Intro: Apart from the complex domestic contestation, the deteriorating geostrategic scenario in Africa has provided enabling space for rising violence of Boko Haram in Nigeria.
On January 3, 2015, Boko Haram stormed Baga town and razed at least 16 surrounding settlements, killing hundreds of people and displacing some 20,000 inhabitants in Borno province of Nigeria. In this worst massacre, since the Islamist group had begun its armed rebellion in the country’s Northeast region in 2009, some 11,320 people had fled to the neighbouring Chad alone, with 60 per cent of its new arrivals being women and girls. The United Nations (UN) refugee agency added that 84 unaccompanied children had also crossed over. Another 2,000 people had become stranded on an island in Lake Chad during their desperate escape.
Militant Islamist group Boko Haram has posed a severe security threat to the Nigerian authorities and people in the five-year of its operation. It resorts to a range of usual yet disconcerting methods of violence-abduction, select killings and mass deaths through gun attack and suicide/car bomb explosion-targeting both the state apparatus and civilian population, including school children and girls. The group has seemingly started using abducted girls as suicide bombers. It has extended its zone of violence beyond northeast Nigeria by carrying out deadly attack on the UN headquarters (HQ) in the capital city of Abuja.
The Agence France-Presse estimate reveals that around 13,000 people have been killed by the Boko Haram, with orchestration of at least 11 large scale attacks spreading across the country’s rural/urban divide. Furthermore, it has carried out three incidents of mass abduction of women and children in 2013-2014. Another estimate indicates that about 1.6 million have been driven from their homes spilling across borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Operating from a country having more than 900 miles of porous border, the terrorist outfit has become a source of regional insecurity. The armed grouping has not only demonstrated capacity to perpetrate violence in the neighbouring countries of Northwest Africa, it has also shown propensity to consolidate its operational linkage with Somalia-based al-Shabaab in North-east Africa in terms of exchanging lethal expertise.
Founded in 2002, the group’s official Arabic name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, meaning “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Its initial focus has been to oppose Western education, acquiring the nickname Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language. It launched armed rebellion in 2009 for creating Islamic state in Muslim dominated northern Nigeria. The group’s founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody in the same year of 2009. Since then, it has been operating under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau.
Boko Haram’s mobilisation on politico-sectarian line has over the years gained its radical traction in the country’s overlapping geographic, religious and linguistic fault lines. There is a horizontal geographic division between the North with the Hausa speaking Muslim majority and the South mostly inhabited by Yoruba speaking Christian population. The imposition of Islamic law in several Northern provinces has further embedded divisions and caused thousands of Christians to flee. A former colony of the British, post-independence Nigeria has been subjected to frequent military seizures of power along with ethno-religious and political conflicts.
Subsequent to Nigeria’s adoption of civilian rule in 1999, a political consensus was developed for rotation of power and the presidency between North and South every eight years. The arrangement, however, broke down after Northern President Umaru Yar’Adua died in office in 2010, leaving then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan from the South in charge. Northerners have consequently held the presidency only for three of the last 15 years. They blame Southern politicians for neglecting their region, while Southerners complain the Northern elites of appropriating oil profits from the South and leaving ordinary people in the North impoverished.
Apart from this complex domestic contestation, the deteriorating geostrategic scenario in Africa has provided enabling space for rising violence of Boko Haram in Nigeria. The turning point in the gradual augmentation of the terrorist group’s large scale violence was its attack on Abuja-based UN HQ in 2011, the year that coincided with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s supply of arms and related logistical support to the Islamist groups in its campaign against Gadafi in Libya. In this respect, a UN report published in April 2013 stated, “Illicit flows from [Libya] are fuelling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.”
Responding to this alarming security menace, the Nigerian government decreed state of emergency in three Northern provinces, namely Adamawa, Borno and Yobe in the mid of 2013. Abuja has currently deployed more than 20 000 soldiers for counter-terrorist operations in the North. Affected neighbouring countries such as Chad and Cameroon have put their shares of military containment efforts in the border regions. The United States (US) has classified Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation since years. In May 2014, a high profile security summit was held in Paris, where Nigerian President Jonathan and leaders of the concerned Northwest African countries agreed for a co-ordinate approach to this crisis. Representatives of the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union and China committed their support to such security endeavours.
Nevertheless, the ground level success in containing Boko Haram’s sustained terrorist campaigns in the Northeast Nigeria and beyond remains a distant reality. Nigerian military has currently diversified its attention between pressing functions of pre-election logistics and counter-terrorist operations. A deeper analysis of its incapacity to deal with the crisis points towards a perception that the national security apparatus is purposefully structured as a weak institution keeping in view the country’s history of military usurpation. Regionally, the African Union has not come up with any concrete action plan except political condemnation of the Boko Haram’s sabotage. Similar symbolism characterises the response of the global/ Western actors, which have yet to see any economic motivations to involve themselves in the security space of Northwest Nigeria.
Sandipani Dash (The writer is Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi)