The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram has cemented its control over several villages and towns in the country’s contested northeast in renewed attacks over the past few weeks. On Sept. 7, Boko Haram fighters took control of Michika, a trading hub near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. Since early August, the insurgents have captured large towns in Borno state and neighboring Yobe and Adamawa states. Earlier this month, the Nigeria Security Network, an international coalition of security analysts, warned (PDF) of an imminent siege of Maiduguri, Borno’s capital. The fall of Maiduguri to Boko Haram would, in the short run, end the central government’s hopes of reclaiming control over the region. And the town’s civilians, many already displaced by months of conflict, are likely to suffer even greater violence.
International and Nigerian media have portrayed Boko Haram’s recent territorial gains as a stepping stone to the group’s central objective: the creation of an Islamic state guided by Sharia, or Islamic law. For the region’s civilians, however, the real risk is not the imposition of Sharia but the group’s imitation of a Nigerian state that extorts and exploits its citizens. Until the Nigerian government addresses its institutional problems, including ubiquitous corruption and human rights abuses perpetrated by its security forces, the cycle of predatory violence that Boko Haram represents will continue.
Establishing Sharia in all of Nigeria has always been seen as Boko Haram’s ultimate goal. On Aug. 24, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, reinforced this notion by releasing a video in which he claimed the town of Gwoza, near Maiduguri, as “a state among the Islamic states.” Media reports widely interpreted Shekau’s comments as a declaration of a caliphate, a translation later refuted by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, based in Washington, D.C. In fact, as Gartenstein-Ross notes, Shekau did not even use the term “caliphate” in his 52-minute speech. While eyewitnesses in the group’s conquered territories report Shekau’s separate use of the term, the Arabic word Shekau used — dawlah — more commonly refers to the rule of a secular government.
To explain Shekau’s statements, reporters and commentators recalled the historical and international origins of Boko Haram’s brand of political Islam. Some cited the territorial legacy of Usman dan Fodio’s Sokoto caliphate, the 19th century empire that Boko Haram and its factions sometimes refer to in public pronouncements. Others noted similarities between Boko Haram’s supposed caliphate and the Islamic State’s in Syria and northern Iraq. However, Shekau’s comments say more about Abuja’s absent rule in northern Nigeria than Boko Haram’s claim to Islamic authority.
The speech has resurfaced a recurring debate over the role of Sharia in Nigerian politics. The influence of Sharia in the region is a result of a political compromise made during Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule in 1999, which devolved more power over civil affairs to local governments. This influence deepened when several northern Nigerian states declared the legal authority of full Sharia, against Abuja’s wishes. In some administrative units, local governments integrated Islamic practices into a civil code that regulated day-to-day disputes. Others extended the use of Sharia even further, applying harsh penalties for common vices such as adultery or alcohol consumption. For those opposed to the new laws, these abuses went too far. For Boko Haram’s antecedents, they stopped short of true Islamic governance in Nigeria.
To be clear, Boko Haram espouses an authoritarian version of Sharia, an extension of the social and political control of an ideal Islamic state. For example, the group deems the political compromises in northern Nigeria between Muslim and secular leaders a moral failure. As such, it is plausible to expect a system of Sharia-inspired governance in territory controlled by the group.
In reality, however, very little of Boko Haram’s haphazard rule in Borno resembles a cohesive system of governance or religious order. While Shekau and his most committed followers may aspire to religious authority, Boko Haram’s growing ranks are not necessarily persuaded by the group’s religious objectives. For one, the group relies heavily on conscription in its recruitment. Other reasons for joining the insurgency include the threat of violence both from Boko Haram and from Nigerian security forces, retribution for opposing the central government’s response to the insurgency and concern about livelihoods or the safety of family members. The group’s growth is symptomatic of Nigeria’s failure to protect its citizens as well as a lack of avenues for northern Nigerians to participate in local and national governance. Despite this, however, Boko Haram is still unable to win popular support in part because it perpetuates Abuja’s predatory extortion of the region’s vulnerable civilians.
In recent weeks, the insurgents have turned to a combination of military assaults against strategic towns, extortion and mass abductions. These actions are a form of criminal violence, but they have also advanced the group’s strategic goals. Nigeria’s counterterrorism efforts increasingly rely on the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a loose network of anti–Boko Haram militias mostly composed of local civilians. Boko Haram’s recent brutal killings signal to potential CJTF members the cost of opposition. At the same time, its extortive tactics such as roadblocks and threatening letters to Borno’s wealthy residents are meant to sustain the financial health of a growing organization. These latter tactics suggest an organization primarily concerned with its survival, whatever the cost in civilian deaths or popular support.
The Nigerian government has countered the group’s advance with its own abuses. In March a report by Amnesty International found that Nigerian security forces killed more than 600 people, many unarmed detainees, in extrajudicial reprisals for a Boko Haram assault on military barracks in Maiduguri. Such incidents occur alongside Abuja’s regular extortion, corruption and poor governance in Borno. The CJTF has also been implicated in similar extortion tactics despite its role as a buffer against Boko Haram. In its nascent form, Boko Haram’s Islamic state is merely a replacement for corrupt institutions with their own histories of abuse and neglect of the region’s civilians.
Civilians in northern Nigeria are increasingly caught between two terrible alternatives: an abusive government incapable of protecting its citizens and an extortive insurgency with no governing institutions beyond those that sustain the group. These alternatives mirror each other. In the end, for the majority of the region’s civilians, the real threat is not the creation of a new Islamic state but the persistence of abuses that resemble the old secular one’s.