Several analysts and members of the intelligence raised their eyebrows when newly elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said earlier this summer that terror group Boko Haram should be defeated by November 2015. Little changed when the president postponed the deadline to December 2015, as the Islamist outfit keeps carrying out deadly attacks in northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries and has not given any sign that it is willing to negotiate with authorities.
Who are Boko Haram terrorists?
Cleric Mohameed Yusuf founded the “Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād’”, translated from Arabic as the “Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad”, in northern Nigeria in 2002. The group was renamed by the locals “Boko Haram”, which loosely translates from the Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden”.
The ideology of the Islamic sect, born in Maiduri, capital of modern day Borno state, was based on the application of a strict version of Sharia law and influenced by Wahabism, a branch of Sunni Islam. The group later became a Salafist-jihadi and started advocating for a violent struggle to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria in the territories that prior colonisation formed the Bornu empire (founded in 1380 by the Sefuwa dynasty and dismantled in 1893). Bornu was originally part of the Kanem Empire, which included territories of modern day Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
The group carried out its first deadly attacks in the summer of 2009, in retaliation to two episodes. One was the arrest of some Boko Haram members by the police during an investigation on the group codenamed “Operation Flush”. The second episode that is considered the trigger of a violent uprising by Boko Haram, occurred in July of that year when some Boko Haram members were stopped by the police as they were on their way to the cemetery to bury one of their comrades.
Police officers asked them to comply with local rules in Borno and wear helmets. When they refused, a clash erupted and police shot dead and wounded some Boko Haram members. The incident sparked a violent uprising across several areas in Borno – particularly in Maiduguri, which is today the epicentre of the group’s insurgency – Yobe, Kano and Bauchi states.
During the uprising, Yusuf was captured by the military and was executed by the police, which initially said the man was killed as he had tried to escape. Yusuf was substituted by Abubakar Shekau, his second-in-command.
What makes Boko Haram so powerful?
Boko Haram has killed more than 17,000 people since its insurgency became violent in 2009, according to several NGOs, including Amnesty International. The group counts thousands of members, including young boys from poor families who do not have access to education, and who willingly join the militants as they feel it’s their only option to earn an income and provide for their loved ones.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has earned the reputation of a ruthless group known for killing and kidnapping civilians – the Chibok girls being the most known example- including children of all ages. Children and women are also used as sex slaves and are forced to carry out suicide bombing attacks against Muslim and Christian civilians across the country as well as government officials and institutions.
Violence linked to Boko Haram prompted three states − Adamawa, Borno and Yobe – to declare a state of emergency in May 2013. One year later, the group declared an Islamic caliphate in Gwoza, along the Cameroon border and, in March 2015, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (Isis) and changed its name to the Islamic State’s West African Province (Iswap).
Boko Haram carries out attacks mainly in northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, Niger and Chad. However, on 2 October, the group claimed responsibility for coordinated bomb attacks that left at least 18 people dead and 41 injured in the federal capital of Abuja.
Is the Nigerian government going in the right direction?
When in October the Nigerian government declared the terrorists were surrendering, Boko Haram refuted the claims in an audio message and both the Islamist outfit and the Nigerian leadership accused each other of making purely propagandistic claims.
Since Buhari, a former military general and known strategist, took office in May, the government has launched strong messages to the group by, among other things, relocating military headquarters to Maiduguri, announcing the country will be heading a 8,700-strong regional offensive against the group and by re-establishing strong ties with the US, whose relationship with Nigeria had deteriorated during the administration of Goodluck Jonathan.
President Barack Obama announced the US will provide the Nigerian army with intelligence personnel and training. The US also said it was considering lifting its arms ban on Nigeria, part of the Leahy Law, which forbids the US from providing military assistance or funding to countries that commit – or are suspected of committing – gross human rights abuses with impunity.
The ongoing fight against Boko Haram has resulted in some success in recent months, such as the recapture of some territories as well as the dismantlement of some Boko Haram camps that resulted in confiscation of arms and vehicles.
Furthermore, some believe that the group might be suffering due to a gap in the leadership following the repeated absence of Shekau from the group’s videos, leading to rumours that he might have been killed or replaced.
Although Buhari has undoubtedly stepped up the fight against the insurgents and has made the elimination of terrorists his top priority, there are many issues that have to be resolved before declaring total victory over Boko Haram. Some analysts suggested that the fact that Shekau no longer appears in videos, could be because the group know takes order from the Islamic State, another group that counts thousands of members. The Nigerian government, as well as the West, should look at this allegiance with a closer eye.
Furthermore, the Nigerian army – accused by several NGOs of committing war crimes and being responsible for the death of at least 8,000 people – must gain back the trust of civilians, who are routinely asked to collaborate with authorities to locate the terrorists.
Above all, the Nigerian government must eliminate, once and for all, the root causes that push people to join militant groups because they feel it’s their only way to earn a living. Poverty, inability to access education and health services, unemployment and disenfranchisement are all factors that make recruitment easy and are all obstacles to a successful fight against Boko Haram or any other terror group.