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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / International Relations and Security

Boko Haram and the Ongoing Campaign of Terror in Northern Nigeria: The End in Sight?

There is an ongoing campaign of terror in Nigeria. Since July 2009, Boko Haram, an extremist jihadist group from northern Nigeria, has killed over 3,500 people in the wake of an Islamic insurgency, with the death toll rising almost on a daily basis. The group has carried out frequent gun attacks and bombings, in some cases using suicide bombers, on various venues in Nigeria including police stations, military facilities, churches, schools, beer halls, newspaper offices, and the United Nations building in Abuja. In addition, the group has assassinated Muslim clerics and traditional leaders in the north for allegedly cooperating with state authorities to implicate members of the group. Boko Haram’s increasingly sophisticated and coordinated attacks have targeted Nigeria’s ethno-religious faultlines and security agents in an attempt to wrest power from the Nigerian government and create an Islamic state governed by sharia law. Since January 2013, Boko Haram has taken control of certain local government areas in northern Borno, chasing out local government officials, taking over control of government buildings and imposing sharia law. So critical is the threat posed by Boko haram that in January 2012, the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan lamented: ‘The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war [1967-1970] that we fought.’ Unfortunately, numerous attempts at negotiating with the jihadist group, including the recent presidential amnesty offer extended to its members, have stalled due to gross distrust on both sides, and the factionalised leadership of the group’s different cells.

Radical Islam is not a new phenomenon in the Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria. Following independence in October 1960, the violent confrontation that took place between a sect of Muslim fanatics (popularly known as the Maitatsine uprisings) and the Nigerian Police Force in Kano (December 1980) and Maiduguri (October 1982) did not come as a surprise to those who understand the complexity of the religious situation in northern Nigeria. The Maitatsine uprisings – which killed over 4,177 Nigerians – had its roots in the deeply conservative practice of Islam which has been dominant in the region going back to the highly successful jihad (holy war) of Sheik Uthman dan Fodio of Sokoto (1754-1817) in the early 19th century. Uthman dan Fodio launched a jihad against what he saw as the hopelessly corrupt and ‘apostate’ Hausa ruling elite of his time and established the sharia-governed Sokoto Caliphate across much of what is today northern Nigeria, Niger and northern Cameroon. What began as a search for religious purification soon became a search for a political kingdom, with the outcome that Islam has remained the focal veneer for the legitimacy of the northern ruling class and, consequently, its politicians have always prided themselves as ‘soldiers for the defence of the faith.’ Some have argued that the defeat of the Caliphate by British conquerors in 1903, and its subsequent dealings with colonial and post-colonial states, opened it up to the corrupting influence of secular political power. Across northern Nigeria, Western education (yan boko) and influence continues to be linked to attempts by evangelical Christians to convert Muslims.

The nomenclature Boko Haram is derived from a combination of the Hausa word, boko (book), and the Arabic word, haram (forbidden). Put together, Boko Haram means ‘Western education is forbidden.’ However, leaders of Boko Haram have rejected this designation and, instead, prefer the slogan ‘Western culture is forbidden.’ Boko Haram implies a sense of rejection and resistance to imposition of Western culture and its system of colonial social organisation, which replaced and degraded the earlier Islamic order of the jihadist state of Dan Fodio. The group officially calls itself Jama’atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad). Boko Haram was led by Mohammed Yusuf until he was killed by Nigerian security forces just after the sectarian violence in Nigeria in July 2009, which caused over 1,000 deaths. Yusuf, born on the 29th of January, 1970, in Girgir village in Yobe Sate, Nigeria, founded Boko Haram in 2002 in the city of Maiduguri. He received instruction in Salafi1 radicalism and was greatly influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, Islamic scholar (alim) from the town of Harran in Upper Mesopotamia. Yusuf established a religious complex in his hometown that included a mosque and a school where many poor families from across Nigeria and from neighbouring countries enrolled their children. However, the centre had ulterior political goals and soon it was also working as a recruiting ground for future jihadists to fight the state. The group includes members who came from neighbouring Chad and Niger and speak only Arabic. Boko Haram was able to attract more than 280,000 members across northern Nigeria as well as in Chad and Niger Republic. Boko Haram’s membership comprises university lecturers, bankers, political elites, drug addicts, unemployed graduates, migrants from neighbouring countries and almajiris—a group of young itinerant students of the Koran who had a very simple life-style and won their daily bread in the cities by begging.

