It’s tempting to dismiss Boko Haram and its brutal, public atrocities as an aberration, a temporary road-block on Nigeria’s slow but inexorable upward trajectory. This is, after all, Africa’s largest economy and a thriving, if dysfunctional, democracy. But the violence keeps coming, and Nigeria’s leaders – despite their bullish, near-farcical declarations to the contrary – are powerless to stop it. By SIMON ALLISON.
At the beginning of this year, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said that it’s only a matter of time before his government defeats Islamist militant group Boko Haram. “Boko Haram insurgency is a temporary challenge…We will surely overcome Boko Haram.”
Even then, in January, these bold words rang hollow (and it didn’t help the tense sectarian atmosphere that the president was speaking from a Church of Christ pulpit). Having abandoned any form of diplomacy, Jonathan’s administration was eight months into an all-out military offensive against Boko Haram in its northern strongholds. Three states were, and remain, under a State of Emergency, with curfews in place and cellphone signals interrupted to disrupt communications. The army was out in force, hunting the militants down, while air force bombers harassed them from the air.
The offensive was Jonathan’s big gesture, a show of force to prove to his nervous citizens that he was taking Boko Haram seriously. Except Boko Haram didn’t seem to notice: far from cramping their style, Jonathan’s heavy-handed tactics have merely pushed the group into more frequent and more spectacular terrorist attacks. So far, 2014 has been the bloodiest year of their insurgency: at least 1,500 have been killed in dozens of attacks, and it’s only April. This compares to 2,100 deaths between 2009 and 2013.
This week was typical. On Monday, 71 people died in an explosion at a busy bus station on the outskirts of Abuja. Because of its proximity to the capital, this incident attracted a lot of media attention, even though it would not make it into the top 5 on a list of Boko Haram’s deadliest attacks of 2014. Then on Tuesday night, the group struck again, kidnapping more than 100 schoolgirls from their school in north-eastern Borno state.
In some ways, the latter incident, despite being less expensive in terms of lives lost (so far, at least; the eventual fate of those schoolgirls is still unknown), is the more concerning because of what it shows us about Boko Haram’s strength. First, the group was able to overpower the soldiers who had been sent to the school to provide extra security – not exactly a glowing recommendation of the ability of the armed forces to protect Nigerian citizens. Second, in flagrant contradiction of the government’s claim to have forced them out of their strongholds, the militants clearly have the facilities and resources to hide 100 terrified school girls, indicating a level of organisation and security that should have the authorities extremely worried.
The attack on the school was also particularly symbolic. The name Boko Haram loosely translates as ‘Western education is forbidden’, and the group encourages parents to send their children to Islamic schools instead. The attack on the school in Borno is a punishment and a warning to those who disobey. This approach makes sense, in a strange, twisted way: it is at schools that children are inculcated with the theoretical values of the state – in Nigeria’s case, a commitment to secular, liberal democracy – and it is these values against which Boko Haram fights, wanting to replace them with a strict commitment to Islamic Sharia law.
This is not an unreasonable position. The Nigerian state has, by and large, failed its population. It may be awash in oil wealth, but none of that trickles down into the population which has yet to see much in the way of material benefits from an independent Nigeria. Who wouldn’t be looking for an alternative?
“Most Nigerians are poorer today than they were at independence in 1960, victims of the resource curse and rampant, entrenched corruption,” says International Crisis Group in a new report. “Agriculture, once the economy’s mainstay, is struggling. In many parts of the country, the government is unable to provide security, good roads, water, health, reliable power and education. The situation is particularly dire in the far north. Frustration and alienation drive many to join “self-help” ethnic, religious, community or civic groups, some of which are hostile to the state.”
It’s this dynamic – the frustration and alienation felt by the illiterate, the unemployed, the helpless – which underpins Boko Haram, driving a steady stream of new recruits into their arms and ensuring some degree of popular support, without which they could surely not maintain the sheer breadth of their operations (which are even spilling across Nigeria’s borders). It also illustrates the futility of the Nigerian response: guns and soldiers can’t solve decades of poverty and marginalisation, especially when the soldiers have been themselves implicated in atrocities against civilian populations.
Instead, Nigeria would be better served if it put resources, and real political clout, behind reforming the state and addressing the development deficit between north and south. Ironically, President Jonathan is part of the problem: his presidency has fuelled feelings of marginalisation in the north, as he is accused of breaking the ruling party’s unwritten code to alternate leadership between the north and the south (in other words, the Nigerian president should have been a northerner for the last four years).
To his credit, Jonathan knows all this. “Life in the North must change. Development must go to all parts of this country,” he said, to that same church service. “Let me reassure you that we will continue to work harder and harder to improve the quality of lives of Nigerians. But you must know that this cannot be achieved overnight. Even if you go and plant a crop, it takes a period of time before you start seeing the fruits.”
Fine words these may be, but that’s all they are: there’s so far been little evidence of crop-planting from Jonathan’s government, which means the fruits of development are even further away. In the meantime, Boko Haram are here to stay. DM
Photo: A photograph made available 03 March 2014 shows Nigerians look on at damage from a bomb blast at Binta Suga market that claimed 51 lives in Maiduguiri, Nigeria 02 March 2014. According to local reports the blast is believed to be the work of Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The incident took place late 01 March hours after another two bomb blasts killed more than 50 in Maiduguri. Boko Haram has been responsible for violence over the past four years in its demand for Islamic rule in northern Nigeria. EPA/DEJI YAKE
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall