The Making of Boko Haram By Tolu Ogunlesi
How the failings of the Nigerian state, over the years, have conspired to create the conditions for the transformation of Boko Haram from just one of several fundamentalist sects in Northern Nigeria, into the irredeemably violent organisation it is today; one that now appears to lie well beyond the capacity of the country to confront and defeat.
The turning point in the drawn-out evolution of Boko Haram was the 2009 killing, under police custody, of the sect’s founder, Yusuf Muhammed, hours after soldiers arrested and handed him over. His capture followed five days of clashes between sect members and the military, ordered in by President Umaru Yar’Adua when it became clear that the police could not contain it.
If the authorities got any warnings – and there are suggestions they did – nothing pre-emptive was done, until the sect struck. Five years after the events of July 2009, not much seems to have changed; regarding the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok. Amnesty International says: “Nigerian security forces knew about Boko Haram’s impending raid, but failed to take the immediate action needed to stop it.”
In February, the Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, told journalists that, “Boko Haram (insurgents) are better armed and are better motivated than our own troops.” The recent mutiny by soldiers on the frontlines against Boko Haram provides strong evidence of the level of frustration within the military. A culture of corruption deprives fighting personnel of weapons, equipment and welfare, resulting in a demoralised force. Rumours abound of Nigerian soldiers stealing and selling arms to criminals.
There have also been suggestions that Nigeria’s military bosses are interested in preserving the stalemate with Boko Haram to justify the continued allocation of billions of dollars to security in the federal budget.
The first violent uprising associated with the sect that has come to be known as Boko Haram, took place in December 2003. About 200 armed youths who styled themselves Al Sunna Wal Jamma (“Followers of the Prophet”) attacked police stations in two border towns in Yobe State, near Nigeria’s border with Chad. The attack on the police stations is now believed to have been in retaliation for what the sect perceived as maltreatment of its members by the police.
For six years, there were no other attacks on the scale of the 2003 uprisings. And then the events of July 2009 took place, in which the sect launched a series of brazen, coordinated attacks on police stations and government buildings in four states, in retaliation for an encounter weeks earlier with a team of “Operation Flush”, a special security unit under the control of then Governor Ali Modu Sherriff.
That earlier incident, in which sect members were reportedly challenged by “Operation Flush” operatives for defying a state law and riding motorcycles without helmets, took place in June 2009, and resulted in gunshot injuries to several sect members. After that incident, Yusuf reportedly wrote and circulated an “Open letter” to President Yar’Adua, threatening violence (a vow that was fulfilled weeks later).
The deaths of Yusuf, his father-in-law (who provided the land on which his mosque in Maiduguri was built), and alleged financier, Buji Foi, all in controversial circumstances at the hands of the police, and after the violence had already subsided, marked the beginning of a new phase of the campaign waged by Boko Haram. (Also, at that time, the local media reported that Muslim men in Maiduguri were shaving their beards to avoid being rounded up for summary execution by the military).
In an audio message released to the media in April 2013, following reports that the government was planning to extend amnesty to repentant militants, sect leader, Abu Shekau, was reported as saying: “We are the ones to grant them pardon. Have you forgotten their atrocities against us?”
Human rights groups have continued to document accounts of abuses perpetrated by the Nigerian military, which end up alienating local communities and further radicalising Boko Haram sympathisers.
Yusuf’s charismatic preaching and his philanthropy quickly ensured that he was in control of a large and deeply devoted youth population, drawn to his attacks on Western education and on a decadent political system whose legacy was corruption and poverty. Multitudes left their families or quit education to follow him. And these were not always poor youths; it has been reported that many of his followers were from wealthy families.
With this youth army, it is easy to see the attraction it held for politicians on a desperate quest to gain or retain political office. It is a pattern across Nigeria that politicians cultivate, for the purposes of winning elections, armies of youths whose job it is to intimidate opponents, and create the kind of chaos that makes rigging easy on election days. These political links may explain the initial reluctance to decisively deal with the issue of Boko Haram in its early days.
Today, Nigeria’s main political parties continue to exploit Boko Haram for their own ends, by using it as a basis for trading accusations aimed at undermining opponents. The ruling Peoples Democratic Party and the President’s advisers have long struggled to portray the opposition All Progressives Congress as a Nigerian version “Muslim Brotherhood” or “Janjaweed” bent on “Islamising” Nigeria, while the APC suspects that the reluctance of the Federal Government to clamp down decisively on the insurgency is connected to its plan to keep the region – an APC stronghold – unstable and undermine chances of elections holding there in 2015.
Amid the frenzy of baseless accusations and counter-accusations, the protection of hapless citizens, like the Chibok schoolgirls, is not a priority.
One noticeable trend in Nigeria from the early 2000s is the proliferation of arms in the country, smuggled in across Nigeria’s porous 4,000-mile-stretch of borders with Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
In response, President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 set up a Presidential Action Committee on Control of Violent Crimes and Illegal Weapons, which reportedly raised fears that extremist sects were gaining ground in the country. There is no evidence any action was taken at that time, to address what were very credible threats.
It is now also known that funds have flowed into Northern Nigeria from abroad, to support an array of disruptive Muslim sects, since the turn of the century. Writing in 2011, Mai Yamani, author of Cradle of Islam noted, “Despite the decade of the West’s war on terror, and Saudi Arabia’s longer-term alliance with the US, the Kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment has continued to bankroll Islamic extremist ideologies around the world.”
In 2002, a Nigerian associate of Osama bin Laden reportedly received N300m ($3m at that time) from him to donate to several Islamist sects across Northern Nigeria, including Boko Haram. Bin Laden had himself broadcast a message around that time in which he cited Nigeria as one of six countries “ready for liberation.”
This is a condensed version of a piece that will appear in full shortly.
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