Boko Haram’s ideology is embedded in deeply traditional Islamism, and is but one of several variants of radical Islamism to have emerged in northern Nigeria. Its adherents are reportedly influenced by the Koranic phrase: ‘Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.’ As the name suggests, Boko Haram is strongly opposed to what it sees as a Western-based incursion that erodes traditional values, beliefs, and customs among Muslim communities in northern Nigeria. The group’s first leader, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009: ‘Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam.’ Elsewhere, the charismatic leader stated: ‘Our land was an Islamic state before the colonial masters turned it to a kafir (infidel) land. The current system is contrary to true Islamic beliefs.’ In an audiotape posted on the internet in January 2012, a spokesman for the group, Abubakar Shekau, even accused the Barrack Obama-led U.S. government of waging war on Islam.

Boko Haram became a full-fledged insurgency following confrontation between the group and the state’s security agency in Bauchi State charged with the responsibility of enforcing a newly introduced law that required motorcyclists in the entire country to wear crash-helmets. Members of Boko Haram reneged on this law. This led to a violent clash between the state’s enforcement agency and Boko Haram, killing 17 Boko Haram members in the crossfire. The group’s hideout in Bauchi State was also ransacked, and materials for making explosives were confiscated. Following this crackdown, the group mobilized its members for reprisal attacks which led to the death of several policemen and civilians. The riot was temporarily quelled after Nigerian forces captured and killed the Boko Haram leader, Yusuf. The death of Yusuf pushed the group to retreat for a while and to transform itself into a network of underground cells with a hidden leadership – a situation that today makes any military solution illusory. Boko Haram soon announced its re-emergence with more advanced tactics and devastating attacks, as was evident in the suicide car bombing of the Nigerian police headquarters in Abuja and the UN Headquarters in 2011. In the first 10 months of 2012 alone, more than 900 people died in attacks by the group—more than in 2010 and 2011 combined.

For many Boko Haram members, the extrajudicial killing of their founder served to foment pre-existing animosities toward the Nigerian government and its security forces. In the group’s bid to avenge the death of their founder, almost every other person and group outside Boko Haram was antagonised, especially the Nigerian police and army. Boko Haram’s most frequent targets have been police stations, patrols, and individual policemen at home or in public who were off-duty or retired. Boko Haram’s modus operandi has involved the use of gunmen on motorbikes. They have used petrol bombs, improvised explosive devices, and armed assaults in these violent attacks. Boko Haram leaders claim that the ‘people’ are not against them and that it is only the army and the police that are against them. In 2012, Boko Haram launched several attacks against police officers, Christians, and Muslims who allegedly cooperate with the government or oppose the group. Among the demands of Boko Haram are the release of all its prisoners and the prosecution of those responsible for the killing of their founder. However, Boko Haram’s number one goal remains to overthrow the Nigerian government and to create an Islamic state under sharia law.

Given the frequency of violent attacks carried out by Boko Haram almost on a daily basis, the prospect for human security remains grim in northern Nigeria, with potentially serious ramifications for the international community. For one thing, Boko Haram provides global jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda with an avenue to expand its operations in Africa, should the two groups become affiliated organisations. Already, leaders of both organisations have publicly pledged mutual support. Abubakar bin Muhammad Shekau, current head of Boko Haram, has linked the jihad being fought by Boko Haram with the global jihad. He has threatened attacks not only in Nigeria but also against ‘outposts of Western culture.’ In association with Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram could pose a major threat not only to Nigeria, but also transnationally, since Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer. The increasing sophistication of Boko Haram’s attacks and its adoption of suicide car bombings may be a sign that the group is indeed receiving tactical and operational assistance from a foreign militant group. Since Al-Qaeda has attacked UN targets in Algeria, and Al-Shabaab has attacked UN targets in Somalia, Boko Haram’s decision to attack the UN building in Abuja is unlikely to be a coincidence. Indeed, this attack on a distinctly non-Nigerian target was a first for Boko Haram, and may indicate a major shift in its ideology and strategic goals. In 2012, the US State Department added Boko Haram’s most visible leader, Abubakar Shekau, to the list of specially designated global terrorists. Khalid al Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kamba were also included in the list, because of their ties to Boko Haram and close links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The US also recently announced a $7 million bounty for the capture of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.

