the discovery of oil. This disparity in the distribution of wealth is most stark in the north of the country where the incumbent government has most visibly failed to provide basic infrastructure and human capital. The poverty rate in the north is stagnated above 70%, in addition, the economy in this part of Nigeria is contingent upon out-dated agricultural systems and practices, with few linkages to the rest of the country. It is against this backdrop of chronic underdevelopment that dissatisfied and disillusioned youths have increasingly turned to violence in an attempt to address the aforementioned grievances. As such the social justice that Boko Haram offers by way of fundamentalist Sharia law is viewed by many as the answer to the social ills of the nation.

1.4.2 Sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism

Islamic fundamentalism and focus on Sharia law is not a new dynamic within the Nigerian state. At several different junctures in Nigeria’s history one can identify violent uprisings in relation to such beliefs. The most salient of these was the ‘Maitatsine Uprising’ in Kano during 1980, which left 4,000 dead following a draconian intervention by the government. Thus, it is unsurprising that Islamic fundamentalism has the capacity to garner support in the north of the country. The region has a keen preference for maintaining religious identity, and this is especially the case in contestation to Western methods of education. Despite this, it should be recognised that the majority of Nigerian and Muslim views are not aligned with those of Boko Haram.

1.4.3 Anti-Establishment

The anti-establishment position that Boko Haram purports is a contributing factor towards the organisations proliferation. Nigeria suffers from a severe legitimacy gap due to the issue of endemic corruption. Transparency International rates Nigeria as 26/100 on its transparency index, and Nigeria is considered to be one of the most corrupt nations in the world. In conjunction with the intrinsic underdevelopment of the north has led many within poorer, remote areas, to seek alternative means of redress to the failures of the state, provided by organisations such as Boko Haram or the ‘Movement for the Emancipation Niger Delta’ (MEND). Boko Haram has played to anti-establishment rhetoric and sought to position itself as the answer to the government shortcomings in the north of the country. As such, the organisation has been able to gain a following amongst disillusioned youth, who see seek a vehicle capable of striving for social justice.

1.5 Membership

The aforementioned factors that explain the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria also generate a key indication with regard to the social composition of the organisation’s core membership. The estimated size of the Boko Haram is approximately 6,000 fighters. This is largely comprised of disillusioned youth from the north of the country. The group has traditionally targeted Almajiri students for recruitment. This demographic consist typically of young students of Islam, sent away by their parents from a young age to study with clerics across the country. Typically, these young students end up in difficult economic conditions and are often forced into slavery or begging in order to survive. The socioeconomic positioning of this group puts them at risk of indoctrination and radicalization, however; the increasingly violent actions of the Boko Haram will most likely make recruitment more difficult in the future. The group has already begun to pay criminals and thugs to join its ranks. Additionally there is evidence that many individuals from countries such as Chad and Niger comprise a significant proportion of Boko Haram’s fighting force. This consideration underscores regional aspects of the conflict that will be discussed in section 3.

1.6 Funding

The extent of the network of funding for Boko Haram is not clearly identifiable from open sources. However there are various assumptions regarding the fund raising activities of Boko Haram. It is apparent that the organisation is extensively integrated into the economy of several northeastern states. Yusuf was able to do this through creating independent businesses that kept revenue flowing into the organisation. Furthermore, Boko Haram is now actively engaging in extortion activities, forcing local businesses to pay taxes. An important, yet less systematic source of recent funding for Boko Haram has also been its role in bank robberies throughout the northeast. There have also been suggestions that Boko Haram’s links with organisations such as AQIM have given it access to wider pools of financial resources.

2. Domestic Context

2.1 Jonathan administration

The enduring presence of the Goodluck Jonathan presidency has played an important role in creating an environment conducive to the growth of Boko Haram, most notably by inadvertently increasing tensions between the Muslim north and Christian south of the country. At the conception of democracy in Nigeria in 1999, it was essentially agreed that the Christian south and Muslim north would enter into a power-sharing agreement whereby each would have alternate turns to hold the presidency.

At the end of President Olusegun Obasanjo’ (Christian) time in office, it was the northern turn to control the presidency. However, this came to an end with the sudden death of the Muslim President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua which led to Jonathan assuming power, given his position as incumbent vice-president. Many northern citizens believed that Jonathan had to cede power to a Muslim candidate in the next election to resume the power-sharing agreement; however, he stood for re-election and defeated the northern Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari.

This has been an issue of contention in the country ever since and has fed the rhetoric that northern Muslims are being marginalized in Nigeria. As such, the enduring regime and the fact that Jonathan plans to stand again in the 2015 election has played a central role in heightening the ethno-religious tensions within the country, upon which Boko Haram has capitalised. In his online videos, Shekau has repeatedly targeted the Jonathan administration and has stated that he should be removed from power.

Against this backdrop of supposed electoral injustice felt in the north, the Jonathan administration has been unable to effectively suppress Boko Haram in the northeast. The state was evidently, and admittedly, ill prepared to deal with the re-emergence of Boko Haram in 2011. Since then the administration has sought to tackle the insurgency by relying upon a hard military approach intended to violently repress the organisation. Thousands of troops have been deployed in areas where Boko Haram operates, whilst a state of emergency has been enacted in the three most affected states, Borne, Yobe and Adamawa.

