The bomb blast near Abuja, Nigeria, on April 14 that killed at least 75 people, and the kidnapping the following day of what appeared to be more than 100 schoolgirls in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, have placed Boko Haram firmly at the top of local news. Security was tight in Abuja’s churches and cathedrals over the Easter weekend, and in a video released to Agence France-Presse on Sunday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the bomb, warning, “We are in your city, but you don’t know where we are.”
But northeastern Nigeria had been bandit country long before the emergence of Boko Haram. And while it may coincide with the growth over the past two decades of Salafist armed groups elsewhere in the region and beyond, the real context for Boko Haram's emergence is the long political and economic decline of Nigeria's northeast and enduring Kanuri opposition to northern power structures.
Writing in 1917, just three years after the amalgamation of south and north into a unified Nigeria, the colonial official Herbert Palmer reported back to London on the porous zone known colloquially by the British Foreign Office as "Central Sudan." The portent of his words repays quoting at length:
Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north to this day maintains its fluid connections with the wider Sahel region — or "Sahelistan," as some have begun to refer to the region after the emergence of various armed Salafist groups operating across borders. The 1903 moment cited in Palmer's report refers to Lord Lugard's colonial annexation of the Sokoto Caliphate, founded in the 19th century by the Fulani leader Usman dan Fodio, who had called for "jihad" against the Hausa kingdoms of northern Nigeria. The British adopted an "indirect rule" policy, leaving administrative matters to Nigerians, consolidating the authority of an "emirate" that empowered the local Fulani elite as the "protectors" of Muslim life and social order.
But the authority of the local emirs has been steadily eroded over the years by grinding poverty, social breakdown and conflict over resources often masked in religious terms.
One precedent for Boko Haram was the 1979 revolt led by Mohammed Marwa, known as "Maitatsine" — the one who damns. He declared himself a prophet and led a rebellion against religious authority in Kano that claimed 5,000 lives. His supporters, the "Yan Tatsine," were often non-Hausa northerners alienated from local power structures and facing declining employment prospects. They are not direct precursors to Boko Haram, but they do reveal a history of violent rebellion in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram's backstory also taps into an older historical tradition of resistance to the colonial-controlled Sokoto elite led by Muhammad al-Kanem. Boko Haram's hierarchy is dominated by Kanuri people, who are descendants of the Kanem-Bornu empire.
Historical legacy aside, Boko Haram's rise has been fueled by economic decline. Lake Chad has shrunk by 90 percent in the past 40 years, drastically affecting fishing livelihoods and irrigation farming for a surrounding population of 30 million. And desertification claims more than 770 square miles of cropland every year. Boko Haram has emerged in the poorest part of Nigeria, where 71.5 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty and more than half are malnourished.
Still, despite the complex matrix of political, economic and historical trends into which it emerged, Boko Haram began as a simple local dispute. A decade ago, the radical Kanuri cleric Mohammed Yusuf had been running an effective alternative government to the Borno state Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff, providing welfare and jobs to locals who lacked access to the governor's patronage network. Yusuf was popular among the region's impoverished and disaffected youth, and his death in police custody in 2009 after an altercation at a funeral prompted many of them to take up arms and begin attacking police stations to avenge their slain leader. Yusuf was succeeded by the more militant Shekau, and the insurgency began to spread west and south.
Five years on, however, Boko Haram has morphed from a local rebellion into part of a pan-Sahelian insurgency with a diffuse set of targets, from schools and universities to the U.N. It has formed linkages sharing expertise, training camps and equipment with groups in Mali and Libya. It has now also splintered into six factions, including Ansaru — which has more direct links with Al-Shabab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, it is thought that Shekau has little operational control over these groups.
The massive increase in federal military spending on the counterinsurgency effort (the annual military budget is now $6.25 billion) has also created a perverse incentive within Nigeria's military to keep the war going. An International Crisis Group report (PDF) from earlier this month referred to “allegations that substantial sums are pocketed from defence and security appropriations by government officials, security chiefs and the contractors supplying military hardware.”
In June 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan made the startling claim that Boko Haram had widely infiltrated Nigeria's power structure.
"Some of them are in the executive arm of government, some of them are in the parliamentary/legislative arm of government, while some of them are even in the judiciary," Jonathan said. "Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies."
Even if Boko Haram has evolved into a national and regional insurgency, the movement's power structures may have begun to intersect with the dynamic of corruption within the state's security apparatus. At least, that's what Nigeria's president appears to believe. Others, such as Adamawa state Gov. Murtala Nyako, controversially accuse Jonathan himself of supporting Boko Haram.
A political motive for disrupting the northeast is easy to see. The International Crisis Group report notes there are now “suspicions the ruling PDP and President Jonathan, who is expected to seek a new term, are trying to suppress ballots in the region, which is largely controlled by the newly-formed opposition party the All Progressives Congress.”
Meanwhile, establishment elders such as former Chief of Air Staff Al-amin Dagash and former Minister of Finance Mallam Adamu Ciroma called a press conference in early April to query how authorities could not be aware of the use of helicopters to drop supplies to Boko Haram strongholds.
While Shekau remains the Boko Haram figurehead, the six factions of the organization, the ease with which they can penetrate secure locations in Abuja and the looming 2015 election create a far more complex picture. Even though Boko Haram has now claimed responsibility for the Abuja bomb, the State Security Service and the police are not restricting their investigations to Boko Haram. In the most recent video clip, Shekau did not even mention the Chibok kidnapping.
Political solutions are often touted as the answer to armed insurgencies, but there's little reason to expect that Nigeria's politics — and next year’s nationwide election — will produce an answer to the challenge posed by Boko Haram. The movement has established supply routes and funding sources. Caches of recovered Boko Haram weapons have been traced to Libya, and Ansaru, at least, has established links with AQIM and Al-Shabab. Nor is a "hearts and minds" approach likely to succeed when ideology may not be the key driver of the insurgency. Nor does the government in Abuja seem likely to divert resources to address the extreme poverty of the northeast; it had adopted such an “amnesty program” in response to a different insurgency in the Niger Delta largely because rebel attacks on oil pipelines there threatened state revenues. Plans to refill Lake Chad by diverting water from a tributary of the Congo are not politically feasible, and desertification is an unstoppable feature of northern life.
With these forlorn factors in mind, it is hard to see Sahelistan being anything other than violently lawless for decades to come, with its epicenter in the northeast of Nigeria. Boko Haram may by now be a mirage on the dunes fostered by alienation and merciless economic hardship; it will also remain as an opportunity to continually destabilize the Nigerian state from within. Either way, it looks as if the movement that terrorizes so many thousands of ordinary Nigerians is unlikely to be uprooted anytime soon.