Nigeria Is at War With Islamist Ghosts
Government deploys thousands of soldiers to suppress Boko Haram, but knows almost nothing about the armed group
A war rages in northeastern Nigeria. Three months into a government-declared state of emergency, an army division of 8,000 men and a joint task force of other military and civilian security forces are trying to wrest control of large swathes of land from a fundamentalist insurgent group known as Boko Haram.
The government has deployed helicopter gunships, fighter jets and armored vehicles — and battles regularly result in dozens of soldiers, insurgents and civilians being killed. It’s one of the most intense conflicts of present times and yet we know practically nothing about the enemy, its organization, goals and real developments on the ground.
For people following the various conflicts in Africa, Boko Haram has been a household word for some time now. The group was founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2001 and 2002 in the Nigerian town of Maiduguri and for at least several years remained a non-violent, if radical, sect of orthodox Muslims opposing the perceived corruption and mismanagement of the Nigerian state.
At some point before 2009, members of the group began arming themselves and preparing for a violent uprising against the government, with the goal to introduce their interpretation of Islamic law to the north of Nigeria. The security services sprang into action and confronted members of the sect in a series of engagements that resulted in the deaths of at least 700 people, among them Yusuf, who died almost without a doubt as a result of police brutality while in custody.
In what was to become a recurring pattern, Boko Haram emerged strengthened and even more violent from this confrontation. The group began to systematically attack representatives of the state, security forces, prisons and civilians. Wikipedia has collated some of the largest attacks in a well-sourced timeline, but probably hundreds of smaller attacks have not been recorded by international media. All in all, at least 4,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram and the counter-violence by security forces.
An opaque enemy
For being such a formidable enemy, practically nothing is known with certainty about the group itself. Various splinter groups exist, but their respective organization and chains of command are opaque. Regularly, individuals emerge who claim to speak for Boko Haram, only to have that claim refuted convincingly by other people linked to the group. Outsiders — no matter if coming from the international community or Nigeria itself — are often at loss at how to observe and analyze the inner workings of the group, which in contrast to other jihadist entities like Al Qaeda does little in the way of propaganda and media outreach.
This ignorance includes the exact meaning of the group’s name. While “Boko Haram” is often translated as “Western education is a sin,” researcher Alex Thurston has convincingly argued that the seemingly simple term is much more complex than that, to say nothing of the group’s official Arabic name, “Ahl Al Sunna Li Al Da’wa Wa Al Jihad.”
Probably not even most members of Boko Haram have a firm knowledge of who belongs to them and what goals the different parts of the organization, if it can even be called that, pursue. This theory is supported by frequent reports of powerful regional politicians handing cash to people associated with Boko Haram, even though the dead leader Yussuf expressly forbade his followers to cooperate with the secular government of Nigeria.
Also, bank robberies are frequently blamed on Boko Haram, even though at least some of these incidents are almost certainly the work of regular criminals.
For the group itself, this apparent disorganization has proved to be quite effective. Repeated attempts by the government to crack down on Boko Haram after 2009 failed, because the security services couldn’t identify any vital parts of the organization to take out. The Nigerian army and police resorted to heavy-handed tactics of repression, putting up roadblocks, shutting down markets and on occasion flattening whole town quarters with heavy weaponry, if a Boko Haram cell was suspected to be inside.
Military operations were frequently followed by impressive body counts of dozens of “terrorists” killed, but given the indiscriminate nature of the attacks and the resilience of Boko Haram itself, it is safe to assume that many of those “terrorists” were actually innocent bystanders or non-violent sympathizers.
No effective counter-strategy
The brutal counter-violence by the state of course helps the recruiting effort of Boko Haram. In between offensives, the federal government or prominent religious figures tried their hand at negotiations, but all efforts to broker a compromise failed in the end due to the impossibility to identify someone, who could actually exert some influence over all parts of the jihadist group.
These cycles of violence have so far largely served to strengthen Boko Haram. By the beginning of this year, large swathes of Borno, Yowe and Adamawa states in the country’s northeast were essentially out of government control.
In May, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in these states and called out the big guns. In a first phase, operations of the joint task force, a cooperation between the military, intelligence services and police, intensified operations in the area and civilians were encouraged to assist the security services, essentially creating vigilante groups in many areas.
In a second phase, which started last week, a regular army division of over 8,000 soldiers took over the responsibility of fighting Boko Haram. A thousand of these soldiers just returned from Mali, where they took part in an operation against other jihadist groups challenging the state’s secular government. The newly created 7th Division brings armored vehicles, artillery and air support.
And the army is eager to show its worth: on Thursday, the army claimed to have eradicated a Boko Haram camp with 50 fighters in it. The soldiers followed the insurgents through aerial surveillance after they ambushed a group of pro-government vigilantes, killing at least 24 of them. The camp was surrounded and pounded by helicopter gunships. Apart from making clear the scale and intensity of the conflict, these reports also give an impression of the capabilities of the Nigerian armed forces.
Some observers argue that Boko Haram’s latest move — to not only engage government forces spontaneously, with IEDs, car bombs, suicide bombers or Kalashnikov-wielding motorcycle drivers, but to actually claim power over parts of the country and engaging in open battles — has made it vulnerable. This is the kind of battle, that the Nigerian army is actually trained to fight and is capable of winning, the argument goes.
Nigeria’s government and its generals hope that the new strategy of recognizing Boko Haram as a formidable fighting force and deploying a massive amount of troops and weaponry will force the most important parts of the group to the negotiation table. The result could be an amnesty for Boko Haram fighters and some form of political compromise, an approach that Nigeria has some experience with from its other insurgency, in the Niger Delta.
But if history is any guide, this hope seems to be unreasonable. Boko Haram is probably too splintered to be engaged in a meaningful dialogue as an organization. It is also unclear what the government could have to offer, apart from an amnesty. Other than the rebellion in the Niger Delta with its focus on economic participation, Boko Haram’s fighters are at least partly motivated by a religious, social and anti-government agenda. The Nigerian government can’t make any meaningful concessions on these issues.
The optimal way to go would of course be to address the underlying reasons for the insurgent’s disenchantment with the state, namely the pervasive poverty and corruption that cripples any economic opportunity for most Nigerians. But realpolitik will probably prevail and the Nigerian government will rely on its armed forces and security services to suppress any armed resistance. For this, Nigeria certainly has the capability and the will. It will just mean a lot more suffering for the people caught between the front lines.
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