Fears mount that Boko Haram could bring Nigeria to the brink

As government closes schools in response to attacks on students, analysts say violence likely to increase

The scene on Sunday, a day after two explosions killed at least 35 people in Nigeria's restless northeastern city of Maiduguri, a stronghold of Boko Haram fighters.
AFP/Getty Images

Nearly daily bombings are devastating northeastern Nigeria in what looks to be the bloodiest year since Boko Haram, a loose coalition of armed fighters, began organizing in 2002.

Boko Haram is thought responsible for killing at least 1,300 people in the past two months and more than 130 in the past five days alone. There appears to be no end in sight to the violent uprising, and continuing escalation of the conflict is likely, experts say.

The Abuja government’s response to the violence, which has been raging since 2009, has been ineffective at best. Some say the state of emergency, in place since May of last year, and the subsequent influx of security forces has only increased tension. Government troops have carried out extrajudicial killings and torture of suspected Boko Haram members in past crackdowns.

Sola Tayo, a Nigeria expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the indiscriminate attacks “contribute to the feeling of living in an unpredictable war zone,” adding that the “flooding” of the north with government troops had made civilians feel antagonized and endangered, rather than safer.

The state responded to a recent spate of attacks on schools, one of which last week saw 43 students shot and hacked to death and an unknown number of girls kidnapped, by closing five schools considered to be in “high security risk areas.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Boko Haram is responsible for nearly 3,800 deaths since May 2011.

In August, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Boko Haram has likely committed crimes against humanity.

Nigeria has Africa’s second-largest economy and is the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter — positions threatened by ongoing instability and increasing violence. The United States, a close partner that imported 9 to 11 percent of its crude oil from Nigeria over the past decade but cut that number in half in 2012 and 2013, designated Boko Haram a “terrorist group” last year. And the Abuja government appears to be losing the fight.

“Some say what we're seeing is that the insurrection is becoming more and more successful — that they're winning. The government, of course, repeats over and over again that its policy is successful — and every time there's a government statement to that effect, there is usually a massacre the following day or within a few days,” said John Campbell, a West Africa expert at CFR and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.

Gov. Kashim Shettima of Borno, the Nigerian state hardest hit by the violence, said in a televised news conference last week: “Honestly, the Boko Haram are better armed and better motivated than our own troops. Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat the Boko Haram.”

According to Nigerian political analyst Chris Ngwodo, Boko Haram's motivation is based in religion but rooted in frustration over inequality, which the group blames on the elite class controlling the region's wealth while the vast majority lives in crippling poverty.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is home to about 175 million people, from 250 different ethnic groups, who speak more than 500 languages. The country is 50 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim, a sharp division that has long led to tension but until the last election was eased by an informal agreement – not enshrined in law – to alternate between Christian and Muslim political leadership.

Boko Haram's followers, also called Yusuffiya, are largely made up of poor Islamic students and clerics, as well as professionals, many of whom are unemployed, according to CFR.

Campbell told Al Jazeera that Boko Haram has proved even more difficult to pin down than organizations such Al-Qaeda and Somalia-based Al-Shabab because of its lack of clear leadership or even cohesive vision — one member may see the group as having completely different goals than another.

“The group’s appeal is religious and resonates in the context of a weak state with severely weakened institutions,” Ngwodo said.

“Its theater of operations — the Sahel — features a perfect storm of sovereignty-deficient states, a young economically frustrated population mired in poverty, nations with long histories of strife and the collapse of agrarian economies due to climate change. Boko Haram represents an alternative order to this matrix of dysfunction. It evidently aims to be to the Sahel what the Taliban was in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas.”  

‘Highly diffuse’ network

Campbell described the organizational structure of Boko Haram, or lack thereof, as a “highly diffuse insurrection against the Nigerian political economy — not a single coherent political program,” adding that different strands of the grassroots movement with distinct but varying motivations contribute to the seemingly indiscriminate targeting of religious institutions, police, military, politicians, schools and civilians.

“You're talking about a movement — you're not talking about a political process. There is no manifesto, no politburo, no charismatic leaders,” said Campbell.

“What they have in common is the achievement of justice for the poor through the strict application of Sharia, or Islamic law.”

Boko Haram is often described as fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s north — but, depending on who is speaking, the group could also be seeking to overthrow Nigeria’s government. President Goodluck Jonathan has held office since 2010, and will be in office until elections next year, when he is likely to run again.

Jonathan assumed the presidency when former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was also a Christian and a member of Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party, died in office. The move broke with the country’s tradition of alternating power between a Christian and Muslim leader.

“Northern Nigeria is poor, getting poorer and feels marginalized,” particularly since Jonathan took power, Campbell said. “(To them), the end of power sharing means that their marginalization is becoming permanent.”

In the north, 72 percent of people live in poverty, compared with 27 percent in the south and 35 percent in the Niger Delta, according to CFR.

Violence has surged since Jonathan was sworn in, and Campbell said it is likely to intensify, especially leading up to and beyond the 2015 elections.

The fallout

The violence has already reduced Nigeria’s regional and international diplomatic influence. In the mid-1990s, it was a major troop contributor to African Union and United Nations peacekeeping forces. Now, with Nigerian troops stationed in 32 of its 36 states, resources are strained and the government is no longer able to position itself diplomatically in the same way.

For the moment, the instability doesn’t seem to be leading to cuts in Nigeria’s oil exports, with the vast majority of Boko Haram attacks concentrated hundreds of miles away from the Niger Delta — although the delta is coping with an insurgency of its own that could be affected by the 2015 elections.

Tayo said, however, that if the attacks spread to the south of the country the effect on the economy would be “catastrophic,” adding that Boko Haram has threatened to strike Lagos, the country’s economic hub, and has more recently threatened to start attacking oil pipelines in the Niger Delta.

Campbell described Nigeria as between a “jihadist rock in the north and a delta hard place” ahead of the 2015 elections. A long-running rebellion in the Niger Delta, driven by local groups who feel the government is getting rich off them and their land and giving little in return, continues to simmer.

In recent years the violence has been tamped down through successful government and international aid programs like offering fighters alternative training in exchange for their laying down their arms.

But Campbell said that if Jonathan is blocked from the presidency in 2015, or runs and loses, “there is a real danger the country could erupt.” On the other hand, if Jonathan runs and wins, the violence in the north will continue to burn, and very likely escalate.

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