This hard approach has thus far catastrophically failed to deal with the issue. Rather than working to protect civilians, this violent repression of Boko Haram has often come at the expense of innocent civilians, and has generated a notable distrust of state security services by the corresponding communities. Additionally, the state has been unable to adequately tackle the Boko Haram threat due to the current composition of its security services. These are under-funded, ill equipped, and lacking in comprehensive intelligence capabilities, and as such Boko Haram has been able to exploit the limited counter-insurgency methods of the Nigerian army. Throughout 2014 there were reports of soldiers fleeing from encounters with Boko Haram, and also dissent amongst soldiers that were tasked with fighting the organisation. This has led to an 11% decrease in the faith that Nigerians have in their military from 2013 to 2014. Despite these conditions, it is important to note that the military, in combination with the civilian task force, has at times engaged in successful operations.

The Jonathan administration has paid extensive lip service to a soft and holistic approach to addressing the factors that have precipitated radicalisation of the youth in the north-east. Recently, a Nigerian national security adviser proclaimed that the federal government would adopt a new soft strategy that would aim to stop further radicalization, and seeks to increase coordination with local leaders in the northeast, however; there is a distinct lack of evidence of its implementation, and the government response continues to prove inadequate.

2.2 Elections

The upcoming elections in February 2015 add an increasingly dangerous dynamic to the Boko Haram issue and the intensifying north-south divide in the country. The decision of President Jonathan to stand for reelection has led to a split within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) whereby several dissatisfied northern leaders have defected to form the ‘All Progressives Congress’ (APC) that will stand in opposition to the PDP in the forthcoming election. Prominent northern Muslim leaders such as Buhari, who stood in previous general elections, are likely to constitute the APC candidates to stand in opposition to Jonathan in 2015. The split in the PDP to form the APC has only entrenched the north/south divide in the nation. As such, there is the distinct danger that during these elections, ethno-religious identities will become tied to the contesting political parties. Under such conditions, the propensity for violence is likely to be elevated amongst those who view the political process as a zero-sum game. Moreover, it can be argued that the country is highly likely to see a repeat of the 2011 violence in the middle belt of the country in the aftermath of the 2011 election, whereby 1000 civilians lost their lives.

The Boko Haram insurgency adds a dangerous layer to this issue for two central reasons. Firstly, both political groups are using this as a political tool with which to attack the opposition. Throughout his tenure as president, Jonathan has repeatedly accused northern politicians of being complicit in the rise of Boko Haram and this is intensifying in the run-up to the election. Moreover, the APC has accused the PDP of failing to respond effectively to the crisis. Secondly, there is a distinct possibility that in the run up to the election that Boko Haram will heighten its insurgency activities in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in particular. The Boko Haram presence in these states, coupled with the already stretched resources of the security service throughout the country, could prevent these states from holding free and fair election polls. As these are largely Muslim states where the APC will likely draw a large majority of votes, the failure to hold polls in these states would likely lead to APC rejecting the result of the election in the event of a loss. Although the Independent National Electoral Commission stresses that polls will still occur in these states, one can raise reasonable doubts surrounding the security services ability at present to restrict any potential Boko Haram influence upon the process. Such a political deadlock has the potential to ignite politically-driven ethno-separatist violence in the middle belt, the north and the Niger Delta. In conjunction with the resurgence of Boko Haram, the destabilising effects on Nigeria could potentially be drastic.

The upcoming election represents a potentially zero-sum situation for the country. Both the PDP and APC are likely to contest the result of the election if they fail to win which could spur violence on both sides. Christian southerners are likely to object to an APC candidate winning due to the fact that many view prominent northern politicians as complicit in the rise of Boko Haram. Such religious tensions are not abated by the actions of groups such as the Catholic Bishops Conference; who have repeatedly stated that Boko Haram is out to mainly target Christians in Nigeria. As aforementioned, another Jonathan victory is likely to lead to protests in the north due to the fact that many view his presidency as an illegitimate one, and Boko Haram could see a fractured post-election state as the perfect context within which to launch increasingly deadly attacks within Nigeria.

2.3 Economy

Thus far this report has shown that the government response to the crisis has been severely hindered by the fact that its forces are greatly under-funded and ill-equipped. This is a problem that is likely to continue in the future due to the squeeze that is occurring on the Nigerian economy. This can be attributed to the rapidly decreasing global oil price. Nigeria is wholly dependent on oil as its export base, and represents the majority of its government revenues. As such the decreasing oil prices have put a squeeze on the economy which saw the Naira devalued recently by 8% after the recent OPEC meeting. This could potentially have a severe impact in the states attempting to combat Boko Haram. Should this occur, it would create a context where an increasingly violent and well-funded Boko Haram faces an increasingly under-funded and over-stretched government security apparatus. Under these conditions there will be severe long-term doubts over the ability of the Nigerian state to diminish the Boko Haram threat.