But why does Boko Haram rebel? Some writers have argued that Boko Haram is infusing religion into a long-churning brew of grievances about corruption, injustice and unfair distribution of wealth and power. They argue that religious dimensions of the conflict have been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement, inequality, and economic marginalization of a large section of Nigeria’s northern population are the root causes of Boko Haram’s ultra-violent movement. According to Raufu Mustapha, Nigerian Professor at Oxford University, ‘Boko Haram is the symptom of the failure of nation-building and democratic politics in Nigeria. It is the misguided cry of a disgruntled youth crushed by the socioeconomic system on the one hand and then repressed by the state on the other.’ Others, like the erudite clergy from northern Nigeria, Fr. Matthew H. Kukah, argue that Boko Haram uses religion as a tool to mobilize against modernity which is seen as the root cause of persistent corruption, moral bankruptcy, and injustice. While agreeing with Mustapha and Kukah, I argue that the ultra-violent turn of Boko Haram must also be traced back to the extrajudicial killing of its charismatic leader, Muhammed Yusuf, and the ongoing arbitrary arrest, torture and bloodletting of its members by state security forces. Yusuf’s killing provoked a strong reaction from Boko Haram members who primarily want to settle their scores with the Nigerian police and army. In a video that was released in June 2010, Abubakar Shekau – Boko Haram’s current leader – vowed to avenge the deaths of its members in the hands of state security forces. In September 2010, a Boko Haram member told the BBC’s Hausa radio service that ‘we are on a revenge mission as most of our members were killed by the police.’ Tellingly, since the recommencement of Boko haram attacks in 2010, the group have raided over 60 police facilities in at least 10 northern and central states, and Abuja, and killed at least 211 police officers. Between January and September 2012, at least 119 police officers lost their lives in suspected Boko Haram attacks, more than in all of 2010 and 2011 combined.

The Nigerian state has responded to the Boko Haram crisis with what may be described as a soft-hand and a heavy-hand. The former has involved an attempt to engage Boko Haram members in a political negotiation or dialogue. Most recently, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan established a 26-member Amnesty ‘Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful resolution of Security Challenges in the North.’ According to a presidential statement, the Committee ‘has been given the task of identifying and constructively engaging key leaders of Boko Haram, and developing a workable framework for amnesty and disarmament of members of the group.’ However, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau responded to the amnesty entreaties by saying that his group had done no wrong, and that an amnesty would not be applicable to them. Shekau argued that it was the Nigerian government committing atrocities against Muslims. In his words: ‘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 [a] pardon.’ In a video released on 13 May 2013, Shekau vowed not to stop his group’s violent campaigns to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. Barely a week after Boko Haram refused Nigeria’s amnesty offer the group launched two back-to-back devastating attacks in northern Nigeria. In the first attack, members of Boko Haram, disguised in military uniforms and in buses and machine gun-mouthed trucks, laid siege to the town of Bama, in Borno State, killing 55, mostly police and security forces, and freeing over 100 prison inmates. In the second attacks days later, Boko Haram members killed 53 people and burnt down 13 villages in central Nigeria’s Benue State.

