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The Changing Shape of Nigeria's Conflict

The Changing Shape of Nigeria's Conflict

Commentary

5 min read

Boko Haram's kidnapping of up to three hundred school girls from Chibok in Borno state on 15 April 2014 was a turning point, if not in methods and goals of the movement, then in the domestic and international perception of it. #BringBackOurGirls, an ad hocadvocacy movement with former minister Obi Ezekwesili as a spokesperson, mounted daily protests in Abuja and fostered Boko Haram's transformation from a regional to a national issue. Especially in the West, the media storm focused on the lethargic response of the Jonathan government to the kidnapping. However, international media attention was emotional and short-lived, only to be briefly revived by the hundred days' anniversary of the kidnapping.

President Jonathan responded to the pressure on his government to counter Boko Haram by stating in Paris on May 17 that Boko Haram was a new front on the international war on terrorism, that it was a manifestation of al-Qaeda, and was therefore an international responsibility. Canada, France, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States offered assistance in the search for the kidnapped girls. However, as of mid-August, the girls have not been found.

In the north, many believe that President Jonathan himself encourages Boko Haram

The Jonathan administration continues to pursue a brutal response to Boko Haram. Amnesty International in August released videos of Nigerian soldiers cutting the throats of unidentified detainees, the veracity of which the government denies. Parts of the Jonathan administration claim that Boko Haram is sustained by disgruntled northern politicians in the run-up to the 2015 national elections. This is widely believed in the southern and predominately Christian part of the country. In the north, many believe that President Jonathan himself encourages Boko Haram or at least inhibits actions against the movement to build a case for postponing elections in Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, and perhaps additional states. These states are likely to vote for the opposition candidate. However, the opposition has not yet reached agreement on its presidential candidate, and Jonathan has not announced his candidacy for re-election, though it is all but universally expected.

Since Chibok, Boko Haram has expanded its area of operations. The group has cleared a part of Borno state the size of Luxembourg of any secular or religious authority and operates freely. But, it has not moved to establish institutions of governance. Whether this is because Boko Haram lacks the capacity or will to govern is, as yet, uncertain. Nevertheless, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram's most prominent spokesman, has praised the caliphate established by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and earlier advocated the establishment of a caliphate in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram's operations now include repeated attacks in Kano, Kaduna and northern Cameroon, in the latter case starting in 2013 with the kidnapping of a French family. Shekau claimed Boko Haram responsibility in June for its first car-bomb in Lagos, Nigeria's economic and financial capital, but thus far there has been no follow-up. Boko Haram has publicized the brutality of its killing by video recording throat-cuttings and beheadings that have been reported by the Western media. There has been an increase in kidnappings and suicide bombings, now often using adolescent girls.

Kidnapping and suicide bombing were trademarks of Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group. There have been no public statements from Ansaru for months, while Shekau claimed responsibility for the Chibok kidnappings. A credible hypothesis is that Ansaru has returned to the Boko Haram fold, and that the latter has adopted wholesale the former's tactics. However, while Boko Haram continues to share rhetoric with al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that the two movements are growing close. Al-Qaeda spokesmen have publicly criticized Boko Haram for its butchery of fellow Muslims.

The southern-dominated Nigerian media and government press spokesmen routinely claim that Boko Haram is responsible for atrocities. But Shekau is scrupulous about only claiming responsibility for attacks carried out by Boko Haram. Sometimes, however, there is considerable time lag between the atrocity and Shekau's public statement – two weeks in the case of the Chibok kidnappings. However, Shekau claimed that he personally ordered the car-bomb in Lagos only a few days later.

Shekau has not thus far claimed responsibility for a failed attempt on the lives of former general and chief of state Muhammadu Buhari, a likely presidential candidate again in 2015, and Bala Ahmed Baban-Inna, the chief imam in Bauchi state's central mosque and a celebrated opponent of Boko Haram. Many others than Boko Haram would like to see the two leave the scene, leaving open the question of the identity of their unsuccessful assassins.

Malam Ibrahim Zakzaky is the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a so-called "Shia" movement that incorporates other African indigenous elements. Though he has always advocated non-violence, he has been intellectually influential over some parts of Boko Haram. He claims that the police in early August killed three of his biological sons who were marching in support of the Palestinians. However, there is no sign that his ideology is moving toward Boko Haram. To the contrary, the focus of his anger remains the Abuja government. He claims that Abubakar Shekau is hiding out in a military base. Zakzaky's movement appears to enjoy much more popular support than Boko Haram. A strategic alliance between the two, should it ever develop, could pose a serious challenge for the Nigerian state.

Nobody knows how many internally displaced persons and refugees there are as a consequence of the "war" between the Nigerian state and Boko Haram. At a minimum they number in the hundreds of thousands. Most have been taken in by kith and kin, often receiving limited assistance (such as blankets) from the Nigeria Emergency Management Administration. Many internally displaced are eating the seed corn of their hosts, who are often inhibited by the prevalent insecurity from continuing to farm. There are signs, too, that Boko Haram may be running out of food as, unlike in earlier years, the group now regularly steals food whenever it can. These are worrying signs that in the coming months there could be a food emergency in a region that in the best of times is one of the poorest parts of West Africa.

There are no signs that the Abuja government is winning the struggle with Boko Haram. The group has grown bolder over the past few months, deepening its hold on exisiting areas and expanding operations into new areas. It is likely that violence in general will increase as the 2015 elections approach. Ebola, now present in tiny numbers in Lagos, is a wild card. There are numerous scenarios that could play out through the 2015 elections. Few are positive.

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