3. Regional dynamics and implications

It is impossible to provide an accurate analysis of this conflict without discussing the regional dynamics and potential regional implications of Boko Haram. It is important to recognise, however, that the organisation itself is for the most part domestically focused in its aims at present.

3.1 Porous Borders

The Boko Haram issue is one that also involves Nigeria’s bordering countries. Any effective response to counter this insurgency must involve wider cooperation with regional neighbours; Cameroon, Niger, Chad and the further afield Mali. This is primarily due to the fact that Nigeria is a vast nation and thus shares vast borders with these states. It is often the case that these borders are extremely porous due to the difficulties involved in patrolling, monitoring, and enforcement. Due to this, the region has often been characterised by the easy flow of inhabitants from one state to the next. This represents a notable impediment in the efforts to combat Boko Haram. Although the Nigerian military, in conjunction with the civilian task force, were able to push the organisation back in some confrontations, insurgents have been able to escape the country over these borders.

This has enabled Boko Haram fighters to plan and coordinate attacks in Nigeria from their bases in bordering countries. The organisation has been able to set up training camps and bases in these countries, and this is most prevalent in Northern Cameroon where Shekau’s hideout is alleged to be located. Nigeria shares its longest and most difficult border to monitor with Cameroon; and fighters have been able to use this border to escape from Nigeria to Cameroon through Banki. Moreover Boko Haram is also said to operate heavily throughout the southern region of Niger. These porous borders not only allow for the flow of combatants but also weapons into Nigeria to support the insurgency.

3.2 Extremism in the Sahel

It is also important to consider the Boko Haram insurgency within the context of growing Islamic extremism in the region. This is in particular in relation to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and associated groups’ actions in Mali. AQIM have been conducting a violent insurgency in Northern Mali for the past 2 years. Their actions lead to the United Nations approving a French intervention force in January 2013 in order to counter the threat. It is likely that AQIM activities inspire those of Boko Haram, well evinced by Boko Haram’s adoption of similar seizures of territory. There is wide debate as to the supposed link between the two groups, however; Nigeria recognised the threat as pertinent enough to send a large number of Nigerian troops to northern Mali as part of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peacekeeping force. The link between Boko Haram and AQIM is an important one as such linkages may provide insight into the funding of the insurgency. Through drugs smuggling, human trafficking, arms trade and kidnapping, AQIM is an extremely well funded terrorist organization. Links to AQIM could therefore enable Boko Haram to increase the resources at their disposal.

3.3 Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

Due to the indiscriminate violence of Boko Haram, numerous civilians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries after being displaced from the northeast. In November 2014 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 13,000 Nigerians had fled Adamawa into Cameroonian refugee camps, after Boko Haram attacked the town. Moreover the UNHCR estimates that over 100,000 have fled to Niger since May 2013, and approximately 650,000 have been displaced in the northeast since the onset of the violence in the northeast. Thus the number of IDP’s has become a pertinent issue for the wider region.

4. Likelihood of regional/international intervention

Currently the likelihood of a regional or international military involvement in this conflict in the form of a peacekeeping force is highly unlikely. Nigeria has consistently been an active participant in the ECOWAS peacekeeping forces. Throughout the last decade they have seemingly used this as a vehicle to project their soft power throughout Western Africa. Thus it would be extremely unlikely that the Nigerian government would welcome an intervention that would infringe upon their own sovereignty, due to the impact that this may have on their influence in the region. Whilst ECOWAS member states are likely to coordinate efforts in relation to border controls, it is unlikely that this will transition into a peacekeeping force unless the Nigerian state becomes significantly destabilised. The Nigerian state is likely to continue to rely on internal security forces to tackle Boko Haram on their territory, however; their posture does seem increasingly open to coordinating cross border efforts with its neighbouring states.

Currently the international involvement of major western powers has been restricted to coordinated military assistance and intelligence gathering and sharing. The United States assistance to the Nigerian government has largely been focused around a four pronged approach; training of Nigerian armed forces, the provision of advisory support to the government and military, sanctions against Boko Haram, and facilitating a more coordinated regional response by encouraging multilateral dialogue on the issue. Additionally the United States are offering rewards for intelligence to help combat the group, for example they are offering $7million for information as to Shekau’s location. It is extremely unlikely that the current Obama administration will authorise such an intervention in Nigeria. Due to the US shale revolution the United States no longer imports any light oil from Nigeria, thus the Boko Haram insurgency does not offer any direct threat to US economic interests. As such it is difficult to envision a situation whereby the United States would seek to intervene with boots on the ground, nor a context where Nigeria would authorise such an action. Future US assistance in the conflict can also be questioned due to the fact that Nigeria has cancelled US military training programs in an attempt to divert resources towards the insurgency threat. Furthermore, an international intervention could potentially worsen the situation in northeast Nigeria. Conflating the largely domestic Boko Haram insurgency with the international fight against terrorism risks providing Boko Haram with a greater legitimacy within these spheres, and could hence draw greater numbers of foreign fighters into the conflict.


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