The violent attacks led the Nigerian President to declare a state of emergency (on 15 May 2013) in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe – three northern states where Boko Haram has been most active – in an attempt to restore order and reclaim control of the territories taken over by Boko Haram. In a pre-recorded address broadcast to the Nigerian public on 14 May 2013, President Jonathan said: ‘What we are facing is not just militancy or criminality, but a rebellion and insurgency by terrorist groups which pose a very serious threat to national unity and territorial integrity.’ Jonathan further stated that ‘it would appear that there is a systematic effort by insurgents and terrorists to destabilize the Nigerian state and test our collective resolve.’ Goodluck Jonathan’s speech brought the ongoing Islamic insurgency into stark relief, at one point describing how fighters had laid waste to state buildings and ‘had taken women and children as hostage.’ According to Jonathan, ‘These actions amount to a declaration of war and a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of the Nigerian state and threaten (its) territorial integrity. As a responsible government, we will not tolerate this.’ The Nigerian president vowed to ‘take all necessary action… to put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists,’ including the arrest and detention of suspects, taking over Boko Haram hideouts, the lockdown of suspected Boko Haram enclaves, raids, and arresting anyone possessing illegal weapons.

This brings us to the second response of the Nigerian state. The heavy-hand approach has always been the preferred option in Nigeria’s militarized history, involving the use of state security forces to mount aggressive pursuit and crackdown of Boko haram members. To this end, the Nigerian government established a special Joint Task Force (JTF) to eliminate the threat posed by Boko Haram. In the biggest campaign to date against Boko Haram, President Jonathan ordered some 2,000 soldiers to the region in a direct military offensive against Boko Haram members. However, far too often, members of the JTF have been accused of killing innocent people in the name of counter-terrorism. In Borno State, for example, JTF resorted to extralegal killings, dragnet arrests and intimidation of the hapless Borno residents. Far from conducting intelligence-driven operations, the JTF simply cordoned off areas and carried out house-to-house searches, at times shooting young men in these homes. In the most recent crossfire between JTF and Boko Haram in Baga, a village on Lake Chad near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, reportedly up to 187 people were killed, and 77 others were injured. At least 2,000 houses, 64 motorcycles and 40 cars were burnt in the wake of the attack. But Baga residents have accused the JTF, not Boko Haram, of firing indiscriminately at civilians and setting fire on much of the fishing town. The brutal, incendiary, and counterproductive approach of the Nigerian government has created growing resentment among many northern communities which precludes any useful information from community members regarding the whereabouts of Boko Haram.

Boko Haram remains arguably the biggest problem confronting Nigeria today, with consequences going beyond security into the political and socio-economic aspects of governance in Nigeria. This paper argues that Boko Haram should be considered ‘a movement of restoration,’ since its main claim continues to be the enforcement of sharia, as Uthman dan Fodio did two centuries earlier. The frustration of the Nigerian government with the worsening security situation in northern Nigeria is evident in its declaration of a state of emergency and its ‘flip-flop’ approach from a soft hand (amnesty talks) to a heavy-hand (deployment of troops and the declaration of outright war on Boko Haram) in less than two weeks. These factors have coalesced to further complicate the task of the Amnesty Committee. While military crackdowns on Boko Haram have the potential to significantly degrade the group’s operational capability to mount devastating attacks, it must be considered that such an approach may increasingly force ultra-radical elements within Boko Haram to establish terrorist networks with Al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab as a form of survival strategy. Moreover, the current military crackdowns of the Nigerian government is likely to force Boko Haram to move out to other towns and cities with less military presence and launch guerrilla war, which is deadlier. Although the establishment of the Amnesty Committee is seen here as a welcomed idea, and reflects President Jonathan’s recognition that purely military means cannot sustainably resolve the current impasse, it is also consistent with policymaking tendencies toward Boko Haram that are ad hoc and reactive.


1. ‘salafi radicalism’ or ‘salafism’ is a minority tendency within Islam that goes back to the 9th century and whose main features were crystallized in the teachings of a 14th century Islamic scholar, Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). The hallmark of salafism is a call to modern Muslims to revert to the pure Islam of the Prophet Muhammad’s generation and the two generations that followed his. Muslims of this early period are called al-Salaf al-Salih (the pious forefathers) whence the name Salafi.